Wednesday, 29 April 2009

How (not) to dismantle a heretic

In his Letters, (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopogite writes about how best to handle heresy. Writing at a time (late 5th-early 6th) century when there were plenty of heresies around to take a pop at if you felt like letting of rhetorical steam, he warns against thinking that opposing heresies puts you in the right. Just because you're denouncing a heresy, he says in Letter 6, doesn't mean that you're A-OK: what if both you and the heretics have missed the really important truths? Just because a thing isn't red doesn't mean it's white; just because someone else is wrong doesn't necessarily make you right.

Dionysius goes on to say in Letter 7 that he personally has never spoken out against heretics - as far as he's concerned, he wants to get on with proclaiming the truth as best he can, trusting that God will ultimately vindicate those who speak truly about him. Unfortunately, he then spends the rest of the letter explaining exactly why his old pagan friend Apollophones - who's taken to attacking him recently - is right and he's wrong, but it's a lovely idea, no?

Photo credit: access.denied on Flickr

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Incredible Adventures of Brother Juniper: Cloak

The escapades of Brother Juniper, since canonised, are related in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, a popular account of the life of St. Francis of Assisi which is much less sappy than it sounds. Brother Juniper's a classic example of the saint who's either extremely holy or mentally ill; possibly both. Some of the stories about him have been cited as classic examples of autistic behaviour. One way or another, he's a legend. Let's start with a short one, but don't worry: there are plenty more.

Brother Juniper loved the poor so much that whenever he saw someone in need of clothes, he immediately took off his cloak to give it to them. After some time, and the loss of numerous cloaks, he was ordered not to give away any more of his clothing.

A few days later, Brother Juniper came across a poor, half-naked man, who begged him for alms. Brother Juniper thought about this.

'I'm afraid I don't have anything I could give you except this cloak, and my superior commanded me not to give it away to anyone.'

He thought a bit more.

'But I suppose if you were to just take it off me, I wouldn't put up a fight.'

Obligingly, the poor man stripped Brother Juniper of his robe, and he went back home. As Juniper's compassion grew, he gave away more and more: books, cloaks, whatever was left lying around: nothing was safe from Juniper's charitable impulses, and eventually the other monks made sure not to leave anything in the shared spaces of the monastery, because nothing was safe from Brother Juniper, who gave everything away for the love of God.

Friday, 17 April 2009


Tomorrow I set off for a holiday in the only part of Scotland which actually has palm trees. I'll be back on the 27th May.

Photo credit: DonnaGrayson on Flicker

A vision of Jesus

I've been reading some letters by Pseudo-Dionysius today. He's mostly famous for being an apophatic theologian, talking about the limitations of our language for naming God, and so a lot of modern discussion of him are all about abstract philosophical things. But reading his letters, a different side comes out. I'm going to tell you a story he tells, but first, a bit of context.

He's called 'Pseudo' Dionysius because he writes as those he's writing in the very early Church, the Greek convert mentioned in Acts 17:34, though actually he was probably writing in 5th century Syria. In Letter 8, he is apparently writing to Demophilus, a monk, and he tells Demophilus a story that was apparently told to him by a guy called Carpos who he met on Crete. Who knows, frankly, whether this story is true but just given a new historical context, or made up, but it's a good 'un so I think worth retelling regardless. The story goes like this.

Carpos was a very good man, who really knew God. Once, a man he knew tempted someone away from the church and into godlessness in the very days of his baptism which were supposed to be supremely joyful. Carpos intended to pray for them, asking God to draw them back with his goodness. His plan was to pray for this until he died or until they returned to the love of God. But instead, he found that he was angry and bitter. In this rotten mood, he went to bed, and slept fitfully until he woke up in the middle of the night, at the time he would normally wake up to praise God.

He started to pray, but boy, was he in a rotten mood. Instead of praying for salvation for the two men, he told God that it was wrong that they should even continue to live, and asked God to strike them down with a thunderbolt. As he prayed, the place he was in shook, and was split in half down the middle. A shining light appeared, and the heavens seemed to unfold, revealing Jesus in the midst of an angelic host. As Carpos looked down, he saw a great chasm. The two sinful men were at the edge of the chasm, starting to slip further into it. They were being attacked by serpents which tried to drag them down into the pit.

Carpos was overjoyed by what he saw, completely forgetting the vision of Jesus above him. He was impatient, seeing that the two men still hadn't fallen into the chasm, and tried, unsuccessfully, to help the serpents drag them down. Finally, he looked up again, and saw that Jesus had left his heavenly throne to offer a helping hand to the two struggling men, helped by the angels. He said to Carpos,
'So your hand is raised up and I am now the one you must hit. Here I am, ready once again to suffer for the salvation of man and I would very gladly endure it if in this way I could keep men from sin. Look to yourself. Maybe you should be living with the serpents in the pit rather than with God and with the good angels who are the friends of man.'
Photo credit: Vatican website

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Martin Luther on bearing false witness

In his commentary on the eighth commandment, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness,' Luther argues that this doesn't just refer to lying in court, but is also about how we speak about our neighbours more generally. He says that a person's reputation is one of their most valuable possessions, so we shouldn't say things which damage other people's reputations. We shouldn't bitch about people behind their back; we shouldn't spread malicious rumours. So far, so obvious.

More interestingly, Luther goes on to argue that, just as we wear clothes which show off the 'honourable' bits of our body and cover up the 'dishonourable' bits (1 Corinthians 12:22-23 - my body's too dishonorabilicious for you, baby. Brings a whole new dimension to the question of what is signified by changing hemlines in fashion, I think: your thighs are so dishonorable this season, guys), we should treat our neighbour's reputations in the same way, always talking up their strengths, and putting the best construction on their actions. If we hear something bad about someone, we should think of the most charitable explanation, and believe that.

I came across this idea in a book by Eugene F. Rogers, called Sexuality and the Christian Body, in which he attempts to resolve the question of what Christians should think about homosexuality. He invokes this principle of Luther's as an important way of engaging in theological discussion: stop with the mudslinging, he says. How can we see what is good and important in the different positions people have taken on this issue? I love this as a principle not just for theology, but for reading and discussing generally. Dismissing someone as an idiot doesn't get us anywhere, however satisfying it might feel at the time. What's the best possible construction we can put on the things that are said and done by people we disagree with, whether they be theologians, politicians, philosophers etc?

Photo credit: Rob Sheridan on Flickr

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism

Grace Jantzen was a feminist philosopher and theologian who died in 2006. In Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, she discusses the contemporary idea that 'mysticism' is about personal emotional/psychological experience, and asks how mysticism has been understood at different points in Christian history, drawing on Foucault to look at the way that these different ideas have been tied up with the exercise of power within the church.

She argues that, early on in church history, 'mysticism' just referred to Greek mystery religions which were big on weird initiation rituals and secrecy. Like the Masons, basically, but with togas and maybe more animal sacrifice and/or temple prostitution. In this sense, mysticism wasn't about mysterious and incomprehensible ideas and experiences - the secrecy was necessary precisely because what happened was all too comprehensible (imagine how much mystique the Masons would lose if we knew they wandered round in silly aprons hitting each other with wooden paddles. Oh, wait).

This idea of mystics as people who kept their traps shut picked up from Plato the idea that mystics were people who attained knowledge of God by shutting off all their physical senses, so that real knowledge of God could be attained only by those who had detached themselves from physical concerns. As a result, 'mystical' came to mean knowledge which goes beyond normal human perception and understanding, and because men were considered to be less 'physical' than women, they were more able to be mystics in this sense.

This in turn got mixed up with early Christian theology, which had the idea that there were two levels of meaning in the Bible: the literal, historical meaning (e.g. 'The Song of Songs is about two people who want to have sex with each other. Soon.') and the spiritual, mystical sense ('The Song of Songs is about Christ's love for the Church [There are some brilliant 'mystical' interpretations of lines like 'Your breast are like leaping fawns.' I love you too, Jesus.]). The 'mystical' meaning of the Bible was its hidden depths of meaning rather than some intense emotional experience. Similarly with the sacraments: receiving communion 'mystically' wasn't a powerful psychological encounter with God, but was about precisely the fact that no such experience needed to take place for them to be effective. Again, men get to be the mystics, because women either weren't allowed to be educated in the mystical sense of things, or were refused the authority to teach or distribute the sacraments.

What then started to happen was the emergence of a new sort of 'mystical' knowledge. While women weren't allowed the education which would help them understand the mysteries of the Bible, what they could have were visions, which didn't depend on the education of the visionary. Hildegard of Bingen, an important medieval mystic, said that the reason God gave her visions was that men were too sinful, and so God turned to her as a last resort. More women started having visions, but the (male) church authorities were pretty suspicious, trying to clamp down by supervising female mystics and making sure they lived lives of seclusion and chastity, and then eventually starting to burn them as witches or 'false' mystics (Imagine how much more fun the contemporary charismatic movement would be with controls like this).

It was only when the secular state emerged, meaning that religious experience wasn't a source of power, that it became 'safe' for women to be allowed to be mystics. Mysticism was relegated to the sphere of the private and personal, which was also the woman's sphere, and it was only then that mystical experience came to be seen as 'indescribable.' This idea of mysticism as inexpressible conveniently meant that women were unable to speak about their experience. Sure ladies, you can have visions of God, but only because it doesn't matter any more and oh, by the way, don't go thinking you can tell us all about it.

All in all, Jantzen says, the ways that ideas of mysticism have been constructed at different points in history is closely bound up with issues of power and control, and this has often been male power and control directed at women. This makes me wonder about the way that prophecy and suchlike in charismatic churches fits into this account. Some similar dynamics at work, perhaps?

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Plato's Allegory of the Cave comes from Book VII of the Republic, one of his longer books, in which he sets out his vision of the ideal society. One of his ideas is that society should be run by philosophers, because (obviously) they're the ones who understand what the world is really like, so Book VII is part of his explanation of what it means to be a philosopher. The allegory goes as follows:

Socrates: Imagine a cave, with people sitting in it. Light comes in at the mouth of the cave, and towards the end of the cave, some people are sitting, chained up by their legs and their necks, so they cannot move and can only look towards the back of the cave. There is a low wall behind them, and behind the wall a fire. Behind the wall, people are moving around, sometimes speaking, sometimes silent, carrying different objects around like puppeteers. Their movements make shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.

Glaucon: That's kind of weird.

Socrates: Well, Glaucon, life is kind of weird. Now, these prisoners can't see anything of what's going on behind them, only the shadows that are cast on the wall they face, because they are chained in such a way that they can't look round. And if they started talking to each other, they wouldn't realise they were talking about shadows, they'd think they were talking about
the real things. Now, imagine that one of the prisoners was unchained, and could turn around and see the light. Their eyes wouldn't be used to such brightness, and they would be dazzled. If someone told them now that what they were seeing was reality, and what they saw before was just shadows, they wouldn't believe you.

Now, imagine that someone dragged them out of the cave, into the light of the sun itself. For a person who'd lived in a cave their whole life, this would be even more painful for the eyes, and they'd only slowly start being able to see anything. First they'd be able to see the things the sun's light lit up, and eventually they'd be able to look at the sun itself (was the sun darker in ye olde days, or their eyes more adaptable? Hey ho). Finally, able to see the sun, they would come to believe that the sun was the cause of the seasons and the years, the source of all the light in the world.

When this person remembered all the other people still locked up in the cave, they might start feeling sorry for them. Thinking about their attempts to decipher the shadows, they would feel pity, and consider all the honours they bestowed on each other pretty unimportant. But if this person went back into the dark, they'd struggle to see the shadows, and the others might think they were stupid, and consider their movement around the cave dangerous.

This is what the world is like. The cave is the world of sight, the fire in the cave is the sun. The journey out of the cave is the ascent of the soul to the intellectual world. The sun is the idea of the Good, the source of everything beautiful and good in the world. Can you see that it is necessary to see the Good in order to be able to make good decisions about how to act? And can you understand that people who have achieved the vision of the Good might be reluctant to get involved with petty human affairs? Can you see that the people stuck in the world of sight might not understand the insights of the philosophers? Can you see that in adjusting to the real world or to the cave, philosophers might go through periods of readjustment, and might seem a bit dim for a while? Can you see it?

Glaucon: Yes, Socrates, I can. Thanks for letting me contribute to this dialogue.

Lovely story, no? Here's the thing: while it's nice to know about Plato so you can sound cultured, it's also pretty important for understanding a lot of theology. Until very recently, the study of Greek philosophical thought was part of the education of pretty much everyone in the Western world who got an education, including most of the people who wrote theology. This story is everywhere in theology. You see it particularly in discussion of what it means to know God, who is, predictably, usually taken to be the idea of the Good.

It also has a few consequences which I'm particularly interested in right now: firstly, it makes the physical world less real, something that might start us off in the direction of knowledge of God, but will, in the end, get in the way of seeing the truth about reality. It makes our bodies ultimately a hindrance to seeing God. As a result, it makes social and political engagement at best an unfortunate necessity: no one who has seen God as he really is will really want to be mixed up in the messy business of this world - instead, they'll want to be off contemplating God. It also creates elitism: mostly people don't really understand the way the world really is, poor things, and until they too become contemplatives, they won't get it. Except, oops, only a tiny minority of people in the world get to become monks, and only monks get to really devote themselves to contemplation. This gets interesting when people start using theologians like Thomas Aquinas, who totally buys into this account of the world, to talk about contemporary Christian ethics which people do, well, a lot, even secular thinkers who are interested in his ideas, without really taking into account their underlying vision of the way things really are.

And if that wasn't enough (philosophy, patristics and ethics all at the same time!), you can go watch the award winning live action version.

Photo credit: 智熏 on Flickr