a few words

Month: December, 2009

2009 pages turned :: this year’s books

Here are the books that I read cover-to-cover over the course of the last year (articles and books of which I read only a portion are not included). They are loosely arranged by categories, many of which are likely an ill-fit. I’ve bolded the book in each category that I found most helpful/insightful/intriguing. In a couple of the larger categories, I’ve also put my least favorite book in brown text. It was a very light year for fiction and poetry, something which I’d like to improve on in 2010.

I’d be happy to converse or offer comments on any of the books below, but I’m not going to spend the time to leave thoughts on all of them generally.

Theology:

Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, 133.

Christine Schliesser, Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Accepting Guilt, 220.

Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, 325.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 400 (s).

Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, 405.

Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol II, 230.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 358.

George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 142.

John E. Theil, Nonfoundationalism, 123.

Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 360.

Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, 160.

Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender, 170.

David Balás, Metousia Theou: Man’s Participation in God’s Perfections According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, 187.

Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 105.

Gregory of Nyssa, De Hominis Opificio, 42.

Denis Edwards, Breath of God: A Theology of the Creator Spirit, 213.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa, 195.

Kirsteen Kim, The Holy Spirit in the World: A Global Conversation, 208.

Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium II, 150.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord I: Seeing the Form, 691

Adam Kotsko, Zizek and Theology, 174

Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, 311.

Augustine, De Trinitate, 470.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith (Part 1), 259.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith (Part 2), 249.

Karl Rahner, The Trinity, 120.

Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter, 400.

Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 110.

Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is, 316.

Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary of the Song of Songs, 287.

Philosophy:

Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 110.

Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 111.

Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 192.

Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute:—or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, 182.

Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, 185.

Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, 170.

Jacques Derrida, The Animal that therefore I am, 176.

History:

Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse, 250.

Robert Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 258.

Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children Since the Thirteenth Century, 179 (s).

Christine Petra Sellin, Fractured Families and Rebel Maidservants: The Biblical Hagar in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Literature, 189.

Ancient/Medieval texts:

Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, 100.

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin of Tours, 30.

Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 60.

Eunomius of Cyzicus, Liber Apologeticus, 30.

Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 30.

Plato, Phaedrus, 50.

Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses, 93.

The Life of Adam and Eve/The Apocalypse of Moses, 40.

Biblical Studies:

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: His Story, 255.

E.P. Sanders, Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People, 225.

N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 200.

Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah, 262.

Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, 370.

Antoinette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets, 316 (s).

Neil Elliot, The Arrogance of Nations, 223.

Gary A. Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination, 250.

André LaCocque, Onslaught against Innocence, 177.

Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature, 277.

Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, 154.

Ethics:

Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 305 (s).

Biography/Memoir:

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, 162.

Fiction:

C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, 213.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 150.

Thomas Pynchon, V., 492.

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, 121.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise, 70.

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Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Read the rest of this entry »

Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). Read the rest of this entry »

ends and odds

I’ve tweaked a few tweaks and found a few more ways for folks to connect to the few words that appear here from time to time:

1. If you’d like to receive posts via email, you can feed your address to a new little box in the sidebar (down at the bottom) and any new post will be delivered to your inbox within fifteen minutes (or it’s free!). Sorry no dipping sauce for the crusty bits.

2. If you are a facebookee, you can follow the blog via facebook and see new posts as news events within your regular feeds. Sign up here. While you are there, I’m apparently three people one person shy of being “confirmed” as the disreputable author of this blog (whatever that accomplishes). Most days I’m still fairly certain that I am indeed Eric Daryl Meyer, if you agree, there’s a button for you to express such opinions.

3. I’ve recently joined Twitter, you can find me there as: ericdaryl

While we’re at it, here are a few posts (of varying freshness) that I’ve recently found insightful, illuminating, or entertaining:

Brad flushes out more rats than he knows what to do with.

R.O. analyzes his lack of enthusiasm.

Craig parses some differences within Critical Animal Studies

on gender and God :: Gregory of Nyssa

“No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, mother is mentioned in place of ‘father’ (Song 3:11). Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in the divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either? But we all shall become one in Christ, we will be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man). Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled nature is contaminated by neither female nor male….Hence the Song says that a crown is placed upon the bridegroom by his mother. Since the nuptials and bride are one, one mother places the crown upon the bridegroom’s head.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.

image and likeness in Saint Basil and the ecology of the soul

It is commonplace among early Christian writers to distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity (rooted in Genesis 1:27), though the distinction made theologically significant in various ways. While his younger brother Gregory rejects the distinction, Basil of Caesarea employs it with some regularity. This passage caught my eye today:

“Now, he has made us with the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly, lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to be to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.” [1]

In what precedes this excerpt, Basil has been quite clear that human beings exist according to the image of God as a function of their rationality—primarily expressed in ruling over the animals. As Basil continues, it becomes evident that to craft one’s life according to the likeness of God is to adopt the Pauline clothing metaphor and “put on” Christ as a garment.

At this point I wonder if there is some tension between the image and likeness, wherein the likeness of God (paradigmatically visible in the life of Jesus) actually begins to shape and determine the image (practical reason in its ruling function) in such a way as to introduce a kenotic humility and attitude of service into its exercise. This reading is at odds with Basil, but perhaps not so much as to contradict his broader intentions.

Reading this way recognizes a certain tension between the archetypical Image of God in Christ (who in the course of Basil’s homily primarily appears as the almighty Pantocrator) and the likeness of God which human beings are to “put on” perfecting their own kindness, charity, and virtue in emulation of Jesus. Secretly, and against the grain, I see the life of Jesus breaking into Basil’s text at this point, opening up fissures in his thoroughly confident notion of the power of reason (Logos in the Greek, of course) through which trickles of living water pour.

This kind of “crafting” would also temper the spirituality which Basil enjoins upon his hearers. Basil moves very quickly from the rule that human beings exercise over the animals to the analogous rule that human beings are to exercise over their own irrational passions and vices. Both animals and passions are subdued by reason. Most of Basil’s examples of reason exercising dominion over animals, however, are instances where human beings kill, cage, or domesticate by force. As a model for spiritual discipline (not to mention as a model for relating to animals generally), this is perhaps somewhat lacking. Attempting to eradicate one’s passions and vices by clubbing, spearing, and caging them is often an exercise in repression—one that ends in futility and frustration. The Pantocrator model of spirituality presumes unrealistic control on the part of a the subject by presuming that passions can actually be bludgeoned into submission.

Better, perhaps, is the spirituality whereby the passions are tamed by giving them a distance, recognizing their power but neither capitulating to them nor seeking to slaughter them on the spot. The sort of charity that Jesus showed to sinners in caring for their immediate needs without condoning their sin or joining in it provides a better model for confronting the disreputable elements within my own character.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 44.

the demise of a doctrine? :: Weinandy and Tilley

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

–G.K. Chesterton

While this quip from Chesterton may not quite capture the contours of the conversation, may it at least bring a touch of humor to an unfortunately acrid encounter between Terry Tilley and Thomas Weinandy.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation (and care to acquaint themselves further): Tilley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, chairs the department where I am a student) delivered the presidential address at the CTSA this summer on three Christological impasses. Weinandy responded, pointing to what he regarded as superficial, fallacious, and theologically dangerous elements in that address. This article subsequently sensationalized the conflict. Tilley gave a short reply, to which Weinandy added a full stop. I, on the other hand, learned about the whole mess from a fellow student.

Being neither Roman Catholic nor a member of the CTSA, I am an outsider to this conversation in many regards; but I am also, perhaps, uniquely prepared to comment on it, having taken a course on Christology from Tilley and worked carefully through several of Weinandy’s texts on the same subject. Furthermore, this conflict raises questions about the nature of the theological task and the relation of contemporary theologians to a normative tradition (and about the nature of theological normativity itself). I hope to comment on the larger issues afoot in this conversation without getting too far embroiled in the ecclesial politics surrounding them.

Weinandy’s reading of Tilley’s address is not charitable; that much is hard to dispute. Weinandy’s reading is best explained by a perception (perhaps a fear?) that Tilley’s address is indicative of a larger glacial shift, one that remains largely unspoken in the address itself, but which nevertheless represents the slow drift of academic theology into vapid conformity with an anti-ecclesial culture. Weinandy’s concerns about “relativism” and “style” certainly sound this note (though I should add, having been graded by Tilley, I can personally attest that his Christological relativism is not absolute!). To my mind, the most prescient question is less whether Weinandy responded to Tilley’s address with sufficient care and charity, (I am convinced that he did not) but whether this larger perception/fear is justifiable and whether it is justifiably applied to Tilley, or whether it is altogether misplaced.

So, where precisely is the disagreement?

Weinandy and Tilley agree in speaking about the task of theology in terms of clarifying or illuminating the mysteries of faith, taking care not to misrepresent or prematurely resolve those mysteries. Yet, Weinandy accuses Tilley of a determination to explain away the mysteries of faith in the kind of resolution of paradox that has historically marked heretical movements. And in his defense of the CDF, Tilley likely sees Weinandy upholding an unhealthily narrow fixation on particular terminology, a cathexis that distorts the concepts originally communicated by that terminology—to the detriment of the faith. In other words, both see each other defending a position that would lead to the collapse of the mysteries of faith, putting the task of theology at risk either in the stalemate of a dogged dogmatic insistence on the sufficiency of fifth-century terminology or in capitulation to a contemporary rationalistic historicism averse to any advent of the supernatural (such as the Incarnation).

So, it would seem that Tilley and Weinandy agree about the task of theology, but differ substantially on how to carry out this task. Weinandy, the historical theologian, would have us accept the dogmatic formulations of conciliar history, and then illuminate these formulae by filling out their meaning through distinctions, elaborations, and elucidations that maintain the absolute integrity of the verbal formulae used. The theologian is to explain the Christological formula of Chalcedon, for example, from the inside taking the propositional content of the formula as a foundation. The tradition’s normativity for Weinandy is largely propositional (though, I think that for Weinandy this normativity includes the cultural-intellectual framework where those propositions arose, i.e. the Christian-Platonic synthesis).

Tilley, the constructive theologian, would have us labor at some length to understand Scripture and the negotiated settlements of the conciliar tradition, and then to communicate the living truth of the tradition in the terms that best make that truth present in the contemporary situation. The theologian is to work in radical continuity with the tradition precisely by extending the tradition into the present. The tradition’s normativity for Tilley, then, is largely conceptual, and thus to a degree, not susceptible to containment within a single static vocabulary, as essential as a given vocabulary (say, Chalcedon) may remain for coming to grips with the concepts of the tradition. Tilley himself insists on expressing this in terms of a normativity of practice (in opposition to a purely intellectual conceptual normativity), but I think that the broader approach of which Tilley is representative is marked by this concern for conceptual fidelity.

Weinandy, then, either thinks that conceptual continuity is not sufficient to authentically practice theology (as distinct from propositional continuity), or thinks that Tilley’s particular conceptual development of the tradition breaks continuity and fails to measure up to the norm of the tradition. The latter charge would require a substantial engagement with Tilley’s published work, and frankly, such an engagement will fail to produce anything approaching the adoptionism/arianism that Weinandy alleges. The former, I think, requires a more extended argument than Weinandy is able to provide in his short article. Such an argument would also entail invalidating an enormous swath of contemporary theology, from Rahner to Pannenberg and beyond, figures deeply concerned to think faithfully in categories and conversations not available to early Christian writers.

Tilley is not arguing, as Weinandy suggests, that he has a monopoly on the original meaning of the terms of the Chalcedonian definition, nor that they are irretrievably lost in the abyss of history. Rather, he is arguing that it takes long, arduous work (the very sort of work that Weinandy does quite well) to inhabit the tradition sufficiently so that one can follow the contours of complex ancient conversations, and that employing the same language cannot guarantee that the same concepts are communicated. It is truly perverse for Weinandy to argue simultaneously that the plain meaning of Chalcedon is accessible to any intelligent person who reads the text with a degree of care and that Tilley has not (after a career of research) adequately grasped the Chalcedon definition. Nowhere does Tilley repudiate Chalcedon, nor call it a “total failure.” If Tilley’s recent book on Christology does not take Chalcedon as the starting point, it’s not because he’s abandoned the Incarnation of the Logos, but rather because he is tracing out the trajectory of other biblical christologies (particularly in the synoptics) that were instrumental in arriving at the convictions formulated in the creeds, but nevertheless underrepresented therein. The Disciples’ Jesus is, quite literally, a discursive effort at retracing the steps of the earliest Christological confessions, confessions that were rooted in and sustained by the practices of the communities that forged them.

Tilley’s presidential address is not sufficiently clear in articulating his conviction that the variety of christological traditions in the New Testament are not contradictory (a view that Weinandy unfairly imputes to him), but complementary in their diversity. There is more to the mysterious life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ than a single narrative trajectory can possibly contain. While Chalcedon provides a helpful hermeneutic to the New Testament, the compositional statement about two natures and a person cannot supplant the range of views of Jesus Christ that are contained in the New Testament and early Christian traditions.

To conclude, is Weinandy’s perception of an anti-ecclesial drift in the culture of academic theology justified? Perhaps, but this drift is no recent phenomenon, and it is a matter of certain conversations and movements, not a ubiquitous tipping of the theological playing field so that the academy becomes a slippery slope. Can the perception of this drift justifiably be applied to Terry Tilley in the public excoriation that he received from the pen of Thomas Weinandy? Not in the least. Weinandy needs to pick a new figurehead for the movement leading to the “Demise of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.”

a false negative in Luther’s 95 theses

Preparing to lecture on Luther’s 95 theses to a hapless bunch of sophomores, I found several of the theses more impenetrable than I’d remembered. My suspicion that it might have something to do with the translation I was reading out of was confirmed pretty quickly when I dug up the German text. Number 89 is particularly awful; does this sound like Luther?:

“What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he not suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?”

Somehow the translator managed to slip the negation (in bold print) into a sentence where it is totally lacking in German, rendering the English sentence pretty much incomprehensible—at least historically. Here’s the German:

“Wieso sucht der Papst durch den Ablaß das Heil der Seelen mehr als das Geld; warum hebt er früher gewährte Briefe und Ablässe jetzt auf, die doch ebenso wirksam sind?”

Some of the other errors are equally egregious, and this is a fairly standard collection of Luther’s writings (Martin Luther: A Selection of His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger). How does this happen? And why is a translation this bad still being anthologized?