Thursday, 26 November 2009

Heresies: Modalism

The doctrine of the Trinity is a tricky one - God is three and one, wait, what? How does that work? As a result, it's one of the doctrines with the greatest potential for heresy. One of the heretical ways of speaking about the Trinity is modalism, which is basically the idea that God is one God but has three different ways of being God. Meredith Brooks' song 'Bitch' is a good example of modalism:

"I'm a little bit of everything all rolled into one

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint I do not feel ashamed
I'm your health, I'm your dream I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way"

This is, I think, a modalistic account of selfhood: I can be lots of different things, apparently all at the same time. One minute I'm nice, the next I'm nasty, and all of those different ways of being are equally part of who I am.' She's talking about herself, so it's not exactly heretical, but this is actually precisely the problem with the doctrine of the Trinity: the only resources we have for understanding it come from our own experience, and there isn't anything in our own experience which quite fits with the idea of a being who is entirely one and entirely three.

Some modalists have related the trinity to the process of human history: in the Old Testament, God related to us as Father; in the New Testament, he related to us as Jesus; in the era of the Church, he relates to us as Holy Spirit. It's the Clark Kent model of theology: God takes off his glasses and puts his underpants over his trousers and ta-da! He's no longer the Father but the Son!

Not only do most forms of modalism violate the principle of opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, but it leaves you with a God who's basically one being with different moods. Too much oneness, not enough threeness = trinitarianism fail.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

What man, who's the man, when's a man a man, why's it so hard to be a man?

Tina Beattie is a Catholic feminist and has, accordingly, written a book called New Catholic Feminism. Can you guess what it's about?

A lot of 20th century Catholic theology defines femininity in terms of 'active reception', and takes Mary as its model for this femininity: she was impregnated with Christ, but chose to allow God to work in her, to give birth to God in her. Thanks to Catholic theologians like Henri de Lubac and Hans urs von Balthasar, Mary become increasingly understood as the model for the church: to be a Christian is to actively receive God, to give birth to God in ourselves, both as a community and as individuals.

You'd think that this might make it easier to argue for the ordination of women: if Mary is the archetypal Christian, the model for the Church and, as some argue, even the model for the priesthood itself, it surely shouldn't be so difficult to imagine women as priests, right? Wrong. The argument generally goes something along the lines of C S Lewis's: we are all female in relation to God. De Lubac argues that the priest represents God to the Church and the Church to God, but that his role is primarily defined by his representation of God to the Church, and so just as God is male to the Church's female, so the priesthood is male to the laity's female.

Tina Beattie points out that the problem here is not that Catholic theology is unable to conceive of femininity and to understand its role in salvation and creation; the problem is the inability to really conceive of masculinity in the created world. Masculinity is associated with transcendence, reason and God; femininity with immanence, humanity and the body, but the result is that the only 'man' in creation is the priest, who represents the masculine divinity of Christ, and all other men are feminised: the bride but never the bridegroom.
Photo credit: Lincolnian on Flickr

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Meet Abélard and Héloïse

The story of Peter Abélard and Héloïse was considered one of the great love stories by medieval writers, which is funny considering it involves castration, theology, and the monastic life (although I guess you could argue that castration's the best guarantee of unrequitable love).

Peter Abélard was born in 1079 in France, and by the age of 22 he had set up his own very successful school of philosophy. In 1115 he began teaching at Notre Dame, where he met a young woman called Héloïse, the niece of one of the canons at the cathedral. She was about 17, and was unusually well-educated for a woman, and the two immediately hit it off. Abélard fancied her so much that he managed to persuade her uncle to let him move in and take on the role of Héloïse's tutor (on the pretext that he was struggling for money and would get a rent discount in return for his tutoring).

It wasn't long until Abélard's crush had turned into a full-blown affair, which he describes thusly: "Our speech was more of love than of the book which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other's bosoms; love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness. What followed? No degree in love's progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched."

Hot stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when he eventually discovered what was going on, Héloïse's uncle was pretty miffed. Not long after, Héloïse discovered she was pregnant, and gave birth to a son called Astrolabe. To pacify her uncle, Abélard agreed to marry Héloïse, but secretly because being married would have damaged his career. Héloïse was reluctant, being unconvinced that a secret marriage would satisfy her uncle and also having a rather low view of marriage: she says in a later later to Abélard that "though I knew that the name of wife was honourable in the world and holy in religion; yet the name of your mistress had greater charms because it was more free. The bonds of matrimony, however honourable, still bear with them a necessary engagement, and I was very unwilling to be necessitated to love always a man who would perhaps not always love me." She felt, amongst other things, that a philosopher shouldn't be bothered by the petty distractions of domesticity.

When her uncle made their marriage public, Abélard encouraged her to go to a convent for a while (though he was unable to stay away from her, and describes their later suffering as just punishment for their not-very-nunlike activities in a quiet corner of the convent). Taking this as a sign that Abélard was trying to get rid of his niece, Héloïse's uncle took the obvious next step to protect her, and persuaded some relatives to sneak into Abélard's house at night and, er, steal his family jewels.

Apparently eunuchs found it difficult to make a successful career out of academia at the time, so Abélard was forced into a monastery, where he had a rough time of it - quite apart from the doctrinal disagreements which led to his being accused of heresy, the monks he ended up in charge of tried to murder him by poisoning his drinks. Héloïse was consequently forced to become a nun. She was not happy, and wrote some fairly explicit letters to Abélard, detailing her sexual frustration and her dissatisfaction at being forced into a life for which she had no sense of calling. Abélard wrote back, and gradually persuaded her that they should write to each other about matters theological, and their passionate (at least on her side) correspondence eventually subsided into a more sober discussion of the monastic life, and how best to run a convent.

Their letters, and Abélard's biographical History of my Misfortunes form the basis of subsequent retellings of their 'romantic' tale, although Abélard also wrote several more substantial theological tomes, including the controversial Sic et Non ('Yes and No') which was a compilation of contradictory quotations from early Church Fathers, attempting to disprove the popular assumption that 'the Fathers' spoke with one voice and agreed on everything.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Jokes with Slavoj

There's an old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue, publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: "O God, I know I am worthless, I am nothing!" After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: "O God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth, I am nothing!" After this spectacle, a poor ordinary Jew also stands up and also proclaims: "O God, I am nothing..." The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: "What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he is nothing too!"

Slavoj Zizek in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox and Dialectic

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Reading the Bible Ecologically

Elaine Wainwright is a Professor of Theology at the University of Auckland. She argues that, if Christians are to engage seriously with the many ecological issues of our day, that needs to be reflected in our readings of the Bible, and that it's only by transforming the way we read the Bible that we'll be able to face up to contemporary ecological crises.

People who read the Bible looking for ideas about how we should treat the environment tend to focus on the bits which talk about the earth or creation (you can see a good example of that here!). The same has been the case with discussions about women and the church, but feminists have increasingly started to argue that the bits which aren't explicitly about women can be just as important as the bits which are. Why are women not discussed in particular sections? What are the assumptions about women underlying particular passages, or can we catch glimpses of the lives of women who are mentioned but not focused on? Wainwright argues that we need to begin a similar practice of reading ecologically.

Wainwright says that ecology isn't just about saving endangered species, or not emitting carbon; it's about the complex interrelationships of human beings, their physical environment, and the spiritual. To highlight this, she uses the concept of 'habitat', which is a less-anthropocentric (human-focused) version of 'context'. Contextual readings try to locate the biblical texts in their social, political and economic contexts, but Wainwright wants to broaden this out to include the physical and natural contexts as well. She defines habitat as:

"The social, political and psychological elements as these figure alongside
physical and environmental contributions to the nature of a habitat and its
inhabitants at any historical moment. "
So, great, woohoo, lovely, earth'n'things'n'plants, yeah! But what would it actually look like to do a reading of the Bible that paid attention to habitat? Well, in the seminar I went to, Wainwright promised an ecological reading of Matthew 2, the one with the story about the magi. Not the most obvious place to start, right? I'm not yet aware of any ecological activists taking their inspiration from the three kings, but I guess that makes it a good place to start if you're trying to argue that habitat is everywhere in the Bible. So, Matthew 2:1-2 goes thusly:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been
born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship
Saying that Jesus was born links this passage back to 1:18, which talks about the birth of Jesus, and 1:1 which describes Matthew as 'the book of the birth/genealogy of Jesus.' From here, it links back to Genesis 2:4 (which gives 'the account of the heavens and the earth when they were createdthe account of the heavens and the earth when they were created') and Genesis 5 which gives the account of the descendants of Adam. That one reference links this particular story about Jesus to the story of the whole human race and, even wider, of the whole of God's creation.

Bethlehem was probably a small farming town and, as a result, would have run very much according to the pattern of the seasons, the rhythm of planting, growing, harvesting. People there wouldn't have been wealthy; they would have depended absolutely on their relationship with the land which gave them food. Jesus spent his life in particular places, and places tend to point us in three directions: towards the environmental materiality of the place (what the soil was like, what the buildings were made of, how big the settlement was); towards social perception or construction (what significance Bethelehem had in the history of Israel, how the place saw itself in relation to the Roman Empire and the nation of Israel, where Bethlehem fitted in the scale of house-village-city and poor-middling-rich), and towards individual affect/bond (Joseph's family lived in Bethlehem, but it wasn't where his house was; for Mary it was the place her in-laws lived).

And it's not just the place, it's also the time: where this happens in the history of Israel. 'During the time of King Herod' was an ambivalent time for Israel. They had a king of their own, but he was a collaborator, and a petty tyrant to boot; he had rebuilt the Temple but it was contaminated by his meanness. He was transforming the physical landscape of Israel with a huge building program.

This is the sort of reading that Wainwright thinks we need to start if we really want to transform our understanding of ecology: one that pays attention to the things we so easily skip over, because we're only interested in people/proving a point/getting through the boring bits. All this already, and we haven't even gotten to the magi! What we find in the Bible depends a lot on what we go looking for.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The paradox of marriage

I'm up to my eyeballs in more John Milbank at the moment, which combined with a nasty bout of man-flu has left me rather brain-addled, and thus exactly in the mood for the sort of bracing things that Robert Farrar Capon writes. Did I mention that you should go away and READ HIM? Don't bother with Bed and Board: plain talk about marriage, though - it's far from his best, and he goes all weird and wives-submit-y. I should know because I read the whole thing looking for a reading to have at my wedding. This is the bit I picked, and it's the highlight of the book:

Marriage is a paradox second only to life itself. That at the age of twenty or so, with little knowledge of each other and a dangerous overdose of self-confidence, two human beings should undertake to commit themselves for life – and that church and state should receive their vows with a straight face – all this is absurd indeed. And it is tolerable only if it is reveled in as such. A pox on all the neat little explanations as to why it is reasonable that two teenagers should be bound to each other until death. It is not reasonable. It happens to be true to life, but it remains absurd. Up with the absurdity of marriage then. And up with the marriage service. It is full of death and cast iron. And it is one of the great remaining sanity markers. The world is going mad because it has too many reasonable options, and not enough interest or nerve to choose anything for good. In such a world, the marriage service is not reasonable, but it is sane; which is quite another matter. The lunatic lives in a world of reason, and he goes mad without making sense; it is precisely paradox that keeps the rest of us sane. To be born, to love a woman, to cry at music, to catch a cold, to die – these are not excursions on the narrow road of logic; they are blind launchings on a trackless sea. They are not bargains, they are commitments, and for ordinary people, marriage is the very keel of their commitment, the largest piece of ballast in their small and storm-tossed boat.
Ah, that's better. Back to the murky world of Milbank...
Photo credit: the talented Mr Andrew Parker, taken at our wedding.