Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Nature isn't natural

People who care about environmental issues often talk in terms of harmony and balance, as though there's a basic stability in nature which bad, unnatural humans are messing with. If we weren't here, then the great circle of life would go on circling, ecosystems would carry on self-regulating, and everything would be ok. The problem is, argues Žižek, that nature isn't really like that. The universe as a whole runs on catastrophes: things stabilise for a while and then bang! the universe starts; bang! an asteroid crashed into Earth and the dinosaurs die; bang! an ice age. Even the ordinary run of things is far from harmonious if you're one of the seals that a polar bear needs to eat to take its place in the great circle of life. This doesn't mean that dramatic climate change isn't bad - it's pretty terrible if you think that human life and civilisation is worth preserving - or even that there's nothing we can do to stop it; what it does mean is that we need to stop pretending that living peaceably with the world around us is somehow natural.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Praxis of a Prophet; Or, Why Jesus probably did have a beard and carry a big stick

That's what prophets do, right? Although my great great great grandfather, a German Lutheran pastor, once wrote a theological treatise about beards and concluded that they were bad, not least because if you got the communion wine after lots of bearded people their dirty moustaches had made it taste sour. Did I tell that story already? It's really my only good theological ancestor story, so I wheel it out pretty regularly.

Anyway, chapter 5 of Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright points out the things that 'most everyone agrees on, whatever they think of Jesus: he was born about 4 BC, grew in the Galilean town of Nazareth, speaking Aramaic, some Hebrew, and probably at least a smattering of Greek. Around AD 28 he went public, and his work was originally connected with that of John the Baptist. He told everyone to repent, and announced the kingdom of Israel's god, telling a lot of parables along the way. He travelled round Galilean villages announcing his message and performing miracles like healings and exorcisms (obviously not everyone agrees they were miracles, but y'know, some stuff happened involving sick people), and ate dinner with all sorts of people. He had some followers, including 12 special disciples, and the things he said and did, especially one thing he did in the Temple, annoyed at least some other Jewish groups, particularly the high priests and their posse. Partly because of this, he got handed over to the Romans and crucified, which was what usually happened to insurrectionists (Pete Rollins, take note). But what does all this tell us about what Jesus was up to?

First-century Palestine was heaving at the cringes with a raggedy bunch of various types of prophet. Some prophets were powerful and educated, some hung around with weird sects, some had no friends, and some had huge gangs of followers. Some announced salvation; some announced impending doom. Some tried to lead uprisings against the Romans; others told people to get the hell out while they still could. Some were basically terrorists (and remember that a terrorist is basically just a violent person without any official power rather than a violent person with an army to command); others weren't violent at all.

John the baptist was one of many prophets. He was well-known in the late '20s, warning Israel of impending judgement, and getting into trouble for being a bit more political than King Herod felt comforable with. But he also baptised people for the forgiveness of sins, which implied that they didn't need the temple to have their sins forgiven; so the Temple authorities weren't fans either. Jesus clearly saw John as an important figure at the beginning of his own ministry. Jesus himself was like John the Baptist, only more so: announcing a prophetic message, inaugurating a renewal movement, and annoying the temple hierarchy.

At least at the start of his ministry, Jesus travelled around Galilean villages, avoiding the bigger towns and cities. He explained what he was doing in terms of the reconstitution of Israel. And since he went to lots of different villages, he probably said similar things in each of them; if he told a parable once, he probably told it several times, which Wright thinks goes some way to explain the variation between the different gospel accounts. The parables he told set out his agenda for Israel: what the convenant people should be doing at this point in their history. Jesus used parables because if he'd explicitly said what his parables implied, he would have gotten himself killed even earlier than he did. Jesus also warned of impending judgement that was coming on Israel if they didn't repent, threatening disaster and, specifically, the desctruction of the Temple. This isn't just ooby-dooby prediction, as if Jesus were a fortune teller: it didn't take a genius to see that if the people of Israel kept stepping on the Romans' toes, eventually there would be reprisals. Jesus also healed people, and his healings didn't just make people better, they also made unclean people clean, welcoming them back to full membership in God's people. And the nature miracles seem to hint at the idea that if Israel was restored, then the whole of creation would be restored along with her.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Which cat is my neighbour?

Jacques Derrida had a cat. It had a name, although that appears to be lost in the mists of history/Google. If anyone knows the name of Jacques Derrida's cat, please get in touch. I would like to know.

Derrida talked about his cat as a way of talking about the difference between animals and human beings. But it also came up in a discussion he had with John Milbank about the perennial question: 'Who is my neighbour?' Derrida argues both that perfect justice is impossible and also that we ought to aim for it anyway. We are always falling short. Milbank suggests that the problem with this is that there's no way of choosing between the competing demands on us. "Nothing has more weight than anything else." Why should I feed this cat when there are thousands of starving cats all over the world with no one to feed them? For Milbank, traditional Christian theology gives us permission to treat some cats as more important than others. It's not just that it's ok to feed one cat and not the others; we're morally obliged to feed our cat above other cats. Those who are closer to us have a greater demand on us than those who are further away. The idea that I'm responsible for every cat assumes that I live in a society which has broken down, where if I don't look after the cat, no one will. And who wants an ethics based on social breakdown?

Derrida responds: it's not that nothing has more weight than anything else, it's that no one has more weight than anything else. Of course we feed our cat and not all the other cats. Of course we prefer our cat to the cat next door; of course I prefer my family to others. But our preferences should worry us. If everybody only looked after those who were closest to us, "it would be the ruin of ethics". I can't feed every cat, but I shouldn't have a good conscience about all the other cats who have no one to feed them.

Which cat is my neighbour? If I had to pick, I'd go with Derrida (though I'm also struggling with the question: What Would Žižek Think?). You?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Prodigals, Paradigms, and Proof that Christianity was right all along

Wright starts off chapter four of Jesus and the Victory of God with a re-reading of the prodigal son. Really, he argues, it's a retelling of the story of Israel. The prodigal son is Israel, who went off into exile in a pagan country, ended up a slave, and then returned home. Wright says that lots of Jews in first-century Palestine thought that they were still spiritually in exile: sure, they were back in Israel, but under Roman rule. This wasn't what redemption looked like.

Wright says that the fundamental message of Jesus' ministry was this: Israel is being restored, but it doesn't look the way they expected it to look. It doesn't look like a new political order, kicking out the Romans and putting a new, properly Jewish king on the throne instead of the Romans' puppet rulers. It doesn't look like the restoration of the Temple to its former glory; actually it doesn't seem to involve the Temple at all. Instead, it looks like Jesus: a scruffy prophet from the countryside who hangs out with tax collectors and sinners. Don't like it? Fine, but that puts you on the side of the older son in the parable: the side of the Jews who didn't go into exile and resent the ones who return. It puts you on the side of the Samaritans. Jesus is the homecoming party, and everyone is invited to the feast. Jesus is the one through whom Israel's God is restoring his people.

Wright says that the best test for whether the gospel accounts are true is to see whether it's similar but not the same as the Judaism of the time, and similar but not the same as the early Church. He offers five basic hypotheses:

a) Jesus made sense in the context of first century Judaism;

b) he thought he was regrouping Israel around himself, and that this regrouping of Israel really was the proper return from exile, and as such was a challenge to the Jews who thought that everything was focused on the temple;

c) these ideas were exactly the sort of thing you'd say if you wanted to make everyone hate you: the Pharisees, the Temple authorities, and the Romans;

d) but if Jesus had just been killed, that would have been it: he would have failed. Only if he was vindicated in some way would it make sense to think that he had been right all along and that the Gentiles should be welcomed into the kingdom;

e) if this is what happened, it would make sense for Luke to write the sort of gospel he did in fact write.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The New New New Quest

Don't worry, I hasn't forgotten about my series on N T Wright. We're up to chapter 3 now, woop! This one's all about The Right Way to do biblical scholarship. Wright counts himself amongst what's known as the Third Quest, because he thinks that they're proper historians. They spend a lot of time reading first century sources, especially the Jewish ones, focus on the question of what Jesus did to make himself unpopular (popular?) enough to be crucified, and assume that the early church were actually pretty profoundly shaped by what Jesus said and did. Which all sounds pretty uncontroversial, so you might want to bear in mind the possibility that Wright is treating non-Third Quest scholars unfairly. I'll say this, though: anyone who thinks we can reconstruct not only Q but the stages of the development of Q is an idiot.

Wright says the Third Quest have five major questions, all of which are part of answering the bigger question: how do we account for the fact that, by AD 110, there was a large, growing, diverse and enthusiastic international movement which claimed to have been founded by Jesus? The five sub-questions are as follows:

  • How does Jesus fit into Judaism? Either he's so Jewish you can't imagine how he founded a new religion; so Christian you can't believe he was really Jewish, or somewhere in the middle: Jewish with a twist. Sounds like a flavoured water. So Jesus used Jewish language and ideas to challenge Judaism, and because Judaism at the time was theological, political and social, so was Jesus. Jewish theological expectations were bound up with politics and ideas about the fate of Israel as a political state. It's the politics that give us some idea why Jesus might've been crucified in the end.

  • What were Jesus' aims? Probably something to do with the kingdom of God. But did he intend to die in Jerusalem? Did he intend to found a church?

  • Why did Jesus die? Obviously the Romans were persuaded that he was up to no good. But who persuaded them?

  • How and why did the early church begin? Jesus wasn't the first prophet to end up getting killed. But mostly when the prophet died, their followers, y'know, stopped following them. Why didn't Jesus' followers admit defeat?

  • Why are the Gospels what they are? The gospels are a new, weird genre, not quite like anything that had been written before. Why?

  • There's also, says Wright, a sixth question: what does all this mean for the contemporary church and the contemporary world? However much New Testament historians pretend they're being neutral, there's always some theological position in there somewhere. In addition, contemporary awareness that anti-Semitism means that people are wary of saying anything that might suggest that Jesus was criticising the Judaism of his time. No one wants to do a Mel Gibson.

    Tuesday, 27 September 2011

    Augustine's Embarrassing Bodies

    There are accounts in pagan history of certain monstrous races of men ... some of these monsters are said to have only one eye ... others have the soles of their feet turned backwards behind their legs; others have the characteristics of both sexes ... Then there are men without mouths, who live only by inhaling through their nostrils; there are others whose height is only a cubit ... We are told in another place that there are females who conceive at the age of five and do not live beyond their eighth year. There is also a story of a race who have a single leg attached to their feet; they cannot bend their knee and yet have a remarkable turn of speed ... There are some men without necks, and with eyes in their shoulders.

    What am I to say of the Cynocephali, whose dog's head and actual barking prove them to be animals rather than men?
    City of God 16.8

    Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together. Others without moving the head can bring the whole scalp ... down toward the forehead and bring it back again at will. Some can swallow an incredible number of various articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm, can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. There are others who imitate the cries of birds and beasts and the voices of any other men, reproducing them so accurately as to be quite indistinguishable from the originals, unless they are seen. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region. I know from my own experience of a man who used to sweat whenever he chose; and it is a well-known fact that some people can weep at will and shed floods of tears.
    City of God 14.24

    Via Virginia Burrus and Karmen MacKendrick's article in Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation and Relationality

    Wednesday, 21 September 2011

    Bataille, Balthasar, and sexual violence

    Georges Bataille is a French philosopher and novelist who thinks that we need to go so deeply into mystical experience (he prefers 'inner experience', which doesn't have such theological connotations) that we go beyond any dogmatic ideas about God existing or being trinitarian or good or whatever. He rejects the idea that self-denial or chastity are routes to this inner experience: instead, we get there by plumbing the depths of anguish, by going to extremes of laughter, eroticism, sacrifice and poetry.

    He says this:
    Access to the extreme limit has as a condition the hatred not of poetry but of poetic femininity (the absence of decision; the poet is woman; invention, words rape him).
    Hans Urs von Balthasar was a Swiss theologian and priest who also thought we should go deeply into mystical experience, though he was much more of a good Catholic, who believed in the Trinity, in Jesus, that God was good and so on. He thinks that the Church is exemplified by the figure of Mary, who gives us a model of 'active reception' which we should all imitate in our relationships to God.

    He has Christ say this to the Church:
    I dared to enter the body of my Church, the body which you are ... my Spirit has overpowered my unruly and recalcitrant flesh ... (Never has woman made more desperate resistance!) ... our blood-wedding, the red wedding of the Lamb - is, already, here and now, the white bridal bed of divine love.
    As Tina Beattie points out, this basically compares the love between Christ and the Church to an act of rape.

    So, both Bataille and Balthasar present women as essentially rapeable. Bataille thinks this is a reason to reject femininity; Balthasar thinks it's a reason to imitate it. Which is worse?

    Friday, 9 September 2011

    A theology of breastfeeding

    Two months later, we finally have the internet in our house. Woop!

    And what better way to re-start blogging than with a post about boobs? Boobs boobs boobs boobs boobs. Ah, that's better. They are, in case you hadn't noticed, political, especially when they're involved in the rearing of children. Does bottle feeding your baby mean you're a slave of capitalism? Does breastfeeding limit your ability to take equal place with men in the world of work? Or does it mean that you've been sucked into unhealthy ideals of the 'perfect mother', who is always implicitly white – might bottle feeding be a form of resistance to racist ideals of what it means to be a good mother? Whenever you read about breastfeeding though, it's almost always portrayed as a decision made by the mother as an individual. Does breast or bottle feeding make that individual woman a good or a bad mother?

    Rachel Muers' article 'The Ethics of Breast Feeding' asks, what if motherhood is about a more complex set of relationships? What if the decisions mums make about how they feed their babies are about the networks of relationships to which they belong? What if the role of children within breastfeeding isn't simply passive? What if the Christian images of breastfeeding used to talk about the way that we learn from and are nourished by God or by other people gives us a more complicated model of what it means to feed and be fed?

    We sometimes talk as though the role of the mother is to protect her child from every bad thing in the world. But vulnerability can be a strength: mothers pass on their acquired immunities to their children, and through the imperfect shield of their mother's body, a child slowly becomes acclimatised to their environment. But the vulnerability of mothers also means that bad things get passed on: HIV/AIDS, poor nourishment.

    What, asks Muers, might a feminist theological ethics of breast-feeding or infant feeding look like? Mothers know how hard it is to ignore their babies' cries; they learn how much human beings depend on one another and feed off one another. To think theologically about breastfeeding, says Muers, is to think about what it means to apply these lessons to thinking about all of the relationships that a mother and her child are involved in: with their immediate family, with their social context, and with God.

    Photo credit: Lawrence OP

    Tuesday, 26 July 2011

    A pause

    Been a while, huh? By way of explanation, I recently moved house, and it turns out that even my super duper planning skills were no match for the bureaucracy of a half-arsedly privatised telecommunications system, so no wireless at home yet. Then Durham University had a little 'accident' involving severed internet cables and asbestos etc. etc., and you probably don't really care all that much about my life, but suffice it to say that my internet access is currently seriously curtailed, and so my posting is likely to be sporadic at best for a few weeks yet.

    Back soon


    Thursday, 23 June 2011

    The New New Quest

    In chapter 2 of Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright does a survey of more recent attempts to find the historical Jesus. Sadly, there's no mention of cannabis Jesus; those scholarly efforts Wright considers worthy of consideration include:

    The Jesus Seminar: they get together, argue about whether half a sentence from a gospel is authentic or not, and then use different coloured balls to vote about it (there's a dirty joke in there somewhere but I haven't found it yet). I still half-believe that someone made them up as a joke about the excesses of 'historical' biblical scholarship, but apparently they really do exist, though Wright doesn't think that their scholarship is worth much.

    Burton L. Mack:
    So, Matthew and Luke both seem to have got a lot of their material from Mark (you can tell because they use the exact same words to tell the exact same stories). But they also seem to have some other material in common which doesn't appear in Mark, so some people have suggested (logically enough) that they had a common source: Q. Less obviously, some people have argued that their shared source was a single document – contentious, but fair enough. Burton Mack thinks that not only can we recreate Q, but we can also work out which bits of Q were written first and which bits were added on later. If historical criticism generally is like building skyscrapers on jelly, this is like building the Empire State building on top of cream, which you've layered onto custard, which in turn rests upon a bed of jelly spooned lovingly over a nest of sponge fingers and raspberries. I'd eat it, but I don't buy it.

    J. Dominic Crossan: Crossan talks about the system of 'patronage', common in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Jesus. It was basically a really formal system of nepotism, and unless you had friends in high places, you didn't have any power. He argues that Jesus sets out to subvert this system: he kept moving around so no one would see him as a patron and claim to mediate between him and the normal people; and by healing and eating with outcasts Jesus was trying to subvert the social ordering of things. But Wright thinks that Crossan overlooks Jesus' Jewishness, and so misses the really important points. He can't explain why Jesus got himself killed, or why the early church should have seen his death as significant.

    Jesus the Cynic?: Cynics were popular philosophers in the Roman world at the time of Jesus, and they basically thought that society sucked and people should know that it sucked. They went around begging with long hair and scruffy clothes, and made sarky comments in the cinema. Some people have argued that Jesus was a Cynic: fine, says Wright, but there were loads of Cynics: why should this one have founded a new world religion?

    Marcus J. Borg: Borg argues that Jesus' teachings had political, social, and theological themes; that he prophesied the destruction, by Rome, of Jerusalem and the Temple. But he doesn't think Jesus was the son of God, and doesn't think Jesus expected to found the Church, so Wright isn't satisfied by his work (though I think they're actually buddies, which is sweet).

    So, all in all, Wright thinks there is lots of interesting stuff in the New New Quest, but also some major flaws: they priorities the sayings of Jesus over the stories about what Jesus did; they don't pay enough attention to Jesus' Jewishness; they don't think that Jesus expected to be crucified, and they don't think that there was really all that much relationship between Jesus life and teachings and the early church. So what's the answer? Wright thinks it lies in the Third Quest - that's the New New New Quest - and that's what he deals with in chapter 3, and what we'll deal with in the next instalment.

    Friday, 17 June 2011

    Jelly Jesus

    NT Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God starts with an overview of the history of modern biblical scholarship. Since some guy called Reimarus wrote some book in the 18th century, huge amounts of time and energy and almost countless books have been devoted to using 'modern historical critical tools' to try to dig out the 'real' Jesus from the gospel accounts. The idea was that the biblical accounts of Jesus' life were later distortions of history written by people who had their own theological agendas to push and weren't all that concerned to give an accurate representation of Jesus. Modern biblical scholars set out to provide a neutral, scientific alternative (hah!). They used tools like comparing different ancient manuscripts to the existing gospel accounts, comparing gospel accounts too each other, and trying by various complicated and often ludicrous means to work out which bits were genuine and which bits were fake. I will always love NT Wright for arguing, essentially, that an awful lot of recent New Testament scholarship is bollocks: vast theoretical edifices built on the shakiest of foundations, like skyscrapers built on jelly.

    Still, it's worth knowing a bit about the broad trends of thought within gospel scholarship, especially if you want to make more sensible arguments about the gospels. Wright thinks that the problems began with the Reformation (and I'm totally happy for us to blame Luther), where the Reformers were so obsessed with propositional truth that they lost sight of the biblical narrative, so although they thought it was super-important that Jesus died on the cross, they couldn't really give a coherent account of why he spent 33 years or whatever before that being alive.

    This is where Reimarus came in. Wright says he was basically out to destroy Christianity. He thought Jesus was a Jewish reformer who got more and more politicised until he went and got himself killed, which should have been recognised as the failure it was. After that, lots of liberal theologians weighed in, offering readings of the Gospels that didn't make them uncomfortable, getting rid of anything that sounded a bit miraculous, or painting Jesus as a 'pale and timeless Galilean', teaching timeless moral truths whilst looking like a worried hippy.

    Next came Albert Schweitzer, who thought that the most important thing about Jesus was his apocalypticism, warning of a terrible judgement about to fall on Israel; when the apocalypse didn't show, the early Church was able to rework his teachings into something more universal that could appeal to Gentiles as well as Jews. By the end of the 19th century, there were two main strands of biblical scholarship: the followers of Wrede, who basically thought that the gospels told us a lot about the early church but very little about Jesus; and the followers of Schweitzer, who emphasised Jesus' Jewishness and apocalypticism.

    Coming soon: Jesus scholarship in the 20th century.

    Thursday, 19 May 2011

    How Ian McEwan wrote the same book twice

    Hi! I'm the narrator of an Ian McEwan novel, which I like to call “Enduring Saturday”. I'm just your typical white middle class guy who's wealthy enough to own a nice house in London. I'm married to a smart, beautiful woman who has a job (see, I'm not a sexist!) but doesn't really get much of a part in the novel other than to illustrate how virile I am and as a useful backdrop against which to depict the near-disintegration of my life (oh, maybe I am a bit sexist).

    One day, a totally random occurrence brings me into contact with a poor working class white man who's either mentally ill or has a serious neurological disorder, which explains why he's so angry with me and determined to ruin my life (poor people would only be angry with rich people if they were funny in the head). They're crazy, these poor people, but it's useful to have them around to create a bit of drama in my life, which would otherwise be kind of boring, because when you're as rich as me, nothing interesting ever happens.

    So anyway, the crazy poor guy starts chasing me round and trying to mess up my relationship with the women I own - oops, I mean, love - as I try to get on with my comfortable-but-meaningless-life, until eventually we have a dramatic confrontation, I nearly die, but in the end it's ok because the poor guys ends up in prison or in hospital, and I go on with life with a renewed ability to appreciate my boring bourgeois existence.
    The End.

    Tuesday, 10 May 2011

    The theology of Lark Rise

    I recently read Flora Thompson's Lark Rise, a chronicle of village life in Victorian Britain (that was recently turned into a BBC drama). It's based on her childhood growing up in a village very much like the one she describes, and was beautifully written, fascinating to read, and an interesting contrast to most of the other literature I've read from that period which is either about rich people or the urban poor, and Thompson takes an interesting position on the politics of it all, talking about how hard it is just to feed a family on a farm labourer's wages, but also saying a lot of things like "People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge we have to-day; but they were happier." She says this about the sermons they listened to in church:

    Another favourite subject was the supreme rightness of the social order as it then existed. God, in His infinite wisdom, had appointed a place for every man, woman, and child on this earth and it was their bounden duty to remain contentedly in their niches. A gentleman might seem to some of his listeners to have a pleasant, easy life, compared to theirs at field labour; but he had his duties and responsibilities, which would be far beyond their capabilities. He had to pay taxes, sit on the Bench of Magistrates, oversee his estate, and keep up his position by entertaining. Could they do these things? No. Of course they could not; and he did not suppose that a gentleman could cut as straight a furrow or mow or thatch a rick as expertly as they could. So let them be thankful and rejoice in their physical strength and the bounty of the farmer, who found them work on his land and paid them wages with his money.

    Less frequently, he would preach eternal punishment for sin, and touch, more lightly, upon the bliss reserved for those who worked hard, were contented with their lot and showed proper respect to their superiors. The Holy Name was seldom mentioned, nor were human griefs or joys, or the kindly human feelings which bind man to man. It was not religion he preached, but a narrow code of ethics, imposed from above upon the lower orders, which, even in those days, was out of date.
    So, you know, maybe some things about the Church have got better. Have they?

    Wednesday, 20 April 2011

    Worshipping the lizard God

    Jean-Luc Marion is a French phenomenologist (that's philosophy which tries to think about the world starting with the way it appears to us), who has written both theology and philosophy (he claims the two are separate for him but, predictably, they're not really). Like Yannaras, he's a 20th century thinker who thinks that apophatic theology in general, and Dionysius the Areopagite in particular, have something to say to the contemporary world, especially in light of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Idol and Distance: Five Studies is Marion's most sustained engagement with apophatic theology, although he continues to deal with it throughout his work, and gets into some barneys with Jacques Derrida over whose reading of apophatic theology is more right.

    Marion thinks that the 'death of God' doesn't mean that God has totally disappeared, but says that God's absence is 'the modern face of his eternal fidelity.' Marion thinks that the way that God the Father gives birth to God the Son is by withdrawing himself, making space for the Son to be born, and God's withdrawal from the world today is meant to make space for us to become sons of God. Marion uses his own version of the ontological argument: any god whose existence can be disproved, any god who can die, can't really be God, and so any proof that God doesn't exist doesn't destroy God but an idolatrous idea of God. God's like a lizard who always escapes our grasp, leaving only his tail behind.

    At the heart of Marion's book is a distinction between the idol and the icon. An idol is a face we make for God to show up in: it's our way of controlling what sort of God we encounter, and where and how we encounter the divine. But an icon doesn't try to make God present, it just points beyond itself. The whole point of an icon is that it isn't the thing it represents. Idols can be destroyed by philosophy; icons cannot.

    Marion discusses three thinkers who share an interest in distance: Nietzsche, Hölderlin and our old friend Dionysius the Areopagite. He argues that what Nietzsche's work does is to articulate the distance which appears when idolatrous ideas of God stop being plausible. But Nietzsche tries to bridge the gap with his own will to power, another form of idolatry, and so his philosophical project fails and he goes mad (take note, kids: idolatry is dangerous). Hölderlin also recognises the distance between humanity and God, but thinks that the solution is not to overcome the distance but to remain in it, which we do through poetry, which expresses the tension between union and distinction.

    Finally, Dionysius offers a similar solution to the distance between humanity and God. Dionysius says that we can't speak about God in predicative language (statements about God like 'God is love', 'God is drunk' etc.), because that sort of language is all about trying to control meaning. Instead, we need to speak about God through prayer and praise, which don't name God but acknowledge our relation to God as recipients of God's gifts, as an expression of love and gratitude. But it's not enough just to praise God: we can receive God's gifts only insofar as we pass them on ("Love is something if you give it away *clap clap* you end up getting more..."). This receiving and giving of God's love maintains the distance between us and God, and mirrors the distance within God in the relations of the persons of the Trinity. The distance between God and the world is an icon of the distance between the Father and the Son. God's gift to us is expressed most fully in the incarnation of Christ, the Word, who gives us the words of Scripture which we then use to praise God. To be a Christian is to accept the words of Scripture as God's gift to us and to praise God with them. To be a Christian is to recognise that everything that exists is a gift of God, and to respond to that gift by giving to others, by generosity.

    Thursday, 24 March 2011

    On the Absence and Unknowability of God

    One of the weird things about Western theology is how completely it ignores the existence of Orthodox Church. People often talk about the difference between Catholics and Protestants as though they're the only sort of Christians. The Orthodox have various responses to this oversight on our part: sometimes they ignore us right back, sometimes they take revenge by arguing that everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of the West.

    Christos Yannaras is one of the people we perhaps shouldn't ignore. In the Orthodox Church he's like Rowan Williams crossed with Stanley Hauerwas crossed with John Milbank. Maybe. Andrew Louth says that he is 'without doubt the most important living Greek Orthodox theologian'. Bet you feel about about not having heard about him now, huh?

    Yannars' On the Absence and Unknowability of God takes a classic contemporary Orthodox-theological approach: he highlights a problem in Western thought, explaining why it's the Catholics' fault, and argues that if we'd just stayed Orthodox everything would have been fine. In this case, the problem is the death of God. Nietzsche announced that God was dead, and he's sometimes blamed for the subsequent growth of atheism in the West. But Heidegger argues that it's not Nietzsche's fault: all he was doing was prophetically announcing the imminent failure of European metaphysics. He says that European thought has basically turned God into nothing more than an anchor for everything else: God is there so we can explain why the universe made sense, so we can say that there's some original source from which everything else comes. God is the answer which puts a stop to the endless question: but why? Eventually, the answer is 'Because God'. Why do we exist? Because God created us. How can we trust our reason? Because God is rational and God came first. As soon as we start to use God like that, there's always the possibility that someone will come along and prove that there isn't any guarantee that we're rational, and so the whole idea of God will collapse, which is roughly what Yannaras thinks has happened in the West.

    Apophatic theology, in this God-logic, ends up being part of the problem. If we can never fully understand the rational principle (God) on which everything else depends, we can start asking questions. We get skeptical, we get agnostic and then, bang! All of a sudden, we've become Richard Dawkins. But for Yannaras, God was never meant to be an axiom, a first principle, a logical necessity. We have a relationship with God, who loves us, and apophatic theology isn't meant to be about a logical incomprehensibility at the foundation of all being, it's meant to be about the fact that we can never fully articulate our experience of loving and being loved by God.

    So for Yannaras, Heidegger and Nietzsche aren't atheists exactly, but point us towards a better, more plausible idea of God. Instead of thinking they understand what God is and how he caused everything, they leave God's place empty. God isn't dead, God is absent or unknowable. To think about how we come to know God, Yannaras uses the Eastern distinction between God's energies and God's essence. God's essence is, er, the essence of God, God in Godself. God's energies are God's activities in the world, creating, redeeming, and all that shebang. We can know God's energies but not God's essence, so knowing God through the world is a bit like knowing Banksy only through his artwork, or knowing Salinger only through Catcher in the Rye. An artists' work can tell us a lot about the artist, but they can't tell us what the artist is like in themselves.

    So apophatic theology for Yannaras is important for two reasons: firstly, because of the unbridgeable divide between God's essence and God's energies, which means we can never speak about God's essence; and secondly because language always falls short of the richness of relationships: with God, we can experience more than we can speak of.

    Thursday, 17 March 2011

    Tracy Emin will save us

    I think I'm right in saying that Iris Murdoch is the only Booker-prize-winning novelist to also write works of philosophy, and as you might expect, her philosophy is full of the themes of her novels. Her main work of philosophy is Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, where she argues that philosophers have tried to separate out questions of the way the world is from questions of how we should live in the world. You can't do that, says Murdoch, because as soon as we look at the world we judge it; we make decisions about whether it is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, real or unreal. Our ethical decisions rely on our perception of what's going on in the world: there's no use giving food to someone who isn't hungry but is sad; there's no point dedicating your life to being Brian's disciple if he's not the Messiah but a very naughty boy.

    For Murdoch, the hardest ethical task is simply to see the world as it is in itself, not as something that we can use, or something that we like, or something that threatens us, but really truly as it is, as something that is not ourselves. And so art is, for her, central to the two inseparable tasks of philosophy and ethics. Art teaches us how to look at the world, how to really see it. She quotes, approvingly, Rainer Maria Rilke's description of Cézanne, "that he did not paint 'I like it', he painted 'There it is.'"

    Photo: Cézanne's Still Life with Curtain.

    Friday, 4 March 2011

    In Defence of Difficulty

    Everybody knows that ideas can be dangerous. Dionysius the Areopagite spends a lot of time urging his reader to make sure that his text doesn't fall into the hand of immature people, who will inevitably misunderstand what he was saying and be damaged by it. I once led a church service based on Dionysius' Mystical Theology, which proved to be even more controversial than anticipated. After I led the congregation in a hymn which began 'God, you're not our God, you were not before all things', several people complained to the church leader, and there was a heated debate on the church website about why people were so unhappy with what had happened. What none of the unhappy people did was to come and talk to me and say 'Hey, we felt uncomfortable in that meeting. We think we might not have understood what was going on. Can you explain yourself better?' (Bitter much?)

    So the point is this: ideas can mess with people's heads, and even if we think that sometimes that's a good thing, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always a good thing. Sometimes people just misunderstand or get hurt and instead of being challenged and transformed; they hunker down into a more rigid version of the world they were living in anyway. One way to avoid this is to try to control who has access to dangerous ideas. That was easier when Dionysius was writing, when most people couldn't read anyway, and as there were only a few copies of any given book it was pretty straightforward just to keep them all away from the wrong people.

    We don't like the idea of keeping books away from people any more, and even if we wanted to, it would probably just end up leaked on the internet (cough cough, Julian Assange). But there's another way of making sure that the Wrong People don't have access to your ideas: make them really difficult to understand. You can do this in several ways: you can build in lots of references to other thinkers, so that before people can read your book, they have to read and understand lots of other books. You can use complicated technical terms to ensure that people have to have a certain degree of knowledge about the subject you're writing on. There are probably more, but my point is this: whether intentionally or unintentionally, a feature of a lot of theology and philosophy books these days is that they are really inaccessible to the uninitiated.

    You could read this inaccessibility as elitism: academics think they're better than us so they deliberately keep their ideas out of our reach. But here's a more charitable, Dionysian way of reading the situation. The thing with Dionysius was that he doesn't think that there are people who fundamentally aren't good enough to be allowed to read his books. His worry is about immaturity. Some people just aren't ready to read his work yet … but they could become ready. Some ideas really do require a certain degree of education and maturity: you wouldn't teach quantum physics to someone who had never studied any science at all. You can't just sit down with Hegel and understand him straight away: you have to really work at it, and maybe it's ok to ask people to work hard at understanding what they read.

    Have I persuaded you yet?

    Photo credit: zebbie

    Thursday, 17 February 2011

    Philosophy as a craft

    I promised you some pro-difficult writing arguments, so here's one from Hegel, King of obscurity:
    In the case of all other sciences, arts, skills and crafts, everyone is convinced that a complex and laborious programme of learning and practice is necessary for competence. Yet when it comes to philosophy, there seems to be a currently prevailing prejudice to the effect that, although not everyone who has eyes and fingers, and is given leather and last, is at once in a position to make shoes, everyone nevertheless immediately unders
    tands how to philosophise, and how to evaluate philosophy, since he possesses the criterion for doing so in his natural reason - as if he did not likewise possess the measure for a shoe in his own foot.
    Phenomenology of Spirit
    Learning to think isn't easy; learning to be good is difficult; becoming wise is hard. We worry about elitism, and we want to say that everyone is equal, because bad things happen when you don't treat everyone as equally valuable. But does that mean that everyone's equally able to do philosophy? Does that mean that we can get wisdom without having to work for it?

    I can see flaws in the argument, but I'll leave that for another time. What are your thoughts?

    Monday, 7 February 2011

    Theology for ordinary people

    I've blogged in the past about the accessibility of academic theology (those posts are tagged with 'Bad Writing' if you want to check them out or revisit them), and it's a topic I keep returning to. In the past, I've always taken the side of accessibility over obscurity, but I'm starting to think that it's a bit more complicated than that (isn't it always?) I'm planning to blog some thoughts from Iris Murdoch and from Hegel over the next couple of weeks, but thought I'd start off by pointing you in the direction of a few online things I've read recently that have got me thinking again.

    First, a lovely post from Maggi Dawn, talking about why she thinks it's worth doing theology in public, arguing that it's as much about theology's need to remain connected as it is about everyone else's need to do theology:
    'Nothing stands still, and if theology is to remain alive it needs to remain in the public sphere, not locked away in a museum. Theology is much more interesting done in a broad context; it saves it from the angels-on-a-pinhead stuff, and from disappearing down rabbit holes that are really not that important. But what I fear to some extent is that Christian theology is becoming more and more privatised, and the gap between those who are totally inside it and totally alienated from it is widening. And we really shouldn’t let that happen.'
    Second, an article in the Guardian by Nick Cohen, arguing that the arts need to get better at communicating if they want to persuade the public that it's worth fighting to save them from the cuts. He makes some important points, but I think he's also way harsh:
    'For all the leftish positioning of "transgressive" academics they have been naive to the point of stupidity about the right. They assumed that Conservatives did not mean what they said and would not take money from institutions which have gone out of their way to alienate the intellectually curious. People write well when they have something say. The willingness of too many academics to write badly has told their fellow citizens that they are not worth listening to or fighting for.'
    So there are some anti-difficult writing thoughts. I'm going to blog some about the other side of the argument, but I'll leave you with a point made by one of the reviewers who recently rejected an article I wrote in which I critiqued Judith Butler for her obscurity: they pointed out that, for all that everyone talks about how difficult she is, she has changed the world: lots of her ideas are just taken for granted now by people who think about and read about and blog about and live in gay or queer culture; her discussion of the social construction of gender has been so influential that even right wing conservative fundamentalist Christians are starting to use it to argue that gayness is a social construction and therefore curable. And if they can get their heads round Judith, well...

    Photo credit: voyageAnatolia

    Wednesday, 2 February 2011

    Things I have done recently whilst not blogging...

    ...include making this, currently on display in our bathroom:

    It took flippin' ages. Seriously, like 24 hours worth of cross stitching.

    Thursday, 27 January 2011

    Christian 'art' and the Bible

    A little while ago, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology blogged about Christian art. He'd been in a Christian bookshop and noticed that all of the artwork had words on it, which basically explained what the art 'represented'; even, weirdly, a drawing of praying hands. What we end up with, he suggested, is art that is dominated by pedagogy, catechesis and evangelism: there's no room for ambiguity, for art that unsettles us, draws us in, invites us to deep engagement.

    This all came to mind recently as I was thinking (as you do) about the art of the banner in Christian churches. You see banners all over the place in British Christianity at least, though probably more so the more evangelical the church, and I can testify to having seen some pretty spectacular ones in German evangelical churches (don't ask), whose aesthetic preferences seem to be for banners constructed entirely out of metallic fabrics. Gaudy. But, like the Christian art you can buy in Christian bookshops, they always involve words. The classic Christian banner tends to take a Bible verse, 'I am the light of the world' or 'I am the way, the truth and the life', and illustrate it with pictures that go with the words - lights, paths, basic allegorical images.

    That's obviously pretty different to most contemporary art (although, as a side point, contemporary art involves text in a way that classical art didn't tend to: I wonder why?) But it's also crucially different to the sort of religious art that you found in churches as paintings or stained glass windows, because banners-with-text are all about assertions or statements, where religious art tends to illustrate stories. That in turn reflects a general shift in the way that a lot of evangelicals read the Bible: they're not looking for narratives so much as for truth claims, encouraging words, or rules. The Bible, and probably Christianity more generally, becomes a source of doctrinal statements, instructions, and fridge-magnet wisdom.
    Photo credit: Kentishman

    Monday, 10 January 2011

    Philosophy is never objective

    In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that the idea of philosophical objectivity is a myth. We don't start with logic and argue to conclusions, he says: we start with value judgements, deeply held instincts about the sort of life that is worth living, instincts that are bound up with our physiology, literally gut feelings. When we do philosophy, we're not really trying to find the truth, we're just trying to justify our heart's desire. All the great works of philosophy are just a sort of personal memoir.

    Isn't there anyone who is capable of the disinterested pursuit of truth? Sure, says says Nietzsche:maybe that's the case with jobsworthy academics who don't care if they're studying the history of stamps or the workings of the brain, because they're only really interested academic study for the money and the prestige that it brings. If you want to find a genuinely objective seeker after truth, go to someone who just wants to be distinguished but doesn't really care whether they get there by studying mushrooms or teapots. But philosophy is always personal.