a few words

Month: May, 2008

Athanasius :: God’s sensuous presence

“Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Saviour of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.” 

Readers should, of course, take the gender-bound language in an inclusive sense. This quote seemed especially fitting in light of this recent discussion.


Athanasius, On the Incarnation rev. ed, trans. by a Religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 43. 


David Bentley Hart :: Nietzsche and the Market

In a book that I’ve enjoyed immensely, I came across what is likely the most ingenious footnote I’ve ever read. Hart is in the midst of an argument connecting the postmodern deconstructionist philosophers and the logic of capitalism, arguing that both reinforce the absolute freedom of choice for selves increasingly isolated and punctual. According to both, no power may be allowed to dominate the public space in such a way that choices are determined for the others—every identity is held in check by the inviolable “other-ness” of every other; thus, every self must be given the space to choose between all the possible identities available (all of them bound in place side by side as equivalent products on the shelf, each with a different wrapper). As Hart was dealing with Nietzsche in particular, he offered the footnote that delighted me at the tail end of this sentence: 

Nietzsche, however much he detested bourgeois values, perhaps knew not which god he served.

And here is the note itself: 

Nietzsche’s avowed god, Dionysus, is of course an endlessly protean and deceptive deity and a wearer of many masks. When he makes his unannounced appearance at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, as its secret protagonist, whose divine irony has occultly enlivened its pages, he exercises his uniquely divine gift, the numinous privilege of veiling and unveiling, concealment and manifestation; he is the patron deity, appropriately of the philosophical project of genealogy. But perhaps another veil remains to be lifted, and the god may be invited to step forth again, in his still more essential identity: Henry Ford. After all, Ford’s most concise and oracular pronouncement—“History is bunk!”—might be read as an exquisite condensation of the theme of the second of the Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (…). And there could scarcely be a more vibrant image of univocity’s perpetual beat of repetition—of eternal recurrence, the eternal return of the same—than the assembly line: difference here is certainly not analogical, but merely univocal, and the affirmation of one instance is an affirmation of the whole. It is moreover, well documented that Ford was a devotee of square dancing, which is clearly akin to (perhaps descended from) the dithyrambic choreia of the bacchantes; Ford was a god who danced. 

Hart’s argument is, of course, quite serious, but it is refreshing to see someone argue with such a wry smile visible between the lines. And one can hardly help but laugh at the picture of Nietzsche as the devotee of a square dancing magnate of the auto industry. 

David Bentley Hart,  The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 435. 


Robert Mugabe as “prophet of God”? :: Police break up Eucharist in Zimbabwe

Police in Zimbabwe have violently disrupted an Anglican communion service, according to the Int. Herald Tribune. A schismatic bishop loyal to Mugabe, (so loyal in fact that he seems to have confused Mugabe with King David, calling him a “prophet of God”) has apparently brought the thuggish machinery of the Zimbabwean state down upon the heads of the faithful. If the outline of this story is correct, this pseudo-bishop’s actions ought to be recognized as a heretical and brought before ecclesial authorities. Here are a few excerpt of the story above: 

Over the past three Sundays, the police have interrogated Anglican priests and lay leaders, arrested and beaten parishioners and locked thousands of worshipers out of dozens of churches. “As a theologian who has read a lot about the persecution of the early Christians, I’m really feeling connected to that history,” said Bishop Sebastian Bakare, 66, who came out of retirement to replace Kunonga. “We are being persecuted.” 

Despite a High Court order requiring that Anglican churches be shared, church officials say that only people who attend services led by priests allied with Kunonga have been allowed to pray in peace.

There are as many dissimilarities as connections, but having spent the fall with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I cannot help but see echoes of the Kirchenkampf–the struggle between the nationalist German Christian Movement and the Confessing Church. 

Pray for the church of Zimbabwe in the months ahead—especially the church facing violence for its recognition of the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Robert Mugabe. The unrest in that nation will only increase as the quasi-legitimate run-off election approaches (now set for the end of June) and Mugabe does his best to ensure that he’ll die at the helm of a bleeding country (rather than find himself alone in the disrepute he has justly earned for himself). The church can organize Zimbabwe’s people, hold them in solidarity, and call the government to account for its brutal mistreatment of human beings. Pray for the church to remain faithful to her one Lord and Savior, whose body is broken for the sake of those people bearing the sins of others on their own bodies. 

[5.17.08] Update: Here is a story from Christianity Today with more background on Kunonga,  H/T: Conger

varieties of secularism :: comments (3) Taylor as secularist

Series Index

This is the second part of a post that grew too big for its fishbowl (anyone remember Otto?). 

No doubt that Taylor can be read, and should be read in this way. In fact, the greatest payoff of Taylor’s work in my own thinking (and the reason that I turned to his work in the first place) lies along these lines. But A Secular Age is not straightforwardly apologetic, and in many ways the text actually works as a secularizing force upon its readers. The book does not call religious identity into question directly but in the expansive understanding of others that it encourages.

When I visited Duke a little over a year ago, J. Kameron Carter began a lecture by pinpointing modernity’s starting date: October 23, 1492. In large part, his argument for this assertion resonates with Taylor’s basic premises in A Secular Age. Carter argued that contact with a people whose history included no interaction with the Christian gospel (who couldn’t thereby easily be assimilated into the larger narrative as infidels who had rejected it) and the accompanying concept of isolable “race” functioned as an “other” whose very existence necessitated a reevaluation of European identity. Thinking “Christian-ness” and “white-ness” as realities clearly confined to a single continent (an “old world”) constituted them as only one option among others and undermined the universality of the narrative self-understanding within which Europeans lived (and placed their “oriental” neighbors).

Taylor argues that secularization is the story of a developing simultaneous plausibility of an increasing number of identities. Secularization is found where I can imagine myself residing within my city (without too much difficulty) as an atheist, as a Muslim, as a pagan. My contact with people who actually do inhabit these identities (and their contact with me as a Christian) helps me in some small part to understand the very different motivations, goals, and narrative boundaries of others, and subverts any inclination to explain those differences away as stupidity or wickedness. When I understand another person’s perspective by trying on his or her shoes, I inevitably see the explanatory power (and thereby, the fundamental plausibility) of another perspective from the inside. That society is more secular which has a larger number of plausible shoes to try on at any given time. Western secularization, then, is the effect of an increasing ability to see things another way. 

Now, Taylor’s project is a force advancing secularization insofar as it seeks to do just that—to see the explanatory power of other perspectives from the inside. As he provides us a window into the motivations of others (and encourages us to develop the same ability), he leads us into the oftentimes perplexing situation where we can interpret an event or a situation in two or three ways simultaneously. Or, as Pascal said of Christian faith in the upswing of modernity, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

A few days ago, I made it around to reading Wilfred McClay’s review of Taylor’s book in First Things (May 2008). He makes substantially the same point about the ambivalence of Taylor’s book. He says, “[Taylor’s] heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls ‘the Jamesean open space,’ a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at… the place ‘where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,’ and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem.” A bit further, he says, “One wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against.”

In the end, then, Taylor’s book does the church a great service by exposing and undermining the monolithic character of claims for secularization, but the church must go further than Taylor has been willing to go. Being faithful to the testimony of Jesus Christ’s good news certainly doesn’t preclude being able to see things from the perspective of another rationality (which is simply charity), but it does mean entrusting one’s whole heart and soul (“losing one’s life”) to the church’s historical claims about Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his unique relationship to the Father and Spirit. That commitment, in turn, means that the church must speak to those “others” whom it labors to understand in witness to the singularity of the Christian story, and do so by means of argument if necessary. 

varieties of secularism :: comments (2) Taylor as apologist

Series Index

There is a tension latent in Taylor’s work that becomes apparent when one attempts to situate his thought relative to secularization. Is A Secular Age advocating or critiquing secularity? Is reading A Secular Age likely to make a person more or less “secular?” No matter one’s inclination in reply to these questions, plainly the meticulous restraint of Taylor’s argument and his attentive and generous reading of every text mentioned will bear no facile, partisan answer. Taylor’s narratival argument cannot be flattened to platitude nor transformed into the endorsement of one simple trajectory. Secularization is the complex expression of a host of diverse forces before it is either “progress” or “disaster.” No one can inhabit faith naïvely in a secular age, nor can anyone credibly reduce religious belief to the persistence of delusion.

To be sure, the greatest part of Taylor’s project is to describe secularization with richly convincing detail; nevertheless, he is no disinterested party in the matter. Locating the poles of the tension in his argument will be instructive in expressing the value that I find in Taylor’s latest work.

In his paper, John Milbank argued that A Secular Age is a profoundly anti-sociological book that adds plausibility to faith by means of a profound historical and cultural apologetic. In his concluding comments, Taylor did not disagree with Milbank’s assessment, though he enumerated several ways in which his text is much more than simply an apologetic—for reasons I will discuss momentarily. Taylor’s text is only indirectly apologetic.

Taylor reserves his sharpest polemic comments for advocates of what he calls the “subtraction account.” He has little patience for those who see secularization as the stripping away of all the metaphysical dross that taints and obscures what is essentially human, some rational or natural core that underlies the confused visage of even religious people. And rightly so—positing secularization as the outcome of some inexorable progress (be it scientific, political, social, or economic) ignores the extent to which secularization is the expression of a whole network of contingent historical events and thought patterns, played out across large segments of society. When that context is left out of the picture, secularization conceals its own genealogy and purports an intimidating inevitability (by which its strongest proponents are especially seduced) that recasts religious allegiance as something parochial and antique.

Insofar as Taylor’s work exposes the clandestine sources of the secularizing impulses that reside within each of our minds, he tells a story that empowers believers to “see through” the forces that undermine faith. Secularization is the expression of cultural impulses—not the will of the Weltgeist. Genuine Christian faith (or any other form of religion) is no less inherently plausible than other culturally-bound expressions of the meaning and purpose of human life, including the convoluted and parasitic value system of reductive materialism. And insofar as many reductive modes of thinking remain—in one way or another—parasitic on religiously grounded worldviews for their ethical motivation, Taylor stands opposed to ideological secularism because it undermines the self-understandings that provide moral orientation and social coherence. On this level, Taylor’s project is a critique of secularization that deflates its pretensions of inevitability and thus, functions apologetically on behalf of believers. 

[This post outgrew its own britches, and thus, is continued in another installment]

muscular christianity re-visited

Several friends, both real and virtual, have offered posts lately on the muscular Christianity of Mark Driscoll, head pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church. I commend both posts to those who might be interested, particularly because their respective rhetorical tones balance one another well.

A muscular Christian I’ve yet to see Charles Kingsley’s name mentioned in either discussion, but he was the first figure I thought of when I heard about Driscoll’s campaign for a manlier church. In the middle of the Victorian era, at the height of the Oxford movement (whose most prominent figures are John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey), Kingsley lamented the “feminization” of the gospel. His sermons and his novels alike lambaste this weakness as something sub-Christian with invective that Driscoll seems to be at pains to emulate. In time, he came to be seen as the leader of a movement whose opponents offered it the epithet “muscular Christianity” (Kingsley himself preferred the slightly less-brutish adjective, “manly”). The movement spawned the strange conjunction of faith and patriotism that is the Boy Scout movement and the cultural ideology supporting the expansion of the British Empire.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on Kingsley for a course on gender and spiritual identity. One can hardly find a richer place or period for investigating this connection than Victorian England, which provides a fascinating mirror for thinking about both faith and gender in our own times (and shows how deeply a Victorian hangover affects our own culture). Here is a copy of that paper if anyone is interested in a bit more background or an interesting comparison with Driscoll’s brand of Christianity. From what I know of Driscoll, Kingsley may even come out looking pretty good in that comparison.

varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality”

Series Index

I’ll admit that it has taken me longer than I would have liked to get around to writing a summary of my thoughts about the conference (which was now a month ago!), but “late” and “never” are still two different categories.

The first thing that I’d like to offer comments on deals with the papers offered by many of the conference speakers. A common theme among many of the presenting scholars was a search for something along the lines of a “secular spirituality,” though the shape of that quest was portrayed diversely by those considering it a worthwhile goal.

Simon During described in great detail a particular moment in which a novel’s main character finds an ordinary street corner, on an otherwise drab afternoon, to be suddenly and spectacularly remarkable. He refrains from attaching any meaning to the conjunction of cement, pavement, tufts of grass in the cracks, and sunshine, but nonetheless finds the sheer existence of such a scene, its “here-ness,” to be an uplifting and motivating experience. The unlikeliness of the whole thing coming together in just this way is cause for something like reverence—but it is a reverence entirely bound within the scene itself. During calls this a moment of “mundanity” and he speaks of the “mundane” as something which exists outside both the religious and the secular.
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