Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Incredible Adventures of Brother Juniper: Chef

Once, when Brother Juniper was staying in a friary, all the friars had to go out at once, leaving Brother Juniper on his own, perhaps unwisely. They asked him if he could do some cooking and have their tea ready for them when they got back (again, at this point you may want to question their judgement). Brother Juniper was only too happy to help out. But as he was getting ready to cook, he thought to himself 'Well, it's just silly for someone to always have to be cooking instead of praying. I know what I'll do, I'll cook two weeks' worth of food all in one go, and then we can all pray all the time instead of faffing about in the kitchen.'

So off Brother Juniper went to town, to fetch enormous cooking pots and oodles of food: meat, birds, eggs, herbs, and no end of firewood. He lit the fire and then tipped all the food into the cooking pots: the birds with their feathers on and the eggs in their shells, in it all went. When the friars came back, one, who had been worried about what Brother Juniper might get up to, went into the kitchen to have a look-see. He found Brother Juniper skipping happily around the kitchen, busily cooking. Excited, he told the friars that they could expect a feast. They thought he was joking.

When the dinner bell rang, the monks sat themselves at the table, and Brother Juniper came in, beaming, and proudly announced that they needn't worry about cooking for a whole two weeks as he'd cooked so much food. And he served up his cordon bleu cuisine. "There is no hog in the whole of Rome hungry enough to eat thereof", says The Little Flowers of St Francis. But Brother Juniper smacked his lips and tucked in, explaining to the monks just how nourishing the food was.

But the warden, angry about all the wasted food, gave Brother Juniper a thorough ticking off, at which Juniper fell on his knees, beating his breast and confessing that he was a terrible sinner for having wasted God's good gifts. He went off, weeping, and no one saw him for the rest of the day.

The warden sighed, and said 'Brothers, if only someone would waste this much food every day out of such simplicity and charity. How much we would learn.' But I'm not sure he meant it.

Photo credit: publicenergy on Flickr.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Meet Dionysius the Areopagite

Pseudo-Dionysius/Dionysios/Denys the Areopagite, or, as we shall call him, plain Dionysius (I was once rebuked by a supervisor for referring to him as 'Pseudo-Dionysius': 'Poor chap'), is little known outside certain academic circles (most theology post-grads I have met respond to his name with a baffled “Who?”), but nonetheless very influential. He’s called ‘Pseudo’ Dionysius because, although he was a 6th century Syrian theologian he writes as though he is the Dionysius who was converted by Paul’s sermon about the unknown God at the Areopagus in Athens. Because of the original Dionysius' relationship to Paul, the pseudo Dionysius' work was seen as a notch down from the authority of the Bible for many centuries. He is one of the three thinkers most-quoted by Aquinas (the others being Augustine and Aristotle, if I remember correctly), and is the most influential figure on the Western tradition of mystical theology. But in the 19th century people started to suspect him of not being quite as old as he claims, and lost interest for a while, until in the 20th century people started to get interested in apophatic theology and to write books about Dionysius and his relevance to modern theology.

People disagree about whether his pseudonym was just a naughty attempt to seem more important than Dionysius actually was, perhaps to settle doctrinal disputes, or whether it wasn’t really ever meant to be a big deception. People who think we shouldn’t be too cross with Dionysius for pretending to be someone he wasn’t often argue that his chosen name is meant to communicate something about what he was trying to do. In Paul’s account, Dionysius was a Greek, in Athens as Paul preached the gospel to the Greeks, and certainly the heart of Dionysius' theology seems to be an attempt to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy, especially Neoplatonism. Again, people disagree on whether this was a good thing: was Dionysius a brilliant thinker, engaging with the best philosophy of his day to make the gospel relevant, or was he a sell-out, compromising the core truths of Christianity for the sake of seeming more relevant to the educated people of his day?

The works we have by Dionysius are The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, and ten Letters. In The Celestial Hierarchy, Dionysius identifies nine ranks of angels and describes them. In The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Dionysius describes three ranks of lay Christians, three ranks of church leadership, and three crucial Christian rites which he describes in some detail (apparently baptism in the 6th century Syrian church involved getting completely naked before being dunked in water and covered in oil). The Divine Names is all about, er, names for God, and The Mystical Theology is all about the ways in which all of those names are completely inadequate for describing God. There are also a couple of books - The Symbolic Theology and The Theological Reflections which we don't have but Dionysius claims to have written. No one's quite sure whether they exist but got lost or were never real in the first place.

Dionysius is interesting, fun, blessedly brief, and is also the only theologian I've read so far who argues that God is drunk. For that reason alone, he's well worth attention.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Simon Critchley on Heidegger

The Guardian is currently running a really good series by Simon Critchley giving a basic introduction to the thought of Heidegger, an important 20th German philosopher. As it's so much in the spirit of this blog (though a bit short on jokes), I thought it was worth mentioning. The articles are available here:

Part 1: Why Heidegger matters
Part 2: On 'mineness'
Part 3: Being-in-the-world

Friday, 19 June 2009

Mary and Catholic Women

Michelle Spencer-Arsenault (Ponder for a moment the possible meanings of 'Arsenault') published an article in the journal Sociology of Religion in 2000 called Mother Mary: the (Re)Construction of a Female Icon. As a woman who had grown up in a Catholic family, though no longer considering herself a Catholic, she was fascinated by the role of Mary in relation to the way that women in the Catholic Church understood themselves.

Various sociological studies have suggested that not only does religion have an important role in shaping the way that men and women understand their gender, and in maintaining gender differences, but that women and men actually have different experiences of religion. Spencer-Arsenault (every time I write her name I giggle a little, which is of course terribly rude, but I just can't help it) wanted to answer some of the following questions: How do Catholic women construct their identities within a religious context in which Mary is held up as a role model? Can the image of Mary, which often represents so many patriarchal ideas, really be relevant for modern women? While Mary is often held up as a model for all Christians within Catholic teaching, there's often a particular emphasis on devotion to Mary for Catholic women. The Catholic church tends to particularly emphasise Mary's role as virgin, ideal mother, and an example of quiet obedience. To understand how Catholic women related to these ideas about Mary, Spencer-Arsenault spent time interviewing Catholic women in Eastern Canada.

Mary, an image of ritualised awe
Spencer-Arsenault describes the annual May crowning of Mary in which many Catholic women participate. Young girls dress up in white and blue, and parade through the streets to the church, where they process down the aisle to the altar, where there's a statue of Mary which the girls crown before leading the congregation in the Hail Mary.

Spencer-Arsenault says that, for most of the Catholic women she interviewed, this ritual was at the heart of their understanding about Mary, and they'd often describe their experiences of the May crowning whilst trying to explain the importance of Mary. Many of the women she interviewed saw the high value that Catholic church placed on Mary as representing a high value of women in general, especially of women as mothers and as people responsible for transmitting their faith to their children. Because of motherhood, many women saw Mary not only as an object of awe and reverence, but also as a friend, who they could relate to through their own motherhood. Like them, Mary often experienced difficult things during her time on earth, and this helped Roman Catholic women to feel that there was someone who understood their own struggles, and could act as a bridge between heaven and earth.

I found the questions that Spencer-Arsenault asked more interesting than her answers, to be honest (I got to the end of the article and thought, 'Oh. Is that it?' I had to scroll to the end of the bibliography just to make sure there wasn't any more). Even in the Catholic church, not all women use contraception, some are infertile, and some never even get married: what happens to women who never become mothers? Still, some interesting insights.

Photo credits: May-crowned Mary by Clare O'Hagan; Catholic girls by webchicken on Flickr.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Kant on Duty

In the Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, Immanuel Kant sets out to find an understanding of morality that can be derived from first principles rather than from empirical experience. That is, he doesn’t think it’s enough to come up with ethics on the basis of statements like, ‘It makes me sad when people are mean to me’. Morality needs to be grounded in pure reason, i.e. not derived from our individual or human experience, but applicable to any and all rational beings. Groundwork is Kant’s attempt to come up with a purely rational ‘supreme principle of morality’, so that he can then go on to write a more detailed ethics. He starts out by discussing the idea of duty.

Kant says that the only quality which is unambiguously good is a good will. Any other quality is ambiguous: understanding, with, judgment, power, riches, honour, happiness, moderation, self-control: all can be bad when accompanied by a bad will.

A good will isn’t good because of anything it achieves or does: if I give someone a biscuit out of kindness or generosity, but accidentally make them fat, it doesn’t mean my original will was bad. Likewise, if I have kind or generous intentions, but no biscuits with which to express them, that doesn’t mean that my intentions were bad.

Kant says that if we look at human nature, it must be designed for whatever it is that human nature was intended for: just as biscuits are tasty because they’re meant to be eaten, so whatever makes humans particularly human must point us towards whatever the purpose of human nature is. Now, Kant says that if humans were meant primarily to stay alive or to be happy, it would make no sense that we were rational. Everything necessary to existence an happiness could be got by instinct, with a lot less angst. He points out that the more people use reason to try to enjoy life and be happy, the more miserable they are (How many happy philosophers can you name?), and they tend to envy ordinary people who don’t spend so much time thinking about life, and just do whatever they feel like doing. Thus, if reason’s meant to make us happy, it’s a pretty crappy tool to get us there, as if you decided to make biscuits but added a handful of cement to the mixture. Not tasty. It’s reasonable, therefore, to suggest that maybe reason has some other purpose in human nature than to keep us alive and make us happy.

Kant argues that reason must be meant to help us develop a good will. He argues that we don’t have a good will so that we can do good things, but because having a good will is good in itself (this is where the biscuit analogy breaks down, because what use is a biscuit if you can’t eat it?). But what does it mean for a will to be good? This is where the concept of duty comes in. Kant says that a person’s will is only good if they are motivated by duty and nothing else. A shopkeeper might decided to charge a reasonable price for her biscuits because it's the right, dutiful thing to do, but if her biscuits are reasonably priced only because she doesn't want her customers to go elsewhere for their biscuits, she doesn’t get any moral credit for it What matters isn’t the action, but a person’s reason for doing it.

Acting out of duty is acting in accordance with the demands of law, not for any particular goal. The will isn't good if it's motivated by any human desires and inclinations: the only principle it can act on whilst still being a good will is the universal law. Duty means that we should never act in any way that we wouldn’t want the principle we act on to be a universal law. We all have a basic grasp of what duty means, but because of the messy circumstances and tangles of desire and inclination we all find ourselves in, we need philosophy to help us understand the universal law so that we too can have good wills.

I'll go into Kant's idea of the universal law in a bit more detail another time, but for now I'd just like to point out that there are some pretty dodgy dualisms going on here. I get no credit for wanting the right thing if it's in any way contaminated by selfish reasons, and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of room for the idea that what makes us happy might sometimes be the same thing as the right thing to do in a particular circumstance. It's also weird that Kant draws such a sharp distinction between empirical knowledge (ideas we get from our experience) and abstract rational principles, arguing that only rational principles can be the basis for working out morality, as if it's possible for us to have any ideas that aren't profoundly shaped by our individual experiences.

Photo credit: Sifu Renka on Flickr

Sunday, 14 June 2009

My first ever guest blog post.

A milestone, dear readers. I recently signed up for a fun project called Open Table Theology. The idea is that lots of theology bloggers gather round a big virtual table to share their two penn'orth about a particular topic. This month is all about the image of God, and it's been fun so far, although obviously the disadvantage of the virtual table is that there is no actual tea or biscuits provided, so I'm afraid you'll have to bring your own. Check out my contribution here, and everybody else's thoughts here.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Martin Luther: The Freedom of a Christian

Martin Luther wrote The Freedom of a Christian in response to the Pope’s criticisms of his teaching. Contrary to popular belief, Luther wasn’t opposed to the Catholic Church as such, and was pretty gutted when they kicked him out; it was more that he thought they were wrong about some crucial things, and should admit the errors of their ways and agree with him instead. The Freedom of a Christian comes accompanied with a charming little letter which goes roughly like this:

Dear Pope Leo,

I want to make it clear that, while I've attacked the ungodly doctrines of the Catholic Church and your terribly corrupt See, I've never attacked you personally. Sometimes I actually stand up for you, and to show you just how much I wish you well, I've sent you this little treatise, explaining why you are wrong and I am right.

Lots of love,

Luther’s argument revolves around two basic principles:

1. A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
2. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.

He says that human beings have a twofold nature: the spiritual, inner soul, which the Bible refers to as the ‘new man’, and the carnal, outward flesh, which the Bible calls the ‘old man.’ A Christian becomes righteous not by anything to do with the flesh, but only by faith in the Word of God. Only the soul can accept the Word of God, so nothing the flesh can do makes any difference. You can’t think that works get you anywhere and also have faith: as soon as you have faith you realise that you’re entirely ‘blameworthy, sinful, and damnable’, and only by trusting Christ can you become a new man. No outward work can justify a person, and nor can any outward work make a person guilty.

Scripture is divided into commandments and promises. The commandments of the Bible teach us what is good, but they don’t help us to do good things: they’re just meant to show us how incapable we are of doing good. When we despair of ourselves, then the promises come to our aid: they promise that if we only believe in Jesus, we will have all things.

Now, the greatest compliment you could have in a person is having faith in their goodness and trustworthiness, and the greatest insult you could pay a person is to be suspicious of them. The highest worship we can offer to God is to trust him, and the greatest rebellion against him is to disbelieve his promises. When we do good works because we think they’ll make us righteous, because we don’t trust God’s promises, they’re not worth anything and are worse than useless.

Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride with her bridegroom (giggedy giggedy), and the soul becomes one flesh with Christ. This means that everything Christ has, the soul can claim for its own and vice versa, so that soul gains Christ's grace, life and salvation, and Christ gains sin, death and damnation (aw, crap). He made them his own, and suffered, died, and descended into hell to defeat them. His sinless life was stronger than death, so he defeated death and hell and set the soul free.

So, does that mean we don’t need to do good works? Well, it’s not that straightforward, sadly. Although we’re justified by faith and don’t need anything else spiritually, we still have to live on earth. The soul that has been set free by Christ wants everything else to be set free, and so disciplines the body to purify it so that it too can worship God. Works aren’t done to justify ourselves, but out of love for God. It’s a bit like a bishop: baptising children doesn’t make him a bishop, but the other way round: if he wasn’t a bishop, he wouldn’t be able to baptise children (don’t bash the bishop...analogy). A good or bad house doesn’t make a good or bad builder; a good or bad builder makes a good or bad house.

When Jesus was asked to pay taxes, he pointed out that the sons of the king are exempt from taxes; but then he freely submitted and paid taxes anyway (more tax systems should depend on fish-gold). We do good works not because we need to but out of love for God and others.

Some people might say, well, since I’m not justified by works, I don’t need to do any: I will do what I feel like and won’t take part in the ceremonies and rituals of Church. Incorrect. In the same way that we need food or drink, but they don’t make us righteous, we can’t stop doing good works. In this world, we’re still bound to the life of the body. In the same way that wealth is a test of poverty, the ceremonies of the Church are the test of the righteousness of faith. Small boys need to be cherished in the bosoms of maidens, but when they are older, maidens become a danger and a temptation, and in the same way, inexperienced young Christians need the restraint of Christian ceremony, even though for more mature Christians there is a danger that they will come to believe that they’re justified by ceremonies.

I found it interesting reading Luther, because it made me realise just how much of the theology I've heard in churches I've belonged to can be traced back to him. But I do find him pretty dualistic: can body and soul really be separated that clearly? Are we really so hopelessly depraved and corrupt that there's nothing good in us at all before we accept Jesus? For all his clever similes, I don't find him such a rich thinker as Aquinas, and it makes me sad that he sees the beauty of salvation apparently only by contrast to the corruption of everything else.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Does theology make you happy?

A sociologist called Idler once (eventually) got round to proposing four ways in which religion might have an impact on people's well being:
  1. providing a sense of comfort in times of trouble,
  2. providing access to a large network of potential support providers,
  3. discouraging behaviour which might lead to health problems (smoking, drinking, sleeping around, taking drugs etc. This could, depending on how you look at it, make religious people either happier or sadder),
  4. furnishing a cognitive framework through which people can better understand the meaning of pain, suffering and death (that's the whole set of theological explanations for why bad stuff happens, including but not limited to repeated singing of Blessed Be Your Name).
Apparently, a lot of research has been done into 1-3, but not so much into 4, so a guy called Marc A. Musick did some research into the effect of Christians' theodicy on their life satisfaction, published in the Journal of the Sociology of Religion as a paper called Theodicy and Life Satisfaction among Black and White Americans.

Theodicy is about answering the question, 'How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?' Musick wanted to find out the effect of different theological answers to this question on how satisfied people were with their lives. He did this by getting hold of information from a national social survey, and comparing people's answers to questions about their wellbeing to information about their denominational membership (different denominations tend to have different theologies about the problem of pain), ethnicity (more on that later), how often they went to church, and how much they saw the world in terms of good or evil.

Musick identified one key difference between different theodicies: whether they saw the world in as fundamentally good, or as fundamentally evil, life being seen in terms of a spiritual battle against evil forces. He came up with four hypotheses about the effects of these different sorts of theodicy:
  1. "Theodicies that place more emphasis on sin and evil are associated with less life satisfaction." If you're constantly aware of the gap between the way the world is and the way God intended it to be, you're more likely to be dissatisfied, and feeling like you're constantly threatened by the forces of evil is probably not that cheering.

  2. "The negative effects of holding a sin theodicy on life satisfaction are stronger among Whites than Blacks." This one's less obvious. In addition to demographic differences between black and white Christians (Black Christians tend to be more religiously involved and committed, to view the Church more as one of the key institutions in their lives, and to be more deprived, which leads them to rely more on the church for different kinds of support), Musick thinks that a strong sense of the fundamental goodness of the world in African American Christianity was key to black American Christians' survival of slavery, segregation, and the long and difficult process of emancipation, and that it continues to shape their worldview.

  3. "The effects of holding such a sin theodicy vary by levels of interaction with fellow believers such that the negative effect is strongest amongst those who interact less frequently." It's like the difference between walking round the haunted house on your own or going round with a friend.

  4. "The effects of holding a sin theodicy vary by levels of stress such that the negative effect is stronger among people experiencing stressful circumstances." Well, duh.

So, he did his research, and all his hypotheses seemed to be supported by the evidence he found, but the strongest association he found was between service attendance and life satisfaction. Moral of the story: don't skip church, kids, it will make you sad. Overall, he found that religion seems to make people both happy and sad, satisfied and dissatisfied. This reminds me of something my dad once told me, church should 'comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable'. Which perhaps sort of answers an interesting question that this research raises for me: should theology make you happy?

Photo credit: Celestial Photography on Flickr.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Heretics: Manichees

Manichaeism is a variant of Gnosticism, which is most often of interest to theology because Augustine, one of the most influential theologians of all time, spent several years as a follower of Manus, which means that those so inclined can have heated debates about whether his theology is Manichean or not. Good times.

Anyway, the Manichees basically believed in what is known as cosmic dualism: that is, they thought that the fundamental reality of life, the universe, and everything, was that two powers, good and evil, were locked in an epic battle with one other: like Luke vs Darth, Blur vs Oasis, Monsters vs Aliens, except it goes on forever. It's the meeting of the immoveable object and the irresistable force (maybe they should just get married), but one of them is nasty and the other nice.

The Manichees thought that the material world was a creation of Evil, but that at some point in this eternal punch up, Evil/Dark had damaged Good/Light so that there were tiny fragments of the divine scattered throughout the material world, and could be found in greater concentration in certain animals and plants. Humans were made up of souls (good) and bodies (bad), and could be saved by identifying themselves with their souls and rejecting their bodies. They could also eat lots of melons and cucumbers which has particularly high concentrations of divine sparks and hence considered the Manichaean superfoods. They were also supposed to abstain from sex, although, as Augustine found out, they weren't always so hot on this one.

Photo credit: Scott Kinmartin on Flickr. That's what a Manichee Manatee looks like. Ah, crap, mixed them up again.