Friday, 29 January 2016

Sonderegger and Coakley: an update on the current state of systematic theology

The systematicians are systematising again. The last two years have seen a considerable number of new systematic/dogmatic works appear. At AAR last year, it was difficult to turn around in the book halls without bumping into a new systematic project or dogmatic cycle. Brian Gerrish has written an enticing little one-volume dogmatics, somewhat modelled on Schleiermacher and Barth. Similarly, Anthony Thiselton has released a single-volume systematics to the world.

But, without a doubt, the most interesting of these new projects is Katherine Sonderegger’s new systematics that launched last year with her volume on the doctrine of God. (I wrote briefly about it before its release here). Sonderegger’s theology is perplexing, edifying, mildly inexact, and undeniably true all at once. One afternoon in Atlanta, a friend (Chris Green) summarised perfectly the uniqueness of Sonderegger’s work: more than Sarah Coakley, she succeeds at talking about God rather than talking about talking about God.

Coakley, of course, is the other great creative systematic theologian of today. Which is why the latest issue of IJST should be of interest. Sonderegger has written a review essay of God, Sexuality, and the Self. The review is almost purple with admiration and appreciation for Coakley’s work, but Sonderegger also gently asks some interesting methodological questions of théologie totale. Is there room in Coakley’s work for the creature to be a creature, Sonderegger wonders. “The method outlined here coordinates the infinite with the finite closely and essentially, such that the logical subject of all finite being could be just the infinite” (p. 96). Sonderegger wants to know precisely how Coakley moves so seamlessly from experience to divinity. Has a collapse occurred? Reading Coakley, one would suspect not, but I think the question remains: can théologie totale accomodate the questioning of whether experience should inform the doctrine of God, or is this very questioning discounted by the method itself? If we cannot ask these questions, can we speak of God as a se? Sonderegger is hoping for more clues in the next volume.

As much fun as it is to read a new systematics, it is even more fun to see two solar systems colliding. I wouldn't mind more Sonderegger in Coakley's analytical and experience-driven theology. But at the same time I wouldn't mind seeing more Coakley in Sonderegger's abstracting prayerful theology. I look forward to discovering what collisions occur in their future volumes.

Monday, 25 January 2016

#realacademicbios with David Hume

There’s a hashtag trending on Twitter right now of #realacademicbios. It’s pretty cynical and a bit too whiny for my tastes, but some of them are funny. The idea is to come up with an honest and realistic academic bio instead of the usual thing. For example:
It reminds me of David Hume’s short autobiography written a few months before his death in 1776. He sent the piece, titled “My Own Life,” to his friend Adam Smith. His health was deteriorating rapidly and he wanted the bio to be added as a preface to the next (posthumous) edition of his collected works.

The two main threads of Hume’s narrative are (1) his efforts to earn enough money, and (2) his difficulties in achieving much success as a writer.

Like any modern academic, Hume documents the publication of each of his books. But instead of telling us how important his books were, he tells us how badly they sold and how little attention they commanded from other scholars. His first book, the Treatise of Human Nature, “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” So he tried again, with the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, which “was at first little more successful.” His collected essays performed better, especially when they were lucky enough to be attacked in the press by “Answers by Reverends, and Right Reverends.”

When Hume published his next major work, the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, he was convinced that it was by far his best book. Yet “it came unnoticed and unobserved into the world.” Later he began his huge multi-volume History of England, feeling that now at last he would achieve literary glory and a solid income. But the first volume was greeted with momentary hostility followed by indifference. Hume’s London bookseller “told me, that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five copies of it.”

Still, by the time of his fiftieth birthday his books were bringing in enough income that Hume could live independently. That was his only aim in life, to be able to retire to the quiet and independent life of a writer. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he didn’t want to be indebted to powerful patrons or to generous friends. He worked variously as a tutor, a military secretary, a secretary to an embassy, and a librarian (the latter job was unpaid but gave him access to a lot of books). He lived very frugally and saved as much as he could. He tells us with joy that, after his years in the military, he had saved up “near a thousand pounds,” and that in his last years he was earning a thousand pounds a year – enough money at last for a life of philosophical ease, though no sooner had he begun to enjoy that life than he was struck down by cancer of the bowels, and died.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The love of apatheia

What if passion is an impediment to love? When studying the early church, students seem to find no idea as foreign to their own context as the counsel to put aside the passions. Sentiment, after all, is the only universal we have left. Having banished truth and beauty to the realm of the relative, the only appeal to a common humanity left to us is a single finger gesturing to the heart. Can we moderns say with the desert monastics that passion is demonic?

In the City of God, Augustine searches out the misery of the demons. The word daemon refers to "knowing", but theirs is not a dispassionate knowledge or a cold reason. What makes the demons miserable is that they are essentially all knowledge and all passion. Yet, one thing they lack. Citing 1 Corinthians 8:1, Augustine reasons with Paul to say that "knowledge is of no benefit without love. Without love... [knowledge] swells people up with a pride that is nothing but empty windiness." Bereft of love, the demons become the rage that is perfect knowledge united with frustrated passion. Demons are beings of knowledge unconditioned by love.

For Augustine, passions are sanctified by the godly mind, to be "instruments of justice... The question is not whether the godly mind is angered, but why; not whether it is saddened, but why." The passions are rightly utilised to the extent that they empower compassion. 

So we might ask: can apatheia enable love? Does the denial of passion open the door to compassion? Frances Young reflects on this question with reference to caring for her son, Arthur, who was born with a severe learning disability. For Young, Apatheia is not mere emotional suppression. “Apatheia, which Evagrius believes is never actually attained in this life, should be understood as ‘emotional integration’, or that detachment which is essential to true love” (God's Presence, 292). Not only does apatheia enable love, it reveals the true character of love to us:

“Sometimes what passes for love is really self-centred anxiety, as I have realized when time and again distressed by Arthur’s distress, finding it hard to cope when he is unsettled, unwell, or in pain, cannot express what is wrong, and the more we try to sort the problem the more frantic and furious he gets, hating to be handled, not understanding that we’re trying to deal with his discomfort. Frustration mounts, creating its own distress and anger, which hardly helps his—in fact, compounds it. Too easily inner demons of self-pity, a sense of failure, inadequacy and helplessness take over. So I recognize that I really need apatheia in order to love properly. Love requires a degree of detachment, an ability to let the other person be, to be ‘other’, to be what they are rather than what you want them to be.” (292-293).

The practice of apatheia might just be a way of laying down our lives for the sake of another.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Another thing about Wheaton: do Christians and Jews worship the same God?

Larycia Hawkins is losing her job at Wheaton over her claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Bruce McCormack has written a terrific piece on the controversy. He sketches out what he takes to be the strongest argument for each view. To summarise:
Not the Same God
The strongest case that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God is, McCormack says, a Barthian trinitarian argument. God’s identity is essentially triune. This means God cannot be identified by any non-trinitarian monotheism. To believe simply in “one God” is not a precursor to belief in God. God’s oneness is triune and can be known in no other way.

The Same God
But he suggests that the strongest counter-argument is connected to the slow historical development of the doctrine of the trinity. Christianity began as a branch of Jewish monotheism. It took some time for Christianity to develop into a full-blown distinctive religion, and centuries longer for Christians to articulate a coherent and clearly defined doctrine of the trinity.
McCormack’s point is that the second view is the main classic Christian view. It is the first view, that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God, that requires novel metaphysical arguments. So the burden of proof is not with Larycia Hawkins but with the college administrators who are taking steps to fire her on theological grounds.

Another implication of this debate is that arguments about Islam tend to have implications for how Christians think about Judaism. If one argues that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God, it can quickly become tricky to justify how Jewish monotheism can be viewed as a true religion, or as a right response to divine revelation.

You can see this problem in the earliest Christian writings on Islam. From the 8th century on, Christian teachers tried to account for the new dominant religion and for the changed situation of Christians in an Arab world. The questions whether Islam is a true religion, and whether Muslims have a true knowledge of God, seem to have been answered in two main ways:

Not the Same God: John of Damascus (c. 675–749)
The Arabic-speaking monastic teacher John of Damascus advanced the strongest and most uncompromising argument that Christians and Muslims do not know the same God. In a catalogue of a hundred heresies, John includes an extended discussion of “the heresy of the Ishmaelites.” He says that the Arab people were pagan idolaters before a false prophet came to them and brought them a bad and superstitious form of monotheism: they exchanged one false religion for another. He accuses Muhammad of inventing his prophecies based on a synthesis of the Old and New Testaments and of Arian teaching. Thus John sees Muslims as followers of a derivative heresy. He ridicules their scriptures, maligns the morality of their prophet, and calls them “mutilators of God” and “forerunners of the Antichrist” (On Heresies 101).

What’s interesting though is that John has, if anything, an even more damning assessment of Judaism. He presents Judaism not merely as one heresy among others but as one of the “archetypes” of heresy from which the others derive. He doesn’t present the religion of Israel as a precursor to the gospel but as an error that the gospel has abolished. The three other archetypal heresies are “barbarism” (where people live according to the state of nature), “Scythianism” (the religious cult of primitive social orders), and “Hellenism” (the more sophisticated polytheism of the Greek world). This makes it clear that John is using the word “heresies” not only in the strict sense of deviations from Christian teaching. He lumps together as “heretical” all false religions and all distortions of Christianity. He seems to see Islam as a synthesis between a false monotheism (Judaism) and a false form of Christianity (Arianism).

At any rate, Judaism and Islam are closely connected in John’s denunciation. For him, monotheism as such has no claim to truth.

Later Christians in the Arab world sometimes reiterated this view. The Arabic-speaking theologian Theodore Abu Qurra (early 9th century) lumps Judaism and Islam together as false monotheisms. At the end of his treatise, after developing arguments that clearly condemn Judaism along with Islam, he anticipates the question whether Judaism is completely false. His answer is very telling. Yes, he says, Christians would regard Judaism as a false religion, except that Christ affirms Moses as a true prophet. Solely on the basis of Christ’s authority, therefore, Christians accept the truth of the Jewish religion.
“If not for the Gospel, we would not believe that Moses is from God. Indeed, on the basis of reason, we would reject him most earnestly” (The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 88). 
Theodore’s strategy is to condemn all non-Christian monotheisms, but then to give Judaism a last-minute exemption by divine fiat, thus leaving Islam alone as the only false monotheism. The close connection between Judaism and Islam is clear: that is why, once he has condemned Islam, Theodore cannot think of any way to rescue Judaism except by arbitrary fiat.

The Same God: Paul of Antioch (12th century)
A very different view is put forward by the monastic writer Paul of Antioch in his Letter to a Muslim Friend. Writing in Arabic, Paul addresses the Muslim as his “dear friend and genuine brother.” He explores the question whether Christians ought to convert to Islam. His argument is that Muhammad was a prophet to the pagan people of the Arab world, not to Christians. The Jews and Christians had already received divine revelation, but God had never previously sent a messenger to the Arab people. They were completely in the dark before the time of Muhammad.
“We [Christians] are not bound to follow him [Muhammad], because messengers had already come to us before him, addressing us in our own languages. They warned us and they handed over to us the Torah and the Gospel in our own vernacular languages. It is clear from the Qur’an that he [Muhammad] was sent only to the pagan Arabs” (The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 221). 
All the warnings and admonitions in the Qur’an should be understood to apply exclusively to the Arab people. Through the prophecies of Muhammad, the Arabs were delivered from pagan gods and were set on a path towards the true God. 

So while John of Damascus had condemned Islam and Judaism together, Paul of Antioch sets Christianity and Judaism together in order to protect both from Islam's claim to superiority. Later in the same letter, he presents Judaism and Christianity as the two types of true religion. Judaism is the archetypal religion of justice, based on God’s self-revelation as the God of justice, and Christianity is the archetypal religion of mercy based on God’s self-revelation as the merciful one.

Based on this schema, Paul can now advance a (relatively gentle) criticism of Islam. He observes that, after the Jewish and Christian revelation, there is nothing more to be known of God: what more could be added to the revelation of the one God as just and merciful? For that reason, “no further [religion] remains to be instituted consequent upon this perfection”, i.e., the perfection of the two true religions as a single harmonious revelation of the one God. Any subsequent religion could not possibly improve on this twofold revelation of justice and mercy. At best it could only be a derivative religion – “and the derivative is a kind of grace for which there is no need” (The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 233).

Even here, Paul's point is not that Islam is false. As a “derivative” of the truth, Islam may be (and, in his view, has been) a means of revelation and a powerful force for good in the Arab world. But for Christians and Jews, conversion to Islam would be irrelevant since their own religions are already closer to the source.

So, back to the Wheaton Question: do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? However you answer will have implications for how you answer a more basic (and, theologically, more important) question, whether Jews and Christians worship the same God, i.e., whether the God of Jewish monotheism is the same as the one God revealed in Christ.

Friday, 1 January 2016

The greatest literary characters and how they work

“The choice of the point of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions” (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, 26).
If you asked me who are the four greatest characters in literature, I would say Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, Boswell’s Johnson, and Don Quixote. The first three all conform to a particular literary type. Let us call it the Revered Friend type. The characteristics of the Revered Friend are as follows:
  • he has some particular genius that sets him apart from the common stock;
  • he has a circle of admiring friends who enjoy his genius;
  • he is depicted in third-person narrative by one of these admiring friends;
  • his character is conveyed mostly through dialogue, i.e., through his own speech and his interactions with other speakers.
The distancing effect of third-person narration is absolutely critical to this character type. The reader is drawn into the character’s inner circle and quickly achieves a friendly rapport with the character. That is the effect of a third-person friendly narrator. But because the narrator also reveres the character, the reader is never allowed to get too close. In most of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ own opinions remain elusive; we hear him questioning others, but we never quite find out what he thinks about it all. In the Gospels, we are drawn into Jesus’ inner circle but we are also kept at a reverential distance. We are reminded that his identity is enigmatic, that his teaching is hard to understand, that he is liable to be misunderstood by the world and betrayed or abandoned by his inner circle.

Again, the reader of the life of Dr Johnson shares Boswell’s friendly point of view, yet the reader also shares Boswell’s awe. We are not allowed to get too close. The third-person narration helps to keep us at the correct distance from the character. In one famous scene, Boswell reminds us that there are parts of Johnson’s character that must remain forever hidden from our view. Johnson’s friends at the dining club have often observed his habit of squeezing oranges into his drink and then stuffing the orange peels into his jacket pockets. In Johnson’s room one day, Boswell sees a pile of orange peels from the night before, all scraped clean and arranged on the table. He plucks up the courage to ask Johnson about it:
Johnson: “I have a great love for them.”
Boswell: “And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?”
Johnson: “I let them dry, Sir.”
Boswell: “And what next?”
Johnson: “Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.”
Boswell: “Then the world must be left in the dark.”
In a scene like this the reader is drawn into an extraordinary friendly intimacy with the great man: we are in his room; we are observing the subtlest eccentricities of his character; we are hearing him talk about the things he loves (in this case, orange peels). But at the same time we are kept at a reverential distance. The narrator leads us to the brink of revelation, only to conceal the very thing we long to know (in this case, the meaning of the orange peels).

It is the same technique, a hundred times over, in Plato and the Gospels. We are constantly oscillating between the beautiful and the sublime (to use Edmund Burke’s categories), between intimate friendship and astonished awe.

This technique is possible only in third-person narration. Would Socrates have been the greatest philosopher in the world if he had written books? If, instead of the memoirs of the evangelists, we had received a first-person Memoir of the Messiah, would anybody ever have become a Christian? You might love and admire an autobiographer, but you will never end by putting down the book and confessing him Lord. Only a third-person narrative can induce a response of that magnitude. Only a third-person narrator can depict both the beauty and the sublimity of a great personality, so that the reader becomes simultaneously friend and worshipper.

I have mentioned that I think Don Quixote is the only other character who can be set alongside Socrates and Jesus and Dr Johnson. Though Don Quixote does not conform so neatly to the type of the Revered Friend, Cervantes uses some of the same techniques in a comical and ironic way. The narrator is portrayed as a historian and a researcher, rather than as a personal friend of his subject: on the first page he admits that he doesn’t even know Don Quixote’s real name. Yet through the process of telling the story of this delusional knight, the narrator increasingly comes to adopt the perspective of an admiring friend. He loves Don Quixote and regards him as a kind of moral genius, even while regularly reminding the reader that the character is quite mad.

Sancho Panza, the faithful friend and squire of Don Quixote, provides another point of view on the main character. He supplies much of the book’s comedy by the way he adopts the role of an admiring friend in spite of his amply justified scepticism about Don Quixote’s claims.
“What’s the gentleman’s name?” asked the maid.
“Don Quixote de la Mancha,” replied Sancho Panza. “He’s a knight errant. One of the best and bravest the world has seen for a very long time.”
“What’s a knight errant?” asked the maid.
“Are you so green that you don’t know that?” replied Sancho. “Then I’ll tell you, my girl, that a knight errant – to cut a long story short – is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next. Today he’s the most unfortunate and poverty-stricken creature in the world; tomorrow he’ll have two or three kingdoms to give to his squire.”
Modern fiction has also blessed us with some very memorable examples of the Revered Friend. Why does Sherlock Holmes have such a lasting power over our imagination? It is because we see him from Watson’s point of view. We are part of Holmes’ inner circle, and we observe his genius from an astonished distance.

The greatest fictional comedies of the past century, P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, use exactly the same technique. Jeeves is an omniscient butler who finds brilliant and unlikely ways to extricate his employer, Bertie Wooster, from various social crises.
“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don't know?”
“I couldn't say, sir.” 
The effect of Jeeves’ character depends entirely on the point of view of the narrative. We see Jeeves through Bertie Wooster’s eyes. We seldom know exactly what he is thinking. Even when it comes to matters closest to Jeeves’ heart – the colour of a tie, the selection of a pair of trousers – we are left to infer his opinions from what he does not say. Jeeves is the central actor in every plot, yet we rarely see him doing anything directly. He is a shimmering, mysterious presence, a kind of puppeteer who orchestrates events behind the scenes. His effect on the reader would be impossible if the stories were narrated from Jeeves’ point of view, or if the narrator did not take pains to hold Jeeves at the proper distance so that we never get too close to him.

Some very fine novelists have aspired to portray personalities of genius but have failed because of an imperfect mastery of the Revered Friend technique. One of the few criticisms that I could make of the Harry Potter novels is that they fail to convince the reader of the story's main premise, namely that Harry is a magical genius. All the characters, and especially the villains, keep assuring us of Harry’s genius; every plot hinges on this fact; but the reader is too close to Harry, and too closely shares his point of view, to feel that he is an exceptional person. To keep the story moving along, we are quite willing to believe in Harry’s genius – but we never come to feel it the way we feel that Sherlock Holmes is a genius of observation and inductive reasoning. It might have been quite different, and Harry Potter might have been a great character, if only the narrator had shared Ron’s or Hermione’s point of view instead of Harry’s. Indeed it is no coincidence that one comes away from the novels with the impression that Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore are the richest personalities. They are more interesting characters simply because we see them from Harry’s point of view. They are more lifelike because we see them from the proper distance.

I may be wrong, but I can’t help wondering whether Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels might also have been better if the author had made better use of the Revered Friend technique. Each of the two women, Elena (the narrator) and Lila, regards the other as a “brilliant friend.” But again I found myself having to believe this since the novels never quite manage to show it. The problem, as I see it, is that the narrator is too self-absorbed to depict Lila objectively. Lila is meant to be a deep and intriguing personality, but for the most part she comes across as a function of Elena’s ego. Elena’s life is defined by her obsession with her friend. She gazes relentlessly at Lila, but somehow her gaze is so intensely self-interested that we never get enough objectivity, enough distance, to see Lila properly and so to appreciate what it is that Elena finds so impressive about her.

Perhaps that is no criticism at all, given that Elena’s obsession with Lila is what the novels are all about. But, in fiction, obsession can be depicted in ways that render the object of obsession large and magnificent. Just think of Moby-Dick, and of how the reader comes to share in Ishmael’s enormous fascination with whales and whaling. Ishmael is one of the largest egos in literature, yet we learn far more about whales than we do about him – precisely because his ego is defined by its obsession with whales.

As much as I enjoyed the Neapolitan Novels, my complaint is that the narrator is too much like Ahab and not enough like Ishmael. Ahab's is a narrow and suffocating egotism that leaves no room for anything else, while Ishmael's is an expansive egotism that makes room for everything else, though always on its own terms and within its own peculiar frame of reference.

Or to return to an earlier example, I would have liked the Neapolitan Novels better if Lila had kept orange peels in her pockets and Elena had never quite understood why. But, as it stands, the Elena of the Neapolitan Novels would never even have wondered about the orange peels. She would merely have turned it into a contest by accumulating her own (even bigger) collection of orange peels. Our interest in Lila is deflected; we are left staring into the pockets of Elena.


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