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!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


On the third day of Christmas millinerd gave to me, a free PDF of the latest PTR with his "Scandal of the Evangelical Eye" article alongside many fine pieces celebrating the career of philosopher Gordon Graham. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Our Stars Are Falling

A sermon preached at All Souls Church in Wheaton, IL on Dec. 3, 2017 (audio here)

Happy new year, and welcome to Advent. While the world celebrates outside, rushing to Christmas, our readings focus on judgment and apocalypse. You do not need to be pregnant to relate to the Bible this Advent, because there are two pregnancies in this season, Mary’s and what Mary’s son refers to as the birth pangs of the end of the world. But it doesn’t feel very out of step to focus on judgment this Advent, because such themes correspond with our headlines rather well. Starbucks has its cheerful holiday displays and Christmas carols playing, but the newspapers there sold there and media feeds there perused cut into the carols with darkness and forebodings that match this morning’s texts. Sure the sun and moon may not literally be darkened, but the institutions to which most of us look for guidance and light are increasingly dim. I have a hard time imagining any pundit’s analysis of our celebritocracy, as some have called it, could do better than Isaiah: “You have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” 

Faced with our unravelling, we may be energized to launch a defense of genuine Christianity amidst abuses. Let people know that the Christians that are getting all the press are not doing it right. That’s important work, a necessary strategy perhaps, I’ve tried it myself - but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that strategy is Isaiah’s. Because whereas I want to defend what I consider to be true faith, Isaiah just waves the white flag of surrender. He doesn’t say, my part of Israel’s not like that, you know. Instead, faced with an Ancient Near Eastern public relations disaster due to the failure of God’s people, Isaiah doesn’t pick up the fire extinguisher, but he picked up the kerosene instead. 

We have all become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
Can you help me defend evangelicalism, I asked Isaiah this week? His response was:
    We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities,
    Like the wind, take us away.
    There is no one who calls upon your name...
The reason Isaiah dares to throw the integrity of Israel under the bus, is because he knows it’s God’s job to fix things, not his. And if Isaiah is maddening in that way, Paul is even worse. He writes to the Corinthians – a spiteful, envious, schismatic band of first century Christians – that is, Christians like us  - and Paul says, in effect, “you have everything you need, you lack no spiritual gift… [therefore] WAIT for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless.”

I want to roll up my sleeves and fix things, set the record straight – and maybe such action has its place – but the message for this place, right now, is that while we might want to fix things, God beat us to it. The action that matters most has already been accomplished. And unlike my efforts, his efforts actually got the job done. Momentarily, we will celebrate his efforts – his passion and resurrection - at this table. And if we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter in Eucharist four times this Advent, well then crank up the Bing Crosby and Amy Grant - maybe a little bit of premature Christmas celebration is okay as well.

My point is that our Scriptures today seems to frustrate the Christian like me that wants to do something about what’s going on around us. Isaiah says surrender, Paul says wait – and Jesus doesn’t help me much either.  Jesus in Mark 13 even seems confused. He seems to think that the end of the world would happen within the lifespan of the people to whom he was then speaking. “Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Many have claimed that the New Testament here just gets it wrong. Its writers thought the world would end, but, two millennia and change later - here we are. And there are answers to that objection, right? Jesus was referring to the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, which he accurately predicted, and which is a prototype for the end of the world yet to come. And that’s a good answer. But a pithier reply to that objection came in a class at Princeton University taught by theologian Robert Jenson, who died earlier this year. A skeptical student in class asked, “Doesn’t the NT indicate the world was about to end – why has God delayed?”  And Jenson nonchalantly responded to that question with a brilliant six-word reply: “Why has God waited?” His answer: Because he wanted to include you.

As a teenager I used to go in for those end time prophecy charts that I was once schooled in as an evangelical convert. I don’t adhere to them anymore not because I take Scripture less seriously, but more seriously. Our passage says that “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” know the day and the hour of his return. And that means that the shofar-blowing, end times chart wielding dispensationalist Christian that I spoke to at length in California this summer, who claimed to know the time of Christ’s return, was claiming to know more than Jesus. But wrong as he is, that guy - our brother - still has something we need. Because it is good for us to believe the world is nearing its end. First because it might actually be the case, and secondly, it helps us align our priorities.

And for many of us in this congregation, we don’t need to look at the headlines to feel the world is ending. Illness or tragedy has done that instead. We do not need a rapture theory to account for Jesus’ claim that “one will be taken and another left” because we have lived it. Some of us were taken by illness and death, and some of us were left. And such deaths – tragic as they are – function as spiritual alarm clocks for the rest of us. Whether the end of the world is upon us I do not know. Other times in history such as Isaiah’s or Jesus’s or 1453 or 1944 probably had more reason to think they lived in the end than we do now. That said, our inevitable death – which will probably befall everyone in this room before this twenty-first century ends – is the functional equivalent of the second coming of Christ for each us. “To be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord.” So, Mr. unsophisticated street preacher, may I borrow your placard for a moment?  because the end is nigh for we sophisticated Christians as well. Therefore, “be on guard, be woke, lest he come suddenly and find us asleep.”

Mark 13 says the sun and the moon will be darkened, and stars will be falling from heaven. And that may not be literally be happening right now, but that the media and political and movie stars are falling cannot be denied. The celebritocracy is shaking. I have relished the collapse of some of them, convincing myself that my indignation is of behalf of their victims. And we can be indignant on behalf of those victims – God certainly is. Remember last week? “What you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.” Jesus identifies with the victims. And if you are such a victim, which I am not, take comfort in Christ’s identification with you. But what is so difficult for me to acknowledge is that when our news and entertainment stars fall from a great height, they don’t fall beneath us, no, they fall to the earth – to the place we Christians occupy as sinners redeemed by grace alone. We therefore don’t stand above the fallen, we stand next to them. “Beware of ever aspiring to such purity,” says Martin Luther, “that you do not want to seem to yourself, or to be, a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners.”

Aside from any headlines, if you, like me, have a carefully nurtured high view of yourself – then maybe our stars need to fall this Advent as well. Indeed, to be a Christian is for the stars of our egos to have fallen, while the one star that matters still hangs in the sky, leading us, come Epiphany, to him. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The End of Grace

A sermon preached at All Souls Church on Christ the Kind Sunday, November 26, 2017 (Audio here)

Detail of Joel Sheesley's painting of Christ the Good Shepherd at All Souls Church
It’s the last Sunday of the Church year.  And It’s not just our church year that is coming to a close, but our year of focus as a congregation on grace this year seems to be abruptly ending as well. Because if grace is about undeserved favor, as we’ve been insisting with the classic 16th century Reformers who left their mark on our tradition, there seems to be a lot of deserving going on in parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus our King appears to punish and reward based on our actions. The sheep fed the hungry, clothed the sick, and are rewarded for what they did. The goats did not do those things, and are punished for not doing them. Salvation - so it seems in this passage - is not based on what Christ accomplished, but on what we accomplish for him.

So much then for grace. Based on this text it’s high time we amp up our programming here at All Souls. Do more. Feed, clothe and visit more people so that when we arrive at the gates of heaven for our final exam, we will look Christ our examiner in the eye and say “You gave us the cheat sheet in Matthew 25, and we did what you said. With our careful list of programs and accomplishments in hand, we’ll declare to our beloved Savior, “Render to us what we are owed.” Actually, if we said this to him, he wouldn’t b our savior really, because he just told us what we should do, and we – by doing it – saved ourselves. We’ll be like the man in the C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce who tries to breach heaven with the artillery of his accomplishments.
“Look at me, now,” said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the
slap made no noise). “I gone straight all my life…
I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights.
Or not. I actually don’t think that’s what the parable of the sheep and goats is saying at all. Our year of grace is therefore not over, and by God’s grace it never will be. The reply given to the ghostly figure at the Gates of Heaven in the Great Divorce is correct. "Nothing in God’s kingdom can be bought." Now you may be able to buy a ticket in other religions. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, contains a scene of final judgement where the righteous boast, “I have given satisfaction to God by Doing that in which he delights.” But that is precisely not what the righteous say in Matthew 25. And the more closely we look at this passage, the more that caricatured reading dissipates, and the true nature of our Shepherd King is revealed.

Now of course, what we do does matter. “O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith,” says none other than Martin Luther. “It impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly” (ht: Wes) Yes, good works are key. But what’s fascinating about this passage is that they cannot be no tallied up in scorecard, because the sheep are blissfully oblivious about what they’ve done. There is no smug satisfaction, no proud unfurling of a banner of accomplishments or a three by seven foot massive cardboard check presented to Jesus with tallies a lifetime of charitable giving. There instead only surprise.  "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” They are surprised. It turns out that all the good works of the sheep were not for score-keeping, but grew from their love of Jesus. The only calculations in this scenario comes from Jesus, who knew all along. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The sheep may be surprised, but God is not. And nobody earns an inheritance, of course. It’s a gift.

If this reading of the passage sounds too Protestant for our ecumenical age, then it’s worth noting that the anonymous incomplete commentary on Matthew, that Thomas Aquinas said was superior to the great churches of medieval of Paris, summarizes the parable in this way: “The kingdom of heaven has not been created according to what human righteousness deserves, but according to what God’s power can prepare….” (Homily 54).

And so all along it was Christ working through the sheep, ministering to Himself as manifested in the needs of the world, where he is especially present. For a Christian to render service to the needy is, bizarrely enough, for Christ to render service to himself. It sounds strange, but it is exactly what the text from Ephesians says when it declares that we are “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” His fullness is being poured over all creation, looking for places that are empty enough to receive it. And the church is not the community of people filled with themselves, but we are instead the epitome of that emptiness – so that God can fill us to overflowing into the need of world around us, where he is present as well. His presence in need is why our cardboard icons of our brothers and sisters in Kenya, whether in the sanctuary or in the sponsorship cards that can be taken in the narthex, are actually icons of Christ no less than Joel’s painting in the back. And if seeking his face in the needs of the world is reason we do good works, then sure, we can increase our productivity – or maybe scale back the activities that weren’t undertaken for that purpose. Not just lean into new projects and initiatives, but lean back into what he’s prepared for us to do beforehand. Not just fresh resolutions for a new church year, but new year’s resignations as well.

But whatever we’re called to do or not to do – He knows your assignment, I do not - there actually is one way to be certain that Christ is with you from this passage. Notice there’s a third category beyond sheep or goat. There’s one place in the passage where his presence is actually guaranteed. In the position of need. That’s why are honoring the church in Iraq today. As for our congregation, Are you sick? This passage guarantees that he will be made known in your lack. Αre you grieving? He is there. Is there a need in your life in any way, a place where you find yourself asking? Matthew 25 assures you that he resides in that need just as he resides in the bread and wine we’ll be sharing. And I know most of us here are well fed and clothed, which is why we seek him in the needs of others. But in the same Gospel of Matthew Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and if we have that kind of need, he promises to be present to us as well. Ironically, if we conclude from this passage, “Lord, I know I don’t care for the poor sufficiently,” that’s where we can be sure he will be with us.  Your and my inadequacy – our emptiness - is our ticket to this table. If we can say that about ourselves, he may respond with the words from this morning's reading from Ezekiel: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.”

That requires resting around his shoulders like the sheep in the painting in the back of our church, which is an individual portrait of everyone in this room. You are the sheep that is spoken about in Ezekiel. Rescued perhaps from an abusive situation, from an addiction, from the prison of self-satisfaction, or from a kind of performance-driven Christianity that might have run you out of his pasture for good. There are kings and there are shepherds, but only he is both. And he has brought you to this little way station, this stable. He might be telling you to launch a new program of good works for him. If so, do it. He might also be telling you, as he does in Ezekiel “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down.” And when we lie down – ceasing our own self-generated projects – then he can finally pick us up, and get to doing the work he’s planned to do through us from the start. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Ark & the Covenant

Anthropologist Christa Tooley and I write wrote this together at the Washington Post today after visiting the Museum of the Bible. The upshot:
Current analyses of American culture still tend to lump the distinct fundamentalist and evangelical streams of American Christianity into the obfuscating category of “Evangelical.” But conveniently enough, these two spirits have now manifested themselves in separate museums hundreds of miles apart in every sense, sparing any further excuse for this easy conflation.
Surely all such sloppy generalizations will now come to a screeching halt.

On another note entirely, happy Fat Thursday to all!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Art Hi$tory

Thanks to this wonderful new data I know the money's just around the bend. Of course, as I've argued elsewhere, that's not why we study the subject, but it's a nice perk.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Reformation 500 (& other notable anniversaries)

Many have written to say they find it hard to believe we're coming upon the 14th anniversary of (actually no one has so written, but it's not too late). And then there's the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that some are talking about as well. You need not endure without my commentary on the subject. There's this talk on John 17 in 2017, this talk on the neglected Italian Reformation among other matters (e.g. the "Lutheran" Michelangelo), and then some brief engagement last week (among other fine talks) with Luther, the New Perspective, Anglicanism, Brad Gregory, Jansenism, etc. at All Souls Wheaton. And if you like to read things instead, there's this Pascalian meditation at Mockingbird. The upshot is that grace still manages to threaten, so we want little to do with it. As Gerhard Forde puts it, God batters down the door of the prison of conditional thinking, but we stay inside nonetheless.
We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and anxiety that betrays its true source – the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control (p. 24).
That said, I hope you're busily preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the completion of the north tower of Chartres Cathedral tower this year as well, or perhaps the 100th anniversary of the apparition at Fatima if you're so inclined (not my favorite Marian event, but still). And why should only the Orthodox be celebrating the centenary of the martyrdom of St. John of Chicago (first clergy martyr of the Bolshevik revolution, I'm told) which falls on Reformation Day this year as well?

If we don't at least know about those events, then divided Christians haven't learned much in 500 years at all.

Which brings us back to grace.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Scapegoat Quiz, Part 2

Goat from the Met (1st - 2nd c. AD). Very pagan, BTW.
A sharp colleague who read my post has sent me a quiz of their own:

Question 1. True or False?: If someone or an institution has committed sin, then to be held accountable for that wrongdoing while also extended opportunity for repentance and forgiveness is not scapegoating.
My answer: True.

Commentary: My original post is in no way an attempt to avoid necessary legal processes and accountability. The original post said, "yes, legal justice must of course be served." I have highlighted that in red now so that it doesn't continue to be missed. I thought that to be obvious (which is why I added, "of course"). By pointing out a scapegoating mechanism, I am simply doing what I did with our controversy years ago, that is, indicating that the rage broiling around (and within) me has much less to do with constructive policy proposals than it is fueled by a scapegoating mechanism that clouds precisely such processes. For example, irrational rage against my friend Larycia Hawkins or Muslims, or - conversely - rage directed against evangelicals and Wheaton College (disconnected in part from actual events) only made everything worse. And yet, here we are again. Does that disqualify the right kind of anger? Again, of course not (see my reply to Matt Vega here or below the original post).

Question 2. Select the correct definition of “scapegoat”:
A.       An individual or institution who is wrongly attributed with wrongdoing
B.       An individual or institution who is blamed for the wrongdoing of another
C.       An individual or institution who committed wrongdoing and is subsequently held accountable
D.       Answers A and B
My answer: D. Scapegoating is a caricature of true accountability, and actually obscures it.

Commentary: Jesus is the last scapegoat. Christ's death exposed the fact that the people to whom we direct our rage can sometimes be the place where God secretly resides (and yes, that's pure Girard). Accordingly, when the football team turns from goats back into human beings, then they may hear me when I say baptism is the only acceptable hazing in a community that claims to be Christian. When the administration turns from goats back into human beings, they will be more prone to hear any constructive suggestions as to how to proceed, even if that means saying we bungled this severely. Above all, when the victim turns from a goat back into a human, the ugliness of the event becomes clearer, and whatever happened less acceptable. No one repents for sacrificing a scapegoat, because we think it's justified. You can do what you want with goats - not so with humans. Which is to say, only when the mists of scapegoating dissipate can we see with enough clarity to proceed. Which, now that the helicopters have moved on, IS WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DO. Do you wonder what it's like on campus? You don't have to. It has been agonizing.

You'll notice, however, I did not mention journalists or bloggers. That's because we get off easy. All we have to do is listen to Malcolm Guite.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Choose Your Scapegoat: A Wheaton Pop Quiz

Another year, another devastating, agonizing situation at Wheaton College (where I teach). As news unfolds (or actually, as it most acutely does not unfold), a choice of scapegoats presents itself, to which varieties of people will be irresistibly attracted. Heck, there was even a mention of goats in the original Trib story. Make no mistake, we are sickened (the word chosen by our highest Faculty representative), and we are waiting. Some have asked what we tell our students in the meantime. Well, I’m giving them a pop quiz. The hardest one I've given yet. Cruel, I know.

Please note: If you do not share my Christian faith, I don’t expect you to try this, but it may give you a perspective on a possible Christian approach. If you do share my Christian faith but quibble with my method, I’m open to that, but I'm not trying to be cute. Finally, I can guarantee that no one, Christians or not, will pass.
William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854-6)

STEP ONE: Choose your scapegoat:
Goat A: The victim of hazing. To the extent that he suffered, there is the temptation now to cause him to suffer again, suggesting this is all a fabrication.  
Goat B: The victim’s parents and/or lawyer. Speculation runs to suggest that the victim is a stooge in their attempts for a lawsuit.
Goat C: Journalists. In the desire to generate a story they took one side, ran with it, hit the click bait jackpot, and made the lives of students, staff and faculty miserable.
Goat D: The Football Team or Coach. The culture it generates and the students therein are the real culprits, and they must pay.
Goat E: The Administration at Wheaton College. Surely to protect the football players or some other misguided but unseen purpose, they permitted this to occur, exacting meaningless "discipline." It's their fault.  
Goat F: American Evangelicalism. The machismo, the political triumphalism, the muscular Christianity, the catastrophic naiveté – that’s what made this happen.
STEP TWO: Having chosen a victim, imagine him, them or it undergoing a scenario of total incrimination. If you chose the victim of hazing or his parents or journalists (A, B or C), imagine a New York Times headline showing that he made this all up to get back at the Football team, and a Good Morning America apology to Wheaton College for spreading Fake News. If you chose the Football team (D), imagine the whole program being shut down forever and the funds redirected to toward a new addition to the library. If you chose the Administration (E), fantasize a total leadership change, and a crack team of brilliant and diverse professionals to clean house once and for all. Or if you chose American Evangelicalism (F), imagine its expiration after being exposed as fraudulent to the core. Imagine emptied churches, an army of young, vibrant, intelligent defectors simply moving on. 

STEP THREE: And now the big reveal. Christianity teaches that none of these fantasies, delicious as they may seem, would really satisfy you. If the victim's allegations are exposed as fraudulent, even in part, real damage would still be done and he would still be the beloved of God. If the Football team was shut down and the library renovated Wheaton could hold its head up to a certain constituency for a season, but new problems – new, unforeseen and perhaps equally challenging problems – would persist. A changed Administration would also work for a season, and then would have their own unforeseen failings. (And the biggest problem with any new Administration is that they would not be the ones you need to forgive!) And finally, American Evangelicalism, corrupt as large swaths of it may be, would be replaced by a different, less kind version of the right that we are already seeing.

YOUR GRADESorry, but you failed.  No one can really make it through STEP THREE honestly. I certainly can’t. The fantasies are too irresistible. We must have our sacrifices, even if we conceal the transaction from ourselves. But Christianity suggests that behind them is the lie that sacrifice will satisfy.

MAKE UP QUIZ: If you're up for it, the hardest mental exercise (a prayer exercise really), is to take the victim to which you are most inclined (I can name mine easily) and instead of imagining them being sacrificed, imagining mercy being poured upon them. Again, it’s impossible really. No one will really try.

William Holman Hunt, a more sunlit version of The Scapegoat (1854-6)
But for those that do, when the real culprit(s) is/are revealed (and yes, legal justice must of course be served), if it turns out it was partly fabricated (perhaps), or that the Football culture is the problem (it may be), or the administration must step down (all possible scenarios, I imagine), or that it's our professorial culture that generated this situation (you never know), then there will be no “Ah ha!” Regardless of necessary legal outcomes, there can be no exulting, but only more mercy. Indeed, that is where mercy really would come into effect, when the perpetrator(s) is/are revealed. Because then mercy would actually be undeserved – and the word for favor that is completely undeserved is grace. Finally, at this point, the scapegoating mechanism is redirected to the mirror. For such are the conditions by which anyone can enter the Christian faith in the first place. And it is this first place that most of us, myself especially, pathologically forget. Which again, is why I, and you, failed this quiz.

I'm not going to sugar coat it either. We really should have studied harder. And that's not my counsel, by the way, those are the words of Christ from today's Feast of St. Matthew Gospel reading: "Go back home and study your Bible, and learn what this means, 'Mercy is what I want, and not sacrifice.'" (Matthew 9:13).

UPDATE (Sept. 22, 9:04PM): Matt Vega was kind enough to post my reply to a constructive post of his that expressed concerns about whether this exercise is flippant toward victims of abuse. You can read it here.

UPDATE: (Sept. 23, 10:05PM). That link seems to have expired. For the record, here is what I wrote to Matt. 

Dear Matt, 

Please call me Matt. Your exercise here points out the preeminent danger of blaming the victim, and I thank you (not perfunctorily, but sincerely) for it. You may have noticed that in my list of scapegoats, the victim was first. That was intentional. I’m even tempted to assimilate your post as necessary reading for those who are “irresistibly attracted” (as I put it) to victim blaming. They should, they must, read these reports. Again, they sicken me. I’m glad expulsions happened when called for. 

My quiz was, as I’m sure you realize, a prayer exercise not a policy proposal. It was not intended as taking a side in our situation, but as an examination of our hearts individually as that situation slowly, painfully unfolds. You seem to characterize this prayer exercise as a sort of self-hypnosis. Prayer sure can be that, and that’s a good warning. You suggest I have an allergy to anger. And yes, I do! And may it increase! I hope I am allergic to much of the anger that I’ve been seeing flying around me – and most importantly – the kind that is rising from my own heart. I hope I am allergic to the anger that suggests that Wheaton will always be wrong: wrong if these Football players are deemed innocent (we protected them!) and wrong if they are deemed guilty (our muscular Christianity goaded them on!). I hope I'm allergic to the anger that suggests Wheaton will always be right: right if the victim’s allegations are substantiated (the lawyer poisoned the wells!) and right if his claims are disproven (the mighty sons of Wheaton always prevail!). May we all be allergic to that kind of sickening smugness – to such “anger” falsely so called. 

But there is of course the right kind of anger to which I aspire, and perhaps I will be called upon to use it. And I would suggest it can only arise after one successfully “passes” my quiz. I learned about it, by the way, from Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom you cited. And not just from a google search to come up with a witty comeback, mind you. No, I’m talking about the beat up, heavily marked, lovingly underlined, furiously engaged 1955 Buswell library volume pored over by generations of Wheaton students. The same book you cited, in fact (The Prophets). Therein I read,
As a matter of pathos, it may be accurate to characterize the anger of the Lord as suspended love, as mercy withheld, as mercy in concealment. Anger prompted by love is an interlude. It is an if compassion were waiting to resume. …To sum up, the pathos of anger is by no means regarded as a quality inherent in the nature of God, but rather as a mood, a state of mind or soul. In both its origin and duration, anger is distinguished from mercy. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a state which is occasioned and conditioned by man... The pathos of anger is further, a transient state. What is often proclaimed about love - ‘For the Lord is good, for His steadfast love endures for ever’ (Jer. 33:11; Ps. 100:5; Ezra 3:11; I Chron. 16:34; II Chron 5:13; 7:3) is not said about anger… The normal and original pathos is love or mercy. Anger is preceded as well as followed by compassion (Jer. 12:15; 33:26)… Even in the midst of indignation, His love remains alive. (297-298).
If that’s your kind of anger I am glad, and I am honestly envious. I’m afraid it is not yet mine. But I think that’s what might come out of the prayer exercise I recommended. Speaking of which, please pray for me. (I mean that.) I wish I had been able to talk with you more while you were here so that this request would have more meaning. Maybe you can pray that this right kind of anger will arise in my heart when times require it, that is, when I know enough to accurately deploy it. It may involve speaking bluntly. It may not be polite. Of course, leaving Wheaton with anger untinctured by even the distant whiff of scapegoating might be the only way forward. But there are, of course, a variety of prophetic vocations. Consider what Heschel says about Hosea.
As time went by, Hosea became aware of the fact that his personal fate was a mirror of the divine pathos, that his sorrow echoed the sorrow of God. In this fellow suffering as an act of sympathy with the divine pathos the prophet probably saw the meaning of the marriage which he had contracted as the divine behest.
Perhaps that kind of sorrow, committed to a place and seeking to confront it if necessary, sometimes in anger that arises from the depths of prayer, but without leaving – might be a way ahead as well. We’ll see. 

Thank you for your post. If you think this would be helpful to your readers you may do with it as you wish. 



UPDATE: (Sept. 25, 3:44PM). Glad to see Matt Vega's post is back up, and here's one more follow up in response to a colleague, where I claim that baptism is the only acceptable hazing in a community that claims to be Christian.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Justice & Beauty

Dear millinerd readers - if you're still out there - here's a video of a talk to kick off our school year in 2017.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Medieval Los Angeles

Whether it's Charles Manson claiming a serpentine Sunset Strip to be the devil in the first episode of Aquarius, a park guard handing a woman he will soon murder an apple from a tree in the film Too Late, or an executive claiming Ari Gold could become like God in the last minute of the series Entourage, the devil certainly dwells in Los Angeles.

But so then, of course, does the woman whose son undid him, and the countless women who saw in her an exemplar, or so I claim in Wonder Women at Education & Culture (the new Books & Culture), with a brief profile of Los Angeles Christianity to boot.

P.S. Having only watched the first episode of Aquarius, the first ten minutes of Too Late, and four episodes of Entourage, I figured I'd get a blog post out of it while trying to send you somewhere more substantial.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Cycling with Satan

You can do that now at the former Church of the Holy Communion, which is a launching point for my mid-summer reflection on grace.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Merciless Mantegna Bashing

Send an art historian in love with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions to a vibrantly Protestant school and in six years or so you might get this:
Hearing Law, Seeing Gospel: A Mockingbird history of Art ~ Matthew J. Milliner from Mockingbird on Vimeo.