Thursday, December 18, 2014

The View from Nipple Fountain

The strategy recommended in my December First Things column is to call blasphemy's bluff. 
Robert Gober's MoMA Jesus and the newly refurbished Church of St. Brigid-St. Emeric compared.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Kind of Faith an Artist Had Better Not Lose

The New Republic has been bought out, Rolling Stone has been discredited, and millinerd.com has resorted to extended blockquotes. Really, really good Christian Wiman blockquotes.
"Grace fills empty spaces," writes Simone Weil, "but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it." 

Whatever one thinks of the religious implications of that sentence, there is a kind of faith that a poet had better not lose. It is a faith in the mind's ability to find meaning in a world that exists indepedently of itself, and a concomitant faith in language to serve as a means of doing so. In the absence of this, poetry can only be at best a diversion within life; at worst it is a complete evasion of it. Yet even for those poets who manage to retain such faith, who in their better moments believe in the value of poetry and in its capacity to formalize some fragment of living reality, the prospect of spending a life trying to articulate sweet sounds together ought to be fraught with doubt and uncertainty, some unshakable sense that, in the face of real suffering and chaos, poetry may be irrelevant.  It is this tension that keeps talent alive.  
It is also this tension that keeps form alive. The least satisfying forms are those that are the most satisfied with themselves...  Those who merely imitate the order they see around them are ornamentalists.  There are pleasures to be had from such work, but they are the pleasures of amenities. At the same time, formal distortion is interesting and meaningful only when it occurs in a poet for whom formal coherence seems a real possibility... It requires no great talent to imitate chaos, or to illustrate the inability of the mind and language to make meaning. Those who do, as Wallace Stevens suggested, are simply exacerbating our confusion.
This structure of ideas, these ghostly sequences
Of the mind, result only in disaster.  It follows,
Casual poet, that to add your own disorder to disaster

Makes more of it.
I have not intended this to be an argument in favor of a "return to traditional forms." Much of the self-satisfied metrical poetry I read makes me nostalgia for Dada.  I have focused on these forms for the sake of clarity and economy, and because they seem to provoke the strongest animus. I do feel that, whether one writes in traditional forms or free verse, it's probably time to get beyond this automatic resistance to finish and closure in poetry, that the idea of form as somehow more authentic if rough and unfinished has itself become something of a convention. If one's experience of life is truly confusing and chaotic, and if one's feeling for the inadequacy of language is something more than an academic idea, perhaps the proper response is either silence or coherence.  Not the kind of coherence that eliminates uncertainty, not the kind of closure that congratulate itself, but something sharper, some only momentary peace which, because it comes with a consciousness of loss, is also pain.
I owe this reference to the sage of Lincoln Marsh, Joel Sheesley, who has applied this creepily insightful passage to his own staggering paintings.   In the context in which he shared it, Sheesley explained how the supposed ban on traditional form is simply outflanked by Christian Wiman's wisdom, with which I now conclude:
A poorly cropped digital image of one of Joel Sheesley's amazing paintings
My friend thought that to write in traditional forms was to cleave to a vanished past, to insulate oneself and one's work against one's own time.  I have tried to make a case for them as bearers of contemporary consciousness, though I do admit that one can't use these forms without referring to the past. So long as it isn't merely a sentimental attachment to the antique, I think of this reference as a strength.  I also think that there is a sense in which to work toward some ideal order is to claim a connectedness with the future as well as the past, that a poem may foreshadow formally a time in which one's world and mind will - and I'm paraphrasing Marilynne Robinson here - be made whole.  To reach for is not to grasp.  ...I think perhaps the poems that I've been talking about in this essay were written by poets who believed utterly in an absolute formal coherence that - and this was part of their belief - did not [millinerd insertion: YET] exist. To experience such forms is to experience both consolation and provocation.  It is to come into a place of language that is easeful and unchanging and will not let you forget the fact that it is not a place. It is to be given an image of life that you have lost or long dreamed of, to hear as sound something of the farthest sorrows that you are, and to know in that moment that what you've been given is not enough.
On that seasonable note of waiting and expectation, I wish millinerd reader[s] a merry Advent!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Econoclasm

Blair Kamin in today's Chicago Tribune is generally pleased with the University of Chicago Economics Department's moving into the old Chicago Theological Seminary... with one exception:
The lone weak spot involves the repurposing of the seminary's chapel, where stained glass windows that were deemed overtly Christian (and therefore, potentially offensive to non-Christians) were removed.  The large chapel - once the site of religious services and now a comfortable, colorful gathering spot for grad students - is fine. But the small one, previously a dark meditative space where multicolored light filtered through stained glass, is now a chilly little conference room.
Chilly?  You decide. My guess is that most economics students at the University of Chicago would have been intelligent, and thick skinned enough, to fathom the history of their own institution.
Top photo Matt Frizelli, bottom today's Chicago Tribune

Monday, November 10, 2014

Upcoming Talk

If you find yourself in Durham, NC this week, please come on by. If not, I'll eventually post the video here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Other Bishop in the Desert

I have joined the ranks of First Things columnists, proof of this venerable journal's coming decline. Here's round one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Enchantment of Lightning

And another essay!  You mean you missed the last one?  Come on now. If Syndicate Theology is the future of academic web writing, it sure will be a lot of fun.  On the print side though, check out the compelling essay by Jon Anderson, "The (In)visibility of theology in Contemporary Art Criticism," in this brand new book.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Friday, July 04, 2014

The Open Cage

What is there to add to the responses of Jones and Jacobs to Peter Conn's call to de-accredit religious schools ("The Great Accreditation Farce"), other than to offer yet another gentle nudge to wake up and smell the post-secular discourse?  Stephen D. Smith's The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, published by some obscure, sectarian, confessionally biased place called Harvard University Press, is a good start.

Smith elucidates that the kind of "neutrality" advocated by Conn has been tried, and tried repeatedly, in the public square.  And if it didn't work there, the same goes a fortiori for the academic milieu.  Proponents of reason as "referee" include John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Stephen Macedo, David Richards, Charles Larmore, Samuel Freeman, Richard Rorty, and Robert Audi.  That list is from Northwestern Law Professor Andrew Koppelman, who concludes the strategy "has been a disaster, because it has produced the opposite of what they have hoped. A doctrine grounded in universal respect has left a lot of actual citizens feeling profoundly insulted" (Religion as a conversation starter).

For his part, Smith dubs this condition the "iron cage of secular discourse."
We can try to treat all of our normative commitments as if they were the sorts of commitments that secularly congenial disciplines like economics or rational choice theory can recognize...  but then we may perceive that we have done violence to many of our deepest convictions. Where we can refuse to attempt that translation; but then it is awkward finding within secular discourse the words and concepts to say what we really want to say and to articulate what we really believe.
Smith points out the irony of Richard Rorty's "conversation stopping" objection to religion, an irony that applies to Professor Conn's objections as well.  "After all, who is it that is trying to stifle or regulate conversation? Rorty's opponents are not telling him: 'Stop talking secular.' Rather it is Rorty and like-minded thinkers who issue the injunction 'Don't talk religion.'" What's more, Rorty was honest enough to realize that any exclusively secular claim to "reason" was necessarily bogus.  "The claim that we [secular atheists] are appealing to reason whereas the religious are being irrational," he wrote, "is hokum."

The result of Rorty's confession, Smith concludes, is that
Rorty's continued insistence on excluding religion from public discourse begins to look merely arbitrary - an inherited commitment derived form assumption he no longer accepted, and which had hence degenerated into a mere prejudice.  More generally, his prescription looks like a recipe for a discourse that is assured in advance of being shallow, empty, and pointless.  Why would anyone want to waste precious time and energy in that sort of predictably futile and boring conversation?  Contrary to Rorty, it appears that it is not religion after all, but rather the imposition of artificial constraints on discourse, that is the "conversation stopper."
Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meanwhile, those who broke out of the cage seem to have offered a few contributions here and there.
Proponents of religion in the public square respond that the sort of objection raised by Rorty and others exhibits misunderstanding - or simply ignorance about what religion is - on the part of those who make it.  There is nothing inherent in religion, they say, and nothing distinctive to religious believers, that is more preemptorily preclusive of discussion then there is in other, more secular perspectives and believers.  Proponents may point to an earlier era's overtly theological analysis of public concerns like Martin Luther King, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, and Abraham Joshua Heschel - reflective analyses displaying a depth of wisdom and insight that compare favorably (to put the point gently) with those of more contemporary and secular political thinkers - as evidence that religious perspective can enliven and deepen public deliberation rather than truncating or silencing it. 
But perhaps Smith's call to open the cage of secular discourse is only appealing to me because, as a Wheaton faculty member, in addition to other constraints, most of my time outside the classroom is actually spent in a 5 x 5 x 5 foot cage.  And while I will certainly be transferred to the hole for publishing this blog post without permission, I will surely emerge in time to memorize my pre-approved Fall lecture scripts, and I wish you a happy Independence Day.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Uncertain Future of Secular Art History

...is among the things discussed by Jon Anderson and I, alongside religion in academia, justice, Ruskin, how the avant-garde was necessary because of Christian compromise... all before I desecrate an In and Out Burger cup.  Go on now... gather round the computer with the whole family. 


But the funny thing is that James Elkins explicitly singles out Jon Anderson as the person who caused him to change his mind about religion in the art world, yet Jon is asking me the questions?  So you might want to skip this interview and listen to him instead.  And he can actually paint!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Future of Protestantism is Evangelical Mystagogy

Or at least one of its brightest futures. Biola actually flew me out to offer an emergency response to the failure of anyone in the Future of Protestantism conversation to seriously discuss images (icons were in fact dismissed!), and to confirm Leithart's insight that the future is ecumenically high church.  (Or so I'd like to think.  In fact I was pinch-hitting for the Russian superstar scholar Alexei Lidov who couldn't make it to Biola.) 

But high church evangelicalism is just a theory, you might say, a "paper church," as John Henry Newman put it.  Well, come on by any Sunday to All Souls Church (whose iconography concludes this talk), and see just how much more than paper it actually is.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Evolution & Sacrifice: Christ our Caterpillar

The current show at Chicago's Lookingglass theater, "In the Garden," offers a crackling portrayal of the relationship between Charles Darwin and Emma, his fervently believing wife. Showcasing an intimate, theologically charged spousal conversation about science and faith that is distorted by popular agendas of Christians and atheists both, it's the best marriage I've ever seen on stage.  The play concludes, somewhat melodramatically but (sucker that I am for this sort of thing) effectively with the strolling couple reciting the conclusion to a later edition of On the Origin of Species, amended to include the word "Creator."
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Ichneumonidae vs. Caterpillar
Gratifying as that passage may be, a speech made by Charles toward the end of the play laid out his darker moments as well - a dramatization of a letter Darwin wrote to Asa Gray regarding some parasitic wasps (Ichneumonidae).
There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars...
But as David Hart puts it, from an earlier metaphysical vantage point, the parasitic wasp would have posed much less of a problem.
In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds....  It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.  In the wake of the triumph of the mechanical philosophy, however, when nature's "rationality" had come to be understood only as a matter of mechanical design engineered form without, the Darwinian proposal of natural selection suggested the possibility that nature might instead be the product of wholly indeterminate - wholly mindless - forces...  It seemed a dangerous idea only because of the metaphysical epoch in which it was first proposed.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Perhaps due to the fact that the mechanistic epoch is (in at least some quarters) fading, I'm having difficulty summoning forth the despair that the caterpillar story is supposed to invoke.  It seems no different than the way medieval physiologists (mistakenly) viewed the pelican who (they thought) sacrificed its life by sprinkling its own blood to regenerate its young.  Hence Christ, for Dante (Paradiso XXV:113) is nostro Pelicano, and hence the sundials at Oxford and Princeton are topped with a such sculpted birds. But whereas the pelican story, beautiful as it continues to be, is based on bad biology, the self-sacrificing caterpillar is not - while still making, it seems to me, a similarly sacrificial point.Yes, I realize the caterpillar isn't voluntarily sacrificing itself (give it a break, it's a bug).  But such a reality is setting up the grammar for just that sort of action at higher, and later, stages of biological life.

In her extraordinary (and freely available) Gifford lectures, Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God, Sarah Coakley discusses some such cases by exploiting recent debates about evolution and altruism to recover the notion of sacrifice on scientific and theological grounds.  (Two years working in Harvard's biology lab with Martin Nowak might cause one to grant her the right to speak on the matter.)  As she puts it three lectures in: 
What if Jesus’s ethics of seemingly self-destructive sacrificial ‘excess’, instead of being seen as irreducibly hostile to preparatory forms of evolutionary ‘cooperation’ and ‘altruism’, might itself be a fulfillment and completion of them – and, in the light of the resurrection a means of a completely new form of ‘cultural evolution’ – a form sustained in the ‘excessive’, uncalculating mode of a new type of cooperative community? Is it possible, then, that this ecstatic ethics of excess could, after all, be theoretized evolutionarily in novel, ‘cultural’, yet eschatological mode - not as a meaningless ‘spandrel’ as Jackson sees it, but as a horizon of evolutionary hope beyond the constraints of its normal, much more limited, evolutionary concerns?
Coakley sounds much like Darwin's witty wife Emma (so vividly performed by Rebecca Spence) might have had she enjoyed the benefit of her husband's scientific education. There is, after all, nothing "faith shattering" about the food chain when faith is founded upon one who enters it - at the bottom - in order to be (Eucharistically) consumed.

Monday, May 19, 2014

More on Conversion Dynamics

Here are some longer quotations that didn't make it into Not So Secular Sweden:
In words quoted at my brother-in-law’s conversion to Catholicism, Hilaire Belloc put the matter this way:
When you have predicated of one what emotion or what reasoning process brought him into the fold, and you attempt to apply your predicate exactly to another, you will find a misfit.  The cynic enters, and so does the sentimentalist; and the fool enters and so does the wise man; the perpetual questioner and doubter and the man too easily accepting immediate authority—they each enter after his kind.
Belloc reminds us of the irreducibly personal aspect of calling, which transcends Biblical or church historical argumentation. "It was not logic that carried me on,” wrote John Henry Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, “as well might one say that the quicksilver in the barometer changes the weather.”  But the thick description of conversion dynamics cuts both ways, applying to those who stay put as well.  After I asked him about Ulf Ekman’s conversion, Abbot Peter announced with a peaceful smile that he will remain Pentecostal.  It reminds me of Edward Pusey’s reply to John Henry Newman:
I cannot unmake myself; I cannot see otherwise than I have seen these many years… I am no nearer to thinking that the English Church is no true part of the Church, or that inter-communion with Rome is essential, or that the present claims of Rome are Divine.  I earnestly desire the restoration of unity, but I cannot throw myself into the practical Roman system, nor renounce what I believe our gracious Lord acknowledges.  And so I must go on, with joy at the signs of deepening life among us, and distress at our losses, and amazement that Almighty God vouchsafes to employ me for anything….
I am in debt to Fr. Scott Caton for the Belloc quote, and to Edward Short's Newman and His Contemporaries for the Pusey quote.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Not So Secular Sweden

This month's First Things contains a piece I wrote on my recent trip to Sweden to visit the amazing Bjärka-Säby.  Special thanks to the Apologia organization who invited me to give the lectures.  Here are some photographs to go with the piece.

There may be reason to think that the strange convergence across denominations that is already happening in Sweden will be happening in American soon. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Lives of the Artists LIVE!

My amazing Wheaton College Renaissance art history students (Spring 2014) dramatized the lives of the artists by Karel Van Mander (1548-1606) and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). Here are just few clips from a semester's worth. (Don't worry, we did serious analysis as well.)  If my Ph.D. is revoked for encouraging this endeavor it will have been worth it.