Friday, 30 January 2009

Heresies: Gnosticism

Gnosticism was one of the biggest and most widespread heresies in the early church. Because of this, it’s also a complicated one, with lots of different versions of Gnosticism, enormous volumes of writings and strange apocryphal gospels, and so it’s hard to give a fair account of its details. There are three main strands in what we count as Gnosticism, though, which go as follows:

Firstly, the idea that this imperfect world is separates from the Supreme Being by a series of intermediaries or ‘aeons’. There are different opinions on how many aeons there are, and what exactly their nature is, but they generally all have names. This idea they got partly from Plato and partly from other Greek philosophers including Pythagoras, who thought it was really important that God was One and simple. This then created the problem of how you get from the One and simple God to the multiple and complex world, and as the gnostics didn’t want the simplicity of God to be spoiled, they placed these intermediaries between God and the world.

Secondly, the Gnostics thought that our souls were perfect entities that had somehow got trapped in human bodies. When people realised that this was what had happened, they naturally wanted their souls to be set free, which they did by mastering each aeon dividing their souls from the Supreme Being, which meant that they needed to know the names of the aeons. The Gnostics claimed to know these secret names.

Thirdly, the Gnostics thought that it was possible for souls to escape and be set free, and that this was made possible by redeemers who appeared at different points in history to reveal the secret knowledge needed to escape the physical world. They saw Jesus as one of these redeemers.

Apart from the fact that it’s pretty weird (and quite like Scientology, I think, though definitely less expensive), there are several problems with Gnosticism from a Christian point of view. Firstly, they were really secretive with their ‘special knowledge’ - you had to get in the club to be told how to be saved. They were less like missionaries and more like the Masons, probably with the strange initiation rites to boot.

Secondly, they were often quite elitist. A lot of them thought that not everyone had a ‘divine spark’ for a soul, but it was only a few special people who could be saved. You had to be the ‘right sort’ of person to get in, unlike Jesus’ kingdom which welcomes the tramps, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. I think it's fair to suggest that this is a tendency Christianity hasn't entirely lost (though, to be fair, we did let you in).

Thirdly, and this is the biggy, they thought that the world was something bad that kept us from God, that our bodies were evil, and that creation as a whole wasn’t made by God himself but by some lesser, probably evil being. It’s this form of Gnosticism that pops up most often throughout the history of the church, and which undermines both the fact that God created the world and declared it good and also the Incarnation, which suggests that salvation comes through and in the physical world, not despite it. You can see Gnostic tendencies today in the Church's sometimes funny attitude to sex but also, I think, in wider society's attitude to food (ooh, isn't this chocolate cake sinfully good. Oh, I'm so naughty).

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Thomas Aquinas and the end of humankind

This isn't about hell or the End Times. Chill out. For Aquinas, it's really important that everything has its own particular end, by which he means a goal or a purpose. The end of physical but non-living things is to resemble God insofar as they participate in his properties, mostly just by existing. The end of a plant is to resemble God, particularly by existing and being alive. The end of animals is to resemble God by existing, being alive, and having some sort of consciousness. Everything exists to be caught up into God in accordance with its own particular thingness. A rock exists to be the rockiest rock it can be; a poodle to be maximally poodle-y, and your momma to be so fat that when she steps on the scales they say “to be continued...” Everything came from God, and everything has its end in God.

So, what is the distinctively human end?
This is complicated because human nature is complicated. On the one hand, humans are animals, and like animals we participate in God in existing, in being alive, and in having consciousness (One of my lecturers once got involved in an icebreaker game in which everyone had to answer the question, ‘What is your favourite animal?’ Being an Aquinas scholar, she was used to thinking of people as animals and so she replied, ‘My husband.’ Only later did it occur to her that the funny looks she got might be the consequence of implying that ‘My husband is an animal’ which means something rather different now than it would have for Aquinas). Humans are distinguished from the rest of the animals by the fact that they have reason and intellect, and are also distinguished by the fact that, where the end of the animals is in fulfilling their nature, the final end of human nature surpasses the intrinsic capabilities of human nature. Our end is in God, not just in participating in his qualities, but in contemplating his essence, in knowing and loving him, which is made possible by our reason but also by additional grace that takes us beyond what we’re naturally capable of. Our end is ‘the beatific vision’ which basically means ‘the happy vision.’

A note on reason
When we think about reason, we think about it in a post-Enlightenment world in which it often feels a bit like the sort of calculation a computer or a machine does, and see it as being fundamentally opposed to other things that make us human, like emotion. This isn’t quite the case for Aquinas, firstly because he doesn’t chop human nature up quite so completely, but also because for him, our emotions and gut instincts and all the things that make mathematicians feel a bit queasy are parts of us which can get caught up into reason and make it richer. The reason that reason gets us to God is because it starts us thinking about the world. We see all the stuff going on, and we start asking why and how and who and when, and eventually we want to know how it all started in the first place, and what we’re doing here, and how we should live, and whether it’s even worth it, and much as in Plato’s Symposium, the beauty of the world leads us in the end to Beauty itself, to God.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Evil as deprivation

I promised you more about participation, so here's my first attempt to make good on that pledge. One of the big questions in theology is that of the nature of evil: what is it? How can it come to be in the good world God made? When you start to say that existence is a predicate of God, and that therefore insofar as anything exists, you start to force yourself towards a particular answer to that question, and so a lot of patristic theologians argue for some sort of concept of evil not as a thing in itself, but as a deprivation of the good.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite is a good example of this, so I'll start by introducing you and then talk a bit about what he says. He's called Pseudo-Dionysius because he writes as if he's the Dionysius who is mentioned in Acts 17:34, someone who converted to Christianity after Paul's sermon in Athens about the unknown God. But he was probably actually writing in 5th century Syria. He was incredibly influential in theology, particularly in the West, even though not many people have heard of him these days. He's particularly famous for his mystical/apophatic theology, which is about the limitations of language when talking about God, but also gets into the discussion about the nature of evil.

He says that, because everything that exists gets its being from God, evil can't produce beings or give birth - instead it's good that has got broken, misdirected, twisted in some way. Evil is good gone wrong, not a thing in itself. That means that nothing can be evil by nature - even the demons aren't inherently evil, but are evil because of the ways they fall short of the good. There's no such thing as pure evil, because evil depends on the good for its very existence. It's a parasite - any power it has, any existence, any intelligence, any will - it gets from the good and distorts. One of the characteristics of God is stability: he is always who he is, and his goodness never changes, never grows or shrinks, and so evil can't even have stability except inasmuch as it gets it from the good.

This solves quite neatly on of the big theological problems of evil - how can there be something that God didn't create (answer: because evil doesn't be as such), and feels in a lot of ways like quite a satisfying way of thinking about it, but here's what seems to me to be an issue: if evil isn't a thing as such, and nothing can be inherently and stably evil, then does that mean that even Satan can be redeemed? Answers on a postcard.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Death of Christian Britain

I was all going to stop talking about gender for a while, but then I went to a seminar yesterday with Callum Brown, a Scottish cultural historian, and he was so interesting that I thought I'd serve him up fresh for your delectation.

Brown's argument goes a little something like this: historians often talk about the secularisation of Britain as a slow process which took place over several centuries. They are wrong. Actually, the 1870s-1890s saw a high point of church attendance and of the Church's integration into popular culture. At this point, there was a change in the way that people understood piety – where before the archetypal pious person was male, there was a dramatic shift, with piety becoming understood instead as distinctively feminine. The characteristics of femininity and piety came to be seen as basically the same. At the same time, masculinity was conceived as religiously vulnerable: while women were devoted mothers, good Christians, and pure of heart, men were easily tempted by the dangers of drink, drugs and sex. Men were the problem, and women the solution.

This gender world broke down in the 1960s, with the beginning of free love, sexual liberation, the Pill, and second-wave feminism, and as it fell apart, so did Christianity's dominance in popular culture. Piety and femininity were uncoupled, and so began the long decline of Christianity in Britain over the rest of the 20th century.

Brown is unusual among historians in using Foucault's ideas about discourse as a tool for doing history – to understand the changes in the relationship between Christianity and popular culture of the last few centuries, he looked at the way that people's language about religion, piety and gender changed over the period he focuses on. This was a dramatic change for him – as recently as the mid-90s he was sitting in pubs bitching to fellow historians about this pesky postmodern history; a few years ago he wrote a book about postmodernism for historians. He's got quite a lot of flak for this, but he's tough enough to take it, and is about to rerelease his original book with an extra chapter explaining why he's right and his critics are wrong.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Participation is a theme which you'll find throughout patristic theology (that's theology written by old dudes). It refers to the idea that everything that exists gets its particular properties (goodness, wisdom, stability, blackness, fluffiness, nakedness) from God, who is the source of everything. And everything gets those properties not to keep, but only as a sharing in God's properties – so my wisdom, wit, beauty, goodness, kindness etc. aren't absolutely mine but are my sharing in those properties in God (he's been good to me). One of the quirks of this way of understanding creation is that existence, “beingness” is counted as a property (I've heard that this raises interesting philosophical questions and difficulties, though I couldn't for the life of me tell you what), which means that to the extent that I exist, I get my existence from participation in God.

In this way of seeing the world, God's simplicity is really important. That doesn't mean that he's stupid, but that God can't be divided: we might have a whole collection of different attributes which are stuck together to make an individual, but in God those different attributes are absolutely united, so his goodness is the same as his wisdom is the same as his existence is the same as his orangeness.

This is a lot to do with Plato, and Neoplatonism (which dates from about the 3rd century AD) which has the idea of one absolutely unified principle as the source of everything, like the top point of a pyramid, and everything else radiating or emanating outwards from it like the rays of the sun, becoming more fragmented, more diverse and further from the source the further out it gets. This means that everything not only has different degrees of closeness and resemblance to the source, but also that things have different degrees of beingness. Things in the world can be more or less real, and confusingly, this is taken to mean that spiritual things and qualities – intellect, goodness, beauty – are more real than more physical and tangible things like rocks and pencils.

Lots of interesting consequences ensue. It means that everything in creation, however big or small, significant or insignificant, bears some sort of resemblance to God. It means that we can be more or less real, more or less existent, and that the more we come to resemble God, the more we participate in him and his goodness. It means that every attribute of everything that there is bears some resemblance to God. I'll come back to this, probably repeatedly, because there's a lot of meat here, but for now I'll leave you with this thought: God is naked.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

NT Wright and the New Perspective on Paul

NT Wright is the Bishop of Durham, and a New Testament scholar, who started out mostly writing about Paul, but has since embarked on a massive multiple-volumed work about Jesus as well as Paul.

The New Perspective focuses on one of the big debates in Pauline scholarship (that's the study of Paul, not Pauline (as far as I'm aware there's no name for that – Paulineine? Anyway, who's Pauline?)): what exactly does Paul mean when he talks about justification by faith? The traditional answer would be that it means that we can't ever be good enough for God by ourselves: we'll always sin, and can't pay for our sin out of our own resources, and so justification by faith means that we have faith in Jesus, and as a result, his holiness gets credited to us – a bit like handing in someone else's work as the coursework for a module you just couldn't get your head around.

But no! says our Tom, and the New Perspective along with him. That's not what it means at all. Actually, for Israel, justification meant something different. Being less hung up that we about the nasty things we think when no one is looking, their understanding of justification is a lot less internal and individualistic, and a lot more about God's covenant with them as his people. For them, God's grace came first: he called Israel and appointed them his chosen people, and covenantal observance wasn't about passing some sort of test to get into heaven, but about being invited into the exclusive club of God's chosen people and being asked not to be an arse, or the bouncers will kick you out.

The sense in Israel at the time of Jesus was that they had, in fact, been arses – they hadn't just got too drunk, but they'd gotten off with the bouncer's girlfriend, danced naked on the table and then started a fight. So they got kicked out, into exile, and although they'd made it back to Israel, they weren't in charge any more – they were ruled by the Romans, and were not happy about that. They'd been let back into the club, but instead of the special treatment God had originally promised them, they were the glass collectors. Exile was not over. For the Jews, then, justification was about longing for the day when God would come down and say hey, what are my people doing collecting glasses? And he'd kick out the Romans and put them back where they belonged, in control of Israel. The good news that Israel were waiting for was, in fact, deeply political – it was about independence from Rome, possession of the land that God had promised them, the real return from exile, and victory over the Romans.

Everyone was looking for justification at the time of Jesus. They all wanted to know what they had to do in order to be the people of whom God would say “these people are mine; let them back in the VIP lounge.” The Pharisees thought that they could mark themselves out as VIPs by sticking really strictly to the law of the Torah. The Sadducees thought they could do it by collaborating with the Romans in order to be allowed to run the Temple. The Essenes thought they could do it by running away to the desert and leaving corrupt society behind to live lives of chastity and purity. The Zealots thought they could do it by terrorism, and by constantly trying to defeat the Romans by violent uprisings.

This is the background to Paul's writing, then, and what he says about what Jesus has done is a lot more subversive than we notice a lot of the time. Jesus, he says, is the new Emperor of everything. He rules and the Roman empire does not (Jesus is the Christ – the anointed one and therefore the King, and the Lord – the term used to refer to the Emperor). Jesus is the new king of Israel, and what he has done announces the end of Israel's exile – they're back in the VIP lounge, only this time everyone else is invited too. What do you have to do to get on the guest list? Keep the law? Scrabble for power? Escape the world? Fight the Romans? No. Just believe in Jesus. You might have expected a war, you might have expected political power and the physical land God promised, you might have expected the temple to return to the hands of the true Israel, but this is what you get instead: Christ crucified, and the kingdom of God which looks a lot like a mustard seed.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Meet Thomas Aquinas

I thought that Thomas Aquinas deserved a whole post about him and his life - I suspect I'll come back to him more than once in the future, so you ought at least to be introduced. Aquinas is one of the great theologians, like, ever. He wrote about pretty much everything theological topic you can imagine, and was influential enough to be one of the few theologians still studied outside of the world of theology by people writing about ethics, law, politics and philosophy. He's one of only 33 people the Catholic Church have designated a Doctor of the Church (33 might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that's 33 people over 2,000 odd years), and some would argue that he's the Catholic theologian. He's famous for being one of the main people to rediscover Aristotle in the West, for basically inventing the doctrine of transubstantiation, for writing about natural law, and for lots of other things. His most famous work is the Summa Theologiae, possibly the longest theological work ever (if you can fit it on one shelf you're doing well). I reckon a good few days of my life so far have been spent reading Aquinas, and I've read maybe 1% of it.

Thomas was born in 1225 or 1227. His family wanted him to be a Benedictine abbot, which was a very respectable career for a younger son of a noble family in those days. But he decided he wanted to join the Dominican order, much less reputable – where the Benedictines were wealthy landowners, the Dominicans earned their keep largely through begging. His family were unhappy about that, so did what any loving relatives would do – kidnapped him and locked him in their castle for two years. At one point, his brothers tried to break his will by hiring a prostitute to seduce him, but he fought her off with a burning stick. Later on, he told a friend that he'd prayed for God's help in resisting the temptation and had a vision of two angels who gave him a white girdle and told him that it was the girdle of perpetual virginity. In the end, his family let him escape, and off he went. He went to the university in Paris, and began a life of studying and teaching, which continued until his death. He got involved with all sorts of theological controversies, but none of them were that funny, so I won't go into details.

The later years of his life were spent writing his massive Summa Theologiae – basically a comprehensive work about the whole of Christian theology, broken into three parts: the first about God and his creation; the second about humanity and ethics; and the third about Christ and his saving work. Part way through part 3, Aquinas stopped writing, and told his scribe that he couldn't write any more because “it all seems like straw.” Shortly afterwards he became ill, and died on 7 March 1274.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Gender Trouble

Judith Butler is an American theorist who has written about lots of things including gender, queer theory (which is about deconstructing ideas of gender and sexuality), politics and ethics.

The question at the heart of her book, “Gender Trouble” is this: if we take on board Foucault's critique of the way that sexuality is constructed by discourse, and recognise that both gender and even biological sex are at least partly social constructs (see my post on Laqueur if this all sounds like nonsense to you), what does this mean for feminism? How can feminists take political action on behalf of “women” when the category of “women” is constructed by the very same society which oppresses women? Not only is the category a construct, but by constructing the categories of sex and gender, society excludes people who don't fit neatly into those categories – transgendered people, gay and lesbian people, hermaphrodites - it refuses to acknowledge their existence, and so forces them either to conform to categories which don't fit them, or to be classed as non-people. Does feminism become another form of oppression by fighting for “women”'s rights, and how can it avoid being just another form of oppression?

Butler argues that identity politics (i.e. taking political action on behalf of a particular group of people, united by some aspect of their identity e.g. feminism, civil rights, gay rights) tends to assume that identity exists outside of society's discourses, that identities are separate to the stories we tell in society about who people are. But, she says, even if anything exists outside of discourse, we can't ever get to it without going through discourse to get there. People might be physically male or female, but we can only ever understand maleness and femaleness through the stories we tell in society about what it means to be male and female. She argues that there isn't a “doer behind the deed”, but that actually every individual is constituted by the discourses they take part in. We can't get to a “prediscursive” self - we can't find out who we are before and behind the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, because it's those stories and the way we enact them in our relationships within society that constitute our identity. Identity is a practice - it's something we do, a way we engage with the stories around us and reshape them. But stable identities are created by repetition – I think of myself as a woman because people tell me that I am repeatedly, and I participate in behaviour which reinforces that identity like wearing skirts, growing my hair long, buying lots of shoes, wearing make up. Butler calls this “gender performativity”: gender is a role we play for ourselves and other people. The fact that our performances need to be constantly repeated (one chick flick does not a woman make) means that they aren't necessarily stable – we can retell them and reenact them in ways which subvert them and subtly alter their meaning and therefore the definition of different categories.

Butler argues, therefore, that political action on behalf of any particular identity should consist in retelling and reenacting stories of identity but in a way which subverts and therefore radically alters them. She argues that gender parody – gender performance but with subtle differences which undermine existing ideas of what gender is – is the way to take political action to change oppressive ideas of what gender is. The more different stories we tell and enact about what it means to be male and female, the harder it will be to hold onto existing stories which oppress and exclude people. As examples of the sort of parody she is talking about, Butler uses drag as an example. Drag makes fun of the notion of an inherent gender identity by saying that gender is really just an appearance and an act – the outside is feminine and the interior masculine, but it also says that, for the person in drag, while they may be physically (i.e. externally) male, they're female on the inside. They're masculine and feminine both interiorly and exteriorly, and so any ideas we might have about absolute gender identity start to stretch at the seams and hopefully get a bit more spacious and a bit less oppressive.

I'll talk about this more some other time, as I'm reading a lot about gender at the moment, but the sort of ideas Butler talks about are really interesting from a theological point of view. On the one hand, the Bible says that God created humankind “male and female”; on the other hand, “in Christ there is no...male or female.” A lot of theological discussion at the moment seems to argue either that gender is something intrinsic to us, and part of our being made in the image of God, or that actually, Christian eschatology suggests that gender is not something which will carry over into the new heavens and the new earth, that our Christian identity as the body of Christ relativises all our other identities, and that subverting gender identities is deeply Christian and part of our call to live out the values of the kingdom of God on earth.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Jesus: The Brat Years

There are lots of alternative gospels from the first few centuries of Christianity knocking around, and lots of infancy gospels in particular, elaborating on the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth and early childhood. You read them, and suddenly all your questions about the historicity of the gospels that made it into the Bible seem less important, because at least we don't have to explain why we think that the midwife who didn't believe Mary was really a virgin ended up with a shrivelled hand. The infancy gospel of Thomas is one of the weirdest, I think, mostly because it portrays Jesus as such a twat. Here are some highlights:

When Jesus was five, he went down to the stream to play. He gathered some of the water into pools and started making birds out of the clay from the stream bed, but some uppity grown up took umbrage at the fact that Jesus was making things on the Sabbath, and went to snitch on Jesus to Joseph, who, when he heard, went down to the stream and started giving Jesus a good ticking off. Jesus, however, was unflustered. He clapped his hands and the little clay birds flew away.

A snotty little kid nearby took the opportunity to mess up the pools of water Jesus had gathered. This was the last straw for Jesus, who said "You godless, brainless moron, what did the ponds and waters do to you? Watch this now: you are going to dry up like a tree and you will never produce leaves or roots or fruit."

And the boy shrivelled up. Later that day, as Jesus was walking through the village, a boy ran past and bumped into his shoulder. Jesus, clearly having a bad day, said, “You will not complete your journey,” and the boy fell down. Dead.

By this time, as you can imagine, there's a whole crowd of enraged parents round and Joseph and Mary's house. Joseph talked to Jesus, and pointed out that his actions weren't exactly endearing him or his parents to their neighbours. Jesus said “I know I'm speaking God's words not mine, but I'll keep quiet for your sake, though all those complaining parents will suffer,” at which they all went blind. Joseph, pretty angry by now, grabs Jesus by the ear and pulls it, hard. Jesus gets angry (again) and says “Don't you know I'm not yours? Leave me alone.”

Hearing all this, a local teacher became excited by the precocious intelligence Jesus had been exhibiting, and offered to teach him. Joseph warned him off, but the teacher would have none of it, so off Jesus went to school to learn his letters. After teaching him for a long time and getting not a peep out of the young Jesus, the teacher got so frustrated that he hit Jesus on the head at which Jesus said, “I've got more to teach you than you have to teach me. No one understands the power of my wisdom.” He then proceeded to discourse at great length with outstanding wisdom on the meaning of the letter A. Flabberghasted, the teacher didn't know what to say, so took him back to Joseph, and begged him to take the kid off his hands.

From then on, no one dared to piss Jesus off, because they didn't want to end up crippled or cursed. A few days later, Jesus and some of the local kids were playing on the roof of a house. One child fell off, and the other children ran away, leaving Jesus to take the blame. One of the dead child's parents came and accused Jesus of pushing their son off the roof. Jesus said “It wasn't my fault, he was the one mucking around. Get up Zeno (the dead kid's name), and tell your parents I didn't do it”, at which Zeno stood up and exhonerated Jesus, upon which his parents and everyone else in the village worshipped Jesus for the miracle he had just performed. Or maybe it was because they were too scared not to.

You can read the unedited version here, and a bizarre attempt to argue that it should have been included in the Bible here

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Subliminal eroticism in contemporary charismatic worship

Thought that would get your attention. My Director of Studies gave me this article to read years ago, though I really can't remember why. Anyway. Martyn Percy is a sociologist who's written quite a bit about charismatic churches, and in this article he argues that there's an awful lot of eroticism going on in charismatic worship (by which he means “the bit of the meeting where we sing”).

He makes the following points:
  • “Charismatic worship” tends to portray the worshipper as very passive, and God as active
  • The worship experience as a whole tends to be individualistic, subjective, self-indulgent, and therapeutic.
  • As such, it provides an emotional outlet and form of empowerment for women in a church culture where often only men are given official leadership positions
  • Love is portrayed in an idealised, adolescent, simplistic manner, and people sing about a fairytale happy ending where God comes along and solves everything
  • Related to this, God/Jesus is often portrayed as a Prince Charming-style superhero, who turns up and magicks everything better
  • Songs portray Christians less as sinners in need of forgiveness than as unfulfilled people in need of healing. The cross of Christ is almost absent, and is replaced by an emphasis on the majesty and closeness of God.
  • Most of the songs talk in terms of I/You, and focus on subjective experience
  • The Christian is portrayed as passive in the “Potter's hand”, but this passivity gives no account of suffering or pain – the source of problems is ignored.
  • “Lord” is used of God in a way which encourages trust in a community where everyone worships the same God.
  • In the end, Percy argues, what we find in charismatic worship is just a sacralised version of a secular culture which is steeped in erotic imagery, where love is like the love you find in a Mills and Boon book – there's no cost, no commitment to working through difficulty and pain, and it's all about feelings and subjectivity.

There are clearly some bones to pick here. To the extent that charismatic worship is erotic, that's nothing new – go read some mystical theology, some Hans Urs von Balthasar some old commentaries on the Song of Songs, or even the Bible and you'll find plenty of (often surprisingly explicit) uses of erotic language to talk about our relationship with God.

I think Percy's more interesting not for the suggestion that charismatic worship is erotic, but for his criticisms of the sort of erotic love that is portrayed – shallow, individualistic, adolescent – these are the things that struck home when I read him. He's describing, I think, quite a particular moment in the history of charismatic worship. The songs I remember singing in the late 80s were much more about being bold and strong, strongholds tumblings down – all weirdly military. And more recently there's been a bit of a shift, I think, towards songs which deal with suffering, "Blessed be your name" the classic example. Maybe the songs Percy talks about are adolescent because so, in many ways, is the charismatic movement, which hasn't been around that long. But still, something there strikes me as quite insightful.

And whether you buy Percy's reading of charismatic worship or not, it highlights the theological element of the songs we sing – the words matter, because they shapes how we see our relationship to God, the church and the world. More meaning, less na na na na na, please.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Our God - a Great Big God?

The idea that God is infinite is a relatively late one. Up until the 4th century, no one really thought that God was infinite, partly because they didn't look very kindly on the idea of a being with no limits and therefore no real shape – it made God seem a big like a big amoeba, and nobody wants to worship that.

Gregory of Nyssa was really the first person to argue that God was infinite. He was one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who were Gregory, his older brother Basil, and their mate Gregory of Nazianzus. They were responsible for formulating the doctrine of the Trinity as we have it, really, and so are quite important, except Gregory doesn't get quite as much kudos, on account of his being a bit theologically dodgy and suggesting that maybe God saves everyone in the end (that's called universalism, folks, and maybe we'll talk more about that some other time). Most of the most fun theologians were accused of heresy at some point, though, so don't let that put you off, not least because Gregory Nyssen was definitely the most fun Cappadocian. Anyway, infinity. Gregory's reasoning went like this: if God isn't infinite, he must have limits, or edges. The only possible limit of virtue is evil, but God can't have an opposite, so he must be unlimited and infinite.

The fun thing about this is that it means that there's no end to God, and therefore there doesn't need to be any end to our approach to him. It's a bit like that thing where the bigger the bowl you put your goldfish in, the bigger they'll get, and we're like goldfish in an infinite bowl. We follow God, we get to know him better, but there's still more to know, and so our pursuit of God is both always successful and never complete.

I like this for two reasons:

1) It makes the prospect of eternity a whole lot more fun. “Heaven” or wherever we end up won't be sitting about on clouds getting bored, but will be all about moving towards God, learning more things, understanding him better, becoming more ourselves, loving more fully. More like the Last Battle, where they just go onwards and upwards and onwards and upwards – there are always new things to discover, and God will never be one of those friends who you meet for a coffee and then run out of things to say after you've caught up on what you've been doing since you last met up.

2) It means that we don't get it yet. Sure, we know God - we really know him and what we know is true – but what we know is still only a tiny fraction of everything there is. If only we could all get our heads round this properly, we would all (and I include myself in this), especially us Christians, who tend to equate knowing something of God with knowing more than anyone else, be a lot more fun to be around, and would probably screw things up a lot less often.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Plato's Symposium

You know how it is. You bump into someone in town, they invite you round for dinner, and after you've finished eating and are about to start on the booze, someone says, guys, maybe we should lay off the alcohol tonight – remember how pissed we got last night? You all agree – let's be honest, most of you are still looking a bit green - and then someone says, I know, enough of the music, let's make our own fun and have a speaking competition to see who can praise love most effectively. Get your rhetoric ready.

We've all been there, and Plato was good enough to record what happened when Socrates found himself in just that situation. Phaedrus kicks off.

Phaedrus' speech
The good thing about love is that it sharpens our sense of honour and dishonour. No one wants to be shamed in front of their lover, and so everyone behaves better when their lover is around. If our armies were made up entirely of loved-up couples, we'd be all the better for it (take that, opponents of women/gay people in the army).

Pausanius' speech
Phaedrus should've defined his terms better. Actually, there are two sorts of love, corresponding to two different Aphrodites (I get the impression that this is because there are two different accounts of Aphrodite's birth, one that she was Uranus' daughter (hur hur) – the heavenly Aphrodite, one that she was the child of Zeus and Dione – the common Aphrodite), only one of which is praiseworthy. The love that comes from the common Aphrodite is basically just horniness – people who love like this will even sink so low as to love women instead of young boys, and will do pretty much anything to get their end away (Reading the Symposium, I was surprised by the contempt it showed for women throught. I think this is because, for Plato, love is meant to be love of someone else's mind and character, and as women were uneducated they probably couldn't be considered worthy real love, only lust). Men who love with the love of the heavenly Aphrodite, though, love young boys exclusively, not just because they're pretty but because of their intelligence and personality. In this sort of love, the man loves the boy for his potential to become a wise and good man, and the young boy loves the older man as someone who can teach him wisdom and understanding.

At this point, it should have been Aristophanes' turn to speak, but he'd given himself hiccups, so Erixymachus (and you thought I had a funny name) went next.

Erixymachus' speech
Pausanius is right about there being two different sorts of love, and my experience as a doctor tells me that one sort of love is healthy and should be encouraged, and the other unhealthy. Blah blah blah (this speech was the boringest)

Aristophanes started sneezing, which stopped his hiccups, so he could go next.

Aristophanes' speech
Humans ain't what they used to be. Way back when, there weren't two sexes but three – male, female, and androgynous, and people were basically spherical – imagine two people stuck together back to back with four arms, four legs, two faces and two “privy parts.” People could walk around like we do now, but if they wanted to travel really quickly they could roll instead. But they started causing trouble to the gods, who decided, as a punishment, to cut them in half. This made them terribly lonely, and they wandered the earth seeking their lost half, and when they found them, they hugged them tightly. Zeus took pity on them, and turned their “privy parts” round so they were on the front instead of the back, which enabled them to get it on and reproduce. We're all looking for our other half. People who used to be androgynes are horny – adulterers mostly fall into this class. Women who used to be paired with other women aren't interested in men, and vice versa for men who were paired with men. They're the best, because they've got the most manly nature, and they become our statesmen. And that's why things are the way we are, and we should be careful, because if we annoy the gods again they'll cut us in half once more, and we'll have to go round with only half a nose like the figures you see sculpted on columns.

Agathon's speech
Love is great (he goes on a bit, but that's the gist)

Socrates' speech
Love is desire, and if it is desire that means that it doesn't possess what it desires. Love desires beauty, so how can it be beautiful? The beautiful is the good, so love must also desire the good – how then can it be good? Does that mean it's evil? No – that which is not wise is not necessarily ignorant – there's a mean between the two, and that's where love is, in the mean between fair and foul. Love is neither a god nor mortal, but the mean between the two, mediating between God and man. Love is the child of Poverty and Plenty, always seeking after something he never quite possesses. There is nothing which men love but the good – love is love of the everlasting possession of the good. How do we love? We start by loving beauty in another person, the beloved, but this leads us to appreciate inner beauty above outer beauty, which in turn leads us on to the appreciation of beauty in abstract things like laws, institutions and sciences, and then eventually we grasp the notion of absolute beauty, and finally know what the essence of beauty is. This is the point of everything: to finally attain the contemplation of pure beauty, and to enter into communion with it. Love is the best helper we have to attain this goal.

At this point, drunken noises are heard outside – it's Alcibades, young, fiesty and, by all accounts, a bit of a looker. He comes in and starts talking – turns out he's got a bit of a crush on Socrates, but Socrates ain't reciprocated. Alcibades tells the story of his attempt to woo Socrates – he managed to get alone with him, but he kept talking about philosophy instead of love. He wrestled with Socrates, thinking that this might get him somewhere (these were, after all, the days of naked wrestling) – no joy. He persuaded Socrates to come round for dinner, and then to stay over and slept all night with Socrates in his arms, but still, nothing.

I think this is meant to indicate Socrates' noble character – his restraint, his temperance, his wisdom, but I can't help feeling that Socrates was a bit of a git. Cultural norms, huh?

This dialogue is theologically important for lots of reasons, but crucially it becomes a central theme in later discussions of our relationship with God, who is equated with the pure Beauty of Plato's dialogue. Keep an eye out for this idea of God as Beauty, and of the Christian life as ascending to ever more abstract understandings of who God is.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Foucault - History of Sexuality

Michel Foucault was a French thinker (he lived from 1924-1984), and as such was gloriously broad-ranging in the things he wrote about - crime and punishment, sexuality, hospitals, and all sorts. He was fascinated by the way that power operates in the stories we tell about the world and ourselves, where those stories came from, and how they change us. He didn't invent the famous pendulum - that was another Foucault - which is a bit sad, because it would be quite funny, given the topic of this post.

Foucault's History of Sexuality (or Volume 1 of it anyway, which is the only bit I've read) basically asks this: We tell ourselves a story that we are a sexually repressed society, that from the 17th century we began to be ashamed of sex, and reluctant to talk about it where before we were free and easy and happy to be bawdy. No longer comfortable telling dirty jokes, we became like the Victorians, so terrified of our own sexuality that we started covering up suggestive table legs. The twentieth century, then, has seen the beginning of our liberation from this repression, but we're still basically repressed. And yet, Foucault says, is that really what happened? Didn't the 17th century in fact see a new explosion of different ways of talking about sexuality - the emergence of psychoanalysis, of new laws regulating exactly what sort of sex was and wasn't ok, of medical names for specific perversions, of programmes designed to regulate the sexuality of children. We, Foucault says, are a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function.” The question isn't “why are we repressed?” but “Why do we say with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, against our present and against ourselves, that we are repressed?”

Foucault locates the start of the change in the practise of confession. Apparently, in ye olde days, confessing a sexual sin meant describing in great detail who did what to whom, in what position, the precise moment of pleasure. But from around the 17th century, they changed: less focus on practicalities, and much more on the internal things: thoughts, desires, feeling, which before had been unimportant as long as no one acted them. Sex became something much more internal, much more deeply rooted in the centre of the person, much more essential to their identity. And as sex extended throughout the whole person, Foucault argues, so did power - doctors, psychiatrists, educators, lawmakers - all were given new abilities to control and dictate behaviour and even thoughts. Sexuality was born: the idea that the nexus of thoughts, desires and preferences each person has was in some way deeply constitutive of their very self.

Where before, marital sex was much discussed and everything else seen as basically the same category of adultery/promiscuity, we began to define specific perversions, and instead of having people who did perverted things, we saw the emergence of people who were perverts - homosexuals, paedophiles, sadists, masochists (and actually, it was this creation of new positive identities for people that enabled them to fight for their rights - until we believed in gay people, instead of people who perpetrated gay acts, we couldn't really even think about gay rights).

Our sexuality isn't just there, Foucault argues - it is formed, moulded, directed and dictated by the stories we tell within our society, by the theories and laws and standards of "normality", and within these stories, power operates, controlling all of us in different ways, making us who we are, making our sexuality what it is.