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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.

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Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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Corporate and structural evil is indeed something insidious, its very corporate-ness a convenient cover for everyone complicit to avoid personal responsibility.

Consider, for example, the modes of discourse commonly practiced by Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). They change definitions of key terms every fifteen minutes so no one is ever sure where they stand. They shout down any opposition and then demand the unqualified right to speak freely — regarding neither common courtesy nor reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. They use their own dignitary injuries as offensive weapons. Of their “targets” they demand self-loathing for vaguely defined offenses, or for the offenses of ancestors, and give only half-rewards to most of the contrite. That the contrite aren’t entirely clear about what they did wrong, you see, means they aren’t actually contrite enough; perhaps they’ll be more fully rewarded when they grovel more convincingly.

If a husband interacted with his wife that way, we’d call it spousal abuse.

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Recently Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, claimed that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” — a statement which, in the estimation of Wheaton’s administration, contradicted the college’s statement of faith. Dr. Hawkins, in defending the orthodoxy of her claim, cited Yale theology professor Miroslav Volf as authority. The Wheaton administration was unconvinced: it placed Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave.

This morning, Miroslav Volf himself waded into this controversy by publishing the following indictment of the Wheaton administrators:

There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.

And what, exactly, is the evidence for the charge? Volf’s essay gives none. For example, Volf provides no evidence that other Wheaton professors had claimed that “Mormons and Christians worship the same God” or “Jews and Christians worship the same God” without consequence. Nor does Volf provide direct evidence of actual enmity — e.g. inflammatory statements about Islam made by Wheaton administrators. Volf’s general statement that “[m]any Christians today see themselves at war . . . with Islam,” and his allusion to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s recent asinine comments about “ending” certain Muslims, do not count as evidence against Wheaton.

Which means that Volf is mind-reading the Wheaton administrators — and interpreting their minds by a hermeneutic of suspicion — unless the claim that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God is plainly flimsy and pretextual.

But is it? Let’s play a game of identify-that-character: Say Jack is married to a dark-eyed brunette named Jane, whose nature is reserved, and whose conversation is plain, precise and rationalist. Then say that one day, Jack bumps into his old friend Jim, and Jim congratulates Jack on marrying someone as lovely as Jane — commenting on Jane’s strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes, gregarious nature, and expansive, vivid conversation, full of jests, half-meanings and double entendres. Would Jack be inclined to accept the man’s congratulations? Would he think, “how interesting that two perspectives on the same woman can be so different”? I doubt it. More likely, Jack would tell Jim, simply, “there must be some mistake.”

Now let’s play another round: Say there’s a another man named John, for whom the testimony “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth” is the thing that moves him to wonder and worship. Say the story of Christ being slain and raised and made alive evermore, and having the keys of Death and Hades, is the story that keeps John afloat amidst all the troubles of the world. And then say John’s friend Amaar comes along and said, “we worship the same God! But all that stuff about the Trinity and Incarnation is incoherent, polytheistic and vulgar.” Why would John’s response to Amaar be any different than Jack’s response to Jim?

If the homeliness, grittiness and fleshliness of the Incarnation, Nativity, Passion and Resurrection are essential parts of the Christian story of God and the world, and if Christians adore these mysteries and hold that they reveal the essential character of God, then Christians cannot “worship the same God” as people who flatly deny that God ever did any such things.

It isn’t hateful to say so. No daggers need be drawn over it — and the Christian story supplies plenty of reasons why the Christian should leave his dagger sheathed, or at home. Dr. Volf himself states the chief reasons at the conclusion of his article: that God “justifies the ungodly” and commands us to love our enemies.

“Enmity demands exclusivity.” But does it follow — especially in a world where God commands love to enemies — that exclusivity demands enmity?

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If you’ve clicked over here from the Rabbit Room, where my essay Lent Against a Million Faustian Bargains appeared today, welcome. This piece is a companion piece to that one, so having seen that one first, you’re ready to read this one.

If you haven’t yet read that essay, and have some interest in the subject of “Lenten politics” — what the political philosophy of Jesus Christ might look like, so far as we can trace it from His teaching and action in the canonical Gospels [1] — then I suggest you go read that first, and then come back here [2].

Okay, done? Very good. On to the miscellanies:

1. Jesus of Nazareth was not exactly a “political philosopher” — he was foremost a man of action — but his actions in the world proceeded from a deep and peculiar political philosophy. That political philosophy was unique, and remains so even to this day. It was and is so unique that His disciples often have failed to grasp it, erring either on the side of non-engagement with the political world, or engaging it by means Jesus forbade: coercion by threats or force, building political coalitions by lies and stirring up fear, etc.;

2. The political philosophy of Jesus, like all other political philosophies, has to do with glory. The modus operandi of the politicians of the world is to seek glory for themselves — to burnish “legacies,” to vindicate themselves and their political parties, etc. Jesus refused to seek glory for Himself, or to trade illegitimate worship for political glory when the Devil offered him “the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” We should not look at Jesus’s refusal as apolitical, but as a personal challenge to every man, woman and child, and a challenge to every political system corporately;

3. The platitudes and falsehoods characteristic of contemporary political discourse are symptoms of wanton glory-lust. They are designed not to frame real debates constructively, but to motivate the members of particular voting blocs to get the polls — either by bribes, or by fear, or by anger;

4. If that weren’t bad enough, contemporary political talking points have the disastrous side-effect of alienating real neighbors, friends, and family members. And, while there are undoubtedly real and important arguments afoot, they do not justify sacrificing real relationships. We know the people; most national-level political arguments concern matters that are beyond the actual capacity of any human being to understand. I may know my neighbor. I do not know — no human really can know — whether a law binding upon three hundred and fifty million people will help their collective fortunes;

5. Finally, the Rabbit Room essay is not about keeping aloof from politics. It is meant, rather, as encouragement to regard political arguments and talking-points with healthy skepticism, our own arguments with modesty. Privilege the things you know, and the people you know and love, over those things you do not and could not know. In the words of one of His disciples, Jesus of Nazareth “went about doing good” — personally doing good by deeds tailored to uphold the real dignity and heal the peculiar brokenness of particular people, on a scale that local communities could see and understand. He commissioned His disciples to go and do likewise. If you cannot see that that has political implications enough, you cannot see.

[1] Only the canonical Gospels imply any kind of political philosophy. The non-canonical Gnostic gospels, in addition to being written much later and having far less historical value than the canonical ones, firmly divide the world of spirit from the material world in such a way that real-world political engagement becomes nonsensical.

[2] If you’re unfamiliar with the Rabbit Room, then you should make yourself familiar with it — particularly if you’re a fan of good music, good literature, and good art.

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In Socrates’s last weeks, questions of piety and impiety were not the window-dressing of life. They were, on the contrary, quite literally a matter of life and death. He had been indicted on a charge of impiety, corrupting Athenian youths by teaching novel doctrines — he was a “god-maker” and did not give the old gods their due. He would shortly be tried and convicted on that charge, and then executed.

BookOfKellsEagle

The Eagle, the symbol of St. John, as shown in the Four Gospels plate of the Book of Kells.

It is against that background that one must read the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro: Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?[1] It is easy for us to dismiss Socrates’s question as philosophical play — fitting for a boy, deserving of a whipping for a man (as Callicles put it elsewhere)[2]. But a man about to stand trial for impiety needs some idea of what piety means for a very practical reason: to defend himself. So we may suppose Socrates to have been completely in earnest. And his question is an important one. It would be a strange thing to worship a god who didn’t come into existence until after “the good,” and was subservient to “the good.” It would be terrible, however, to worship a god who could alter “good” arbitrarily — say, to make hate “good” and “love” bad.

St John the Evangelist lived a few centuries after Socrates, in a different part of the Mediterranean region. He was a Jew, not a Greek, though he wrote in Greek and his writings show some familiarity with Greek thought. So we should not be surprised that the prologue of John’s gospel, though its primary purpose is to place the life of Jesus of Nazareth within the life of the one God of Israel — God the Creator who spoke creation and life into being, God the Redeemer who dwelt in the Tabernacle and led the Israelites out of Egypt — also addresses the Greek world by John’s use of the word logos. The prologue’s opening phrases also happen to address (probably unintentionally) the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro.

The first character to appear in St John’s prologue is the “Word”that is, the divine logos. In the beginning, the logos was. While “word” is a good translation for logos in John — connecting John’s prologue with God’s act of creation by speech in Genesis 1 — it isn’t a comprehensive translation. If you hear the echoes of our word logic, and the suffix -ology, in logos, you’re not hearing things. While logos conveys the sense of word as speech-act, it also conveys rationality. And John says that, no matter how far back in time one might travel, or if it were possible to go back to before the dawn of time, the Word, the logos, would still be there. And it would not be subject to change upon the whim of any deity.

But no matter how far back in time one might travel — even if one went back to before the dawn of time — the logos would not be there alone. He would be with Someone. He would not just be sitting alongside that Someone in a passive Aristotelian kind of way, nor at war with Him in a Zeus-versus-Kronos kind of way, but facing Him, engaging with Him with a quality of attention and affection that we can hardly begin to imagine. Or, as John puts it: “And the Word was with God.”

John’s first two phrases, without more, almost solve Socrates’s dilemma. For if goodness and sound logic are comprehended within the word logos, then goodness — Socrates’s piety — has always existed, and is not subject to change. Moreover, that logos has always existed with God, neither apart from God nor in competition with Him. So one might say, without proceeding beyond John’s first two phrases, that if God and the pious logos are co-eternal, always together, fully engaged with one another and of one mind, then we have a set of conditions that cuts the horns off Socrates’s dilemma. But John isn’t done, and his third phrase resolves the dilemma beyond all doubt:

“And what God was, the Word was.”

The three statements, taken together, read like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was.” John calls the Word eternal, eternally in relationship with the God who called himself, simply, “I am,” and eternally in full possession and enjoyment of the character, nature and identity of that God, whose nature encompasses, indeed actively embraces, the Word’s piety. John solves Socrates’s old mystery by the plain statement of the eternal Mystery.

[1] Plato, Euthyphro 10a.

[2] Plato, Gorgias 485d-e.

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For a long time, the left wing of the punditocracy has excoriated conservatives for their use of the slippery slope argument form. So quite apart from any other consideration, I have enjoyed the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. because apparently it opened the eyes of left-leaning commentators to see something in the slippery slope argument form after all.

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