Monday, December 10, 2018


On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton (who saved my faith in more ways than one), and prompted by twitter CEO's thoughtless (his description not mine) meditation exploits Myanmar, here is Merton on true and false emptiness in his last book, Contemplative Prayer (1969):
A person [cannot] become a contemplative merely by "blacking out" sensible realities and remaining alone with himself in darkness. First of all, one who does this of set purpose, as a conclusion to practical reasoning on the subject and without an interior vocation simply enters into an artificial darkness of his own making.  He is not alone with God, but alone with himself. He is not in the presence of the Transcendent One, but of an idol: his own complacent identity. He becomes immersed and lost in himself, in a state of inert, primitive and infantile narcissism. His life is "nothing," not in the dynamic, mysterious sense in which the "nothing," nada, of the mystic is paradoxically also the all, todo, of God. It is purely the nothingness of a finite being left to himself and absorbed in his own triviality....
An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself. It is so full that the light of God cannot get into it anywhere; there is not a crack or a corner left where anything else can wedge itself into this hard core of self-aspiration which is our option to live centered in our own self. Such "emptiness" is in fact the emptiness of hell. And consequently anyone who aspires to become a contemplative should think twice before he sets out on the road. Perhaps the best to become a contemplative would be to desire with all one's heart to be anything but a contemplative; who knows?
Actually, there is no such entity as pure emptiness, and the merely negative emptiness of the false contemplative is a "thing," not a "nothing." The "thing" that it is is simply the darkness of self, from which all other beings are deliberately and of set purpose excluded....
But true emptiness is that which transcends all things and yet is immanent in all. For what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it. But to the contemplative is is other than that. It is not this, not that. Whatever you say of it, it is other than what you say. The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom.... It is love for love's sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God... This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity. It is to this above all that all monastic prayer aspires.
Of course Merton reserves his most severe words for Christians. But if the above passage is too Christian for you, take it up with Merton's friend Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote the book's glowing introduction (and who might know a thing or two about Buddhism).

May the Lord have mercy on us all. 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Fun with Nietzsche

Image result for pious nietzsche
I miss Bruce Benson. He has moved on from Wheaton, but the best of his influence endures here, as does the influence of other former Wheaton professors like Dennis Ockholm, Alan Jacobs, or Ashley Woodiwiss. If someone were to write about the recent history of this particular center of Christian learning, none of these figures, Bruce especially, could be left out. Here he is in his relentlessly fair book, Pious Nietzsche:
Nietzsche's [geneology] works well if one considers certain elements of Christian history and not others.  Speaking of Nietzsche, the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky joked: "Tell me what you need, and I'll supply you with the right Nietzsche quotation." Similar things are often said about the Bible - and everything becomes far more complicated once we talk about the entity "Christianity" and its history. For there have been "Christians" who could fit just about any description. Paraphrasing only slightly, one could say: "Tell me how you want to portray Christianity, and I'll provide you with the right examples." Have there been "Christians" obsessed with sin, unconcerned about the body, cruel to themselves and others because of ressentiment, gloomy, against pride, freedom, and courage, and even the joy of the senses? Of course....

But one can just as easily come up with other examples of Christians who do not hate themselves or their bodies or those who are not Christians, or courage or the sense or joy. Nietzsche has deliberately painted a rather radical picture of hatred and self-denial. While painting such a vivid portrait works well in communicating the failings of a religion, its great disadvantage is that it is a portrait that is so easy to pillory. That Nietzsche is able to find some examples that fit the description lends at best partial credence to it. Otherwise, he provides remarkably little support. If his is to be a convincing revisionist history, he needs considerably more examples - and better ones than those he has (152-153).
As Coppleston pointed out so long ago, Nietzsche's claim that Christianity is world-denying is better aimed at Manicheanism. But Bruce has fun taking that point further:
The resurrection is all about the eternal "Yes." It is God's "Yes" to the world. Thus, Norman Wirzba is right when he says, "Nietzsche is united with Christianity in his quest to affirm life," though Nietzsche is clearly unable to see that connection. That Jesus is resurrected bodily is an especially strong affirmation of the body. Further, what Nietzsche misses is that the Christian notion of redemption is not merely about the world to come, it is as much about this world. As the theologian N.T. Wright puts it, "The resurrection, in the fully Jewish and Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter." Nietzsche is certainly welcome to his "otherworldly" interpretation of the resurrection - and there have been plenty of theologians and believers throughout the past two millennia who have tended in that direction - but his interpretation clearly goes against orthodox Christianity. To say that the cross is the condemnation of life on earth is simply a gross misunderstanding. Whether it is likewise for Nietzsche a willful misunderstanding is a question that cannot be answered, even though it must be posed (136).
Image result for alistair kee NietzscheThese brief quotes to not do justice to the tenor and scope of the book. For a more straightforward, analytic approach, Alistair Kee's Nietzsche Against the Crucified is equally good, successfully arguing that "Nietzsche has exercised a more profound and positive influence on Christians as a critic of religion than he ever could have as a local pastor" (11). It might seem odd to toggle from Nietzsche's anti-Christian statements to his more favorable observations, but as Nietzsche himself put it, "This thinker needs no one to refute him: he does that for himself." Ecce Homo famously concludes: "Have I been understood? Dionysos against the Crucified." And Kee's interpretation - sustained and well documented - is memorable:
"Have I been understood?" A meaningless, unnecessary question - if Neitzsche was indeed the enemy of Christ crucified... Why then was this redundant question asked [three times by the greatest master of the German language to date!] if not that at the end Nietzsche took fright at the thought that some gullible, misguided, immature young mind might read the motto - and believe it!" (3, 174).
Both Benson and Kee are deeply serious, and neither succumb to Christian cheap shots leveled toward a great thinker who - being dead - can't fight back. In particular, Benson's concluding insight is hard-earned, and especially instructive: "To be able to affirm even Christianity - against which [Nietzsche] has railed so vehemently - is finally to become truly Dionysian - and to have left all ressentiment behind" (215).

Monday, November 26, 2018

a not-so-new regime of interpretation

I imagine that most college professors in the humanities in their thirties, forties or fifties were trained under critical theory. It was drilled into us whether we liked it or not, and we are therefore probably not at risk of forgetting it. The mode of furrow-browed critique towards works of art and literature will, I expect, always come naturally, even if we prefer (as I do) to fuel our prophetic stirrings more with Amos than Agamben. But it is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the dark night of suspicion is giving way to some kind of dawn. In The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Rita Felski explains:
My conviction - one that is shared by a growing number of scholars - is that questioning critique is not a shrug of defeat or a hapless capitulation to conservative forces. Rather, it is motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value. Such a vision is sorely needed if we are to make a more compelling case for why the arts and humanities are needed. Reassessing critique, in this light, is not an abandonment of social or ethical commitments but a realization, as Ien Ang puts it, that these commitments require us to communicate with intellectual strangers who do not share our assumptions. And here, a persuasive defense of the humanities is hindered rather than helped by an ethos of critique that encourages scholars to pride themselves on their vanguard role and to equate serious thought with a reflex negativity. Citing the waves of demystification in the history of recent thought (linguistic, historicist, etc.) Yves Citton notes that they share a common conviction: the naïvety of any belief that works of art might inspire new forms of life. We are seeing, he suggests, the emergence of another regime of interpretation: one that is willing to recognize the potential of literature and art to create new imaginaries rather than just to denounce mystifying illusions. The language of attachment, passion, and inspiration is lo longer taboo (187).
Felski cites Michael Billig, Luc Boltanski, Jane Bennet and James Elkins as further allies in this shift. Especially helpful is Michel Chaouli's questioning the measures we take to keep the power of works of art at bay.  "How curious it is," he remarks, "that we dig wide moats - of history, ideology, formal analysis - and erect thick conceptual walls lest we be touched by what, in truth, lures us [in works of art]."  Lest we think this means we should look with dewy-eyed infatuation at any manner of artistic expression, Felski elaborates,
That critique has made certain things possible is not in doubt. What is also increasingly evident, however, is that it has sidelined other intellectual, aesthetic, and political possibilities - ones that are just as vital to the flourishing of new fields of knowledge as older ones... (190).
The antidote to suspicion is thus not a repudiation of theory - asking why literature [and art] matters will always embroil us in sustained reflection - but an ampler and more diverse range of theoretical vocabularies. And here, the term "postcritical" acknowledges its reliance on a prior tradition of thought, while conveying that there is more to intellectual life than the endless deflationary work of "digging down" or "standing back." Rather than engaging in a critique of critique, it is more interested in testing out alternative ways of reading and thinking. What it values in works of art is not just their power to estrange and disorient but also their ability to recontextualize what we know and to reorient and refresh perception. It seeks, in short, to strengthen rather than diminish its object - less in a spirit of reverence than in one of generosity and unabashed curiosity (181-182).
But a shift as major as this one is going to need some heavy theoretical cover, and Actor-Network-Theory serves this role for Felski. If you need it to get to where she finds herself, have at it. Treating works of art as non-human actors may be a helpful experiment, but not necessarily a new one. (After all, it has long been common for Wheaton students to refer to their Bibles as the living Word.) That said, perhaps this alliance will only buy us ten years or so, until Actor-Network-Theory (already under considerable fire) itself succumbs to a new regime. That is why theology strikes me (unsurprisingly) as the more field-tested warranting discourse for the post-critical moment, something that art historian Tom Crow (see his No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art) most certainly understands. 

Does a turn to theology mean that works of art will be any less pulsingly vibrant? Not in the least. Decades before Bynum showed how "Christian materiality" is far different (and more fundamentally paradoxical) than recent Object Oriented Ontology trends, John Meyendorff used the same terms to describe the kind of faith that Gregory of Palamas (1296-c.1359) defended:
We find here the elements of Christian materialism, which, instead of wishing to suppress matter which has revolted against the spirit through the effect of sin, gives it the place the Creator assigned to it, and discovers the way which Christ opened for it [matter!] by transfiguring it and by deifying it in his own body.
That Christian materiality is the ultimate warrant for interpreting works of art is old news at this old blog (15 years and counting), but as literary theory comes around to something resembling it, the warrant bears repeating. In these post-critical times, venerable figures like Wheaton English professor Clyde Kilby (see his posthumousy published The Arts & the Christian Imagination), don't look so countrified after all. Fortunately, for a school that has taken faith seriously as a backdrop for studying the humanities, Felski's wonderful book is not the dawning of a new regime as much as permission (even vindication) for what we've been doing all along.

And so, Professor Felski: Thanks!

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Biblia Pauperum of Our Time

I hope it's fair to say that amidst all the buzzing at AAR (American Academy of Religion) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) this year, between the sessions on aliens and the necessary hand-wringing over the American political scene, something actually historic was introduced in regard to the Bible. Namely, an online commentary that very selectively deploys the internet's visual capabilities to illuminate the Biblical text. Let's face it: New commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors makes the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually... wait for it... free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.

The idea and support for the VCS come from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson (who were also behind the Ancient Christian Commentary), and the execution came from the prodigious and nearly (it seems to me) superhuman team of Chloë Reddaway, Ben Quash, and Jennifer Sliwka. It could only have come from London. When Rowan Williams and one of the U.K.s chief art critics and sculptors can pack a hall beyond capacity at the at the Royal Academy, it is fairly evident that the UK is miles ahead of the U.S. regarding the intersection of art and religion. London, after all, is - as one of the more exciting publications emerging from this crucible puts it - holy ground. When video artist Bill Viola is exhibited in St. Paul's Cathedral and a Bible Commentary is launched in the Tate Modern, the bridge connecting the two feels very substantial indeed. Will North America one day get there too? I have my fingers crossed.

You should now stop reading this and go enjoy the available commentaries of the Elder and Younger Testaments (or scroll the delicious visual menu here). Did I mention they're free? But if you need further prodding, I got to pick what Leon Morris referred to as "possibly the most important paragraph ever written" (109), Romans chapter 3. How is this most important paragraph visualized in the history of art? Selection is everything here, and - to make the case (with Tom Oden) that the Reformation's fierce emphasis on grace is not an exclusively Protestant possession - I chose to split mine between medieval (the Deësis), Renaissance (Cranach of course), and contemporary art (Martin Creed), with Cranach in the interpretive driver's seat. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing," says Creed in the forward to his major catalog. "Art is shit. Art galleries are toilets. Curators are toilet attendants. Artists are bullshitters." But fortunately the artist doesn't get the last word.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture - with dozens of entries already published and many hundreds more to come - might take some getting used to. Here's an introductory video. Each passage gets three individual commentaries using selected artwork, limited to a merciless 300 words (this, should be noted, is very hard to do). Then the author/curator is also permitted a longer combined commentary bringing the three together, which is easy to miss, but gives the curator a chance to drive his or her points home. For Paul, Julian of Norwich, and even Martin Creed (despite himself) in the very museum that hosted the VCS launch, that point is - notwithstanding the madness - that...

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Limiting Luther, Interrupting Ignatius

From Bengt Hoffman's Luther and the Mystics (1976):
Martin Luther's faith consciousness was significantly molded by mystical experience and western dependence on rationalism has obscured or eclipsed this mystical light. This is to say that the rational attributes of trustworthiness and loving care ascribed to God and the corresponding realities of faith and trustfulness found in man, are shot through with non-rational intimations, experiences of fascinating, awe-inspiring and bliss-giving presence. Luther's language about God residing in the heart of the believer was not only figurative. It was based on actual experience. The rational terms for God-man union were underpinned by a mystical knowledge. As indicated, there are barriers built into western intellectual thought structures which render it difficult to grasp the intimate connection between the conceptual-doctrinal and the experiential in Luther's legacy" (18-19).
From Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart (1986):
The genius and contemplative experience of Ignatius of Loyola led him to channel the contemplative tradition, which was in danger of being lost... [but the] unfortunate tendency to reduce the Spiritual Exercises to a method of discursive meditations seems to stem from the Jesuits themselves. In 1547 Everard Mercurian, the Father General of the Jesuits... forbade the practice of affective prayer and the application of the five senses. The spiritual life of a significant portion of the Society of Jesus was thus limited to a single method of prayer, namely, discursive meditation. The predominantly intellectual character of this meditation continued to grow in importance throughout the Society during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries... [Accordingly, early modern Catholicism] received the limitation imposed not by Ignatius, but by his less enlightened successors (23).
Philip Endean's article, Luther in Ignatian Light, goes further along these lines. Meanwhile, three cheers for the primary sources themselves!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture

I gave this lecture at Princeton Seminary in April. The images were the best part, but well, there are still some things you can't get on the internet. (Though it will be published here eventually.) Here's a podcast I did on the visit as well.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why I never read your Jordan Peterson post

And if you know about Christopher Byrant, John Sanford, and Jung's pleas to Christians in Psychology and Alchemy, you should not read this one either. If not though, carry on.

My simple point is that someone's brief Christian response to Peterson's endearing pop Jungianism is unlikely to approximate the depth encapsulated in the careers of Bryant and Sanford who, from both sides of the Atlantic, painstakingly and effectively assimilated the best of Jung into the Christian tradition.

It's hard, for example, to do better than Bryant's opening directives in Jung and the Christian Way, which originated as lectures given in 1980 at All Saints Margaret Street: 
I think Jung's understanding of dogma to be partial and inadequate. He regarded dogma as a protection against a psychic experience which might otherwise have proved overwhelming, as an attempt to tame and domesticate dangerous psychic forces. No doubt this has been one of its functions. But perhaps because of his undervaluing of belief he failed fully to grasp the positive value of dogma. For Christian doctrine and dogma grew out of an attempt to define and map an intense spiritual experience; and dogma is one of the tools for the exploration of a reality which transcends human grasp. The creeds are not intended to be the final expression of ultimate truth but signposts pointing the way to unfathomable mystery. Christians who believe them to be accurate signposts need to take care not to identify the signposts with the realities to which they point. As under Jung's guidance we learn to get in touch with our own depths and discover our own truth, the powerful realities the dogmas signify will become new and exciting (x).
Or take Sanford's The Kingdom Within, which helpfully identifies the largest deficit in the Jungian, and possibly Petersonian systems:
Sensing the necessity of evil for the advancement of spiritual consciousness, some psychologists have ventured into the outskirts of the fields of philosophy and theology and have asserted that evil also belongs to the ultimate wholeness of things. C.G. Jung in particular repeatedly intimated that totality must include evil as well as good. This is a dangerous and misleading thought for, in spite of the necessity for evil, evil has a negative power of its own which is directly opposed to the life-giving power of totality. We must distinguish between chaotic or undifferentiated parts of our personality, which may seem to us to be devilish but which must be included if we are to be whole, and absolute or ultimate evil - a very different thing which cannot be integrated into wholeness since it is antiwholeness (137).  
But none of this is to suggest that one shouldn't just go directly to Jung himself. For critical as he might be of the moribund European Christianity that kept sending him new patients, Jung himself tells Christians, if they are able, to stay put and learn from their own tradition. As Jung puts it in Psychology and Alchemy:
Psychology is concerned with the act of seeing and not with the construction of new religious truths, when even the existing teachings have not yet been perceived and understood.... Accordingly, when I say as a psychologist that God is an archetype, I mean by that the "type" in the psyche. The word "type," as we know, is derived from typos, "blow" or "imprint"; thus an archtetype presupposes an imprinter. Psychology as the science of the soul has to confine itself to its subject and guard against overstepping its proper boundaries by metaphysical assertions and other professions of faith. Should it set up a God, even as a hypothetical cause, it would have implicitly claimed the possibility of proving God, thus ending its competence in an absolutely illegitimate way (263).
One wishes, of course, that Jung would have exemplified this reticence career long. In point of fact, he often overstepped it. Hence Bryant is on the mark when he writes, "Jung appears to find it hard to distinguish the experience of the self and that of God. [But] to say that God can be experienced within the working of the human psyche does not, of course, imply that he is not present and perceptible outside of it" (40-41).

Even so, Jung - at times - went so far as to complain that people would
not stay in church. He blamed the church's failures less on the inadequacy of Christianity than on the "psychic situation of Western man, and [his] inability to assimilate the whole range of the Christian symbol" (277). Jung continues:
I would only be too delighted to leave this anything but easy [healing] task to the theologian, were it not that it is just from the theologian that many of my patients come. They ought to have hung on to the community of the Church, but they were shed like dry leaves from the great tree and now find themselves "hanging on" to the treatment (277)...  I wish everybody could be freed from the burden of their sins by the Church. But he to whom she cannot render this service must bend very low in the imitation of Christ in order to take the burden of his cross upon him" (281).
No doubt Peterson's success today is due to more dry leaves shed from shallow churches. But again, it is Jung himself who suggests it would be better for Christians to access the content of their own tradition, perhaps using the ladles forged by depth psychology to help reach it.

The Cowley Father Christopher Bryant (popularized in Susan Howatch's Starbridge series), and American Episcopal priest John Sanford succeeded at doing that. One of the best things the Peterson phenomenon might accomplish is to help people find their books again.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Calling London's Secular Bluff

There are (at least!) two temptations that beset a group of Midwestern Christian college students who spend a month in London. The first might be to fear the secular city, tip-toeing around it but mostly keeping to ourselves. The opposite (and more common) temptation comes from allowing ourselves to be bedazzled by diverse, stimulating, enrapturing London, and then looking back with predictable disdain on the narrowly Christian American suburbs we left happily behind.

But as our intensive Arts in London course over four weeks in London and Wales began, we attended "Choral Pilgrimage 2018: Sacred and Profane," by legendary choral group The Sixteen at the Royal Naval College. There we read this in our program from Robert Hawkins, which effectively neutralized those twin temptations: 
Today we might hear the terms 'sacred' and 'secular' as opposing poles, as if there were a clear separation between religious matters and worldly affairs. To think in this way is rather 'secular' in itself, and very particular to modernity...  The word 'secular' comes from the Latin saeculum (generation, age): It is used in Christian Latin to mean 'the world'. This isn't to say 'secular' had nothing to do with 'the Church'; it merely distinguished between monks, who were called to 'renounce the world', and priests, who interpreted their vocation as a need to get stuck into the affairs of the world, and to do God's work there.... For a modern viewer, particularly one without religious conviction, the all-encompassing nature of this sacral worldview can be hard to imagine. Part of the significance of beginning to see with believing eyes is the realisation that the extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary, the sacred in the profane (11).
We took this article as the Magna Carta of our trip, and set out - like those secular priests - to pursue the sacred, in a robustly Christian way, in the ostensibly "secular" space of London. (It certainly helps that all museums are free.) Like the snake the St. Paul handled in the massive fresco in the Royal Naval Chapel, we trusted that presumably secular culture would not poison us.
Taking the motto of our parish church in Highbury Islington, "roots down, branches out," we refused to be scandalized or seduced by the city. We weren't afraid of London; but nor did we despise the Midwestern evangelical tradition that has reared us, and which taught (and teaches!) us how to inhabit a cosmopolis without losing our Christological nerve. The result was we found God everywhere. And not a generic God either, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After all, as Columbanus put it in the sixth century, "Ineffable, Incomprehensible, he fills all things and transcends all things;" or as R.S. Thomas put the same insight in the twentieth, "you [God] terrify me as much by your proximity as by your being light years away."

God was so present in fact, that over a reflective dinner in Wales, our class came up with a list (embellished and/or warped a good bit by me) of the ways the sacred/secular boundary was breached during our pilgrimage. The list is far from exhaustive, and here it is:

The Sacred in "Secular" London (& Oxford & Wales):
  1. First comes the flag of London itself, with the sword that beheaded saint Paul displayed as prominently as St. Paul's dome is on the city's skyline. The message of grace that he preached is therefore only missed if we choose to ignore it (which we all do!). To help us not to, the city's official motto, Domine, dirige nos (Lord, direct us), became our prayer.

  2. In our first visit to the National Gallery, we enjoyed Joachim Beucklaer's Four Elements, where worldly goods for their own sake are ostentatiously displayed in a festival of materialism. Or so most think. Biblical scenes are in fact concealed in the distance of each painting, if one knows where to look. As we learned from T.J. Gorringe's brilliant book-length commentary on these works, “The turn to the secular may not be a sign of Christianity losing its grip, but, on the contrary, of realizing its true implications.”
  3. Eric Gill's motto of sorts, beautifully displayed in his Gill Sans font at the Tate Britain, expressed the truth we kept encountering on our trip. The Latin phrase from Aquinas' commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius translates, "The beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is." Or as one student put it more directly, "The artists we're encountering are for Jesus even if they don't know it."
  4. As we headed to the Hay-on-Wye HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival, we expected something akin to a neo-pagan British Burning Man. Instead, one of our own found a gloriously tiny prayer-book dedicated to her own name in this sea of books, and Rowan Williams (a speaker this year) was ubiquitous, happily jockeying with whatever else is on offer for twenty-first century hearts and minds. 
  5. In a lecture we enjoyed on Celtic Spirituality, St. Patrick's phrase, "Christ in every eye that sees me" seemed to apply to all eyes that met ours in London, Oxford and Wales, or even from the past in the National Portrait Gallery. Student after student pointed out how they felt Christ refracted in the wildly diverse population that surrounded us, from the residents erecting a memorial in our neighborhood after a tragedy, to the Catholic nuns who lived right next door.
  6. Ours was a Wesley-haunted trip. We encountered memorials to him everywhere, and not just in churches. There he was in the massive Aldersgate flame ("my sins, even mine") at the entrance to the Museum of London, filled with material evidence of London's Christian history. Wesley - whose message sprung from the churches he was kicked out of into the very streets - kept reminding us of the message of justification by faith which he preached, and which remains freshly offensive and invigorating in every age.
  7. It was not only Stanley Spencer's The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27) that overwhelmed us at the Tate Britain, with the entire population rising from the dead, but also his depiction of "Swan Upping at Cookham" (1915-19). Spencer description of his inspiration sounded this sacred-in-the-secular theme yet again: "The village seemed as much a part of the atmosphere prevalent in the church as the most holy part of the church."
  8. We were led through galleries in Burmondsey (London's chief gallery district) by artist Alastair Gordon. An active artist and a no-nonsense believer, Ally went so far as to ask us to pray that God would keep a Christian art subculture from developing in London so that Christians would keep working in the wider world of art. 
  9. One student pointed out how the architecture of St. Bride's has imprinted itself on every wedding cake (notice the famous resemblance), Christian or not. Even the German bomb that destroyed the nave only served to reveal the layers of history that were sealed up inside, now to be enjoyed.
  10. Andrew Cusack explained that the architectural nucleus of Pugin's Gothic Houses of Parliament remains the royal chapel of St. Stephen. And even the structures of opposing parties today goes back to the recitation of the antiphonal Psalter from two sides of the choir.
  11. Seeing Darwin enthroned at the Museum of Natural History ruffled our faith about as much as does the law of gravitation (to quote former Princeton President James McCosh). Instead, the massive leviathan suspended above Darwin seemed to have the last word, reminding us of Job 41, "Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride." As a result, on entering Darwin's hometown of Shrewsbury, we gave the statues to him a polite nod, and went on to admire the churches. For the cosmic Christ is cruciform, and is our caterpillar, after all.
  12. In the shows we watched for our Musical Theater class, gospel themes covertly prevailed. These included the, "He lives in you, He lives in me," hymn in The Lion King, the notes of redemption in the conclusion of Matilda and Odette's please for the prince's attention in Swan Lake. Above all, the stolen candlesticks testifying to forgiven sin became a virtual altar in a superb production of Les Mis. As group member Martin Johnson put it, "Known about this show since 1983: finally saw it. Says it all. Unmerited, unconditional one-way love: Better than any sermon I have ever preached: or heard."
  13. Speaking of sermons, nestled near the heart of our trip was the royal wedding sermon, which was broadcast in every pub, restaurant, shop and so-called "secular" space in London. Ubi Caritas, the hymn quoted by Bishop Curry, "Where charity and love are, God is there," encapsulated our venture, and propelled it onward.
  14. In Wales, our Eucharistic celebrant had DNA helixes on her vestments, testifying to the goodness of God in all creation. Like the ancient fossils deliberately built into the baptistry and altar of All Saints Margaret Street, they were a reminder - for our bio majors especially - that there is no division between serious science and genuine faith.
  15. The martyrdom of the Carthusians under Henry VIII was a tragedy. Full stop. That said, there was a marked contrast between the cloistered Carthusians, who were - and remain where their order endures - completely silent, and the wonderfully eloquent Christian witness of our cheerful tour guide at the Charterhouse who is one of the contemporary brothers of a more recent order. The same dynamic is at work in the continuation of the Knights Hospitaller (revived by Queen Victoria and surviving in the Saint John Ambulance), or in Anglican celebrations of once-suppressed Our Lady of Walsingham today.
  16. As beautiful as the large memorial to the Oxford martyrs remains, we were instead taken aback by the actual place of the martyrdom of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, which stands in the midst of a busy Oxford road, where we almost got ran over to take this photo.
  17. That said, an equally moving experience was our visit to the recently dedicated tomb of Thomas More at St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London (no photos allowed). These martyrdoms together testified that there are no easy answers to the divisions on the sixteenth-century. But that More's tomb was recently dedicated in the Queen's royal chapel seemed to qualify it for our sacred-in-the-secular list.
  18. On the literary end, though Romanticism is often seen as a gateway to the secular, we learned in Wales that the first Romantic poet may very well have been the hymn writer William Williams
  19. And Williams' mantel was passed on to Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, who penned agonizing, doubt-infused tirades against his maker, but whose faith was too rooted to fail. "The Cross is always avant-garde," he realized. And his poem, The Moor, illustrated our theme: "It was like a church to me. / I entered it on soft foot, / Breath held like a cap in the hand...  / There were no prayers said, / But stillness of the heart's passions - that was praise / Enough..."

  20. One student pointed out that just as the sheep left marks of wool wherever they had been on our hikes, so all of London seemed flecked with traces of sheep-wool, showing signs of God's emissaries in all quarters of cultural production.
  21. Our time of silence in the Elam Valley enabled the quiet of the landscape to speak. It confirmed for us what we read and learned about Celtic spirituality, which boasts "an interpenetration of religion and landscape in a way that surpasses anything we might find in the late classical world (6-7)." The same truth was well-expressed in the Latin root of chasuble, that emblem of high church fashion. Originally though, it was the just Latin word (chasula) for the simple poncho the rain invited us all to wear.
  22. One would think that during a visit to the Courtauld, the "sacred" conversations would cease after the first floor of medieval art, and certainly wouldn't continue into the nineteenth century galleries. But Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was as powerful as the ground floor of Courtauld in revealing the dignity of all who are overlooked. This painting just did not let our group go.
  23. To the surprise of many of us, St Mary le Strand was packed with students from Kings College London, offering a vibrant, orthodox sermon on a standard weekday at noon. Just like John Stott's famously evangelical All Souls Langham Place, St Mary Le Strand remains architecturally in the thick of it all, and has not yet given up the [Holy] ghost.
  24. As the rain poured down during our trek to the dueling Cathedrals of St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, one of us cited Matthew 5:45, "he sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust," with the caveat that sometimes the just are in the world and the unjust in the church. As Augustine once put it, "there are many sheep within, and many wolves without."
  25. "I believe God is in the bowels of the Tate," remarked our guide Jonathan Anderson with a smile as he began his tour. He gave confident readings of multiple works in this secular church, extending the argument he made so persuasively in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture. There is quite a difference, we learned, between the nihilistic and the apophatic; between nothingness and no-thing-ness; between "God is not there," and "God is not there." Antony Gormley's Untitled (for Francis) from 1985 even seemed an illustration of Charles Taylor's view of the modern, "buffered self," the artist's body cast is solid lead. And yet, this body was pierced with the stigmata, open again to Christ, who surely hovered nearby. But concealed, as Bellini understood, by seraphim.

  26. Perhaps the reason we found these connections so easy to make because we were not seeking "Britishness," but a wider empire, the Kingdom of God. Our indefatigable guide, Geoff Weaver, cited John Ellerton's famous hymn - daringly written at the high tide of the British Empire - to prove this point: "The voice of prayer is never silent / Nor dies the strain of praise away.... So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never / Like earth's proud empires, pass away." Lily, a student in our class who spent much of her youth in China, found it fitting that this was the hymn sung when Britain turned over control of Hong Kong.
  27. We might even go so far as to say that the presumed line between the sacred and secular seemed as softened as the Offa's Dyke path that we walked. That original division between England and Wales was once a bloody border, but is now just a pleasant place to walk.
  28. None of this is to rule out the specificity of Christian proclamation, or to say that churches are unnecessary in the name of some kind of religionless Christianity. Not in the least. This was made clear by the fulcrum of our visit, Pentecost worship at All Saints Margaret Street. The love of God in Christ of course beams down on everyone in London - but only with the smoke of incense in Christian worship are these beams revealed.
  29. And in true Anglo-Catholic fashion, the worship of All Saints Margaret Street is not divorced from service. The homeless are welcomed into this glorious church to sleep in its pews every night (guidelines are clearly posted), with silver candlesticks staying right where they are, as if to prompt a remake of Les Mis.
  30.  Indeed, our whole trip was summarized by the fact that the revelatory smoke of incense offered by this church does not dutifully stay put. On Corpus Christi, just as we left, the All Saints thuribles took Oxford Circus by storm, declaring revealing God's beams of love for anyone who had eyes to see (photo, which I wish I had taken, courtesy of All Saints' site).
So then, what hath London to do with Jerusalem? The Passover red of the Rothko room gave us an answer: Everything. And if there is any mission for a Christian liberal arts college in the twenty-first century (and there is), it is to help students (and professors) realize that the same answer applies to Istanbul, New York, Berlin, Marrakesh, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Singapore or Jakarta.
Though we might well admit that sometimes it seems London includes all these cities at once.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Distillery

Here's a podcast conversation with the fantastic Shari Oosting at Princeton Seminary on ecumenism, Mary, feminism, etc.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Infinity Luther War

In this extended conversation, Bill Borror, Scott Jones, Scott's Trump impersonation and I discuss evangelicalism, Santeria, theological education gaps, grace vs. works & why the slot of America's greatest theologian should remain vacant.

For those without an hour to spare: I claimed that Martin Luther was taken for granted by folks like Lindbeck/Frei/Jenson (Yale School, etc.) who taught those (Hauerwas, Reno, Radner, etc.) who taught my generation. Hence second rate students like me barely got Luther, which is why his rediscovery now comes with such force.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Our Lady of 2054

Being a title of our Madonna della Misericordia. Read all about it here. Way more upbeat than Bladerunner 2049. If I could add one more source to the essay, it would be this line from Alan Jacobs' Pro Ecclesia essay on ecclesial plurality: "There is not a single form of ecclesial life they can reliably sustain every kind of saint."

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Five More Questions on "Enchantment"

I have learned (thanks to the good Dr. Ryan Clevenger), of a fascinating corollary to Mattes's book on Luther and beauty, namely, Jason Josephson-Storm's well-crafted stake to the heart of Charles Taylor's assertion that "Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of 500 years ago is that they lived in an 'enchanted' world and we do not" (38).

It leads to five more questions of my own, followed by Josephson-Storm's vivid, myth-crunching prose.

1. But the modern world really is disenchanted, right?
Disenchantment is a myth. The majority of people in the heartland of disenchantment believe in magic or spirits today, and it appears that they did so at the high point of modernity. Education does not directly result in disenchatment. Indeed, one might hazard the guess that education allows one to maintain more cognitive dissonance rather than less. Secularizatin and disenchantment are not correlated. Moreover, it is easy to show that, almost no matter how you define the terms, there are few figures in the history of the academic disciplines that cannot be shown to have had some relation or engagement with what their own epoch saw as magic or animating forces. This monograph has shown how different magic and spiritualist revivals entered the lives of modernity's main theorists, from Max Müller to Theodor Adorno to Rudolf Carnap. But it is not only theorists of disenchantment who were entangled with enchantment....Mechanism has long had establishment enemies. This list barely scratches the surface (304-5).

That artistic and literary movements often went together with magical rituals and spirit summoning should also be no surprise: the occult can be found from the Harlem Renaissance to the Surrealists, from Wassily Kandinsky to Victor Hugo to W.B. Yeats. What we might think of as the orthodox or establishment disciplines have been hardly less magically inclined. Spiritualism and theosophy have appealed to biologists like Alfred Russel Wallace and inventors like Thomas Edison. Nobel Prize-winning physicists from Marie Curie to Jean Baptiste Perrin to Brian Josephson have often been interested in parapsychology. Even computer scientists like Alan Turing believed in psychical powers. Moreover, despite the laments of the new materialists, pansychism has been a persistent counter-current in philosophical circles as well-known thinkers - including Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer... Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, Henri Bergson... Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Albert Schweitzer.... - all argued that the material universe should be though of as thoroughly animated or possessed of mind and awareness.
2. So should we stop using the term modernity, understood as disenchantment of one kind or another?
Modernity is a myth. The term modernity is itself vague. There can be value in vagueness, but "modernity" rests on an extraordinarily elastic temporality that can be extended heterogeneously and in value-laden ways to different regions and periods. It also picks out different processes such as urbanization, industrialization, rationalization, globalization, capitalism, or various particular artistic, scientific, philosophical, or technological movements. To speak of "modernity or "modernization" is always to select from within these and to surreptitiously bundle them together as symptoms of a larger master process. It often makes an actor out of the very thing that needs to be explained. Hence, modernity is not just vague; it is doing a lot of covert work, and its main feature is its capacity to signal a rupture or breach, which it marks as the expression of a single horizon of temporality. Moreover, when described in terms of the de-animation of the world, the end of superstition, the decay of myth, or even the dominance of instrumental reason, modernity signals a societal fissure that never occurred (306).
3. But surely the term postmodernity still has purchase, right?
Postmodernity is a myth...  In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a calamity in European intellectual and cultural life, arguing that capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalism have produced an ehtical vacuum. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist has spawned a new type of person: "The postmodern man is an encursted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism." ...Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch....  But Pannwitz wrote this [postmodern] account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2017. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. ...The term postmodern became lexically available shortly after 1901, when variants on the term premodern appeared and came into common usage.... No sooner had "modernity' become the quintessential periodization than it was possible it imagine its future eclipse. Postmodernity is often presented as a second rift after the rift that defined modernity. Postmodernity is often seen as a counterreaction to modernism, but the two movements largely coincided. Indeed, postmodernism and modernism would seem to have the same meaning insofar as they both aim to transcend the current moment, often by looking forward. Accordingly, both periodizations rest on the idea of fundamental rupture from the past, which, while inflected differently, often rests on the very disenchantment narrative I have been working to dispel....
In sum, I have been arguing that in the hands of both proponents and critics, modernity is a philosopheme that comes with a rudimentary narrative structure attached. Every time something specific is termed "modern"," that implies a story: "First there was x, and then everything changed." The word modernity always communicated myth, and it turns out that disenchantment is one of the stories we most like having told to us. (307-308).
4. But I went to grad school where I read critical theory, so I'm safe from all these enchantment debates, right?    
The esoteric keeps appearing in thinkers we have canonized in critical theory... Critical theory's self-image is of vigilance and hyper-intellection. If you are routing it through Kant, Hegel, and Marx, you can make that boast. If you stick with Marx, you can even call yourself a materialist. If you put European mysticism at the center, however, then all those claims become suspect...

Ferdinand de Saussure's attendance attendance at spiritualist séances and writing about theosophy in the very moment he was giving his famous lectures. Gilles Deleuze's first publication, which was the introduction to a work of occult magic. Giorgio Agamben's interest in Paracelsus as a solution to the semiotic rupture. Peter Soterdijk's investment in Osho as a spiritual and philosophical precursor. Roy Bhaskar's debt to theosophy. Luce Irigaray's interest in yoga and mysticism. Even Derrida expressed an interest in telepathy and attempted to ally the pharmakeus (magician), writing, and magic against speech and logos. Not to mention thinkers like Michel de Certeau and Ernst Bloch, whose connections to mysticism are well known. I could go on (237-38).

...Critical theory is one of the central places in the academy for a left-Weberian critique of modernity. We look to critical theorists to be reminded that disenchantment has meant the domination of nature, the dehumanization of humanity, the end of wonder, and the desctruction of myth. But having read Klages, we can see the important aspects of this line of critique originated in the fin-de-siècle occult milieu. So on these grounds, all the various left-Weberian attempt to overcome instrumental rationality or the iron cage by way of re-enchantment might now seem suspect (239).
5. So, granting I don't want to conform to the new materialism, or consummate the human sacrifice ritual that George Bataille chickened out of because (although he found a volunteer victim), he could not find a willing murderer (237), is there a way out of the whole enchantment business? 
As I interpret Max Weber, we live in a disenchanting world in which magic is embattled and intermittently contained within its own cultural sphere, but not a disenchanted one in which magic is gone... (305) [And yet, for Weber] What ultimately disenchanted the world was the Protestant conception of grace - that salvation is solely due to the sovereign grace of God (sola gratia)." (281). 
While Josephson-Storm of course does not put it this way, it might therefore seem fair to argue that Christianity, which began as a disenchanting movement within the Graeco-Roman world, could continue to do similar, perhaps even increasingly necessary work today - leading to a restrained enchantment, animated by love of neighbor, on the far side of God's myth-crunching grace.

Of course, there are a variety of Christian manners of accomplishing this. Perhaps the most direct is just one post back.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Luther & the Enchantment of the World (Ten Questions)

The questions are my own. But the answers are all quotations from Mark Mattes's brilliant book, Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal (2017).

1. Did Luther disenchant the world? 
One can have an enchanted world without the Platonic itinerary leading beyond the senses to the intellect, and from the intellect to the soul, and from the soul to the divine. Luther does not rule out analogy altogether, but analogy is best established ex post facto: through the light of Christ's resurrection such analogies become obvious in nature and human relations (14).
With Luther, we can and should affirm a depth to material reality. His is no protosecular perspective. Indeed, God as masked is ever working through creatures to provide for creaturely needs or to impose consequences upon creatures who overstep their bounds. But law alone is not definitive of reality. Reality is defined by the gospel as well. The gospel undermines the hierarchical scheme as a scale that alone traverses reality, particularly when it is interpreted as a ladder by which sinners can climb to God. From the perspective of the gospel, if the cosmic ladder should abide as a helpful heuristic tool to interpret reality, then it can only be a one-way ladder from God to sinners. Indeed, law as accusatory comes to end in Christ (Rom. 10:4). Beauty, then, is not a self-perfecting of nature by means of supernatural aid; instead, it is calling forth a new creation into being through grace (2 Cor. 5:17) (165).
 2. Was Luther a nominalist?
For nominalists like Ockham, all that exists are particular entities having particular qualities...  Luther was educated in the Ockhamist (nominalist) tradition. However, his teachers were more eclectic in their approach to the status of universals that they supposed. While the approach of Luther's teacher Trutvetter assumed a theory of participation of creatures in God, which is closer to a realist position on the status of universals as objective realities... [Luther's] approach, similar to that of his teachers, is more fluid than his self-designation [as a nominalist] would indicate. When he calls himself a modernus, he is referring to semantic and logical skills he gained from disputational methodology...  but he thinks in terms of "natures" as sets of possibilities by which we generalize and classify objects in the world. In theology, however, he could at times think in terms or appropriate language very similar to that of the realists.  For instance, when he describes Christ as the forma of faith, in which believers share the same form as the object of their knowledge, Christ, then Chris is the reality as such, the universal (if you will), and believers as "Christs" have their reality as participating in Christ, as Christ's instantiations in the world (21-23).
3. But come on, he's still a nominalist, right?
[G]iven that the nominalists held that God of his absolute power (de potentia absoluta) could declare humans "righteous only because God accepts" them "as such quite apart from any infusion of grace" (the doctrine of acceptance), Luther was decisively antinominalist. For Luther, "imputation is nothing else but the work of grace. And grace, instead of being the arbitrary will of God, works the justification of the sinner because of Jesus Christ" (citing Hägglund,'s 'Was Luther a Nominalist?) (27).

Luther's training was in nominalist logic, but his spirituality was deeply indebted to mysticism, which, seeing the soul as a bride of Christ as a groom, is apt to honor images of the believer's union with Christ. Luther reworks both traditions in light of the gospel. Because God in his being is not merely or solely equivalent to, coterminous with, or reducible to eternal law, as nominalism taught, Luther discovered that God in his proper work is merciful and loving. Likewise, union with Christ is no reward for piety but a gift received in faith. Luther's eclecticism is not inconsistent, because his standard for evaluating philosophy is primarily the requirement of clarifying and advancing the gospel, which philosophy is called to serve. Luther's theological ontology is not one that pits relationality against participation; instead, divine favor (relation) grants a new being (participation). (17).
4. Then was Luther a realist?
For nominalists, grace elevates nature by requiring humans to honor what God has enjoined them to do via covenant (pactum), while for realists, grace perfects humans as they more and more conform to eternal law. For Luther, both views fail to love God for his own sake because we seek our own self-fulfillment as we exercise our potential even in our quest for salvation. ...for Luther, theology does not prefect philosophy (realism) nor is it parallel to philosophy (nominalism); instead, it sets limits to philosophy, which surreptitiously seeks to enter theology's arena (matters of infinite and/or grace) and also exploits its logical tools for rigorous clarification of doctrine (25).
The distinction between law and gospel governs Luther's approach to philosophy. Nominalism and realism are no longer alternatives for him because their conclusions must each be evaluated in light of the law/gospel distinction. Luther charts a new path beyond that philosophical debate. In Christ, men and women are new creations, new beings, and they are not merely the set of all who claim Christ as their own but instead share in the form of Christ and so instantiate Christ himself in their service, which is similar to but not the same as realism. Even so, his overall positioning of philosophy in relation to theology has a nominalist contour [which] has its place when restricted to this-worldly matters. (42).
 5. But didn't Luther ruin the beauty of the medieval universe?
In a sense, Luther affirms the pancalism [everything is beautiful] of his predecessors, but not on the basis of establishing the convertibility of the transcendentals of goodness and beauty on metaphysical grounds. Indeed, God is hidden because wheat humans experience is often not God's beauty, but what appears to be God's indifference or downright antagonism. If there is to be any certainty with respect to beauty, it will be had in Christ alone. Christ is goodness and beauty, and through Christ humans can understand the world as creation, as gift and as God's communication to us.  In other words, the gospel opens creation as beautiful and conforms the human intuition of its beauty...  not on the basis of an intellectual argument but because faith resituates humanity away from its tendency to claim some divine status for itself and toward a childlike trust the receives the goodness of creation as it comes to humanity from the Creator.

That sinners are clothed with an alien righteousness that makes them beautiful is a trait that they can claim before both God and the world. Believers have a new identity in Christ - beauty. Likewise, enjoying this beauty in Christ, they can be open to the beauty with which God surrounds them in the world  (112).
6. But wasn't Luther hamstrung by Scotus's univocity?
For nouvelle théologie (as outlined by Boersma) "participation" is supposed to be that middle that allows both nature and supernature to be connected, as the imperfect is to the perfect. But this is quite literally beauty as glory, an aesthetics of perfectibility and not receptivity, attempting an ascent into God. Luther should be interpreted through neither the lens of univocity nor that of analogy. Instead, God sets the conditions for everything that exists, including being. Only through Christ do we have access to God as merciful and loving. Nor can Luther be accused of contributing to a "nominalist fragmentation of created order," which regards sensible objects as separate from in and in competition with one another and separate from their transcendent origin. For Luther, creatures are properly related to God through faith, which permits God to be God for them, and they are properly related to each other when they serve (thus, when they are not in constant antagonism with each other)... (180).
7. But if Luther isn't to blame, who is?
Secularity is best understood not as the dismantling of the Platonic infrastructure of Western thought (since, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, it is a series of footnotes on Plato), but as the dismantling of a biblical worldview. Modern philosophers and literati have offered unrelenting critiques of a biblical worldview so that the "self" may be unencumbered by "tradition," "authority," and ultimately God. Such matters should not intervene in its quest for greater self-discovery and self-awareness however it achieves those ends, provided no harm is done to others (180-181). Even more than foreclosing on Plato, undermining or eliminating a biblical worldview - as happened in the thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) - guarantees a secular outlook (181).
8. Still, does Luther really have any contribution to make to aesthetics?
It is often claimed that the Reformation led to a "secularization" of art. But, as noted, disenchantment with nature is not due to Luther's theology but is a result of early modernity's attempt to free itself from the shackles of a biblical worldview because it was perceived as heteronomous, a threat to human freedom as self-definition (194).
While [John] Milbank, following [Charles] Taylor, sees [the Romantic claim that beauty will save us] as an unintended consequence of the Reformation's valuation of daily and family life, it is hard to see it as faithful to the Reformation. Instead, it is a detachment from, distancing from, or even rebellion against the Reformation. The Reformation honored the secular sphere not as secular in the sense of a religiously vacant, neutral, or "naked" public realm but instead as another locus - other than the gospel - of God's providential agency. [Romantic artistic tendencies] can be unmasked as an aesthetics of perfectibility, albeit in a secular mode, where God serves no longer as the objective standard of perfection but as the individual's own inner compass indicating whether self-actualizaing autopoiesis has been achieved. It too, for Luther, would be an unnatural desire needing to be "extinguished," since it fails to accord with the truth that God's forgiveness and promise are sufficient to bring meaning and wholeness to life [197).
9. But Christian Neoplatonism still has much to offer, right?
The Reformer agrees with the medieval assumption that everything perceived is a manifestation of the divine, but he models a different, non-Platonic approach. Indeed, he counters Neoplatonism, with its tendency to see matter as something to be superseded by intellect or spirit, at work in Karlstadt, Zwingli, and the Schwärmerei. Luther has no disenchanted worldview. But his enchanted world is free of the attempt to self-justify through merit by climbing the itinerary of the spiritual ladder. Hence, "all that our body does outwardly and physically, if God's Word is added to it and it is done in faith, is in reality and in name done spiritually. Nothing can be so material, fleshly, or outward that it does not become spiritual when done in the Word and in faith... He is present everywhere, but He does not wish that you grope for Him everywhere. Grope rather where the Words is. There you will lay hold of Him right" (citing LW 37:92; 36:342) (176-177).
No doubt, Platonic perspectives helped many early Christian sort through many aspects of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity. But Christians should not take their stand on the value of Plato's philosophy. The current North American religious milieu has been described as "gnostic," more than anything honoring a "sacred self" or core within each individual. Truth be told, many contemporary gnostics are fairly Platonic-like, valuing the nebulous, intangible, and everlasting "self" in place of the ancient category of the "soul," but obviously are not Christian (180).
10. Is there anything remotely resembling Luther in Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological aesthetics or David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite?
Von Balthasar comes as close to Luther as a Roman Catholic can when he restates the nature of form in a cruciform way on the basis of an analogia Christi (analogy of Christ) as a countermove to Karl Barth's christomonistic rejection of the analogia entis (analogy of being). Von Balthasar writes, "If the Cross radically puts an end to all worldly aesthetics, then precisely this end marks the decisive emergence of the divine aesthetic" (citing Balthasar, Glory of the Lord I, 471) (200).
[F]or Luther, in contrast to David Bentley Hart's metaphysical approach to infinity, it is clear that outside or apart from Christ, infinity is ambiguous; it is not clear that it is good or beautiful. It may well be tantamount to Hegel's "bad infinite": one damn thing unendingly following another (158). But the fact that Luther falls short of offering a comprehensive aesthetic upheld by a single principle or series of principles applicable for all times and places actually rings true with David Bentley Hart's contention that the word "beauty," "indicates nothing: neither exactly as a quality, nor a property, nor a function, not even really a subjective reaction to an object or occurrence, it offers no phenomenological purchase on aesthetic experience. And yet nothing else impresses itself upon our attention with at once so wonderful a power and so evocative an immediacy. Beauty is there, abroad in the order of things, given again and again in a way that defies description and denial with equal impertinence" (citing Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 16) (189).
That'll settle the Manichees. But don't take my word for it. Buy this book!