Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Suffering of Love

There is something uniquely eternal about love. After all: "and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13), and "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8). Love, unlike faith and hope, is uniquely conceivable without a temporal dimension. Love cares for what has come to be--what is--and not for the formless possibility of what might be in the future. This is why love is tortured by time, which continually threatens the objects in which it rests. Only love can, and must, suffer, while faith and hope do not.

Human agency is the agency of love, the operation of this most divine longing. Yet the opportunities for the action of love are too often inaccessible to us. The more aware we are of the world, the more love is awakened within us and the more incompetent we find ourselves to be in uniting with the loveliness within objects. There is literally not enough time for our love. We have not the skills needed to enact it. When we seem to have succeeded in some small measure, it is at the painful cost of neglecting some other loveliness. The byproduct of love in the midst of temporality is always grief and regret.

To be temporal is to suffer, not because time is evil but because there is something timeless at the core of our being: "he has placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecc 3:11). This is why the physical ailments we term "suffering" are so insufferable: because they eat away at the already-too-little time and energy we have for love. And perhaps this explains the most suffocating forms of depression: an oppressive sense of dread as our fallen and finite capacities encounter a world of infinite loveliness. Whether diagnosable or not, species of these sufferings are the inevitable price of a life that is lived in a temporal world that is "charged with the grandeur of God". 

The ultimate realization of temporal suffering is the final loss of agency in death, for there the possibility of love is at an end. Death thus makes the task of love infinitely more urgent, but at the same time it renders love's meaning questionable in the extreme."The afterlife," conceived simplistically as an indefinite continuation of this form of temporal existence, would only exacerbate this problem. Love would never find its home. Its sense of loss would mount infinitely with the coming into being and passing away of the objects (and moments) of love. In light of this perplexing antinomy, we must conclude that death itself is some form of mercy, precisely because it is the necessary presupposition of the possibility of some other, better, form of love's existence. 

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). The scriptures speak of death neither as love's total cessation, nor as an intrusive but ultimately temporary obstacle in love's infinite march forward. No, death is somehow the doorway to love's home. One dies in order to live in a new mode, one in which all of love's objects, one's own and those of others, are present to one all at once with their true depth of loveliness, its Source, now apparent. No longer must one object and its loveliness give way to another in a cruel zero-sum game; now all serve as factors in a multiplication whose product is innumerable. This is the hope of resurrection, and this is why love must take up its cross and suffer. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

A little guide to 'Cur Deus homo?'

Anselm's "satisfaction theory of the atonement" is much maligned, often by those who, in my opinion, are dealing with a caricature of what Anselm actually advances in his eleventh-century work Cur Deus homo? His model often gets lumped in with penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement, despite the fact that Anselm goes out of his way to argue that the death of Christ is not an instance of God forcing an innocent person to die for the wicked. Also, Anselm's account is primarily ontological, and only distantly and secondarily juridical.

It's sometimes said that the concept of "honor" with which Anselm works is rooted in medieval feudalism and that, outside this context, this model of the atonement therefore falls apart. It's important to note that, when Anselm talks of the honor God is due, he is talking about the worship that the creature owes the Creator.

Anyways, if you're going to reject or critique Anselm's account, even in passing, you should at least have an accurate view of what he argues, and understand him on his own terms. So, in what follows I take a quick stab at laying out his argument for you, with references to the pertinent sections of the two books. I've skipped over some things (e.g., the discussion of why the number of fallen humanity couldn't be restored by angels), and I've left out any biblical references. This is designed to function as a rough-and-ready guide for you to read Cur Deus homo? for yourself.

Without further ado, here's my synthetic outline of Cur Deus homo?

A. The redeemer must be a divine person (1.5)
  1. The one by whom humanity is redeemed is owed worship and service.
  2. Humanity is not to worship and serve anything other than God.
  3. Therefore, the one who redeems humanity must be God.
B. The redemption through this divine person cannot be externally compelled. (1.6-1.7)
  1. If God is compelled to redemption by, e.g., the devil's power over human beings, then he is not omnipotent.
  2. But God is omnipotent, and all things are in the power of his will.
  3. Therefore, redemption must be compelled by God's will alone. 
C. The mode of this redemption (i.e., the incarnation of Christ the Son) must be necessary, consequent upon the wisdom of the divine will. (1.6-1.7)
  1. God is supremely wise, which means he doesn't do anything unnecessarily.
  2. God willed to redeem humankind through the incarnation of his Son. 
  3. Therefore, the incarnation of God's Son must be necessary for redemption.
D. The mode of this redemption (i.e., the incarnation of Christ the Son) must be voluntary, consequent upon the justice of the divine will (1.8)
  1. God is just, which means he does not force the innocent to bear the sins of the guilty.
  2. Redemption came about through the incarnation of Christ the Son.
  3. Therefore, the incarnation of Christ the Son is not a case of the innocent being forced to bear the sins of the guilty. 
E. The incarnation of Christ the Son achieved redemption, not through obedience to a command to die, but through obedience to a command to live as a righteous human being. (1.9-1.10)
  1. What God commanded Christ the Son was what he commands of humankind generally: to live a righteous life of worship (or honor) of God. 
  2. This was the command that Christ the Son obeyed, and it was for obedience to this command that sinful humanity killed him.
  3. Therefore, Christ the Son's death is only secondarily related to redemption, consequent upon the state of those he came to redeem. 
F. Humanity must be redeemed from humanity's own inability to render to God the positive obedience and worship--"honor"--he is due. (1.11-12)
  1. What is owed God is the "honor" he is due as Creator, that is, total and complete worship.
  2. There is nothing greater than this that can be given to God in exchange for failure in this regard.
  3. Therefore, this requirement of total honor must be satisfied by humanity. 
G. The necessity of punishment for failure to honor God is consequent upon the perfection of the divine nature. (1.13-15)
  1. God's honor is incorruptible and unalterable, and every creature owes God this honor by virtue of its being related to him as Creator. 
  2. The presence in God's creation of dishonor is an ontological challenge to God's very nature. 
  3. Therefore, on the pain of compromising the perfection of the divine nature (impossible), God must punish sin. 
H. The punishment due for sin is proportional to the honor not given to God. (1.19-24) 
  1. The honor that God is due, by virtue of his nature, is infinite and total. 
  2. The punishment given for failure in this regard must be proportional to this failure.
  3. Therefore, the punishment humanity incurs necessarily (on pain of God forfeiting his nature, which is impossible) is infinite and total. 
I. Only Jesus Christ as the divine-human mediator can render to God the positive honor he is due, and also bear the negative consequences of humanity's failure to honor God. (1.25)
  1. To offer the honor God is due, he must be fully human. (2.6)
  2. To overcome the infinite punishment humanity has incurred, he must enter into it as one whose infinite nature can overcome even this. He must be God, who is greater than all things. (2.7, 14-15)
  3. Therefore, he must be both human and God, with these two natures neither mixed together, nor separated, but united hypostatically, in one person. (2.8-9)
J. It is necessary for God to become man in just this way, contingent on God's will to create. (2.4-5)
  1. God is omnipotent and his purposes cannot be frustrated. 
  2. God wills to create a humanity that honors him and attains blessedness.
  3. Therefore, God must necessarily become incarnate and redeem humanity when it falls. 
What follows from all of this is that redemption, while it is achieved by Christ, is entered into only through being joined to Christ through the Spirit. Participation in Christ as the one who obeys and the one who undoes the consequences of sin ("punishment") is indispensable.

When it's all said and done, Anselm's interlocutor in this work, Boso, concludes of this model of the atonement: "There can be nothing more logical, nothing sweeter, nothing more desirable that the world can hear. I indeed derive such confidence from this that I cannot now express in words with what joy my heart is rejoicing" (2.19). You may not come to the same conclusion, but I hope at least you'll achieve a more accurate understanding of this great text.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Rémi Brague, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age

I imagine that many readers are familiar already with the French historian and philosopher Rémi Brague. My first encounter with him is via his latest book, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for a Modern Age (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019). It's a stitched-together collection of nine papers that Brague has given to English-speaking audiences in recent years. But that's not to say this little book doesn't put forward a coherent argument.

Brague is a conservative in the deepest sense of the word. He is concerned with the conservation of humanity itself, which he takes to be under assault in the modern West. Exhibiting his wit (not to mention his obsession with etymologies and his mastery of the English language) he commits a "deliberate spoonerism" and argues that the civilization-saving conservatism we need is essentially a commitment to conversation--conversation both with the human past and with nature itself.

Modernity is, according to Brague, a type of barbarism, defined as a "refusal to communicate". Modernity refuses to communicate with the past or with nature by way of its mythical conception of self-determination, which denies continuity with what came before and which promises a future of humanly achieved progress. The driver of this barbarism is modernity's methodological atheism which, while it allows for the description and even exploitation of the world, can offer no compelling reason why it is good for human beings to exist and to keep existing. Thus, the assertion of human autonomy inevitably results in a type of deep existential malaise. Reason itself must be seen as a product of irrational forces. Rather than grounds for meaningful action, there are merely deterministic causes.

The central move to treat modernity's condition must be a recovery of the notion of the Good in the Platonic rather than Aristotelian sense. If we are to have a reason to live, we must understand the Good not merely as something we do, but rather as the necessary ontological ground of all that exists. Brague argues that the necessity of the Good is implied in the modern (Kantian) concept of ethics as rational action (ie, action rooted in the Being of the subject), and evil as an irrational perversion of this freedom. This is a roundabout confirmation of, not only the Platonic vision, but the biblical creation story, both of which state that the Good is given to us with Being and must therefore be received as gift.

Recovering the necessity of the Good requires a return to a cosmological view of nature--the belief that the universe not only can be described in its present state or understood in terms of the mechanisms of how it came to be what it is, but rather that it is inherently meaningful and intelligible. The cosmos must be seen in terms of logos--communicating goodness to us. Humanity is not a stranger to this good nature (or "creation"), but rather at home in it, part of it. Within this good creation human freedom must be conceived as the freedom to manifest what we are as given by, in, and with nature, and not in some sort of rebellion against it. Freedom is responsive human communication with the goodness of nature. Culture is the byproduct of this communication, a cultic overflowing of praise to God (whether we realize it or not). This means, Brague says, that Christianity, if it is the true religion, is not itself a culture. Instead, it exists as a conserving conversation with every culture.

The necessity of the Good, and the attendant recovery of premodern notions of nature, freedom, and culture, Brague contends, should lead to a reintegration of both the ancient pagan virtues and the biblical commandments. Virtues are habits that allow us to "do good", to act in accordance with the nature of things. The biblical commandments of the God who says of creation "it is good" are never antithetical to this, but rather must always be species of the mandate to "Be what you are!' This rediscovery and reintegration of virtues and commandments can only take place in the family. The modern state and the modern market militate against the family. The former consistently reduces people to atomistic individuals, whereas the latter trains them as individuals who think of everything as a commodity. But the family is essential for society. The biological bond between parents and children, and the unconditional love that go with it, communicate the givenness and goodness of one's being. The family, or those things founded on the notion of family (like monarchies or the church), are the only institutions that can care about "the very long run". Only they can have a deep sense of responsibility to, and gratitude for, the past, and an existential concern for the future.

Brague's Curing Mad Truths is a radical assault on many of the things taken for granted in modern liberal societies. Nevertheless, as a "conservative" (read: conserving through conversating) project, it does not advocate some impossible return to the past. It calls us to reconnect the branches of truth upon which modernity sits to the metaphysical trunk from which they have been severed. It's a provocative, convincing, and accessible little book (only 115pp., notes and index excluded) by an important scholar, and it deserves wide attention.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Faith & Theology is open again


I have had a long and rather intimate relationship with Ben Myers. For example: I have lived in his house, slept in his bed, mowed his lawn (or not), driven his car, drank his whisky, and helped raise his dog. In light of all this, I suppose it's not entirely unsurprising that I'm now taking over his blog.

It's not that there was ever anything untoward between Ben and me. It's just that he's one of the most generous people around. I first encountered Ben, not by reading Faith & Theology, but when he read and commented on something I had written online when I was still an undergraduate in California. Then I started to follow him here and on social media, enjoying the open-handed verve with which he pursued theological learning. I noticed that Ben's engagement with texts and ideas was always top-notch, but also that everyone was welcome at his table.

Several years later I started looking into Ph.D. programs in theology. I had my heart set on a big name school in either the U.S. or the U.K. The only thing was, I had no viable way to pay for one of these programs. Desperate, I started praying that Providence would make a way for me. During this period I reached out to Ben Myers on a whim, just to ask if he supervised Ph.D. research. The very next day, we spoke on Skype. Within months I was applying for a doctoral program at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Not only was I accepted, but Ben worked his charm and secured a full tuition waiver for this foreign student.

I arrived in Australia in 2012 when Ben and his family were on sabbatical in Germany. My wife and I spent our first couple of months living in Ben's home and caring for his legendary dog, Kola (R.I.P.). For the next several years Ben's generosity continued. He shared his life with me, taught me how to write, allowed me to teach alongside him, and saw me through to the end of my Ph.D. thesis in 2017. For my wife and me Ben's help was the key that opened the door to one of the most meaningful periods of our lives. We made many friends, we became Australian citizens, and we found our ecclesial home in the Anglican church. Perhaps most importantly, in emulation of Ben we acquired a goofy black Labrador Retriever.

I now live in Washington, D.C. where I minister at a church on Capitol Hill. I love my life here, but I've come to miss the rich theological community Ben creates around him wherever he goes. I want to find my way back into what I saw with Ben by going forward in my own way. Because of this I recently tweeted that I was thinking of starting a blog. Within hours I had a predictably generous message from Ben, offering me Faith & Theology. Everything came full circle today when I once again met with Ben through Skype and he handed me the reins. Like Elisha to Elijah, I requested from Ben a double portion of his spirit.  He said that, unfortunately, he had given away .6 of his spirit, and therefore that he could give me only a 1.4 portion.

Faith & Theology is open again. Stay tuned for posts on theology, philosophy, and culture, as well as reflections on scripture and book reviews. I can't fill Ben's shoes. I know this to be true because I've actually worn them before and they don't fit me.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Faith & Theology is closed

 Fourteen years and 2600 posts later, this blog is now closed. It's been a lot of fun. But I don't quite have the heart to keep the blog going after the death of Kim Fabricius. I won't delete the site, but there will be no further posts. Feel free to browse the archives – and thanks to all our loyal readers over the years.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Kim’s last doodlings

by Kim Fabricius, 1948-2018

Kim’s family sent me through his final batch of doodlings, posted posthumously here. (Kim, your last doodling is incorrect. But I wont hold it against you.)

Two keys to self-knowledge: acknowledging that you are ashamed of yourself, and being able to make fun of yourself.

The superficial explanation for why some people don’t like tragedy is that it’s depressing; the deeper reason is that in tragedy there is no one to blame.

Most people couldn’t care less about why bad things happen to good people, they are only concerned with why bad things happen to me. Like Job, they think they’re the centre of the universe: theodicy reduced to cosmic egotism.

Title for a book on the doctrine of election in Calvin and Barth: Will and Grace.

The term “speaking in tongues” always makes me smile: it’s the irrepressible suggestion of oral sex.

The root of all misogyny (Girardianly speaking) is boys showing off.

“Don’t tell lies.” But the most insidious mendacity is mute.

Bible verse on a plaque in the birthing unit of a maternity ward: “Jesus said, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you an epidural.”

In Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, the sage and shrewd Dr Oreshchenkov observes that “it’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” So too for the clergy. A self-righteous minister is bad, a righteous minister worse.

Evangelical Americans: so understandably concerned about whether an unborn child has feelings, so indefensibly indifferent that a grown-up child – their president – doesn’t.

Combining funny-peculiar and funny-ha-ha, the Church of England seems to think that the Divine Comedy is a Punch and Judy pantomime.

Augustine is said to have remarked, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” Well, better a whore than a harridan.

On Luke 10:25-37: In order to be a good Samaritan, one must first become a half-dead Jew: lest you succumb to pride, he is your focal identification. 

“The widow? Easy pussy – go for it. The orphan? Little shits of color – normalize motherlessness (Herod, btw, was a classy guy, smart, tough). And the stranger? Keep the vermin out; otherwise, concentration camps.” —Trump’s exegesis of  Exodus 22:22-24 and Deuteronomy 10:18.

“Make America Great Again.” Again? Better make America British again. 

Having an American accent abroad during Trump’s Reign of Terror is like having a tattoo you had done when you were young and stupid but is now impossible to remove. The best you can do is to cover it up, e.g., by insisting, “No, I’m a Canadian.”

When The Complete Tweets of Donald Trump is published, in what section of American bookstores should it squat? Juvenile Fiction? Fantasy? Women’s Studies? Performing Arts? For cultural accuracy, I’d go for “Christianity.”

Death kills, but not for the hell of it. No, for death omnicide is an anti-ontological vocation: Deleo, ergo sum.

Since Cain slew Abel, you could call every homicide a copycat crime.

Christus solus, ergo Islamophilia.

My default facial expression in coffee houses has become the Smirk. Observing the washed having a flat white as a side with their iPhones – uninvited it floods my features. It’s only a matter of time (you’ll be pleased to know) before someone punches me in the face.

One of the pathologies of senescence is verbosity. You can still take off and cruise, but you can’t land the damn plane. You even forget that you are in the air – until you run out of fuel and crash.

“What do people think of me?” The question is both begged and vain: very few people bother to think about me at all. Why would they?

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