The Orthodox liturgy involves the body in worship through various symbolic actions. Worshippers face towards the East, mark themselves with the sign of the cross, make deep bows and sometimes prostrate themselves.
The practices of fasting and abstinence involve the body in spiritual life.
The two chief sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, directly involve the body. The Orthodox Churches prefer full immersion baptism rather than sprinkling and use ordinary bread instead of communion wafers.
Anointing of the body with oil is common practice, and in the Christian East oil is both a normal ingredient in cooking and a regular part of worship. In the Euchelaion, 'the oil of prayer,' the sick are anointed with oil which is seen to confer both physical healing and the forgiveness of sins.
At funerals the coffin is left open, and all give a last kiss to the departed. The dead body is seen as an object of love, not abhorrence. Cremation is normally forbidden because of reverence for the physical body and belief in its ultimate resurrection.
In marriage, the sacramental 'matter' that receives God's blessing is the actual body of the man and woman entering matrimony (as opposed to, say, the Eucharist, where it's the bread and wine that are blessed and then consumed by worshippers). While the Greek Fathers have an ambiguous relationship to marriage, which is often seen as inferior to celibacy, and see sex as primarily about child-bearning rather than an expression of love, the negetive elements of their attitude to marriage aren't present at all in the service for a first marriage (although in the service for a second marriage following a divorce, marriage is portrayed as a remedy against sin and a way of controlling our unruly impulses). Instead, the reasons given for mariage are the love of husband and wife, and the bearing and bringing-up of children.
The body has a part in private prayer, especially in the (sometimes controversial) practice of 'hesychast prayer', which uses the Jesus prayer (the repetition of this prayer: 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner') and links it with the rhythm of breathing. There are three elements of this 'physical method' of prayer:
Bodily posture: sit on a low stool with head bowed and chin resting on chest.
Breathing is regulated – slowed and coordinated with the words of the Jesus Prayer.
Hesychasts practice inner exploration, or searching for the place of the heart. The hesychast pictures ther breath coming in the nostrils, passing down within the lungs and into the heart, and at the same time seeks to make their intellect descend with their breath so that intellect and heart are united. Interestingly, it's seen as dangerous to explore the body below the heart in this way.
Sunday, 29 March 2009
Friday, 27 March 2009
Ware takes a saying of John Climacus – that the body is 'my helper and my enemy' - as typical of an ambivalence towards the body in Greek Christianity. He suggests two reasons for this – one is the doctrine of the Fall which suggests that however good the body was to start with, it's now broken by sin and a cause of temptation. The other is a tension between the 'Hebraic-biblical' tradition which tends to see the human person very holistically, and the 'Hellenic-Platonist' tradition, which, while resisting full-on body/soul dualisms, tends to distinguish between body and soul in its discussions of human nature.
Ware also suggests that attitudes to the body were shaped by changes in society. Between 284 and 565 (I assume that's some significant historical period, though I couldn't tell you why), society became increasingly hierarchical and rigid, with social roles more clearly defined, and more hereditary serfdom meaning that peasants in the fields were pretty much stuck with the same bit of land as their fathers, and sons in the city had little choice but to take on the family business. He suggests that this increasing rigidity of society corresponds to increasing rigidity in terms of the rules by which the body and sexual behaviour were controlled. This might be partly to do with the influence of Christianity, but was a shift that begun before Christianity was really influential in the Roman Empire.
He outlines the views of various important Greek theologians. Origen thought that souls were created before bodies and were put in bodies as a punishment for earlier sin (let's talk more about Origen some time – he's bonkers), which didn't mean that bodies were bad, necessarily, but did mean that souls didn't need bodies and so the body wasn't seen as intrinsic to human nature. Clement of Alexandria, on the other hand, thinks we can only be saved through the body, and argues that the image of God in humankind is in the fact that by reproducing we get to take part in creation. He says that 'among those who are sanctified, even the seed is holy.' Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, though, think that we only get married and have sex because of the Fall, though Irenaeus and Augustine disagree – Irenaeus thinks that as they grew older, Adam and Eve would've got round to getting it on even without sin, but there just wasn't time between the old making-woman-out-of-a-rib lark and that bad thing they did with the apple (oo er).
So, a lot of ambivalent attitudes. Also, from the 3rd century the church started to reinstate Old Testament rules about women being unclean during their period, and it's still common practice in the Orthodox Church to ban women from communion while they're riding the crimson tide. There are also records of men being banned from communion if they had a wet dream the night before (Hi Tom, noticed you didn't go up for communion today, what gives? Well, er...) Also frowned upon is doing the nasty the night before communion, and while you could argue that this is about reverence for the mystery of sex, it contrasts interestingly with rabbinic traditions which see the Sabbath night as the most appropriate time for a bit of how's-your-father.
There's also a suspicion of bodies - especially women's - in the monastic tradition from the 4th century, but there's also a lot of reverence for the bodies of the sick and the poor. The ascetic tradition (that's the monks with the fasting, chastity, general self-discipline, and occasionally maggots) is often seen as being pretty negative about the body, and while there's definitely a bit of that, ascetic practice is perhaps better understood as a struggle to discipline the body so that it can be saved rather than because it's bad. Symeon, one of the Desert Fathers, once said, 'my hand is Christ, my foot is Christ, my penis is Christ.' So there.
There's also a long tradition of seeing the heart as the centre of the human person. Macarius uses the heart as a symbol for the whole person, and its seen as the place where the intellect is located and where grace enters us. Greek tradition often sees as the heart as the seat of thought, and tend to say that the true fullness of our hearts is hidden even from us. The prayer of the heart is, in the Byzantine tradition, prayer of the whole person, including the body and God's spirit praying within us, so to 'enter' or 'discover' the heart comes to represent the reintegration of our personhood in God.
Photo credit: treviño on Flickr
Monday, 23 March 2009
Point: 1. It would seem not. Aristotle says that woman is a less good version of a man, and the original creation can't have included anything defective, right? (Thanks, Aristotle). 2. Subjection and inferiority are a result of sin, and without sin, we'd all be equal. But women are clearly crappier than men because the 'active' is always superior to the 'passive.' 3. We should get rid of things that tempt us to sin, and women tempt men to sin.
On the other hand: The Bible tells us that God said 'it is not good for man to be alone.'
Reply: Man needed someone to help him (not as a friend, or a co-worker ha! Obviously if it was about having a friend or someone to help with practical stuff, God would have just made another man. Women? Friends? Partners? Don't make me laugh) with the work of procreation. 1. Women are defective as individuals, but that doesn't mean the whole species of humanity is defective. A healthy male seed will grow into a healthy male baby, and women are only born when the seed's not quite right, or when there's a damp south wind, or something like that (thanks, ancient biologists!). 2. There are two different sorts of subjection: the bad sort, where the ruler manages his subject selfishly - this is a result of sin - and the good sort, where the ruler manages his subject for their own good, and this would have existed even without sin because men are more rational than women, who need ruling over for their own good. 3. God couldn't just take away everything from creation that might lead him into sin, and women add value to creation as well as temptation.
It's tempting to make allowances for Thomas, because I really do love him, but having seen 2. deployed as an argument for why women shouldn't be allowed to be leaders, in a book by the wife of a prominent Christian leader (though mightn't her emotions be clouding her judgment? Let's hope a man checked it first...), and having just read an excellent book by Grace Jantzen about the way that our ideas about gender and power are at work in all sorts of surprising areas of Christian theology, I think this matters, quite a lot. I think it should change how we read Thomas as a whole, knowing that this is there underneath it, and I think that seeing how much his weird ideas about men and women are bound up with weird ideas about biology, and yet are still pretty close to some of the ways people talk about men and women now should make us think a bit more carefully about what it is we really mean when we talk about the difference between men and women.
Photo credit: 'Lawrence OP' on Flickr
Thursday, 19 March 2009
Friday, 13 March 2009
Troeltsch says that churches are conservative – they accept the relationship between Church and state as it is, and see themselves, in principle at least, as universal, able to include the whole of humanity under their wings. They base themselves on the 'objective concrete holiness' of the priesthood, the Apostolic succession and the sacraments. They tend to be intertwangled with the State and the 'ruling classes' – they feed off each other, and so the Church becomes part of the social order.
The essence of the Church 'type' is that it's institutional. Individuals are born into it, and the institutions of the priesthood and the ecclesiastical hierarchy mediate grace by virtue of their place in the institution rather than their individual holiness. The Church is prepared to compromise with the world, because they see the institution as remaining holy in spite of individual inadequacy. The Church's main priority is to ensure that every individual comes within reach of the influence of the sacraments, which are the means of grace and this is why the Church wants to dominate society – in order to ensure universal access to the means of of grace. Churches tend to see the New Testament and early church as the starting point, which leads to a willingness to see doctrine as something which develops over time, and also to compromise.
Sects are smaller than churches, and their main aspiration is inward perfection and personal fellowship within the group. They organise themselves in small groups and don't expect any sort of dominance within society – they treat society with an attitude of indifference, tolerance or hostility. Where Churches focus on the 'objective concrete holiness' of their structures and sacraments, sects tend to focus on the moral demands of Jesus' teaching. Sects tend to exist either among the lower classes, or in other parts of society which don't get on so well with the state. They tend to be a lot more disengaged from society – they might refuse to engage with secular law, to swear to tell the truth in court, or to fight for their country. They tend to see the kingdom of God as opposed to all secular interests and institutions.
Characteristic features of sects include an emphasis on lay Christianity (i.e., no ordination), an emphasis on personal ethical behaviour, brotherly love, direct and personal relationship with God, criticism of 'official' theologians, and appeals to the New Testament and early Church. Sects tend to see the New Testament and early Church as a permanent ideal, which can lead to radicalism and rather literal obedience. This is partly why they struggle to become big organisations, and also why they need to constantly renew their ideal, why they tend to show a lack of continuity, a pronounced individualism, and an affinity with oppressed groups within society where 'an ardent desire for improvement of their lot goes hand in hand with a complete ignorance of the complicated conditions of life.'
All of this means that Christian life within sects tends to be very intense, but lacking in a sense of universalism as they can't help but see the wider church as degenerate. They tend to have low expectations of the possibility of changing the world through human effort, so often emphasise eschatology. Sects are also big on voluntary membership, and see spiritual progress as dependent not on the impartation of grace through the sacraments but on individual personal effort.
Troeltsch argues that these are two distinct types of church, although in real life there might be some overlap. He thinks that they're both valid expressions of important strands within Christianity, both with their strengths and weaknesses. He's been critiqued a fair bit, though I get the impression that sociologists of religion still use some version of his distinction. There's also some interesting stuff out there about the process by which sects can sometimes move towards the church type. What fascinates me is the way that I see both types expressed in some of the churches I've encountered, and I think it raises all sorts of interesting questions about churches' unacknowledged theological assumptions.
Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Mikhail Bakhtin (a Russian scholar) says that the exact sciences (biology, chemistry etc) are about basically about the knowledge of things that don't answer back. Texts, the subject of the humanities, are more complicated. They embody the stage someone has got to in conversation, they invite imaginative response from us. To read is to watch someone thinking and taking risks. Texts answer back, and we can never finish reading them. In David Lodge's Changing Places, there is a character called Professor Zapp, whose ambition is to write an exhaustive commentary on the works of Jane Austen, saying everything that there is to be said about her novels, not because he loves them but in order that, when he is finished, no one will ever have to read the bloody things again. This is not a good way to read.
Where does theology belong in the humanities? It is about the reading of texts, most importantly the Bible, which itself contains various readings and rereadings of the same events. Christianity is all about rereading: the New Testament rereads the Old, the Fathers reread the Bible, the Reformation rereads the Bible and the Fathers, and so on and so on. Revelation isn't about an end but about a beginning: it sets of the process of reading and rereading because behind the text of revelation is an abundant, inexhaustible, creative freedom.
Theology belongs with the humanities because it's about reading books, about conversation with a text that invites response. But is it just one way of reading amongst others? No. Because theology reads its text as coming from inexhaustible creative freedom, makes that freedom the basis of the whole sense of freedom which makes reading possible in the first place. We can only avoid the fate of Professor Zapp if we think that there's always something in the text that continues to escape us, that doesn't just come from ourselves.
Theology isn't just one of the humanities; it's in all of them, in their presuppositions about the necessary sense of freedom in the encounter with texts. Its task is, in part, to keep the humanities faithful to their task of endless rereading, which is grounded in God's nature as overflowing creativity whose identity can never be reduced to sameness. This affects how we see ourselves. Origen said that if we could fully understand ourselves, maybe we could understand God, but that's impossible because we too come from God's endlessness. We should always come to texts expecting to be changed, and the prayerful reading of Scripture is fundamental to what it means to be intelligent beings.
Theology is, among the humanities, the most extreme or concentrated form of humane reading. It should be held to account by the rest of the humanities if and when it tries to escape from its freedom. Theology's most fundamental insight is the doctrine of the image of God in humanity - it is in our elusiveness that we see what it means to be made in the image of God. In thinking about reading, we think about what it means to be human.
Sunday, 8 March 2009
Silent John opens by saying that it’s trendy to talk about going ‘beyond faith’ - that faith has become seen as something easy: everyone takes it for granted, and sees doubt as the starting point of real intellectual development. Silent John thinks that maybe there’s more to faith by that. He talks about a man he knows (this should probably be taken in the same way as the person who talks about ‘my friend has this problem...’) who is obsessed with the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac; who read it over and over, understanding it less and less each time, and, rather than seeing faith as something to go beyond, saw it as a mysterious but desirable goal.
He tells the story of Abraham's sacrifice four different times, with four different versions of what happened. Abraham pretends that he’s a monster, so that Isaac doesn’t realise God told him to make the sacrifice, and so lose his faith. Abraham becomes silent after the event, can’t forget what God told him to do, and knows no more joy. Abraham repents of his sin in having been prepared to forget his parental duty and sacrifice his son. Isaac loses his faith.
'No one was as great as Abraham; who is able to understand him?’
Silent John says that Abraham is the exemplar of the life of faith, that his whole life was about understanding and living out faith. He lived for 130 years, but got no further than faith. He then goes on to examine the problems of the story of Abraham's sacrifice.
Why is Abraham a great man, a hero of faith, whereas anyone else who tried to kill his child would be seen as a monster? We talk as if understanding Hegel is a miracle (fair enough, I say), but understanding Abraham is easy peasy. If we can read the story of Abraham without losing sleep over it, we’re not reading it right. What made Abraham a man of faith is not just that he accepted God’s command – the move of infinite resignation – but that he had faith all along that God would restore Isaac to him.
Imagine this: a young man falls in love with a princess. His whole life is in this love, but it cannot be. He comes to realise this, and accepts it in the move of infinite resignation. He keeps his love young in his heart. There was a man who believed he’d made this movement, but then as years went on, the princess married a prince (Hello Regine!), and the young man was distraught, and realised he’d never made the move of resignation in the first place.
The knight of faith makes the movement of resignation, but then goes one step further and, by virtue of the absurd, is also sure that, in fact, he will possess the princess.
Silent John then asks three questions about the story of Abraham:
1. Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?
This means ‘are the rules of ethics suspended in light of a higher principle? The ethical is the universal principle, and individuals sin by asserting their individuality against this universality. But faith is the paradox that the individual is higher than the universal. It’s not possible to have faith in paganism, because there’s no personal relationship with God and the ethical is equated straightforwardly with the divine. Faith privileges the individual’s relationship with God over universal ethics. (It’s hard not to see Kierkegaard's dumping of Regine here: I did an unethical thing in response to the call of God)
2. Is there an absolute duty to God?
The ethical, the universal, and the divine can’t be simply equated as Hegel tries to do. There is an absolute duty to God, in which the individual relates absolutely to the absolute, relativising the ethical. Because of this, what the individual does can’t be explained in terms of the universal: by their act of faith they put themselves outside of the universal, alone, lonely. Our decisions can’t be affirmed by anyone else or they’re back in the universal. We have to make the terrible decision of faith utterly alone.
3. Was it ethically defensible for Abraham to conceal his undertaking from Sarah, from Eliezer, and from Isaac?
Because the ethical is the universal, it is disclosed, out there in the open, accessible to everyone. Because faith goes beyond the universal, it can’t be explained in the universal, can’t be shared with anyone else. The hero of faith, unlike the tragic hero, is condemned to the terrible responsibility of utter solitude. He cannot speak.
Silent John ends by saying that to think we can go beyond previous generations, beyond faith, is foolishness. When children get bored of their games by lunchtime, does this mean they’re more advanced than the other children, or is it that they lack the ability to play well? Faith, says Silent John, is the highest goal of human life: many never attain it in the first place, and no one gets past it.
Friday, 6 March 2009
Imagine you got crafty and made something, say one of those papier maché Tracy Islands they used to show you how to make on Blue Peter. And say that your little papier maché Tracy brothers started to try and speak about their creator. Their whole world is made of papier maché, and so they’d have to talk to you in terms of their world: our creator is like the glue that holds the island together. She is like the newspaper that is the ground of our being. She is like the paint that makes everything beautiful. And those things might say something true about you, but they wouldn’t capture the whole of your complexity, and they wouldn't be able to think of you except in terms of paint, glue and newspaper, which would be fairly inappropriate as a description of your essence.
And it’s worse than that for us: you and Tracy Island might have in common things like colour, solidity, and shape, but the problem for us is that all of the words we have are words that come from things that God made, and God is not one of the things that God made. God is not another thing in the world, so that if you took away God there would be one less thing, and so, while we can only talk of him in terms of things-in-the-world, we'll never really get what it means for God to be God.
Think of it another way. Have you ever tried looking at a word so long that it just seems like nonsense? Try this one: banana. Think about it. Eventually (or at least if your brain works like mine) it seems meaningless, because sooner or later you realise that there’s no real connection between the thing and the word we use to name it. It’s like that with God, only worse, because none of the words we have even come from God, they all come from our experience of things that God made and that aren’t God, so there’s a double disconnect.
God is so big that we can’t get our heads round the divine nature because there’s more of God than we can fit in our heads. God is so other than none of the words we have can be used to describe the thing that God is because they all come from the names for things that God is not. All of our language is creaturely, and God is not a creature. All of our language is finite, and God is not finite. And so, language fails: hence, apophatic theology, which is really about arriving at the point of theological silence. And the paradox here is that it’s only then, when we’re standing in the ruins of all our beautiful words, that we really see God, in what Dionysius the Areopagite calls ‘the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.’
But the apophatic and the cataphatic shouldn’t be in a big fight with each other. It’s not (quite) like there are theologians in the blue corner shouting ‘We can talk about God!’ and theologians in the red corner shouting, ‘No we can’t!’ (or maybe just saying nothing, but looking disagreeable) Apophatic and cataphatic theology have to go together. If we just talk about what God is, we end up idolaters, thinking that the images we have created with our words are the same thing as God. And we can’t get to the apophatic without the cataphatic – it’s not until we’ve pushed language to its very extreme that we can really understand what it means for our words to fail. Denys Turner likens the apophatic to a lecturer’s embarrassed pause after he realises that he’s talked too much. The apophatic comes after language, not before it.
It’s not quite a healthy tension (aren’t they boring?) - it’s more that we need to do both to the extreme. Here, I think, is the perfect example of the interaction of the two: Thomas Aquinas dedicated years of his life to writing the Summa Theologiae, writing thousands of pages, asking, analysing and answering hundreds of questions and addressing thousands of objections. Then one day, he stopped, suddenly, refused to write any more, and when asked why, said, ‘It is all straw.’ And then he died.
Wednesday, 4 March 2009
Nemesius of Emesa, On the Nature of Man (tr. R W Sharples and P J van der Eijk)
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
The aesthetic person lives for the moment. They have no deep commitments to one thing or another. They're not totally impulsive, but will only pursue long term goals as long as they're appealing, and will drop them once they're bored or something more fun appears on the horizon. They see life in terms of possibilities to be considered and enjoyed, not in terms of projects to pursue or ideals to live out. The aesthetic person is basically passive, and seeks satisfaction in things over which they have no control, dependent on what happens externally. Because the aesthetic person's life has such an uncertain foundation, it may appear pretty meaningless. There's probably some awareness of the possibility of a higher form of life, but the aesthetic person tries to deal with this either by keeping so busy that they don't have time to think about it, or by starting to see themselves as a melancholy person, for whom sorrow is the meaning of life - at least this can't be taken away. They might regard their melancholy as a fate, seeing themselves as a tragic hero, but by seeing themselves in such fatalistic terms, they absolve themselves from any responsibility for themselves and any obligation to take action and change their situation.
You can, I think, see elements of the aesthetic person both in your average small child, whose thought processes seem (from the outside at least) to go something like this: ooh, shiny thing, let's go and look at that, ow, I hit my head, waaaah! Ooh, food yum, oh, it fell on the floor, look a new person, let's pull their hair, hey, no one's paying attention to me, maybe I should throw something on the floor so they have to pick it up....
The aesthete's heroes: Homer Simpson, Kevin the teenager
The ethical seems to be focused on 'choosing oneself' - the ethical person sees themself as a goal, and where the aesthete is constantly distracted by and concerned with external things, the ethical person directs their attention and efforts towards their own nature, being something over which they have control. They examine themselves to discover what they really want, and what's important isn't so much whether they achieve the things they set out to achieve, but more the extent to which they throw their whole selves into their activities. The ethical life is basically one long training montage. One of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms says that the ethical person expresses the universal in their own life, rather than developing their own individual ideas of right and wrong, but towards the end of Either/Or the ethical starts to seem more problematic, and it is acknowledged that certain exceptional individuals might struggle to express the ethical universal in their own life.
The aesthete's heroes: Rocky Balboa, the American Dream and all who sail in her
The religious mode of life is presented in Fear and Trembling textbook of many an angsty-yet-surprisingly-intellectual teenager (Kierkegaard was, in fact, the first person to talk about existential angst, and I find that in many ways it is illuminating to think of him as the creator of teenage angst, although it's arguable that the intellectual content of angst has been declining ever since). Apparently Karl Barth said something along the lines of 'You should aways be suspicious of anyone who did not passionately admire Kierkegaard in their youth, and suspicious of anyone who still passionately admires Kierkegaard as they get older.'
Fear and Trembling is basically all about the inability of the ethical to comprehend faith, and is horrendously complicated by confusion over the extent to which Kierkegaard actually believes the things he writes. It's basically a long meditation on Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and talks about the 'teleological suspension of the ethical': the possibility of committing unethical acts in view of a higher calling from God. The person of faith is isolated from others by his faith, unable to justify his actions to them. This is a tricky subject, one which we'll talk about more later, but for now, let's say this: faith is something which, in response to the call of God, takes a person outside of the realm of socially acceptable behaviour, outside of the limits of human reason. It requires a 'leap of faith' because it can't be done by human rationality.
The religious person's heroes: Søren Kierkegaard
You can see very clearly here some of Kierkegaard's pet themes: the impossibility of fitting Christianity into socially acceptable middle-class beliefs and behaviours (= 'why I am rude and a social misfit'), the failure of attempts to reduce faith to human reason (= 'why my lecturers are wrong', the isolation which comes from following God (= 'why I have no friends'), and the difficult choices which God requires of us (= 'why I dumped my girlfriend').
One final confession. While you've probably worked out by now that I think Kierkegaard can be a bit petty and adolescent, I should admit I am firmly in the camp of people who were passionate about him as teenagers and then grew out of him a bit, so my cynicism is at least as much about my teenage self as it is about poor old Søren, who says some really good, true, important and insightful things. As, for all their faults, do many angsty teenagers.