Friday, November 28, 2008

The Christian Roman Empire Series

Our head of collection development received a pamphlet the other week about a book series- we had all of the titles at Buswell already, but I thought the information might be worth passing on.

The books are from Evolution Publishing. Sort of an odd name for a publisher, especially because they mostly do stuff on Native American and colonial history. This seems to be one of those tiny outfits, with all of the charm, benefits, and shortcomings of an independent coffee shop or an indie film; I've never seen any of their books and can't vouch for their quality, but it sounds like the people at Evolution are serious about bookbinding and publishing. From the website:

Welcome to the Evolution Publishing homepage. We are a small press founded in 1994 and based in Merchantville, NJ. Nearby, William Penn signed his famous treaty with Tamanend of the Lenape, General George Washington made his daring Christmas Eve crossing of the Delaware, and just across the river in Philadelphia, a young Benjamin Franklin published his Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanac. We are proud to be part of the American publishing heritage, and feel honored to share this heritage with our neighbors around the country and the world.

The old school of bookbinding is alive and well at Evolution Publishing. Using a combination of ultra-modern and traditional bookbinding techniques, we are able to offer high-quality specialty volumes at reasonable prices. We believe that books are not ephemera: they should be designed to last. Our primary source books are manufactured to be a durable fixture of library and private collections for time periods measured in decades, not years.

The company focuses mostly on early American history, but also does classical history and linguistics. The series that will probably be of interest to readers of this blog is their Christian Roman Empire Series. There are only seven titles out to date, but they are reprints of some important translations of late antique texts.

v.1: The Life of Belisarius
Lord Mahon [Philip Henry Stanhope] (1848)

v.2: The Gothic History of Jordanes
In English Version with an Introduction and a Commentary
Charles Christopher Mierow, translator (1915)

v.3 The Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis)
To the Pontificate of Gregory I
Louise Ropes Loomis, translator (1916)

v.4 The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu
Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text
R. H. Charles, translator (1916)

v.5 The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius
A History of the Church from AD 431 to AD 594
Edward Walford, translator (1846)

v.6 The Life of Saint Augustine
A Translation of the Sancti Augustini Vita by Possidius, Bishop of Calama
Herbert T. Weiskotten, translator (1919)

v.7 The Life of Saint Simeon the Stylite
A Translation of the Syriac in the Bedjan’s Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum
Rev. Frederick Lent, translator (1915)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Barth on culture

Yet another post on religion and culture.

Sometimes I find a tension between interest in the stuff of culture and the radical critique that the Gospel offers to culture. Both trajectories make themselves known in theology and to this point I've sought to avoid an over-zealous commitment to one style of thought over the other. Culture is the ground upon which people build narratives and bind themselves to one another. Not only is it interesting in itself, there seems to be something vaguely yet compellingly significant about it on a more lasting level. At the same time, there is always the call of Christ in the wilderness, on the cross. There is always the witness of the Gospel which in grace interrupts culture. The same paradox is found outside of theology in the figure of Socrates, who is both the cornerstone of and stumbling block to a great many cultures.

So here's Barth on culture-- some reassurance for us, after his Romans commentary, from his largely reflective essay, "The Humanity of God" (WJK, 1960, p.54-55)

We can meet God only within the limits of humanity determined by Him. But in these limits we may meet Him. He does not reject the human! quite the contrary! We must hold fast to this.

The distinction of man, however, goes still further. It extends itself indeed even to the particular human activity based on his endowment, to what one is accustomed to call human culture in its higher and lower levels. Whether as creators or as beneficiaries of culture, we all participate in it as persons responsible for it. We can exercise no abstinence toward it, even if we want to. But we should not want to do that. Each of us has his place and his function in its history. Certainly we must here consider the fact that the use of the good gift of God and hence human activity with its great and small results is compromised in the extreme through man's perverted attitude toward God, toward his neighbor, and toward himself. Certainly culture testifies clearly in history and in the present to the fact that man is not good but rather a downright monster. But even if one were in this respect the most melancholy skeptic, one could not- in view of the humanity of God which is bestowed upon the man who is not good or who is even monstrous- say that culture speaks only of the evil in man. What is culture in itself except the attempt of man to be man and thus to hold the good gift of his humanity in honor and to put it to work? That in this attempt he ever and again runs aground and even accomplishes the opposite is a problem in itself, but one which in no way alters the fact that this attempt is inevitable. Above all, the fact remains that the man who, either as the creator or as the beneficiary, somehow participates in this attempt is the being who interests God. Finally, it also remains true that God, as Creator and Lord of man, is always free to produce even in human activity and its results, in spite of the problems involved, parables of His own eternal good will and actions. It is more than ever true, then, that with regard to these no proud abstention but only reverence, joy, and gratitude are appropriate.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI on religion and culture

A letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Marcello Pera has been causing a stir, mostly because of the NYT's latching on to his statement that "an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible" (Reuters has offered a helpful response here). What is of great interest in the pope's comments, I think, is his distinction between religion and culture as each relates to the possibility of dialogue. The Reuters post notes:

Even if a strictly-defined interreligious dialogue was not possible, Benedict said in his letter, it was important to have an “intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas.” This brings him back to a distinction between religion and culture that he tried to make visible two years ago when he folded the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue into its culture ministry. It didn’t work out very well — other religions felt it downgraded their faith to an anthropological phenomenon — and he had to separate them again. That he’s trying to make the distinction again probably says more about his intellectual rigour than his diplomatic skill.

Here, I think, a Protestant ecclesiology, and even a strongly catholic one that values Ratzinger's contribution to the Church's self-understanding, can offer a needed corrective that would both allow for the distinction Ratzinger wants to make and offer a better response to accusations of "downgrading" other faiths.

The "downgrading" of religion to culture, after all, is nothing strange for modern Protestant thought. It is a critique (and sometimes not even a critique- as Barth says, Feuerbach was also singing his Magnificat) that seeks to clarify the limits of human interaction with and knowledge of God in corporate life. What Protestantism is able to affirm, however (at least Protestantism in a Reformational and Barthian mode) is that the Christian religion itself is included in this downgrading to mere "culture". There is nothing divine about religion; there is nothing in itself that separates it absolutely from any other human cultural endeavor. Christianity most of all can understand this, as the absoluteness which Christianity claims is understood to be present in God alone and not immanent in Chrisitanity itself, either in some 19th century liberal "essence of Christianity" sense or a neo-thomist deposit of doctrinal truth. Alien is the true religion, or the truth of religion... alien to the point that the religions themselves cannot be understood as anything but a human and cultural phenomenon without thus grasping too much from the divine hand and short-circuiting grace.

This understanding of religion and culture doesn't mean that the Christian faith is merely an act of human culture, however. We do call upon the name of the Lord and He answers us. But the election, promise, and command of God is extrinsic to the people gathered in His name, and the daily life which circles this encounter need not (cannot!) be understood as anything but mundane. On this level, the Christian religion can engage with other religions entirely as itself and entirely within a merely cultural scope. Benedict's concern for the necessity of such dialogue can only be maintained to the full if we recognize this about Chrisitianity as a religion among others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

2 theses on Barth's Romans Commentary

I'm going to cheat and get an easy post out of my coursework. This is from Kevin Hector's class on modern Christian thought. Each week we work with a significant text of a thinker, and seminar discussions follow a lecture. A student presents a few theses on the week's reading to guide discussion. This past Monday was my week to offer some thoughts on Barth; below are the two (out of four) theses that we actually got through discussing- these I think lay the groundwork for what Barth was trying to do with some epistemological dilemmas of theology, and they are as such directed towards the 19th century thinkers that we had been reading leading up to Barth.

1. The problem of Lessing’s ditch, which had hung over much of modern philosophical theology, (“that contingent historical truths can never become a demonstration of eternal truths of reason, also that the transition whereby one will build an eternal truth on historical reports is a leap”*) is utterly critiqued, dismantled, and refashioned by Barth. Historical truth is posed not as a possible demonstration of eternal truth, but rather as an actual demonstration of the inaccessibility of eternal truth based upon historical knowledge. The "leap" from historical knowledge to eternal truth is thus not taken, but rather the KRISIS of God's faithfulness is posed against the meaninglessness of history as an inbreaking of eternal truth into history.

a. “As Christ, Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above. Within history, Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem or Myth. As the Christ, He brings the world of the Father. But we who stand in this concrete world know nothing, and are incapable of knowing anything, of that other world.” (29-30)

b. “There is no fragment or epoch of history which can be pronounced divine. The whole history of the Church and of all religion takes place in this world. What is called the ‘history of our salvation’ is not an event in the midst of other events, but is nothing less than the KRISIS of all history.” (57)

c. For Barth, history is not a basis for eternal truth; rather it teaches the basic inability and unwillingness of humanity to attain this truth (85-86). Those who have the (historical, empirical) law have it as "the impression of divine revelation left behind... a burnt-out crater disclosing the place where God has spoken... a dry canal." (65) "No road to the eternal meaning of the created world has ever existed, save the road of negation. This is the lesson of history." (87) As such, and only as such, "history itself bears witness to resurrection, the concrete world to its non-concrete presupposition, and human life to the paradox of faith which is its inalienable foundation." (116)

2. The death of the sinner with Christ reveals the positive basis upon which God's negation of human sin stands. Righteousness is an impossibility for the "old man", so that the sinner's recognition of sin must come from outside (198). In dying with Christ, the sinner faces the negation of sin in faith and from the resurrection. This new identity in Christ offers a radical critique of those conceptions of subjectivity which constrain or determine the possibility of human knowledge and understanding (Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kierkegaard), the coherence of historical meaning (Troeltsch), or the terms upon which God encounters the creature (Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard). The resurrection is the "centre from which the KRISIS proceeds" and the "standard of impossibility by which visible human possibilities are measured." (203)

a. "By faith the primal reality of human existence in God enters our horizon… We believe that Christ died in our place, and that therefore we died with him. We believe in our identity with the invisible new man who stands on the other side of the Cross. We believe in that eternal existence of ours which is grounded upon the knowledge of death, upon the resurrection, upon God. We believe that we shall also live with him." (201-202)

b. "The reality of this life of lusts is not surprising. What is surprising is that I should authorize a definition, in terms of such lusts, of what I am under grace; that, failing to recognize the relativity of this life, I should obey it and ascribe to it transcendent reality, that- employing a metaphysical term- I should 'hypostatize' it, transmute it, dedicate it, and pronounce it to be holy and religious." (210)

c. "under grace, we cannot admit or allow grace and sin to be two alternative possibilities or necessities, each with its own rights and properties. For this reason, the Gospel of Christ is a shattering disturbance, an assault which brings everything into question. For this reason, nothing is so meaningless as the attempt to construct a religion out of the Gospel, and to set it as one human possibility in the midst of others. Since Schleiermacher, this attempt has been undertaken more consciously than ever before in Protestant theology- and it is the betrayal of Christ." (225)

*Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, vol. 1, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 93.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A few items...

  • Ben Johnson reports on the discovery of a codex of previously unknown sermons, six of which have been verified to be from Augustine of Hippo. Following two previous discoveries over the last few decades from Divjak and Dolbeau, the increase of known Augustinian sermons have already, and will continue to aid scholars immensely in understanding Augustine's pastoral role in North Africa.
  • Stanley Fish reviews an upcoming book on academic freedom. I've found Fish's thoughts on this topic helpful- especially in a discipline like theology, it's important to consider the limits of the concept of freedom in academic inquiry. We represent a field that isn't so obviously served by modern liberal appeals to lofty philosophical manifestations of "freedom", insofar as we are directed by certain modes of authority and method. All disciplines, of course, will benefit from Fish's thoughts, but ours in particular I think has reason to pay attention.
  • Jean-Luc Marion has been elected to the Academie Francaise, the elite society of French thinkers founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Marion takes the place of Jean-Marie Lustiger, Cardinal of Paris, who died in 2007. Marion is recognized as one of the best living Catholic minds, a great interpreter of Descartes, and an authoritative voice in current conversations on theology and philosophy.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Europeana: think culture

A new digital library was launched yesterday drawing from Europe's "museums, libraries, archives, and audio-visual collections"-- the prototype has about 2 million documents and artifacts available, and this number is projected to triple by 2010. It looks as if it will be like a Google Books, only with a wider range of media and more complete access.

Sounds like a wonderful resource, doesn't it? Yeah, lots of people thought so. That's why with a traffic rate of 10 million users an hour, the site crashed yesterday. I tried to get on and search around a bit, but the whole process was prohibitively slow. I got to the stage of seeing thumbnail sketches of search results, but couldn't pull anything up. From what I saw, they seemed to offer some very high quality digitizations of everything from old manuscripts to vases and paintings. This should prove to be an extremely helpful resource when they have everything improved and relaunched. For now the site is down, but there is information in the link posted above. The plan is to relaunch in mid-December, so check back here in a bit.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Jerusalem Declaration and the new Anglican province in North America

Common Cause has announced that the Jerusalem Declaration will be signed in Wheaton on Dec. 3rd, following a convention of leaders responsible for the drafting of a constitution and preparation for the new Anglican province in North America. The event is open to the public so that all can come and affirm the declaration; if I'm able to attend I'll certainly report back about it.

This event will establish the new Anglican province in America that his been so long in the making. Apparently 100,000 Anglicans throughout North America make up the federation that is now taking the next canonical step towards provincial recognition. The Primates' Meeting in February will see a significant primatial recognition, already pledged since the Jerusalem meeting this past summer.

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh will lead the new province, and Archbishop Rowan Williams has already instructed him to submit an application to Canterbury for the recognition of the new province.

How this will work out in the coming months, it's hard for me to say. I simply haven't been keeping up with the news on the Anglican Communion and need to do some more research. One interesting comment that I read today mentioned that it will be difficult to continue recognizing the validity of the Episcopal Church (TEC) if the new Anglican province in America approves of the eventual Anglican Covenant while TEC does not. Although the Covenant has been received with some suspicion by liberals and conservatives alike, this observation might be the most accurate to how things end up playing out.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Troeltsch on Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Christianity

"Schleiermacher, after declaring in his Über die Religion: Reden an die gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern [On Religion: Addresses in Response to Its Cultured Critics] that he would bar no book from becoming a Bible, later- in his theological and ecclesiastical period- developed an interpretation of Christianity as the realization of that essence of religion which is latent in creation and which evolves by means of the elevation of the spirit over the flesh. Yet at the same time he was careful to consider Christianity in its constantly individual and historically limited, hence always changeable, forms. It was he who coined the catchword "individual" (das Individuelle) and made it fruitful for a nondogmatic understanding of Christian history. For this reason it was also he who limited the absolute religion to a single point, to the person of Jesus, whom he then interpreted, in a sense that was actually both historical and dogmatic, as an archetypal redemptive figure of absolute, unconditioned, and unlimited religious knowledge and power, subject to change in appearance but in reality changeless. The effects proceeding from this original figure, however, he at once subsumed again under the category of history, holding that they were always to be understood not only as mperfect because of sin but also as necessarily limited because of their individual character.

Hegel, on the other hand, defined Christianity in its entirety as the absolute religion, for he perceived in it the highest and final stage of religion. In fact, however, it was for him merely the last of the preparatory stages that, though remaining limited to symbols, would lead to the absolute religion. This absolute religion was to evolve out of Christianity as a purely mental construct, but its truth could be demonstrated only by drawing inferences from the absolute principle inhering in the absolute idea that works itself out in history. Accordingly, the idea of the absolute religion was taken not from history but from the concept of the absolute itself. The concept of the absolute was regarded as a rationally necessary concept. It derived from and was utterly dependent on a rationally necessary concept of God, but it appeared in history only as an end product of thought. However, the connection between this concept and historical Christianity- most important, its connection with the person of Jesus taken as exhibiting this concept perfectly in a practical sense- is merely asserted, not demonstrated.

Thus both of these creative thinkers made only cautious, qualified use of the idea of Christianity as the absolute religion..."

Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, trans. David Reid, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), pp. 76-77.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reading the Decalogue through the Centuries

Wheaton College hosted the McManis Lectures this past week on "Reading the Decalogue through the Centuries". I only made it down the hill for Hunsinger's talk on Karl Barth, but the free audio is now up for the conference here, so I'm about to catch up on the other speakers.

Papers included David Novak on Maimonides, Matthew Levering on Thomas Aquinas, Carl Trueman on John Owen, and D. Stephen Long on John Wesley. Unfortunately Avery Cardinal Dulles was not able to make the conference because of ongoing health problems, and Richard John Neuhaus had to cancel because of illness.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dulce et decorum - Remembering the fallen.

The refrain of Veterans Day will likely not be widely voiced in the theological blogosphere: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and right to die for one’s country. The concern (a legitimate one) is that our heavenly patria must suffer no rival for our devotion. This solemn holiday seems to elevate in memory all that many theologians today fear in unbridled patriotism and nationalism, which works to establish the worship of what Karl Barth rightly identified as mere “tribal gods”.

It is difficult for me to read the testimonies of old soldiers, or look at rows upon rows of gravestones, however, without feeling a weight of the truth of the memory that this holiday offers- even preaches to us. Celebrants of Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans Day… are not, in their affirmation of the sweetness and rightness of national service, presenting us today with a rival patria that would lessen our commitment to the kingdom of God; I simply do not see it. War may be irredeemably evil. As Bonhoeffer points out, security may never attain peace. But who finds today a celebration of war, or a triumphalist declaration that peace has been won with a gun and not with the loving Word of our Lord and Savior? I simply do not see it.

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The central message of Veterans Day seems to be that of dying (or willingness to die) for the sake of another. It is a message not particular to a nation-state, or a war, or a political camp. It does not seek to say what is or is not worthy of such a sacrifice. (much as Christ was no respecter of such worth)

I am hushed today by memories that are not mine, but have been bequeathed to me by the sordid legacy of Europe, and by the world’s participation in the tragedies of this region during the 20th century. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not for us to moralize about these tragedies or to turn away from solemn remembrance of them in a feigned defense of the Gospel’s sublation of human violence and modern idols. I don’t think that is what this holiday is about.

At a Calvary near the Ancre, by Wilfred Owen

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,

But His disciples hide apart;

And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ's denied.

The scribes on all the people shove

And brawl allegiance to the state,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their lives; they do not hate.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dispute among religious at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Greek and Armenian clergymen fight over their right to station monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Stories like this often sound ludicrous to believers outside of the Holy Land; I try not to pass over-confident judgment on the disputants because I am simply not immersed in the same life as they are.  As much as a sacramental vision of life remains an aspiration for me, fighting over patches of ground and the practice of rite beside the actual sepulchre traditionally held to be graced by our Savior is an altogether foreign category.

If nothing else these incidents remind me that ecumenical striving is worth the toil, that exploration of communions and denominations not my own is worth pursuit, and that the temporary struggles with which we meet one another must be recognized yet overcome in Christian charity.  It is also a reminder that we may be the naive ones, having acclimated ourselves to alien soil and fallen from the recognition that our heavenly patria was in Christ brought to earth.  

Friday, November 7, 2008

An embarrassing admission on Feuerbach...

Hopefully I'm not the only one to have made this mistake. I spoke with a much-better read scholar who also wasn't aware of the following distinction, so I don't feel quite as stupid.

Ludwig Feuerbach, significant in theological circles for the idea that "all theology is anthropology", was quite fond of publishing works on the "essence" of things. A more general 19th century past-time of academicians, Feuerbach added to the list of "Das Wesen der/s..." titles with his own inquiries on religion, "faith" in Luther, and Christianity.

In the process of reading what I thought was The Essence of Religion for class yesterday, it took me until the beginning of lecture 4 to realize that something was amiss; thankfully Feuerbach is very self-reflective and refers back constantly to explanations of his method and his previous works. The particular comment, "I shall briefly summarize the first paragraph of The Essence of Religion", tipped me off to the fact that I had the wrong book.

There is in fact a short work, The Essence of Religion, by Feuerbach- not to be confused with the longer work Lectures on the Essence of Religion by the same author. After searching a few Feuerbach bibliographies, I found that even some of them did not make this distinction, only managing to list one or the other of the two works.

I can find two editions of the English translation Das Wesen Der Religion in print: a 2004 reprint from Prometheus Books and a 2006 reprint from Kessinger Publishing. Both appear to be reprints of the 1873 Alexander Loos translation (and I'm now reading that Loos only translates three essays from Feuerbach's original work... if anyone is aware of a complete translation somewhere, let me know, but I haven't run across any).

Clear as mud? Hope this helps. Please correct me if I've got any of this wrong. This is simply an afternoon of investigative work on my part, so I may have missed something.