Friday, May 06, 2022

The Way to Groves of Jade

Here is a piece at Marginalia Review of Books on Christianity, Buddhism and the mainstream art world's irreversible dilation. It is fortunately timed to go with the opening of Here After at Bridge Projects this weekend, exploring the “hope for paradise [that] has sparked the imagination of humankind across history and many religions.” A good time to make your way to LA!!



Friday, March 25, 2022

Mary is no shill for war

(Even though she's being used that way.) So I argue on today's Feast of the Annunciation at Public Orthodoxy.



Monday, March 21, 2022

Responses to Noll

Some colleagues and I responded to the re-publication of Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Friday, March 11, 2022

The Everlasting Update

Here's a talk given this week with some new information uncovered since I wrote The Everlasting People, not without mentioning Ukraine.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Glowing Totems and Borrowed Icons

Here are two pieces, one entitled Canadian Pentecost at Comment and one entitled Athos for All at Front Porch Republic. Thanks to both places for publishing them.


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

podcasts... and a new book available

Here is a podcast with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture about the Virgin Mary (in anticipation of the book, Mother of the Lamb, that you can pre-order here).

And regarding The Everlasting People, here is a podcast conversation at The Holy Post (second half of the episode), with video here. Several reviews have appeared so far, but I am especially grateful for this one at the Englewood Review of Books by Joel Wentz.

There's a lot more to say about both books, so if you'd like to have a podcast conversation, hit me up. Here is a view of the office as I finished up Mother of the Lamb, with thanks to the Uffizi for providing the high resolution photos. 



Thursday, January 06, 2022

Unwitting Magi

A sermon preached at All Souls Church, Wheaton, IL (audio here, video here)

Most people in this congregation know the secret to avoiding the after-Christmas doldrums, namely, extending the day into the season it properly is. It may be a challenge in Advent to restrain while the rest of the world rejoices, but that is made up for while we celebrate Christmastide as the rest of the world is swallowed by the post-yuletide undertow.

And after those twelve days of Christmas, just when we need it most, as the winter without Christmas threatens to descend upon us, there is Epiphany, and the season of Ephiphanytide that follows it. This season is not just about seeking the distant star but reveling in its pure bright winter light. To steal a phrase, Epiphany is the most wonderful time of year. It represents Christ for everyone, even pagan astrologers. Not merely national, sill less nationalist, but global Christianity for this nation, yes, and every other nation too. If, in the last few decades, it was the task of Christians in this wider town of Wheaton to recover Advent and the Christmas season; it may be our task in the next few decades to recover the season of Epiphany, which stretches all the way through to the Feast of the Encounter of Mary and Simeon on February 2. The fact that there’s little risk of this season being commercialized makes the recovery all the easier.

But there’s a problem, as I see it, with Epiphany, something that keeps us from being able to wholeheartedly embrace it. And that problem is this: As we celebrate the magi, journeying from the East to worship Christ, many Christians, or post-Christians in some cases, are themselves journey to the East. Burned by Christianity's very public failures, some think the light of Buddhism or Hinduism is brighter. The private pursuit of mindfulness, some gamble, offers what a Christian congregation like ours cannot.

We sure can sure learn a lot from the religions of the East – there are Buddhist and Hindu temples not far from here on Route 59 that I’ve visited, nd I’ve enjoyed my visits. But really what should Christians do about this reverse magi journey? Well, as a way of highlighting the second chapter of Matthew, let me offer the journey of a few contemporary magi that might surprise you. These magi journeyed far more deeply into the East than anyone I know of, and something happened to them – they found Christ there. Or rather, he found them.

Our first unwitting modern magi is a psychologist who, in the mid-twentieth century, sponsored some of the first big translations of Far Eastern texts that are still used today. But he was also convinced he had to go to India himself. And so he did. And while he was there, he had a dream, and if this psychologist listened to anything he listened to his dreams. In the dream he found himself not in India, but in the Grail castle off the southwest coast of England; that is, his unconscious smuggled Christianity back in to his psyche. That’s not my assessment, it is his:

It was as through the dream were asking me, ‘What are you doing in India? Rather seek for yourself and your fellows the healing vessel, the servator mundi which you urgently need. For your state is perilous; you are in imminent danger of destroying all that centuries have built up.
So that’s our magi #1: The psychologist, son of a pastor, the disciple of Freud, Carl Jung, found himself, just like the original magi, journeying from the East to Christ. Whether or not he fully got there is another topic entirely. 

Our magi #2 is another psychologist, who knew Carl Jung personally. Robert Johnson built his own career by giving talks about the Holy Grail, that symbol of the Eucharist, to churches. But he too felt something was missing, he felt the call of India. But one particular trip didn’t go well. In Calcutta, the city of the destructive goddess Kali, he encountered human suffering such as he had never thought possible. I’ll let him tell this extraordinary story himself:

I was one thousand miles from anyone I knew and felt myself falling into an abyss. It was worse than a panic attack; it was as if I had wandered into some corner of hell…. Then I remembered there was something to do. I had once been told by a friend that in India you have the right to approach a stranger and ask that person to be the incarnation of God. It is a starling custom … This person may refuse the request, but generally it is considered a sacred duty to accept the role if he or she possibly can. I walked several blocks until I reached a tiny park. Then I began desperately looking for someone I could approach and ask to be my incarnation of God. I spotted a middle-aged man; he was dressed in Indian fashion and was barefoot, but he had an air of dignity and calmness. I am amazed now at my boldness, but I was driven by desperation. I approached him. “Sir, do you speak English?” “Yes.” “Would you be the incarnation of God for me?” “Yes,” he replied. He pointed me to a bench, and for the next twenty minutes I poured out my woes. He said not  a word but listened patiently to me.” [I so grateful for this ministry, that I then asked the man.] “Please tell me something about yourself - who are you? what is your work? “I am a Roman Catholic priest,” he replied, plainly and directly.
In a city of well over ten million, less than one percent of whom are Christian, Johnson encountered someone who testified not that he was the incarnation, but who testified to the Christmas mystery instead. This psychologist, the disciple of Carl Jung, found himself, just like the original magi, journeying from the East to Christ.

Magi #3 is Huston Smith, the child of missionaries to China who became an authority on world religions, but who never gave up the Christian faith himself. The following story might be part of the reason why: 

It was 1964 and I was using a semester’s leave to continue my research in India. At the moment to be described, I was conversing with one of a number of gurus whose reputations had taken me to the foothills of the Himalayas, when suddenly there appeared in the doorway of the bungalow I was in a figure so striking that for a moment I thought I might be seeing an apparition. Tall, dressed in a white gown, and with a full beard, it was a man I came to know as Father Lazarus, a missionary of the Eastern Orthodox Church who had spent the last twenty years in India. Ten minutes after I was introduced to him I had forgotten my gurus completely—he was much more interesting than they were—and for a solid week we tramped the Himalayan foothills talking nonstop.

This scholar, a world authority on all faiths, just like the original magi, found himself journeying from the East to Christ. 

Modern magi #4 is William Johnston, a Jesuit priest from Ireland who spent 50 years in Japan. He is the one who translated Shusako Endo’s famous book Silence into English. Fully immersed in Zen Buddhism, Johnston noticed something. It was the kind of things you notice when you live in a place instead of just traveling to it. He noticed that those who attempted to fuse Christianity and Buddhism, that is, to have both, were never respected by the Zen Buddhists themselves, who wanted Christian interlocutors who knew the Christian mystical tradition. Johnson’s conclusion: “Much as I love the Buddha and the patriarchs, I cannot make to them the commitment I make to Jesus…." The difference, Johnston found, between Buddhist and Christian meditation, and he was well versed in both, was love. For a Buddhist, love is a potentially distracting attachment. But God found himself attached to a cross because of his love for us. Johnston the Jesuit, just like the original magi, found himself journeying from the East back to Christ.

What we learn from the magi, whether the ones in Matthew or the ones I just mentioned, is that Jesus is not a tribal god. Our faith is not regional. Or rather, it is regional, but it is for all regions. Within centuries of the original magi’s journey, Christianity overwhelmed the area where the magi came from. This branch of the faith is known as the Assyrian Church of the East. The heartland of Christianity for them was not the Midwest, but Mesopotamia, and it went Eastward from there. “His dominion shall be also from one sea to the other, and from the river unto the world’s end," our text this evening reads. Many of you will know that this form of Christianity has undergone great suffering, but their new patriarch, Mar Awa III, born in Chicago, consecrated patriarchy in Iraq, just visited our area this last month to minister to his flock: another journey from the East to make the point to us about the universal Christ.

As Vince Bantu puts it, Christianity is not becoming global, it always has been global. And the magi are why. They incarnate the message of Ephesians “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body.” “All those from Sheba [that is, from Africa] shall come.” So yes, we need Epiphanytide. But it’s not just about the magi. Because impressive as their journey was, theirs was not the longest journey.  Let me read from the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas:

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour....

Let me go there, he said.

That’s the journey that prompted the magi’s journey, then or now.  The real arrival in this story is not theirs, but his. He traveled farther. Not by the stars but through them. And he, Jesus, made the journey for one singular reason, to which he is irrevocably committed. He made the journey for you.

Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Dionysus Redeemed

Here is a triple book review at Comment covering America, Dionysus, Christ, masculinity, sex, wine, drugs and slavery because art history—the most efficient discipline in the panoply of the liberal arts—can do all that.


 

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Book of the Year! (claims one kind person)

The Christian Century kindly published an excerpt of my book, which I suppose makes The Everlasting People, technically speaking, a "Book of the Century." Seriously though, I was especially delighted to learn it was John Wilson's book of the year at First Things, sharing the honor with the amazing Diane Glancy's A Line of Driftwood, about the 1921 journey of an Iñupiat woman named Ada Blackjack. That my book in part retraces Chesterton's 1921 journey to this continent makes for a tidy pairing.

So there you have it: The Christian Century and First Things, together at last.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Romancing the Real

A review of Michael Martin, Sophia in Exile (Angelico Press, 2021), with mention of a few of his other books as well.

Something wonderful is happening in Michigan. Not only has the state produced the trilogy that unfolds the Christian tradition of wisdom as told by Arthur Versluis of Michigan State (mentioned previously here), but now Michigan has generated another trilogy, this one by Michael Martin (The Submerged Reality, Transfiguration and now Sophia in Exile) who writes from his biodynamic farm on the other side of the state. Both of these Michigan mystics do much to uncover alternative (but very much Christian) theological communities surrounding the figure of Sophia throughout Christian history. Still I wonder if Versluis or Martin have stopped to realize that their work, between the two of them, could be substantial enough to contribute equally meaningful twenty-first century iterations of such communities as well.

The title of Martin's latest work says it all, Sophia in Exile. Those familiar with the Gnostic gospels will here recognize a myth where Sophia has been exiled from the evil earth to be beckoned back by select initiates. But Martin has not written the last book in his trilogy to endorse this Gnostic myth but to recast it traditional Christian terms. In other words, Martin's is a wisdom tethered to God's good, richly enchanted earth. Still, Martin faces the failures of Christianity squarely, concluding (in a gloss on Berdyaev) that "only Christianity can save the world from Christianity" (174). 

Though more well-researched than many an academic tome, Sophia Exile is certainly not academic (though it is demanding). Martin writes with verve and freshness across a truly wild range of topics. You won't find, for example, nostalgic appeals to the trivium and quadrivium in his work, and he dismisses aping the Inklings as cosplay. His reflections are generously (but not excessively) seasoned with quotes from Heidegger, Goethe, Rilke, William Morris, Sri Aurobindo or with scenes from Malick films. He has absorbed and mastered the academic's trade of hermeneutical nuance. But the difference is that Martin also pushes through the mists and vapor of academic grandstanding, keeping his feet moving on a very earthen spiritual quest. We might say he takes us from the hermeneutic to the hermetic.

Martin is free to say things that most academics (I am one, so trust me on this) politely avoid: he offers a discourse on nature spirits, a profound meditation on the irreducible mystery of marriage, or generous ruminations on hunting or farming. But whatever Martin's topic, it is our alienation from the earth, from the Real—across the arts, agriculture and academia— that is the common refrain. Sophia is shorthand for the engagement that overcomes this alienation, an engagement which takes considerable attentive work and is consequently far less common than one would think. Sophia is "the metaxu between science, art, and the religious" (25), we learned in the last volume. In this one Martin expands on the fact that she is in exile because we are in exile, unable to give reality the patient and humble regard that it requires. And ultimately, the case remains that "Christ is the Real" (95). If Protestantism (thanks to Boehme, Pordage, Bromley, Law, Herrick, etc.) did so much to revive interest in Sophia (a debt which Orthodoxy frequently forgets), Martin here reminds us that the revival was due in large part to Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah (5-11). 

Martin's learning and breadth as an English professor is the backbone of Sophia in Exile. If he previously reminded us that Robert Fludd and Thomas and Rebecca Vaughan deconstructed natura pura (nature without any need for God) before David Bentley Hart ever got around to doing so (106), now he leads us instead to the optics of Thomas Traherne ("it is almost as if the writings of Traherne wanted to be found, but only waited upon the arrival of the proper moment," 112) and the poetry of Eleanor ("Nellie") Farjeon (a writer, he boldly claims, equal if not better than C.S. Lewis or Charles Williams).

Martin's training and intelligence is in service to much more than himself, and jealously for that which he serves helps explains his pugilism. While the last volume in the trilogy argued "our concern... should be not the problems that now surround us but rather that we can do despite the restrictions brought on by the circumstances within which we find ourselves" (101), he aims to take on global issues a good bit more directly in this book, written in the wake of the pandemic. Martin is profoundly pessimistic about wisdom's prospects in the face of Big Tech. Such companies, Martin previously claimed, could never create pure nature (119). Sophia in Exile only turns up the volume on such warnings, claiming Big Tech has come closer to that unwelcome prospect than ever before. Whether people off the farm and on the grid can enjoy a steady connection to reality therefore remains to be seen. Martin's rhetoric sometimes make it seem like this is unlikely. But it must be possible. Why else would he have expended so much energy writing such beautiful books? 

The result of my finishing Sophia in Exile was only to go back to the first in the series (the longest), and look into Martin's close readings of major figures from the wisdom tradition like Boehme, Fludd and Tomberg. There is so much more to take in there, to say nothing of the anthology he edited (with pairs so well with Versluis's similar collection). To be bored by this rich, and still largely unknown Christian tradition of wisdom is to be bored with reality itself. How serendipitous that these buried texts have been made so freely available to us just when they are needed the most.

Friday, November 19, 2021

From Midwest Strange to Midwest Sacred

An essay of mine at the Front Porch Republic. Hope it can help those who live in the flatlands (or anywhere really) to love where they live.



Thursday, November 04, 2021

Your Gaia is Too Small

I wrote at The Hedgehog Review about why the "Gaia hypothesis" is a good idea with a not-so-good name (so I proposed a better one).
 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Chagall's Cathedral (and our neglected North American ones).

I have an essay in this book entitled "Chagall’s Cathedral: Faith, Hope, and Love in the Art Institute's Modern Wing." The point of my title is that the Art institute of Chicago remains the teaching throne of Chagall's White Crucifixion, through which all its art must pass. My contribution is admittedly rather list-ish (a cataloguing of undeniable theological flashpoints that I've noticed over the last decade). I wish I had thought to include how the  iconic Crown Fountain in Millennium Park redeems the irony of Bruce Nauman's far less imaginative Fountain. Still, the book is also filled with elegant, less list-ish accounts of other such flashpoints by colleagues and friends.

 
There's also this piece published at The Hedgehog Review for Indigenous People's Day, where I imagine  a world (which is sadly not this one) where places like Picture Cave were not put up for sale. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Toward a New Grail Quest

A review of Robert J. Faas and Arthur Versluis, Conversations in Apocalyptic Times (Grailstone Press, 2021).

Even for those well-versed in Western intellectual history, to discover the scholarship of Arthur Versluis is to discover a hidden world. His great trilogy (Theosophia, Wisdom’s Children and Wisdom’s Book), appearing at the turn of the millennium, uncovered a neglected galaxy of Christian esoteric thought, one that could in no way be dismissed as “Gnostic” (whatever might be meant by that sloppily flung term), let alone as heretical. Versluis revealed that a term like “theosophy,” co-opted by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society originally in opposition to Christianity, was in fact a far earlier experiential form of Christian spirituality that resurfaced at the dawn of modernity partly in order to defy it. Simply put, Versluis uncovered the very terrain that people leave Christianity to find within the Christian tradition itself. His scholarship is accessible, careful, extensive and original. Many who have worked through his books, or even a portion of them, will likely find themselves realizing that their education has been lamentably incomplete.

But just as importantly, Versluis comments at nearly every turn that what he has discovered, these experimental depths of Christian mysticism in the face of modernity, is as much a personal quest as it is an intellectual project. His readers will therefore be faced with a desire for more practical guidance, for a more free-wheeling, casual discussion about how to apply this forgotten, but still very much Christian, tradition to one’s own life. It is this precise need that the present book adequately addresses, offering a casually written and accessible series of conversations between friends. Versluis’ conversation partner is a respected psychologist, Robert J. Faas, who brings his clinical experience and highly informed speculative insight into play as well. The combination is perfect for meeting the book’s stated aim: a guide for spiritual seekers in apocalyptic (that is, revelatory) times.

Faas and Versluis here show, with charity and clarity, how certain levels of approach are in themselves incapable of extracting us from our increasingly toxic twenty-first century predicament. Still, they do so while honoring the truths each of these “levels” (for lack of a better term) contain. To attempt to summarize the book, I will outline what I discerned to be these respective levels. Of course, some might fear that even to mention “levels” of approach would be to betray an elitist Gnostic approach to spirituality; but this is not the case. Faas and Versluis are too respectful of each level, and too insistent on the unique dimensions of Christianity, for that facile critique to validly apply. With that said, here are the levels I discerned:

1) First off there is the materialist approach to reality, which can include the academic mode. One can investigate spiritual and religious traditions (or anything really) from this purview, possibly declaring such traditions to be false, or (for the more restrained academics) observing and describing the religious quest with as much neutrality as possible. But while this book assumes a great degree of competence in this area, it is deliberately not academic. And while both thinkers give due weight to the material plane—to sexuality and ecology, for example—without too quickly venturing to the spiritual, both thinkers argue that our civilizational prospects without spiritual renewal are dire, especially due to purgative forces coming from the Right, but just as much so – both thinkers are keen to point out —from the silencing zeal of the political Left.

2) Then there is the more adventurous psychological approach. Think, for example, of a Jungian mode that recasts entire religious traditions in the interior key. Both thinkers are deeply appreciative of Jung for the doors he has opened, but both are far too versed in the history of mysticism to be deluded (as are too many Jungians) into thinking that Jung’s take on the alchemical and mystical traditions is always to be trusted, let alone considered as their source. Indeed, Versluis’ entire career has done so much to expose the (often unabashedly Christian) sources that Jung drew upon, liberating readers to go to them directly, unfiltered through a Jungian lens. A psychologist like Faas, it seems to me, therefore finds himself in the great tradition of Christian interpreters of Jung (Sanford, Bryant, Ulanov) who are appreciative but not beholden to the great Swiss psychoanalyst.

3) Next we might describe the traditionally religious approach that resists psychologizing, and asserts that standard doctrinal boundaries can avoid the difficulties of the materialist or psychological approaches. Faas and Versluis both understand this. Still, they know that in and of itself merely cognitive religion can also become a dead end. Both thinkers appear to be (in my reading at least) genuinely Christian mystics, ones who are perfectly straightforward about – for example – the resurrection of Christ; but they also urge their readers to experience this reality as well, liturgically and internally, and recommend unexpected ways of doing so. The Eastern Orthodox tradition therefore is especially pronounced.

4) Next we could summon the perennialists: Those who think that all religions can be freely sampled and distilled to a common denominator without committing to any one of them. Faas and Versluis see the insights of the perennial philosophy, and show deep knowledge, appreciation and respect for the great traditions. While they can affirm this approach to an extent, at the same time they claim that Christianity offers something unique, especially when understood as fulfilling the Mystery Traditions that came before it. As Faas puts it in one remarkable passage: 

What did Christ bring into the underworld that was different than what the earlier Mysteries had been able to do? It’s really quite a central question because something changed in the very nature of the underworld. Christ’s descent was not like an Orpheus or otherwise who have descended and then in a sense came back – Christ overcame…. It wasn’t just a pivot to the underworld, it was an overcoming and a change of its nature forever.

The problem, however, comes when in fulfilling and transcending the Mystery Tradition, Christianity leaves Mystery entirely behind. Faas and Versluis show us how to regain it.

In short, having absorbed the lessons of each of these preceding levels (which I have unimaginatively labeled one through four above) Faas and Versluis transcend them. While “transcend and include” has become something of a cliché, or even an unearned boast in adventurous spiritual circles, one senses that these two friends have earned the right to the phrase. Each of these conversation partners are themselves conversant in the Christian mystical tradition (not to mention Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi traditions), with a special love for how the Christian mystical tradition was modernized with Jacob Böhme. 

While a more academic, descriptive approach to this great German mystic (and his followers) is available in Versluis’ many books, this publication is more immediate and practical, harboring no illusions about our tenuous moment. Finally, both thinkers are fully cognizant of the mystery of unearned grace, but they know that a process is necessary as well, one that so many current churches have forsaken (but which endures, for example, in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola). Faas and Versluis, however, commend instead the Grail tradition, not to mention Christian alchemy (and the two are closer than one might think). Indeed, the true alchemist – according to Faas – is Christ himself.

This is a highly recommended conversation that everyone, no matter which of the aforementioned levels they gravitate toward, would do well to hear. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Book on the way...

100 years ago G.K. Chesterton visited North America and (by his own admission) didn't sufficiently attend to this continent's First Nations; I tried to imagine what this lover of myth and critic of imperialism would have said if he had. Book out Fall 2021, and you can pre-order it here.