Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Friday, 11 December 2009
When we praise God, according to Dionysius, we start with names taken from the highest, most divine things: oneness, threeness, goodness, beauty. But there aren't very many of them, and the more you think about them, the more you realise that, well, when it comes to trying to say everything there is to say about God, they just don't quite do it. So you move down to the next level of existence, where there are more names, and try those: God is a father, God is a King, God is Lord, God is a shepherd, God is a servant. You could go on like this for a fair old while, but eventually you realise that it's still not quite enough. So you go on speaking, praising God with ever more words, widening the net of your praise until it takes in the whole of creation, and you realise that to name God, to fully describe him, you'd have to use every word there is; you'd have to find him in every single created thing: God is a duck-billed platypus; God is a pencil; God is a supernova; God is a whale. But you can't just use the things that are obviously cool, or beautiful, or nice: everything in the whole of creation reflects God in some way, and if you want to do the job of naming God thoroughly, you have to go to less respectable places. Dionysius says that God gets enraged, God swears; God grieves; God sleeps and wakes; God dresses himself up in fancy clothes; God is a drunkard; God is hungover.
Uncomfortable, isn't it? But here's the thing: if you can't see something of God even in drunkenness, you're not looking hard enough. If you're satisfied to go to church and sing the same five songs every week, about how God is Father, King, Shepherd, and all those other cliches, you're not worshipping hard enough. If you really want to know who God is, says Dionysius, you have to find him everywhere. Everywhere.
This, it strikes me, is one of the best arguments for conservationism, and for preserving minority cultures and languages. The last Dodo dies, and you lose an irreplaceable opportunity for understanding who God is. The last Gaelic speaker dies; and you will never be able to see God through the eyes of a native speaker of Gaelic. But it's also an encouragement to welcome change and encourage innovation: a new breed of dog means a new name for God; the ipod is born, and with it another insight into the Creator of all things. God is everywhere: high culture, low culture, endangered animals, invasive species. If you can't see him, you're probably not looking hard enough. God is a drunkard.
Photo credit: sarasco on Flickr.
Friday, 4 December 2009
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Thursday, 26 November 2009
"I'm a little bit of everything all rolled into one
I'm a bitch, I'm a lover I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint I do not feel ashamed
I'm your health, I'm your dream I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way"
This is, I think, a modalistic account of selfhood: I can be lots of different things, apparently all at the same time. One minute I'm nice, the next I'm nasty, and all of those different ways of being are equally part of who I am.' She's talking about herself, so it's not exactly heretical, but this is actually precisely the problem with the doctrine of the Trinity: the only resources we have for understanding it come from our own experience, and there isn't anything in our own experience which quite fits with the idea of a being who is entirely one and entirely three.
Some modalists have related the trinity to the process of human history: in the Old Testament, God related to us as Father; in the New Testament, he related to us as Jesus; in the era of the Church, he relates to us as Holy Spirit. It's the Clark Kent model of theology: God takes off his glasses and puts his underpants over his trousers and ta-da! He's no longer the Father but the Son!
Not only do most forms of modalism violate the principle of opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, but it leaves you with a God who's basically one being with different moods. Too much oneness, not enough threeness = trinitarianism fail.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Peter Abélard was born in 1079 in France, and by the age of 22 he had set up his own very successful school of philosophy. In 1115 he began teaching at Notre Dame, where he met a young woman called Héloïse, the niece of one of the canons at the cathedral. She was about 17, and was unusually well-educated for a woman, and the two immediately hit it off. Abélard fancied her so much that he managed to persuade her uncle to let him move in and take on the role of Héloïse's tutor (on the pretext that he was struggling for money and would get a rent discount in return for his tutoring).
It wasn't long until Abélard's crush had turned into a full-blown affair, which he describes thusly: "Our speech was more of love than of the book which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other's bosoms; love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness. What followed? No degree in love's progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched."
Hot stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when he eventually discovered what was going on, Héloïse's uncle was pretty miffed. Not long after, Héloïse discovered she was pregnant, and gave birth to a son called Astrolabe. To pacify her uncle, Abélard agreed to marry Héloïse, but secretly because being married would have damaged his career. Héloïse was reluctant, being unconvinced that a secret marriage would satisfy her uncle and also having a rather low view of marriage: she says in a later later to Abélard that "though I knew that the name of wife was honourable in the world and holy in religion; yet the name of your mistress had greater charms because it was more free. The bonds of matrimony, however honourable, still bear with them a necessary engagement, and I was very unwilling to be necessitated to love always a man who would perhaps not always love me." She felt, amongst other things, that a philosopher shouldn't be bothered by the petty distractions of domesticity.
When her uncle made their marriage public, Abélard encouraged her to go to a convent for a while (though he was unable to stay away from her, and describes their later suffering as just punishment for their not-very-nunlike activities in a quiet corner of the convent). Taking this as a sign that Abélard was trying to get rid of his niece, Héloïse's uncle took the obvious next step to protect her, and persuaded some relatives to sneak into Abélard's house at night and, er, steal his family jewels.
Apparently eunuchs found it difficult to make a successful career out of academia at the time, so Abélard was forced into a monastery, where he had a rough time of it - quite apart from the doctrinal disagreements which led to his being accused of heresy, the monks he ended up in charge of tried to murder him by poisoning his drinks. Héloïse was consequently forced to become a nun. She was not happy, and wrote some fairly explicit letters to Abélard, detailing her sexual frustration and her dissatisfaction at being forced into a life for which she had no sense of calling. Abélard wrote back, and gradually persuaded her that they should write to each other about matters theological, and their passionate (at least on her side) correspondence eventually subsided into a more sober discussion of the monastic life, and how best to run a convent.
Their letters, and Abélard's biographical History of my Misfortunes form the basis of subsequent retellings of their 'romantic' tale, although Abélard also wrote several more substantial theological tomes, including the controversial Sic et Non ('Yes and No') which was a compilation of contradictory quotations from early Church Fathers, attempting to disprove the popular assumption that 'the Fathers' spoke with one voice and agreed on everything.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
Slavoj Zizek in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox and Dialectic
Thursday, 5 November 2009
"The social, political and psychological elements as these figure alongside
physical and environmental contributions to the nature of a habitat and its
inhabitants at any historical moment. "
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been
born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Marriage is a paradox second only to life itself. That at the age of twenty or so, with little knowledge of each other and a dangerous overdose of self-confidence, two human beings should undertake to commit themselves for life – and that church and state should receive their vows with a straight face – all this is absurd indeed. And it is tolerable only if it is reveled in as such. A pox on all the neat little explanations as to why it is reasonable that two teenagers should be bound to each other until death. It is not reasonable. It happens to be true to life, but it remains absurd. Up with the absurdity of marriage then. And up with the marriage service. It is full of death and cast iron. And it is one of the great remaining sanity markers. The world is going mad because it has too many reasonable options, and not enough interest or nerve to choose anything for good. In such a world, the marriage service is not reasonable, but it is sane; which is quite another matter. The lunatic lives in a world of reason, and he goes mad without making sense; it is precisely paradox that keeps the rest of us sane. To be born, to love a woman, to cry at music, to catch a cold, to die – these are not excursions on the narrow road of logic; they are blind launchings on a trackless sea. They are not bargains, they are commitments, and for ordinary people, marriage is the very keel of their commitment, the largest piece of ballast in their small and storm-tossed boat.
Thursday, 22 October 2009
James K A Smith recently published a collection of essays called The Devil Reads Derrida. The title article, which I think is the same as this one, addresses the question of why Christians should engage with secular philosophy. He uses an example from the film The Devil Wears Prada:
In a key scene, Miranda (played so devilishly by Meryl Streep) is presiding over her entourage, trying to select just the right belt to accessorize the cover ensemble for next month's magazine. They are passionately deliberating between two belts, which, to the untrained eye, look almost identical. Her fashion-averse assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the gathering. Growing impatient, and with a flippant disdain for fashion, she refers to the rack of designs merely as "stuff." Miranda, in that calm, satanic stare that Streep nailed so well, pauses and quietly says:
"'Stuff'? Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room ... from a pile of 'stuff.'"
Smith uses this example to talk about the way that culture is shaped by the thinking that goes on in the sort of academic contexts that most of us look at and say "Wuh?" Derrida, Foucault, Zizek, Lacan, Kristeva: you may not even have heard of these people, and if you can understand everything they say, you're a smarter cookie than I, but these are (some of) the thinkers who shape what we think now and what we will think in the future. Pretty much everything we do, think, want and feel is affected by the discussions that experts have in language that 99% of us find totally impenetrable. I'm typing this in a blog application, on a computer, using the internet and I have no idea how it works. And you know what? That's ok. I don't need to know binary, or even html, to get the benefits of computers. You don't need to understand couture to get dressed in the morning. You don't need to understand John Milbank to have your life transformed by Jesus. But just don't say this: 'I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.' This has everything to do with the lives of ordinary people.
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
Thursday, 15 October 2009
God cares for his creation
But this initial careful work of God was not the end of his intimate involvement. Throughout the Bible, he is depicted as sustaining his creation at every moment. He knows about every sparrow that falls to the ground;  everything holds together in him.  Psalm 65 says of God, ‘You care for the land and water it, you enrich it abundantly… You drench its furrows , and level its ridges; you soften it with showers, and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.' The picture is of God lavishing his goodness on his creation; and the response from the earth is one of praise: ‘The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with corn; they shout for joy and sing.'
'God's attitude to creation indicates that it is precious and wonderful independent of any utility it possesses for us. To love God and to be like him is to care for the things that he cares for. This alone ought to be enough to motivate us to take responsibility for the world around us.
Our interconnection with the earth
This interconnection can be seen throughout history – over and again societies have undermined their own welfare by abusing the land that they depend on for life – and can be seen today, but with a difference. Habits of consumption and energy production in the West threaten to destroy not so much our own homes and livelihoods (at least not in the short term), but those of the world's poorest people.
However, when God breathes life into Adam this sets him apart from the earth. The contrast between God making plants and animals ‘according to their kinds' with the creation of humans ‘in our image, in our likeness' implies a unique, intimate relationship between God and this part of his creation. Genesis 1:28 says that God blessed humankind and said: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule… over every living thing'. Genesis 2 says that God created humans ‘to work it [the earth] and take care of it'. But what does this mean in practice?
The language of ‘rule' over the earth is sometimes (mis)taken as licence to treat the earth however we want, but a careful reading of the Bible rules this out. First, this language of ‘dominion' is balanced by the language of Genesis 2:15, where humans are put on the earth to work it (‘to till, serve') and care for (‘to guard, protect') it.
God's promises for the future
Our attitude to the earth is affected not only by the way we view God's original intentions in creation, but also by our view of God's promises for the future and for the ultimate redemption of our sin-ridden world.
In Jesus' ministry we see God's promised future breaking into the present as Jesus heals and feeds people as well as forgiving their sins. The good news that Jesus proclaims is for all creation, and his promise is of the redemption of all things.
Jesus summarises God's will like this: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind' and ‘love your neighbour as yourself'.  In other words, the sum of the will of God for us is that we would have perfect relationships with God and with others. A concern for getting our relationships right is the essence of Christianity.
This focus on the concerns of others is also captured in the biblical concept of justice (Hebrew: mishpat). Far from being some abstract concept of fairness, mishpat is all about the way we conduct each and every relationship. It highlights our duties and responsibilities towards others, and is particularly invoked in the Bible in the context of oppression of the poor and vulnerable. Are we meeting our obligations to the poor? Or do we need to re-examine our habits of consumption?
Failure to care for creation is a failure to conduct our relationships in the way God wants us to; it is a failure of justice and of love.
Implications for climate change
Many of the things we do as a society which damage the earth have their roots in broken relationships or a failure to prioritise relationships over things.
We travel further to work than ever before, and increasingly do so alone in our own cars. This affects not only the climate, but also our relationships with those around us. American sociologist Robert Putnam estimates that for every ten minutes of additional commuting time, there is a corresponding ten per cent decrease in our social interactions. A concern for relationships challenges the hypermobility of our society.
Carbon emissions from home energy use have risen most significantly because of the increase in single-occupancy homes. For a wide variety of reasons, for which we all as a society are responsible, people increasingly live alone. What does this tell us about the quality of our relationships as a society? What could be done to strengthen relationships in families and communities?
All of these relational and environmental problems are challenged by the holistic message of the gospel. For example, the biblical images of the Sabbath and Jubilee proclaim the equal value of all people, the importance of limitations upon the accumulation of wealth and spirals of debt, the importance of rootedness in place, the importance of family and community relationships, as well as the importance of rest for all people and for the earth. The gospel paints a vision of a society that is relationally and environmentally sustainable.
If we are to take the gospel seriously, we must recognise its demands over every area of life and over every relationship. It requires of us an integrated understanding of mission that neither neglects evangelism and the need for repentance and faith in Christ, nor the need for radical action to address the problem of climate change, nor the need for social reform to address the underlying structural factors that make it more difficult for us to live the life God intends for us.
But the message of the gospel is, above all, good news. Contemporary accounts of climate change often offer serious cause for concern and little hope. Christian hope for the future is not an excuse for apathy, but ought instead to provide us with the motivation to engage positively with our communities, in the expectation that God will be faithful to his promise to one day ‘reconcile to himself all things'  and that, in the meantime, he delights to use his people as the agents of his redemptive activity.
Monday, 12 October 2009
It's easy to assume that societies ban incest because it's fundamentally wrong and icky, but Freud points out the problem with this line of reasoning: if it's so essentially repugnant to people, why have laws against it, and punishments for it? Societies make laws against the things that people want to do: killing people, taking their stuff; not so much about doing things that no one would want to do in the first place: find me the society that severely sanctions those people who eat their own poo or refuse to go to sleep, and I shall be surprised, to say the least.
Anyway, totems. In totemic societies, people belong to tribes which each have a 'totem', their tribal symbol. It's usually an animal, but sometimes a plant or a force of nature, like the wind. Here are twelve characteristics of totemic societies:
- The totem animal is usually not allowed to be killed or eaten, but tribal members will rear and look after animals of the totem species.
- Totem animals that die accidentally are mourned and buried as though they were a member of the tribe.
- The prohibition on eating sometimes refers only to a certain part of the animal.
- If it’s necessary to kill one of the totem animals, there's usually a ritual in which excuses are made to the animal (we're sorry, we were really hungry, we just really like bacon), and attempts are made to try and avoid the punishment which is the inevitable consequence of violating the taboo (look, you're not really dead; I didn't kill you - he did; hey, look, a unicorn!)
- If the animal is ritually sacrificed, it is solemnly mourned.
- At specified social occasions, people wear the skins of totem animals.
- Tribes and individuals assume the names of totem animals.
- Many tribes use pictures of animals as coats of arms, or have tattooes of them.
- If the totem is a dangerous animal, it’s assumed that it will spare the members of the tribe named after it. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't always quite work out like this, but if someone's killed by a totem animal, it's just assumed that they had done something naughty and Deserved It.
- The totem animal protects and warns tribal members (Lassie, anyone?)
- The totem animal foretells the future to those faithful to it and serves as their leader.
- The members of a totem tribe often believe they’re connected with the totem animal by the bond of common origin: that is to say, the totem animal is the father of the tribe whose totem it is.
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Totem and Taboo isn't, as you might expect, just about psychoanalysis. Instead, it's an attempt to use the findings of psychoanalysis to gain insight into the origins of human society as it is about psychoanalysis. Freud is writing at a time when there was an explosion of interest in the tribal societies which European colonialists were encountering and trying to civilise all over the world. J G Frazer had written his book The Golden Bough, intended to be a universal theory of human mythology, which described the myths, magic, religion and social practices of some of these newly discovered cultures. The disciplines of anthropology and sociology were just beginning, and anthropologists in particular were studying tribes in the Australias, the Americas, and all sorts of other places which looked, to them, to be pretty primitive. They thought that by studying these tribes they could find out things about the origins of human society. These are the sorts of discussions that Totem and Taboo engages with. It’s pretty racist, with lots of comments about 'backward and wretched' savage and primitive races, and has plenty of questionable assumptions, but I think that's basically what you get when you read Freud, or indeed almost anyone else from that era.
These are his basic ideas:
- All societies evolved in basically the same way: the only real difference between European culture and, say Australian aborigines, is that European culture is more evolved.
- By looking at ‘primitive’ tribes, we can work out what sort of societies we evolved from. These tribes are basically the equivalent of archaeological finds: just as the pots and burial mounds we dig up tell us about the past, by looking at these primitive tribes we can find out how our ancestors lived.
- We’re not so different from the ‘savage’ races as we think. Crucially, by using the insights of the psychoanalytical study of mentally ill people and children, we can draw conclusions about the way that primitive societies developed some of their key ideas and social structures.
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
St. Francis and the monks had no idea what the lord was talking about, but apologised profusely, and offered to repay the lord. He refused, however, and stomped off home, still fuming. It occurred to St. Francis, a wise man, that perhaps Brother Juniper had something to do with the situation, so he called him in for a chat. Brother Juniper confessed quite happily to stealing the pig's foot, clearly unable to see that he'd done anything wrong, relating the story of how he'd gone out of his way to make the sick monk happy, entirely oblivious to the idea that not everybody would be quite happy about what he'd done.
St. Francis sighed. 'Oh, Brother Juniper. I'm afraid you're going to have to go and apologise to the pig's owner, or he'll go round slandering us to everyone.' Brother Juniper was amazed that there should be such a fuss over his act of kindness. He ran off after the lord, and when he caught up with him, related the whole story of how and why he had cut off the pig's foot, fully expecting the lord to share his joy over the happiness of the sick monk. The lord was still struggling to see things from Brother Juniper's perspective, and shouted and cursed him even more. Brother Juniper could not understand the man's lack of joy, so assumed he simply hadn't understood, and proceeded to explain to him again the love and charity which had motivated him, encouraging him to donate not just the remaining feet but in fact the whole pig. He made his case with such humility that the lord fell to the ground in repentance and weeping, and made haste to take the three-footed pig round to the monastery to donate it to the friars to make up for his bad temper and all the shouting.
Considering the simplicity and patience of Brother Juniper, St Francis turned to the monks and said, 'Would to God, my brothers, that I had a whole forest of such junipers!'
Photo credit: johnmuk on Flickr
Thursday, 24 September 2009
Historicity is about historical actuality - that's the stuff that really happened. This morning I ate Weetabix for breakfast. The battle of Hastings took place in 1066.
Historiography is about the different ideas that people have about what counts as good history. Does anyone care what I had for breakfast? Does it matter how I ate my Weetabix? What would be a Marxist/feminist/poststructuralist reading of my breakfast habits?
History is never simply a presentation of every single thing that happened. If you wanted to write a book about a battle that included every single thing that happened to every single person - all the blisters acquired by each soldier, everyone who tripped over at an embarrassing moment, everyone who wanted to go home to mum, every piece of underwear irreparably damaged in combat - you'd never finish writing. Similarly, if you wanted to write about something you weren't around for, but only if you could be 100% certain that everything happened exactly as you said, you probably wouldn't write much. History is all about selecting certain things to include or to leave out, about drawing conclusions and making hypotheses. And different people at different points in history have had different ideas about what counts as good history.
This is one of the things that makes it tricky to read the gospels: we're not sure exactly what process of editing and assuming went on as they were being written. But one thing that's helpful is that, at the time the gospels were being written, lots of people were writing books about how to write history, so we can get some useful pointers from there. Two key people are Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose Epistula ad Pompeium ('Letter to Pompeii') was written in about 30-37 BC, and Lucian of Samosata, whose De arte conscribendae historiae ('How to write history') was written around 166-168 AD. Here are some of the things that these guys and others writing at the same time thought were important for writing 'good' history:
i) Criteria of usefulness. Dionysius said that history should be about 'a good subject with a lofty character.' Lucian said that history should be about topics 'important, essential, close to home or of practical utility.'
ii) Criteria of structure. Dionysius said that history should be structured well, with a clear beginning and end. Lucian said it should have an obvious sequence. This one's interesting, because although we'd probably agree, I don't think we'd necessarily think to mention it, because we think of literary quality as a separate thing to 'good history'.
iii) Criteria of eyewitness evidence
iv) Criteria of objectivity. At least some ancient historians go in for this one. Tacitus says that 'no one should be mentioned out of favour or out of hate.'
v) Criteria of concision. Unnecessary information should be omitted. Again, I think we'd tend to see this as a literary quality rather than a measure of good history.
vi) Criteria of vividness. History, thought ancient historians, ought to engage the readers' emotions. Be as accurate as you like, but don't be boring.
vii) Speeches should fit both the speaker and the occasion. Here's an interesting one. It's pretty obvious that not many important historical speeches were written down verbatim at the time, but that didn't stop historians including them. It was ok to write your own, basically, as long as it was appropriate. An interesting one for biblical studies, no?
Photo credit: notashamed on Flickr
Saturday, 19 September 2009
Thursday, 17 September 2009
Reasonable people fail, because they think they can sort the world out so that everything makes sense. They think that if they just explain things properly, the world can be put to rights, and when things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that, they're all out of alternatives.
Moral fanatics fail, because they think that they can take on evil single handed: they can take on evil and win. But they’re all brawn and no brain, like a bull charging at the red rag instead of the person holding it: they get stuck in non-essentials and are tricked by people smarter than they are.
People of conscience fail: they have nothing to rely on for support but their own conscience, and when evil approaches them again and again with persuasive arguments and seductive disguises, they lose confidence in their own ability to tell right from wrong, and end up compromising, salving their conscience rather than keeping it clear, lying to themselves so that they don’t despair. They don't realise that a bad conscience might be better than a deluded conscience.
Duty also fails as a moral guide: people who act on duty alone can never act on their own, and what happens if the people in charge are the people who need to be stopped? ‘The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil too.’ (Take that, Kant!)
People who assert their freedom in matters of morality will be brought down by their own freedom. They will agree to what is bad for the sake of avoiding the worse, and so never have the opportunity of realising that the worst might actually be the better option.
People who run away from public morality and hide in private virtuosness have to close their eyes to the injustices all around them. They can only stay pure by deceiving themselves, and sooner or later will lose their peace.
Who stands fast? Only those whose standard for moral action is neither reason, nor principles, nor conscience, nor freedom, nor virtue, but the command of God; those who will lay down their lives at the command of God. Only those who try to live their whole lives as an answer to the question and call of God stand fast.
Photo credit: still from the video for Unkle's Rabbit In Your Headlights. Rock.
Sunday, 6 September 2009
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
If this book has any claim to make, therefore, it is that food is precisely an epiphany of the greatness of our nature -- or, to use the most accurate theological word of all, it is a sacrament, a real presence of the gorgeous mystery of our being. People have responded to The Supper of the Lamb, I think, because after all the modern reductionism about food ('Food is only a necessity,' 'Food is nothing but nourishment'), it gave them solid reasons for glorying in the truth that they had suspected all along; namely, that food was life, and that life was good.
Admittedly, this is a hard insight to keep track of. Food these days is often identified as the enemy. Butter, salt, eggs are all out to get you. And yet at our best we know better. Butter is ... well, butter: it glorifies almost everything it touches. Salt is the sovereign perfecter of all flavors. Eggs are, pure and simple, one of the wonders of the world. And if you put them all together, you get not sudden death, but Hollandaise -- which in its own way is not one bit less a marvel than the Gothic arch, the computer chip, or a Bach fugue. Food, like all the other triumphs of human nature, is evidence of civilization -- of that priestly gift by which we lift the whole world into the exchanges of the Ultimate City which even God himself longs to see it
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
All of this discussion is essentially about it means to be an ‘I’, a self, and individual. Enlightenment rationalism thought that the ‘I’ was an isolated will, directed by intellect, and randomly and arbitrarily tangled up with unhelpful feelings and physicality. Seeing the individual like this made it possible to argue that we should disentangle ourselves from the constraints which come with embodiment, including social constraints like our allegiance to kings, churches, and custom. The Enlightenment model of the ‘man of reason,’ the ideal human being, was precisely that: a model of a man. Men were seen as rational, intellectual, willing people, and women were identified with emotions and the body. But the problem with this model was that even the men who most embodied this ideal, who were most able to spend their time thinking clever thoughts instead of worrying about what to eat for dinner, were utterly reliant on other people, who would cook for them, clean for them, and get them out of bed on time. The Enlightenment ideal doesn’t work, because ultimately we need each other to live.
Midgley blames Nietzsche, in part: he was skeptical about the possibility that groups of people might arrive at the same rational and moral conclusions, and was pretty grossed out by the idea of community. Nietzsche was neither a socialite nor an extrovert: his philosophical ideal was all about solitary strength, seasoned with a good pinch of misogyny. He couldn’t see that solitude might be just as much a hiding place for weakness as an expression of strength.
The Enlightenment ideal was fine, just as long as women weren’t considered fully human, and were left to all the hierarchical, emotional and biological bits of being human while the men ate their tasty suppers, slept on their clean sheets, and swanned around being free, autonomous, intellectual and creative. The problem now is that some women have noticed that this arrangement isn’t entirely fair on them, and have started pointing it out (cheeky bints). As a result, there are now two political choices: either we start seeing everyone equally as a solitary individual, or we radically rethink the notion of individuality. Midgley thinks that the latter options is better, and that feminism is starting to move in that diraction, but she says that it’s not always clear where it will take us.
In the Enlightenment model, the will was very important: 'reason' consisted of both intellect and will. Today, there’s less emphasis on the will, and more on the scientific intellect: transhumanism, for example, imagines that humanity will continue to exist as disembodied computer-minds.
The problem isn’t just that rational choice is seen as better and more important than the emotions: it’s also that it’s been seen as completely separate from them. This is a pretty crappy account of what it means to be human. Contemporary philosophy is moving towards rejecting this dualism, but it still tends to prefer some sort of ‘materialist’ account which explains human nature as a bunch of physical processes, and usually ignores the body below the neck (where all the fun bits are). Contemporary discussions are all about the relationship between the mind and the brain, or the mind and the physical world as a whole. Human flesh and bones and squidgy bits, not to mention those crucial naughty bits which distinguish men from women and suggest that 'Man' is a poor homonym for 'humankind', are still largely ignored.
Photo credit: kevin183 on Flickr
Thursday, 20 August 2009
For Augustine, that means that free will isn’t about being able to choose between good and evil; it’s about being free to pursue God and to become uniquely ourselves whilst living a life of love. Sin isn’t about people using their free will to choose evil, because evil isn’t a ‘thing’ you can choose: it’s about people missing the mark, and rejecting God’s freely given grace. Evil doesn’t make any sense, and so Adam’s sin - the first sin that delivered us all into slavery, and means that we’re all born in a world where our ability to see God and to freely love him is broken – is a paradox. It’s hardly even worth trying to answer the question ‘Why did Adam sin?’ because the first sin simply makes no sense.
A similar view is that of Hannah Arendt, who talks about ‘the banality of evil’, by which she means that most people who do terrible things don’t set out to do those terrible things: they slide into it by making a whole series of bad but often pretty small decisions.
Some modern philosophers have blamed these views of evil for the terrible tragedies of the 20th century, particularly the Holocaust. They have argued it’s because Christian theology and the philosophy of people like Arendt made it impossible to see evil as a positive force, and to imagine that people would actively choose and pursue evil that Hitler wasn’t stopped. They advocate a view of ‘radical evil’: the idea that it’s possible to deliberately choose evil, to set out deliberately to commit genocide, and they say that without this sort of understanding of evil, the same terrible things will happen again because we won’t be able to stop them.
Milbank argues that they’re wrong: that it’s actually the idea of radical evil which made the Holocaust possible. He argues that what makes the horrors of the 20th century – the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, the terrible things done as a result of US foreign policy and ‘liberal democracy’ - so terrible is that the law itself has been on the side of the mass murderers, and the resources of the State have been used to commit atrocities on a legal, organised, and bureaucratic basis. For this, he blames Kant.
For Kant, the goal of any particular moral action is irrelevant: all that matters is that it’s done out of duty, and that the principle it’s based on could be turned into a universal law. Lying to protect the Jews you’re hiding in your house is wrong, because if everyone lied all the time, where would we be? In this case, the right thing to do is to tell the truth, even if you know that the people you hand over will be killed in the gas chambers.
Kant won’t acknowledge that our will is broken: if something is the right thing to do, he thinks, it is possible. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can.’ He thinks that we go wrong when we give credence to the desires which arrive from our physical nature: when we act because we want to survive, because we love someone, because we are hungry, which is in contrast to the traditional Christian view, which says that, although our desires are all mixed up, there is something of God’s goodness and truth in them. Kant says that nothing in our experience of the world can teach us what is right, but then struggles to say how we can tell the difference between right and wrong. Worse, he thinks that evil is an inherent possibility of freedom. To be able to do the right thing is to be able to do the wrong thing, and so human autonomy necessarily implies the possibility of evil. Freedom comes first, before good and evil, and so good and evil are set up as equal and opposite positive choices. Freedom comes first, and so the ultimate value isn’t good or evil, but power. This view of freedom is problematic, to say the least: if freedom implies evil, how can it be possible to say that God, the source of freedom, is good?
Kant also argues that moral evil arises out of human community. Left on our own, to exercise our freedom, we are fine: in the context of relationships with other people, we get dragged into bad choices and our judgment is clouded. Ethics is all about doing your duty; none of this messy stuff about emotions. And because of his categorical imperative, it becomes impossible to resist something like the Nazi government. Would assassinating your leader work as a universal ethical principle? Hell, no? How about obedience regardless of your untrustworthy emotions? Hell, yeah. And that’s pretty much where Kant takes you, according to Milbank: the hell of the gas chambers.
All this, says Milbank, is the logical consequence of valuing human freedom above all else, and of making free choice, rather than goodness and love, the ultimate value. It takes you to the gas chambers; it takes you to the gulags; it takes you to to global devastation wreaked by unfettered capitalism and the ‘free’ market. Freedom to choose between good and evil is not freedom. Freedom is being able to love God, being able to do the good that we want to do but, in our slavery to sin, cannot; freedom is being free to enjoy the riches of God’s grace.
Photo credit: airpark on Flickr
Thursday, 13 August 2009
But here's the problem: It's difficult to change the world if no one can understand what you are talking about. Radical Orthodoxy is notorious for its obtuseness, and John Milbank is definitely up there with the worst offenders. Here are some specific gripes within a more general gripe about the way that Milbank makes my head hurt:
Unnecessary Latin. Unusually for a comprehensive school student, I even studied Latin for two years at school, and can do my Caecilius est pater with the best of them. But geez, patria potestas? Oceanum mysteriousum Dei, ut sic loquar labarynthum? Philologia crucis? A translation would be nice, at least.
Words that aren't even in the freaking dictionary. I counted two, and they're just the ones I looked up. 'Henological' and 'auratic' are now, you will be happy to know, on the OED's new words list, and the lovely woman who answered my email even suggested that we hand Milbank over to the Plain English Campaign 'for re-education.' Hear, hear.
Bad Patriarchal Language. Milbank says, for example, this: ‘The Christian man is not a moral man, not a man of good conscience, who acts with what he does not know but has faith in.’ Now, I'm not saying that using 'man' instead of 'human' is the worst bad thing anyone can ever do. But here's my gripe: Milbank knows better. He sometimes makes vague gestures towards gender neutral language. But that makes it worse. He knows; and yet he does it anyway.
Milbank's sexist language exemplifies the central issue here. As a women, when Milbank speaks about 'the Christian man', it makes me feel as though what he writes is not for me, and that the discussions he is having are not discussions I can participate in. And it feels very similar when you want to engage with Milbank, to discuss his ideas, to ask questions, to think things through, but you can't because, well, it's pretty difficult to ever feel like you properly understand what he's saying. The worst thing is that he's really good (just not at writing). He has interesting, original ideas. He has important things to say that we should listen to, and that need to be discussed. But you can't discuss someone's ideas if you feel like you're too stupid to understand them, which is how I've felt this week, trying to write about John Milbank.
It's not like Milbank is alone. Academia as a whole is bad at communicating; bad at keeping one foot in the real world; bad at recognising that it has a responsibility to the non-academic world. But I feel, somehow that it's worse when theologians write badly, because they, of all people, should know that the kingdom of God is for everyone; that the mighty shall be laid low and the poor exalted; that we are one body. You cannot love your brothers and sisters whilst beating them round the head with the evidence of how much cleverer you are, of how many more books you have read. Wait, that reminds me of something about ... what was it? Speaking in the tongues of men and angels but if you don't have love then ... something something... 'I am nothing.' Who said that again?
Photo credit: cambiodefractal on Flickr.