a few words

Month: January, 2010

That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!

Among the many unsung benefits of entering the discipline of theology is the opportunity to ponder brilliant thoughts from some of the most erudite minds and sensitive spirits of history. Another unsung benefit is getting to read the bizarre nonsense that some of the same erudite minds slough off  along the way.

Along the lines of Stephen Colbert’s occasional segments by the same title, I thought I’d offer two quotes (with commentary) that made me say, “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

Paul Tillich:

“The concreteness of man’s ultimate concern drives him toward polytheistic structures; the reaction of the absolute element against these drives him toward monotheistic structures; and the need for a balance between the concrete and the absolute drives him toward trinitarian structures.” [1]

A Tillich-inspired Recipe:

  1. Take your ultimate concern.
  2. Average the concreteness of your ultimate concern with the absolute element also found therein.
  3. Remove the polytheistic and monotheistic by-products.
  4. Voila! A Trinitarian drive!
  5. Drop the trinitarian drive in your Volvo, and not only will your gas milage dramatically improve, but the circumincessio occuring in your engine is now totally self-lubricating!

Friedrich Schleiermacher:

“Thus, in fact, people become all the more indifferent to the church the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves from it proudly and coldly. Nothing can in fact be clearer than that seekers of religion are in this association [i.e. the church] only because they have no religion; they persevere in it only so long as they have none.” [2]

Indeed, one excellent measure for just how much true religion a person might have would be the degree of coldness and pride with which that person passes by any religious establishment. People with a wholehearted dedication to the church are clearly (nay, most clearly) the most muddleheaded irreligious shams you could ever encounter!


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 221.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

reading groups in the sanctorum communio :: Grenz on Tillich

A few years ago, Stan Grenz passed away, and for reasons which remain unknown to me large portions of his theological and philosophical library was put up for sale in the Regent College library. Most of his books were sold for a dollar or two; I remember picking up his copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind for 75¢. I picked up as many of these volumes as I could, partly because of my respect for Grenz, partly because he had a damn fine theological library.

This week, reading Grenz’s copy of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology (a first edition hard-cover from 1951), I was treated to the joy of reading along with Grenz. I never had the chance to meet him in person, but I think I’ve gotten to know him a little bit by reading Tillich in his footsteps.

His underlining is sparse but very even-handed (he almost certainly used a straightedge), and his marginal notes are even more rare. He captures the key passages with a marginal bracket around the text, and seems to be, so far as I can tell, a very careful reader.  Strikingly, he never once expressed disagreement with Tillich through his notation, though there were plenty of passages that Grenz surely found objectionable. Of course I found myself spending a little extra time mulling over passages which he emphasized, looking for some meaning that I’d missed on my first pass.

He never intended it, but he found another way to guide my reading—a unexpected legacy for which I’m the grateful heir.

arguments for God’s existence :: Paul Tillich

I’ve been delighted by a few gems here and there while reading through Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, but one of the best so far has been his treatment of arguments for the existence of God. Beyond a bit of freshman excitement, I can’t say that I’ve ever invested myself too heavily in arguing for God’s existence—it has just never seemed like the sort of thing where arguing actually did much good.

Well, Paul Tillich gave the issue a genuinely intelligent treatment that I haven’t heard before in quite these terms:

It is a remarkable fact that for many centuries leading theologians and philosophers were almost equally divided between those who attacked and those who defended the arguments for the existence of God. Neither group prevailed over the other in a final way. This situation admits only one explanation: the one group did not attack what the other group defended.

Tillich goes on to argue that, among other confusions, attributing “existence” to God is already problematic insofar as it renders God a determinate Being among beings.

Actually they [the scholastics] did not mean ‘existence.’ They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.

He continues by arguing that every argument for the existence of God is more or less a failure qua argument, but that these arguments are unparalleled statements of the inerradicable question mark overhanging human finitude.

The arguments for the existence of God neither are arguments nor are they proof of the existence of God. They are expressions of the question of God which is implied in human finitude. This question is their truth; every answer they give is untrue.

What the arguments end up “proving” is that there are trajectories in the structure of human existence that remain inexplicable in terms of human experience.

The ‘first cause’ is a hypostatised question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain….In the same way, a ‘necessary substance’ is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which gives substantiality to all substances.

The finite conditions of goodness, being, causation, truth, meaning, purpose, etc., all depend for their validity on some unconditioned Highest instance. The trouble occurs when this necessary structural position in human thought and experience is identified, point blank, with God. Onto-logical necessities are taken to indicate the existence of a highest Being. Unfortunately, this is already to “fit” God into the structure of Being-as-we-know-it, which is an implicit denial of God’s transcendence. God is, of course, wilier than to be pinned down so easily!

All quotes from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 204-210.

Haiti :: On the Ground

Here is a post from a friend of mine from Regent who is living in Haiti. Corrigan managed to get a few minutes free to tell a bit of his story, and has concrete advice for how to help.

I’d only reiterate his plea to donate to organizations and churches that are already local (and have been for sometime), the Red Cross and other big groups may be helpful in the long run, but right now. it’s best to channel things through people already on the ground.

NAPS 2010

I received some good news in the last week. My proposal to the “Rhetoric of Heaven” section was accepted, so I’ll be presenting a paper at NAPS in Chicago this coming May. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

Gregory of Nyssa’s Bodies: Human, Animal, and Celestial

Inhabiting the boundary between heaven and earth, the human body is the site of intense scrutiny in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio. The task of understanding the human body necessitates concomitant inquiry into the nature of animal and celestial bodies in order to see more clearly the differences and similarities that constitute humanity’s liminal nature. My paper argues that Gregory is concerned with the “making of the human” not only in terms of an etiological reading of Genesis, but also that Gregory himself “makes the human” in relation to animals and angels, and that in the process Gregory has a strong theological investment in the conceptual construction of animal and celestial bodies.

In a close reading of De hominis opificio that draws on the research of Sarah Coakley and J. Warren Smith among others, my paper proceeds in four sections—the first considering the formal and functional implications of the divine image in human flesh (and its absence in the flesh of animals); the second examines the material difference that the image of God makes in human flesh, and the physio/logical construction of human flesh over against animal bodies. The third section inquires into the eschatology of human flesh and the double function of desire as both bestial and angelic. Paradoxically for Gregory, the very structure of desire that is shared with the animals constitutes the propulsive drive by which humans are drawn along the trajectory of spiritual ascent to join the celestial crowds in God’s praise (albeit animal desire in a sublimated form). Finally, the fourth section determines more precisely how Gregory’s theological investment in human uniqueness guides the contours of his construction of bestial and angelic bodies vis-à-vis the human in De hominis opificio.

Legislating against Homosexuality :: Black and White

This is one of those columns that I read hoping and praying that it’s a complete farce. Unfortunately, so far as I can tell, it’s not. A Kenyan journalist suggests that Ugandans and other African Christians are adopting a strong anti-homosexual political agenda, at least in part, because of their adoption of a colonial paradigm in which the American (read: “white”) leadership is somehow inherently superior.

Wherever you come out in the wash on the issue as it pertains to homosexuality—though minimally, I want to adamantly challenge the idea that legislation is the proper vehicle for the agenda—the racial component of this story is chilling. It reinforces for me the need to be explicit and intelligent about the intersection of theological discourse and racial injustice—the latter being far, far, more deeply rooted in the former than most of the racially-privileged ever realize.

Anyone want to buy a hundred copies of James Cone and mail them to Uganda?

h/t: Immanent Frame

Last First Things :: Done and Done

The decline of First Things has been fairly well documented. Even before the passing of Richard John Neuhaus, the journal seemed to be cranking its ideological amplification up to 11. Nevertheless, I’ve kept a subscription going for the sake of the occasional witty or insightful article from D.B. Hart or Rusty Reno (when he’s not ranking schools, he’s often got interesting things to say). I’ve consistently disagreed with both the positions and the tones taken in its pages, but frequently in the past found it valuable reading nonetheless.

However, I received my last copy in the mail this week (or sometime while I’ve been away), and I’m quite glad that this will be the end. Apart from Hart’s positive review of Richard Dawkins there’s strikingly little to commend the issue, and much that condemns it. On the cover are three declarative statements announcing three articles within: “Cicero is a Superhero, Pete Seeger is a Communist, Mitch Albom is an Idiot.” I won’t take issue with the first, but both of the other two are simply embarrassing, as are the articles that they announce.

The article on Pete Seeger is a nostalgic trip back to the good old days of McCarthyism, exhorting vigilance against the deep-seated Marxist leanings of the folk-music revival. Neither timing nor relevance are among this articles redeeming qualities, and the author doesn’t provide us with any reason to believe that Pete Seeger’s communism is dangerous. “Communism” is simply raised as a tired old bludgeon to dishonor Seeger’s legacy by eliciting disgust in the reader that something as American as folk-music could be put to the advancement of something so “un-American” as (shudder) “communism.”

Worse is the review of Mitch Albom’s new book, Have a Little Faith. I won’t blame author Ari Goldman for the title on the cover (“Mitch Albom is an Idiot”), over which he may have had little control, but his review largely consists of pedantically proofreading Albom’s book for minute theological and historical errors. While the youth celebrating his bar mitsvah does indeed read off a Torah scroll, not scrolls, publicly exposing the scandal of a false plural mostly comes off as silly.

The stated goal of First Things, as I understand it, has been to encourage civic discourse—and particularly the inextricable role of religion within civic discourse—by providing space for dialogue and raising the intellectual bar on what passes for argument. For some time, it has been questionable whether First Things has actually been a venue for this kind of worthy project, and not simply an soap-box for various flavors of conservatism. But announcing that a particular novelist is an idiot on your cover is emphatically not civic discourse, nor does it demonstrate any kind of moral or intellectual integrity—no matter your actual opinion of the author.

I’m glad that this was my last issue; if it weren’t, this would have been the impetus to pull the plug.

Zizek :: what humans will never know

Here is Slavoj Zizek’s answer to the question: What will human beings never know?

Do you find his answer at all plausible, or does he obscure and deny knowledge that we ought to have confidence in (gaining)? Do you think that the creation he describes might still be called good? Does such a vision of creation undercut or inspire wonder, awe, and reverence?

I see a connection in Zizek’s thought here with the conviction of Augustine and other early Christian authors that the being of creation is essentially derivative and incomplete, and all the more so when any creature turns away from God. Things are most real when they exist according to the manner in which God fully delights in their existence. The slippage and gaps (what Zizek here calls “blurriness”) that we experience in reality can be attributed to our own fallen psychology (a divide between our minds and creation “as God intended”), but might also at a deeper level be attributed to the derivative being of creation itself.

At any rate, I’m more and more interested these days in the points of incomprehensibility in creation—not at all in the rather facile sense that these unexplainable bits are stumbling blocks to science and proofs of God’s existence or activity—but in the sense that fractures and incompleteness seem to be an inexorable part of human life, and even Spirit-filled redeemed life. Paying attention to the points at which orders and systems break down or turn absurd is perhaps the best way to understand what is “normal” within those systems and orders.

If I were to sketch out this thought trajectory, it might run something like this: We search in vain for the site of total satisfaction, total fulness, totally saturated presence. There is a hole in creation that pierces the very core of human subjectivity. We could call it a God-shaped hole, if God had a shape, or if this fundamental lack pointed in a straightforward manner to God—but at minimum, its not obvious to everyone that it does point to God (or which god, for that matter). The interminable “blurriness” of creation, of our own selves, of each other, and most of all of God, persists even amidst the conviction that God has broken into history. Christian faith is actually nourished by this hole insofar as it is an inexhaustible source of desire; hope stretches out into this abyss on the conviction that God has been intensively present in Jesus, and will again be extensively present through the work of the Spirit already in-process. So, in some quiet manner, God accompanies creatures in and through a creation that remains incomplete—that very incompleteness the cause of a desire that stretches out and clings to grace where it is (made) capable of recognizing it.

h/t: Verso