Friday, August 29, 2008

Witchcraft and its cultured deniers

I may come across as superstitious in posting this, but I'm curious about what others think of the matter. For some time I've been interested in the question of witchcraft, exorcism, and other interactions with the "spiritual realm" (for lack of a better term), especially as these relate to social life in modernity. The overriding climate in many liberal societies is one of cultured denial; the idea of consorting with demons or extracting them from the possessed is seen as superstitious. Even amongst those who have respect for the idea of a real spiritual basis for the experiences of our life, it is first and foremost an idea- a conception, certainly of theological or moral import, but one that rarely breaks away from its theoretical use to a practical judgment of one's actual experiences. Evil is recognized in people and perhaps even as a spiritual oppression of sorts, but not as a personified reality, and not even as a reality in itself separate from the moral volition and action of the "evil" person.

The difficulties of addressing such "superstitious" evil on a societal level are immanently clear, and I don't blame the cultured deniers for marginalizing societal responses to spiritual matters. How would we even begin to treat or prosecute such evil in a liberal, pluralist society? What sort of protocol would be followed in which cases? Enough struggle has presented itself in managing religious education of children, feeding of the homeless, or campaigning for a political figure, setting aside entirely the question of demons! It seems that in most liberal cultures we have left behind, for better or worse, the age when society was equipped to address problems of a spiritual nature.

Discussion of the matter has not at all subsided, however. The canton of Glarus in Switzerland has just exonerated Anna Göldi, who in 1782 was the last witch to be executed in Europe. The story of Göldi sounds like it could come straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne, complete with a respected magistrate attempting to hide his sexual relations with the accused. Whether or not Göldi was guilty of witchcraft (and those involved with her exoneration have certainly made a good case for her innocence), this was not the central point of the government's actions:

"This is to acknowledge that the verdict ensued from an illegal trial and that Anna Göldi was the victim of 'judicial murder'," the statement declared.

"Exoneration is to be more than a simple confirmation of innocence," it continued. "It has to set aside an incomprehensible, unjust state act and acknowledge a crass injustice and seriously false verdict."

On the other side of the Atlantic, the William & Mary Quarterly has in their latest issue offered a forum on Boyer and Nissenbaum's celebrated book Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. The title suggests a similar concern as my own, yet completely transposed... witchcraft has a social origin at its root rather than itself being the root of various implications for social life. Not that Boyer and Nissenbaum fail to recognize any social import of witchcraft, but the entire phenomenon is socially rooted to begin with... it is Salem that is possessed rather than the witches.

To be sure, these demythologizing works are important in grappling with the reality of spiritual oppression in social life; a 17th century example might be the rejection by Increase Mather of "spectral evidence" as a legally valid means of investigation in the Salem witch trials themselves. But after the demythologizing task is completed, we must be sure that it has not done violence to our recognition of social life as imbued all the way down by spirituality, a social actor both benevolent and malevolent. I think that the rise of liberal politics in modernity has offered a needed caution against addressing spiritual aspects of social life with structures of government that are not equipped to engage them. The lesson may have gone too far, however, in making cultured deniers of us, simply as a result of the sheer inertia of the secularized narrative so often imbedded in modern social thought.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

28 August

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, truly called a father of the church and especially so in the West. Following is a significant exhortation of Augustine, from sermon 13 on the Gospel of John:

This is where you are going; this same is the way by which you are going. You do not go through one thing to something else; you do not come through something else to Christ. You come through Christ to Christ. How through Christ to Christ? Through Christ the man to Christ the God, through the Word made flesh to the Word which in the beginning was God with God.

More recently, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous I Have a Dream speech on this day. From that address,

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

More recently still, I and my twin brother were born on this day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On the Possibility of Progressive Politics

[I've edited this post throughout to include another contribution to the discussion of progressive politics as a theopolitical possibility. 8/28]

Three superb discussions are going on about the shape of Christian participation in progressive politics. Halden of Inhabitatio Dei critiques Donald Miller's prayer at the Democratic National Convention as "reactive politics". Michael of Levellers discusses his commitment to a "non-messianic progressive movement politics". Finally, Chris of Growing-Graceful discusses pacifism in light of the two-kingdoms doctrine.

During my short time in theological blogging, it's been a great blessing to learn from people like Halden and Michael, who represent a radical, progressive, or anabaptist political theology and can articulate its witness to the nations in a compelling way. I by no means count the anabaptist tradition as formative for myself, but this makes the learning experience that much greater. I think that the shift to an ecclesial political theology that many theologians have made in recent years has done a lot to bring together numerous disparate voices under an ecclesial civic context; the result is often brilliantly fruitful, confusing, and frustrating for all of us, but it allows us to think through our place and our politics as the Church of Him who is above all earthly powers.

For instance, what I read in Leveller's about the non-messianic nature of earthly allegiances strikes me as not too far from some practical aspects of Niebuhr's realism (although the initial assumptions that lead to the earthly commitments of each may be very different). At the very least there could be a significant amount of overlap or foundations for dialogue. The "non-messianic" character of politics is a key recognition that allows the Church to resist an idealist triumphalism. While the non-messianic political action that Michael advocates is not in itself progressive, it creates space for a real progressive politics to be enacted.

Halden has pointed out how a mere changing of flags from conservative to progressive politics doesn't liberate Evangelicalism (or any other Christian tradition) from the Babylonian captivity of the earthly city. If anything such reactionary politics embeds the Church even more deeply into its submission to earthly powers by relying upon them for its own political status and identity. Halden writes,
Christian politics can only truly be Christian when it is not determined by the cycle of action and reaction that establishes the agonistic order of the earthly city. For Christian politics to be truly Christian they must be, at their very core, nonreactive. The peace of the city of God is in no way determined, constituted, or defined by the agonism of the earthly city.

The difficulty of any political theology comes in recognizing the agonistic order of earthly politics, recognizing this as distinct from the redemptive order of the gospel, and negotiating how the Church acts as witness to the gospel in the earthly city. In doing so it must avoid capitulating to the world through the most obvious route (by accepting the world's agonistic premise), though it also must avoid the less obvious error of assuming that the Church is the gospel itself rather than simply its harbinger in the world. If this error is committed, the Church truly becomes of the world by embracing an ecclesial triumphalism through failure to recognize that it too is in the world.

Chris Donato's piece on pacifism and the two kingdoms strikes this balance very well. While pacifism and a two-kingdoms doctrine may appear at first to be strange bedfellows, Chris demonstrates how 19th and early 20th century German liberal thought used aspects of Luther useful to their own purposes, thereby twisting the concept of the two kingdoms in a way that rendered it unrecognizable. Of the doctrine itself, Chris writes,

...the two kingdoms model does, in fact, necessitate always carrying one's Christian faith everywhere, which frees the Christian up for positive ethical involvement (like pacifism) in the world. It is not a "confusing of the two kingdoms" to suggest this, as Gene Edward Veith asserts here. Remember, pacifism does not (cannot!) preclude the policing efforts of governments; it refuses to see war or violence as an option to resolve disputes. This message is the church's own, as it stands as prophet in this world.
Chris continues by explaining the purpose of the two kingdoms doctrine, one that emphasizes the absolute nature of Christ's authority over against the powers of this world. It becomes clear here how similar his message is to Micheal's "non-messianic" imperative for any political commitment, or Halden's emphasis on resisting the reactive politics that grant to the earthly city an undue significance:
[the doctrine of the two kingdoms is] to be held out in front of us so as to protect us from suffering under the delusion that even our best efforts here will produce some kind of golden age before the return of our king. This by no means is to be equated with that old cliché: "Why polish brass on a sinking ship?" The ship doesn't have to sink, and, indeed, it won't, as a result of the intervening and gracious hand of Christ our Lord. Our vocations as callings are clear: bring the future hope into this present darkness, whatsoever ye do. But the two kingdoms model takes seriously the collective sinfulness of nations, institutions and well-meaning Christian politicos, pundits and activists and guards them from perpetuating Constantinian notions of christendom.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stanley Fish on Judgment and Censorship

Stanley Fish offers some great reflections on Random House's withdrawing of a controversial novel over concerns of inciting backlash from Muslims. Fish's argument (contra Salman Rushdie) is that the decision of Random House should by no means be considered censorship, nor a curtailing of the author's first amendment rights.
This little brouhaha has been widely reported and commentators have tended to endow it with large philosophical and political implications (the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005 and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh are often referenced). A story in The Times of London online edition describes it “the latest showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech.”
According to Fish,
Rushdie and the pious pundits think [that Random House is guilty of censorship] because they don’t quite understand what censorship is. Or, rather, they conflate the colloquial sense of the word with the sense it has in philosophical and legal contexts.
Fish's commentary is rather straightforward in its attempt to define censorship in a manner more crisp than the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric employed by Rushdie and others. What I found valuable about it was its criticism of some aspects of modern liberalism in defense of others. The absolutist strands of liberalism that "Rushdie and the pious pundits" are advocating has been seen previously in Western history and has resurfaced of late in all sorts of places, from the arguments of the "new atheists" to controversies over professors (see my recent post on Rosemary Radford Ruether as well as other examples such as Peter Enns, Joshua Hochschild, etc.), to William & Mary, a college near and dear to my own heart but disturbingly overpopulated by sophomoric liberal-ish students who don't have a clue what they're talking about when they use the word "freedom".

Fish points us in a constructive direction when he shifts from language of censorship to that of judgment.
...censorship is not the proper name; a better one would be judgment. We go through life adjusting our behavior to the protocols and imperatives of different situations, and often the adjustments involve deciding to refrain from saying something. It’s a calculation, a judgment call. It might be wise or unwise, prudent or overly cautious, but it has nothing to do with freedom of expression.

Judgment is also what employers exercise when they determine that something an employee has said or written so undermines the enterprise that it warrants dismissal. To the objection that such an action would amount to a curtailing of the employee’s First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court has answered (in Connick v. Myers, 1983) only if the speech in question were directed at a matter of public concern; otherwise, wrote Justice Byron White, “when close working relationships are essential to fulfilling… responsibilities, a wide degree of deference to the employer’s judgment is appropriate.”

This leaves plenty of room for a criticism of judgment, but it avoids the outright dismissal that "censorship" implies. The idea of judgment also opens up more worthwhile avenues for ethics than a bare negative liberalism can provide. The question of what freedom is (or may be) for can now be asked more openly.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Church Fathers get nifty cover art...

Not really a substantive post, but I found a reprint edition of Schaff's Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers at a publisher called Cosimo Books. (Never heard of them before, and can't vouch for their quality. They do seem to have a large number of reprints.)

Cosimo does a great service to the academy in providing cover art for the series. We've been bored by the same old blue, red, and green stripes of the Hendrickson reprints for far too long!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Outward Signs, Inner Grace: two new books by Phillip Cary

I just discovered two new books published by Phillip Cary at Oxford University Press; both came out this April and are meant to follow up on his 2003 study, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self.

Phillip Cary deftly walks a thin line as he discusses Augustine on interiority. I must admit that I originally came to his work with some suspicion myself, simply based on his use of the phrase "Christian Platonist" to describe Augustine. Isn't this just meddling in the historiography of doctrine by the philosophers? Isn't Augustine pro-Nicene first and foremost? I followed Ayres and Barnes on Augustine, and was substantially sympathetic to the work of Radical Orthodoxy theologians. I had no need to read another scholar repeating the tired refrain about Augustine peddling a monadic divinity and Cartesian spiritualism of the soul.

Cary has dispelled all of my fears in an insightful look at Augustine's theology of interiority, offering a fair emphasis on the neoplatonic influences of Augustine balanced with the Catholic orthodoxy into which he matures. Cary's article in Augustine Through the Ages on "Interiority" offers a concise repristination of a lot of the book, if you don't have the time to read his whole study.

Abstracts of the two new books, Outward Signs and Inward Grace are below. I would heartily recommend anything by Phillip Cary; his work is superb whether one agrees with him or not. Apologies for not being able to comment about these books further. I'll have to buy them (or get our library to buy them) and report back. Also worth noting on Cary is his commentary on Jonah coming out in October, as well as a recent contribution to Per Caritatem's Augustine Blog Conference on Augustine and Luther.

Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine's Thought
We are used to thinking of words as signs of inner thoughts. In Outward Signs, Philip Cary argues that Augustine invented this expressionist semiotics, where words are outward signs expressing an inward will to communicate, in an epochal departure from ancient philosopical semiotics, where signs are means of inference, as smoke is a sign of fire. Augustine uses his new theory of signs to give an account of Biblical authority, explaining why an authoritative external teaching is needed in addition to the inward teaching of Christ as divine Wisdom, which is conceived in terms drawn from Platonist epistemology. In fact for Augustine we literally learn nothing from words or any other outward sign, because the truest form of knowledge is a kind of Platonist vision, seeing what is inwardly present to the mind. Nevertheless, because our mind's eye is diseased by sin we need the help of external signs as admonitions or reminders pointing us in the right direction, so that we may look and see for ourselves. Even our knowledge of other persons is ultimately a matter not of trusting their words but of seeing their minds with our minds. Thus Cary argues here that, for Augustine, outward signs are useful but ultimately powerless because no bodily thing has power to convey something inward to the soul. This means that there can be no such thing as an efficacious external means of grace. The sacraments, which Augustine was the first to describe as outward signs of inner grace, signify what is necessary for salvation but do not confer it. Baptism, for example, is necessary for salvation, but its power is found not in water or word but in the inner unity, charity and peace of the church. Even the flesh of Christ is necessary but not efficacious, an external sign to use without clinging to it.

Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul
Augustine's epochal doctrine of grace is often portrayed as a break from his earlier Platonism, but in Inner Grace, Phillip Cary argues it should be seen instead as the way Augustines Platonism developed as he read the apostle Paul. Augustines concept of grace as an inner gift that moves, turns and strengthens the will from within requires a Platonist conception of the soul's inner relation to the Good. What he adds to this conception is that grace is needed not only for the mind to see God but also for the will to turn away from lower goods and love God as its eternal Good, and even for it to choose faith in Christ, the temporal road by which the soul journeys to God. Thus over the course of Augustine's career the scope of the soul's need for grace expands outward from intellect to love and then to faith. At every stage, Augustine insists that divine grace does not compromise or coerce the human will but frees, helps and strengthens it, precisely because grace is not an external force but an inner gift of delight. But as his polemic against the Pelagians develops, increasingly more is attributed to grace and less to the power of free will. At the end of his career this results in an explicit doctrine of predestination, according to which it is ultimately God who chooses who shall be saved. Behind predestination therefore is divine election, which Augustine understands as God choosing some rather than others for salvation. This contrasts with the Biblical doctrine of election, Cary argues, in which some are chosen for the blessing of others: e.g., Israel for the nations and Christ for the world. In this Biblical doctrine, grace and blessing are external rather than inner gifts, because they always come to us from others outside us.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"a violation of the spirit of academic freedom"?! Ruether and USD

While reformed circles are discussing the termination of Peter Enns' professorship at Westminster Theological Seminary earlier this year, some of the same issues are flaring up elsewhere in Church & academy.

Rosemary Ratford Ruether, a prominent theologian currently teaching at Claremont, was offered the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology by the University of San Diego. This visiting chair for the 2009-2010 year has just been rescinded, however, over concern that Ruether's views and associations are unacceptable for an institution of Catholic learning. Topping the justification for the USD withdrawal of the offer is Ruether's work on the board of directors at Catholics for Choice, an organization whose positions on sexual and reproductive ethics run counter to Church teaching.

The situation is messy because of the fact that Ruether was offered the chair before proper administrative approval was obtained, leaving USD in the awkward spot of withdrawing an offer rather than simply picking someone else in the first place. The significant part of the dispute, however, is how (or whether) Ruether's views and Catholic moral teachings are appropriately reconciled in an institution of learning committed to Catholic orthodoxy as well as academic freedom.

...or at least this is how Ruether and her supporters would frame the issue. Apparently, a petition has been signed by gaggles of people which says quite boldly to USD:

We urge that you, on behalf of the University of San Diego, embrace one of the following remedies to this violation of the spirit of academic freedom:

1. The University of San Diego honor the offer made by Dean Healy to Professor Ruether to be the 2009-2010 holder of the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology with an appropriate apology for this incident.

2. USD engage Professor Ruether to deliver the Portman Lecture on the matter of academic freedom in Catholic higher education. As a part of the commitment, she would remain on campus for a week of substantive discussion with faculty, students, administrators, and interested colleagues about what this means in the twenty-first century and how to operationalize it at USD.

Eighteen years after Ex Corde Ecclesiae, one would think that discussion of Christian learning and academic freedom could have moved beyond the radical liberal v. rigid institution mentality. In fact, it has... the problem is that people are closing their eyes to the fact that it has, and continuing to frame the issue of academic freedom in outmoded terms. Ruether's generation is simply not in touch with current Catholic thought, from what I can tell. When we have conferences examining the 40 year anniversary of '68 (1, 2, 3 examples) and "radicals" retiring from the academy, it's not at all obvious that the argument of Ruether and her supporters is defensible in a secular academic context, much less a religious one. "Academic freedom" with no regard for structures of orthodoxy (Roman Catholic, confessional Protestant, or otherwise) is simply unstructured license, and hiding behind claims of scientific method or free inquiry as if either is an academic virtue in itself simply presents a false dichotomy between "faith and reason", "freedom and authority", "orthodoxy and free thought", etc. As if academic freedom could do anything by itself! As if traditions of thought do not guide its every step, and determine what in freedom is accepted as legitimate scholarly work and what is rejected as inimical to the acquisition of knowledge! Really, those making Ruether's case (I'm unaware of what she herself has to say on the matter) need to get a grip... and a little perspective... on what rigorous academic inquiry requires of "free" thought.

That said, it's also the 40 year anniversary of Humane Vitae, and apologists for Ruether's opponents should likewise not assume that their consensus has stood the test of time as an acceptable perspective on Church, society, and academy. Pope Benedict XVI's nuanced presentation of Catholic thought is still, almost as a rule, mangled by the media and general public. To a certain point this can be dismissed as unacceptably simplistic accounts of what is actually a damn good sermon or speech, but as these accounts continue to pile up and controversies such as Ruether v. USD continue to be framed in terms of orthodoxy-against-free -inquiry, the question is worth asking whether we've really progressed beyond old battle lines. Perhaps we haven't, or at least we haven't all done so.

I don't have an easy answer for Ruether. I can appreciate what work she could do for the furtherance of theological knowledge at USD, despite her unorthodox teachings. I would certainly expect any theologian involved in contemporary discussions to be familiar with her work. But even more than the contemporary significance of various theological thinkers, a Christian university should concern itself with edification to the Church and academy through right teaching. Significant traditions of theological thought (whether orthodox or not) serve a necessary and instructive, but an ancillary purpose to orthodoxy itself. A Christian institution of learning must steer a difficult course of providing this sort of instruction (it is necessary, after all) without accepting it as right teaching (it is ancillary, after all). Perhaps the suggestion of giving Ruether the Portman Lecture is a good way to strike this balance, though I don't at all like how it's now been framed as a "remed[y] to this violation of the spirit of academic freedom" if USD must do penance for its rejection of Ruether. Hogwash! Ruether's partisans have ruined any legitimate avenue for USD to recognize her (very laudable) contribution to Catholic theological reflection by picking an inappropriate fight with the university. Any rejection by the university of a voice (not a chair, but a voice) for radical thought is their fault rather than the university's.

Now I'm rambling, so I'll leave off. I welcome comments and criticisms. And here, here, here, here, are some other blogs that are discussing Ruether. One of them reports that Thomas O'Meara has been selected for the chair instead of her. This is good news- whatever anyone's thoughts on this, at least USD has settled on a wonderful alternative.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

J.Z. Smith Interview

Here's an engaging interview with J.Z. Smith (I'm trying to read up on my Chicago people before starting in the fall). Below is a snippet from the interview where Smith wanders into some very perceptive comments about sacrifice:

SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?

JS: Oh, I don’t know. Well, first of all, given the range of religions I teach, the issue of where I stand in relation to them is moot. And most people who teach religion have a clear relationship with the religions. I cannot.… I ask students the meaning of sacrifice, and they always start talking about ‘mommy and daddy sacrificing so I could go to college.’ We’ve been at war for four years, and I haven’t heard one person yet say some soldier sacrificed themselves. That language is gone. It’s entirely economic. One kid, whose name I sent to the Development Office, said sacrifice was joining a golf club for the four years that he was here, so he would have money to go to Europe when he graduated. I thought Development ought to keep an eye on that kid. I rarely do that, but I turned him in. That’s just his notion, but it’s the same idea. It’s economic: ‘I give up something now to get a better thing in the future.’ Well, that’s a shitty theory of sacrifice. But that’s the kind of thing I try to do: I try to make students answer questions, and not in class, but in writing.

The long version is here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

From the T&T Clark Blog... booksales and Latin exams

  • I just ran across a book sale for hardback monographs being advertised on the T&T Clark blog- originally set to close last Friday, they've extended the sale until the end of the month. All of the books seem to be well over 50% off. There's not a huge selection (although the original post seems to link to a wider catalog), but there are some very decent titles available.
  • Also on the T&T Clark Blog is a lament about the College Board dropping the AP Latin Literature test. One of the reasons for this cut was the low enrollment in advanced Latin courses. Though I was part of the problem (taking Latin courses on and off since elementary school but never progressing very far), this unfortunate event highlights a serious concern in American education. The language shortcoming has implications for scholars in biblical and theological studies who are faced with a severe ignorance of important foundations of research, either in themselves or in their students.

Friday, August 15, 2008

J.K.A. Smith on the Immanent Frame

J.K.A. Smith offers a piece titled "Who's Afraid of Sociology?" on the Immanent Frame. In it he argues that sociological definitions of Evangelicalism are more helpful than theological ones. I enjoyed the post a lot; having myself stumbled upon Wheaton College from a mainline Protestant upbringing, I now find myself somewhat of a hodge-podge of different traditions. I still question whether or not (and how) I'm a part of the phenomenon of "evangelicalism," what significance it will have for me down the road, etc. Smith hits the nail on the head in addressing the question of how to approach the "E" word (and he does so in a much more colloquial fashion than many of the other contributions to the Immanent Frame!).

Recovering Neglected Theologians at Levellers

Michael Westmoreland-White of Levellers has started a great new series on "Recovering Neglected Theologians". So far, Tim Furry has offered an introduction to the Venerable Bede, and Christian T. Collins Winn has written on Johann Christoph Blumhardt and his son, Christoph Blumhardt. This looks like it will be a great series; though I don't know if I can find the time to write up a piece for Michael, here's a short list of some theologians that I'd love to see become more prominent in the literature (forgive all of the Catholics! I do promise my Protestant readers that such ecumenism does not signal an intention of crossing the Tiber!):

-Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange: Considered by many the greatest Thomist of the twentieth century, Garrigou-Lagrange wrote numerous commentaries on Thomas, influential works on mysticism, and was an ardent critic of Catholic modernism. While Garrigou-Lagrange wrote decidedly against many of the Catholic theologians that have influenced me more directly, reading his work on Thomas leaves nothing but a response of quiet admiration for the breadth and depth of his knowledge. A great new biography of Garrigou-Lagrange is Richard Peddichord's The Sacred Monster of Thomism.

-Jacques-Benigne Bousset: 17th century French bishop known primarily for his apologetic work against Protestantism and a later controversy with his pupil Fénelon. Bousset's most famous writings include his Discours sur l'histoire universelle and his Histoire des variations des Églises protestantes. Owen Chadwick's historical study From Bousset to Newman: The Idea of Doctrinal Development places Bousset within the context of the Catholic Reformation and the wider flowering of Christian theology in modernity.

-Johann Gerhard: greatest of the Lutheran scholastic theologians yet sorely lacking in critical studies these days (though his Loci Theologici is now in the process of being translated!).

-Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, better known as Pope Leo XIII: What a wonderful pontiff to carry the Catholic Church into the 20th century! Leo XIII had an unusually long tenure as pope and wrote numerous encyclicals; he is most well known for his imprimatur of Thomas Aquinas in Aeterni Patris and his contribution to modern Catholic social teaching. I only know Leo XIII through some of his encyclicals on the Holy Spirit and the Church, so perhaps his "neglect" as a theologian is more a projection of my own ignorance rather than a matter of scholarship more generally. Nonetheless.

-Some of the great anthologists, translators, and historians: These scholars are well-known, but through their work at forwarding the knowledge of others rather than of themselves. Heinrich Denzinger, compiler of the Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum (now known in its English translations as The Sources of Catholic Dogma); Jacques-Paul Migne, best known for his Patralogiae Latinae and Patrologiae Graecae which together contain over 300 volumes; Philip Schaff, who with others offered such great works as the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers series, the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, the 8-vol. History of the Christian Church, and the 3-vol. Creeds of Christendom; Geoffrey Bromiley, who translated numerous works including Barth's Church Dogmatics, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and other single monographs (I can't even find a decent bio of him online!); and J.A.O. Preus II, translator of many Lutheran scholastic theologians, especially Martin Chemnitz.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A few political items...

  • While many in the US government and media are stumbling over each other to paint Russia as a ruthless aggressor in the current Russo-Georgian conflict, Orthodox leaders in America are pleading that both sides abandon the violence and come to an understanding; a ROCOR priest also offers one of the most accurate descriptions I've yet read of the nature of this conflict. It is, "a terrible, fratricidal tragedy provoked by the enemy of our salvation." With hardly anything but propaganda and warmongering being broadcasted by all sides involved in the conflict, more redemptive words such as these need to be heard.

  • Tim Murphy reports on the work of evangelicals and Catholics to reform the language of the DNC’s platform on abortion. What's so hopeful about this sort of development, along with recent events in South Dakota, is that we're getting past the power politics of legislative fiat and actually attacking the heart of the abortion crisis in the United States. This cannot be primarily about women's rights, or about shutting down dehumanizing institutions by an equally dehumanizing force. Knowledge of what is at stake, recognition of the centrality of life in our consideration of the social sphere, and a commitment to care for mothers and children are the only approaches to abortion that will truly dignify life and create a space for the negotiation of that dignity to take place between disagreeing parties. I applaud the work of those who venture beyond protests and placards in attempting to solve this problem.
  • A Catholic newspaper in Malaysia has received a stern warning from the government over reporting on political issues in breach of its license. Also in question is a theologically curious issue of translation; the newspaper uses "Allah" as a Malay translation of the word "God", and the government has objected to this over concerns that it could mislead Muslims.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Seminaries and Orthodoxy: Carl Trueman on the Church and the academy

I ran across this insightful essay by Carl Trueman through its posting on Heidelblog. While I haven't followed the controversy over Peter Enns at Westminster Theological Seminary very closely, I have from a distance been interested in the institutional dilemmas that are raised by situations like this. Trueman offers some important thoughts about academic work in confessional settings, and while I don't agree with some of what he says I think that it's well worth a read.

Trueman's main point is to emphasize the calling of confessional Protestantism and to highlight the way that seminaries and other theological schools are pulled into a "broad evangelicalism" that lowers the level of scholarship and doctrinal commitment necessary for edifying service to the Church. What troubles me about this is the unjustified associations that are made. At one point Trueman writes, "As evangelicalism in general broadens out, as it loses its connection with its confessional Reformation past, as it becomes increasingly vacuous at a doctrinal level..." with absolutely no recognition that a broadening of the evangelical tradition might be quite separate from any loss of doctrinal rigor, liberalization, or connection with its confessional heritage. A broadening of tradition, on the contrary, may conceivably be an embrace of the "catholic" or "ecumenical" sense of the faith, while remaining just as committed to whatever conservatism, confession, or doctrinal centrality it held to so dearly in the past. That the broadening of evangelicalism has in places been a liberalization, or a step away from doctrinal focus, or a loss of a confessional mindset, does not mean that it must be this.

On the other hand, I appreciate very much Trueman's commitment to a confessionally rooted institution and a simple, sustained "no" to any efforts at broadening. Westminster has its heritage, and praise be to God if they can edify the Church through that particular heritage and through the exclusion of other confessional traditions for the sake of institutional identity and the benefit of theological scholarship. I don't think I could (or would ever want to) be hired at Westminster, but I'm very thankful that there are Westminsters (or Concordias, etc.) out there. The Church needs these strongly confessional institutions, I think, to preserve its past in particular living traditions. These days they are among the only places where historical work is even done on the Protestant scholastics, much less where an active engagement with them is present in systematic doctrinal work. For many of us who are not a part of such a community, strictly confessional institutions are welcome cousins, leavening agents amongst the "broad" folks who (contrary to Trueman's fears) often do cling quite decidedly to the great monuments of the faith (though we do so in a more doctrinally pluralist context).

Having presented both sides of the coin, I should admit that sometimes I feel like my thoughts on confessional or denominational orthodoxies are a bit disingenuous... much like a multiculturalism that romanticizes about multiple cultures while having none of its own, and yet longing to fill the absence without being able to commit to a path that would do so (because such a commitment would lose the romanticism of a multicultural stance). If that's the case, so be it. Not being in a position either to stand with Trueman in confessional solidarity and mutual opposition to "broadening", or to stand against him in a wholehearted acceptance of a "broad" Church that rejects confessional hold-outs and oddities of traditionalist enclaves, I can at least further the conversation by expressing what I think is worthy in both sides. And perhaps my situation isn't so dire. I'm not convinced that it's incoherent, and I think that the broadness of a catholic sentiment can appreciate both sides of the issue without falling into a lame multiculturalist angst.

Friday, August 8, 2008

on criticism...

Words of comfort for those with the audacity to criticize their intellectual betters, in theology or any other discipline:

“…in criticizing great men, as I shall do, I am very far from forgetting what made them truly great. No man can fall a victim to his own genius unless he has genius; but those who have none are fully justified in refusing to be victimized by the genius of others. Not having made the mathematical discoveries of Descartes and Leibniz, we cannot be tempted to submit all questions to the rules of mathematics; but our very mediocrity should at least help us to avoid such a mistake. There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being a Cartesian.”

Etienne Gilson, from his 1936 William James lectures at the tercentenary of Harvard University

(The Unity of Philosophical Experience, [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999], p. 6)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bavinck and Schleiermacher conferences...

Two impressive conference line-ups are in the midwest this coming autumn- Calvin College is hosting A Pearl and a Leaven: Herman Bavinck for the Twenty-First Century on 18-20 September, while the University of Chicago is hosting Schleiermacher, the Study of Religion, and the Future of Theology: A Transatlantic Dialogue on 29-31 October. The Schleiermacher conference will also close with a session at AAR on 1 November (but I would advise skipping that for John Penniman's paper on Augustine and the secular)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Notes on Books

As a cataloger at a library that has a strong theology and biblical studies collection, I run across a number of books that are of interest to scholars in these fields. My own work and personal bibliographic discoveries also frequently introduce me to studies worth mentioning. The books are not always new, they are even less often actually read by me before I recommend them (this is a sad necessity of cataloging... my wife and I had a discussion about this the other day where it was lamented that catalogers were entrusted with the bibliographic records of countless books without ever having read them). But there you have it. Here is an annotated laundry list of stuff that I've run across most recently, with probably other lists to come down the road. Also included is an appropriately bookish picture of my beautiful daughter Sophia.

  • In the spirit of my last post on Liturgical Studies & Theology, I recently received a letter from Colin Buchanan, the retired evangelical bishop of Woolwich, about the Liturgical Studies series that he had started a number of decades ago. The letter was a personal one sent out by Buchanan to members of the North American Patristics Society, aimed specifically at getting the word out to those who might benefit from the series. Liturgical Studies began in 1975 as a publication of Grove Books, which Buchanan started as a venture towards education of the Anglican community in matters of faith and ministry. Since 1987 the series has been (from what I gather) published in coordination with the Alcuin Club as Joint Liturgical Studies. Here is the series list at Grove Books, and here is the series list of volumes published at SCM-Canterbury Press. Obviously, Liturgical Studies is one of those publishing ventures that is not widely known, has moved between publishers, and might easily slip through the cracks of a bibliography. As I happened upon it, I thought I might pass the information along to others who could use it. There are some fascinating translations and studies in the series, from a surprising number of well-known authors.
  • While at Powell's Books in Hyde Park last week I purchased a 1997 printing of Henry Chadwick's classic study Priscillian of Avila: The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church. There are very few studies of Priscillian available, at least in English. The only other book-length study is Virginia Burris' 1995 The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy, which appears to me to be weaker than Chadwick insofar as it presents yet another predictably revisionist account of heresies in the patristic period. I would recommend Chadwick's work heartily, I would recommend Burris' work more cautiously, and I would most emphatically recommend that some more studies come out on Priscillian. My proposal for a paper on him at AAR got turned down, so it's someone else's turn.
  • None other than Dr. Stephen Holmes (who was a great influence in Wheaton's philosophy department and on generations of Christian philosophers) stopped by my desk yesterday to drop off a donation to the library, Jorge J.E. Gracia's How Can We Know What God Means? The Interpretation of Revelation. Gracia was apparently a graduate of Wheaton College (something I didn't know until yesterday), and has since gone on to a prolific career in philosophy; he is currently teaching at SUNY Buffalo. Gracia has extensive publications on medieval philosophy, the problem of individuation, Latin American philosophy, and more recently, on texts and interpretation. Here is his website, offering a lot of information on his publications and research interests. I would especially check out his edited volumes on medieval philosophy.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Liturgical Studies & Theology

In his 1988 Alexander Schmemman Memorial Lecture, the late and renowned liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh commented on the sacrament of confirmation,

It is sometimes noted that confirmation seems to be a rite in search of its meaning. My own studies suggest, however, that confirmation is more a flock of meanings in search of a rite, and the search has been conducted more by systematic theologians and historians of doctrine than by liturgical scholars.
When I first ran across this comment it took me somewhat by surprise. I was myself in the midst of doing theological work while plundering Kavanagh and others for the liturgical aspects- relatively peripheral to my own work- that I needed at the moment. The assertion that the history of the Church's liturgical life may have been confounded by theologians and historians was a refreshing indictment, and one that I couldn't very well avoid, as I was conducting the very meddling that Kavanagh identifies when I ran across his comment.

Of course the academic taxonomy that Kavanagh lays out, distinguishing systematic theologians from historians of doctrine or both from liturgical scholars, is not an absolute and essential division. "Theologians" as doctors of the Church are the common source of our historical, liturgical, and systematic reflections about the intellectual structure of faith, and the splitting of these disciplines into separate specialties requiring distinct experts is a modern innovation of scholastic departments. The value of this specialization is whatever knowledge such focused and critical methodology can bring to the table, while the danger is in a possible compartmentalization of the original unity of intellectual structures in Christian religion. Kavanagh here focuses on the value of the unique contribution of liturgical studies to religious understanding, and also offers a flip-side to the danger of compartmentalization: that sloppy interdisciplinary work can lead to bad scholarship.

Perhaps because of how much the Church's liturgy (especially surrounding the Eucharist) has become center-stage in theological discourse, I had never thought extensively about the possibility that over-eager theologians might read into the tradition their own constructive projects and fail to listen to the work of others who concern themselves more directly with descriptive accounts of the liturgy. The concern is a legitimate one, and I think that sensitivity to it might result in some great theological work on the liturgy. How should we negotiate these boundary crossings? Who should theologians be reading as they educate themselves in liturgical theology? Joseph Jungmann and Brian Spinks come to mind. Alexander Schmemann, Herman Sasse, and Romano Guardini are some more names from this century, but they were all also involved in theology more generally and may carry these concerns into their liturgical scholarship. Any other thoughts?

(quote from Aidan Kavanagh, 'The Origins and Reform of Confirmation' St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 33.1 (1989), p.8)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Augustine Blog Conference at Per Caritatem

The Augustine Blog Conference is under way at Per Caritatem. Two essays have been presented as I post; Scott Williams writes on Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus on Divine Memory: Pillagers of Augustine’s De Trinitate 15.4.25-26” (with a response by Garrett Smith) and Shane Wilkins writes on “Henry of Ghent and the Waning of the Divine Light”. A number of other papers will be put up over the next few days.