Forgetting our inheritance

A classical inheritance is all around us, recognized or unrecognized. Yet there has been no period since the Renaissance which is as intent on forgetting the classical past as today. The images and language that flooded the minds of previous generations now need a guidebook. A painting of a classical myth must have an explanation on its museum label, every classical reference in a poem needs a footnote. What for centuries was the foundation of Western culture, a shared resource of the imagination, has been systematically uprooted in modern educational systems across the West, with inevitable consequences for public culture. Modernity has come to mean amnesia—amnesia about the past, about cultural tradition, about the passions and interests of our own history. Like adolescents who believe themselves the first to discover swear-words and sex, and who can only stare with incomprehension at their parents’ desires, modern culture finds it hard to notice that it is forgetting its inheritance.

Simon Goldhill. Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 2.

Adrift on a sea of anxiety

A seemingly rudderless and anchorless society has cast us all adrift on a sea of anxiety. And man, being in honor, did not understand; he is compared to the mindless cattle, and is become like unto them (Ps. 48:12). This condition makes us ripe to fall for the old adage, “any port in a storm,” and that is just what we do. By the thousands, the millions, we give ourselves to whatever seems to offer some sense of identity or direction, some meaning to life, be that what it may: a life of sensual indulgence, politically correct social activism or the superficial “spirituality” of the self-help league. Even self-immolation upon the altar of the false god of nihilism is to be preferred to the frightening emptiness and naked despair which threatens to overwhelm our fragile hold upon reality.

Why do ye spend money for that which is not bread and labor for that which satisfieth not? (Is. 55:2). These words of the Prophet Isaiah may echo in our ears, yet one who is starving will eat whatever food is offered, even if it be rotten or mixed with poison. This is all the more true of the spiritually starving generation being raised now amidst the enthralling global culture of apostasy; a spiritual famine for the Life-giving Word of God has come upon us.

St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, tr. Alexandra Dockham (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), 25-6.

Layers of meaning in Scripture

Origen experiences none of the anxiety that we moderns might feel about fixing the meaning of the text with one sense. The truth of the interpretation seems to depend not on making sure we have seen some thing that is really there in the text. Its truth, rather, seems to come from a sense of fit: does the spiritual meaning fit details of the text, other texts in other parts of Scripture, proper Christian doctrine, and ethics? No doctrine of particular ethical proposition is founded simply on this text or one of the interpretations. The allegorical reading is an expansion of meaning into other realms of Christian truth, not the exclusion of a literal meaning or the foundation of new knowledge.

This observation does raise a problem, especially for many of us modern readers. If the meaning derived from the text is not foundationally a source for Christian doctrine or ethics that can be used over against other sources of knowledge, such as doctrine, tradition, or experience, but is rather one expansion of Christian meaning along with all others, how can we avoid simply reading Scripture to reinforce some kind of Christian bubble we already live in? . . . If Scripture is part of Christian culture, rather than the thing that will challenge or change Christian culture, how can Scripture work to correct or reform the church or ourselves?

The answer to this problem is again in remembering the necessity of human agency for the interpretation of Scripture and the advocacy of reform, correction, or change. We may avoid living in our own Christian bubble and simply reinforcing our already held beliefs and prejudices not by seeking a source for knowledge in the independent meaning of the text, but by listening to one another and even to others outside Christianity. We allow others to challenge our readings. We work ourselves to see Scripture always anew. We profit from our imaginations and the imaginations of other human readers, and we trust in the providence of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to shake us out of Christian complacency.

Dale B. Martin. Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), location 839 (Kindle edition).

Perfection isn’t fullness

St. Irenaeus stated that God did not create human beings “perfect” at the outset, and he offered various reasons why.

He suggested, for instance, that Adam and Eve, whom he depicts as infants in paradise, needed to grow in order to achieve perfection, the fullness of being human to which they were called by God. For example, a mother could give a newborn child meat rather than milk, though this would not benefit the infant at all. Likewise, God could have given us a full share in his life and existence from the beginning—but we would not have been able to receive such a magnificent gift, without being prepared by learning through experience.

A newborn infant may have “perfect” limbs, but needs to exercise (and to fall) before being able to walk and to run; so, too, creatures need to be exercised in virtue before they can share in the uncreated life of God.

John Behr. Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 58-9.

The lack of unanimity in historical Jesus research

Many have remarked, with some chagrin, in the sundry conclusions of academics writing books and articles on the historical Jesus. The lack of unanimity bothers me less than it may others, for historical and religious studies belong not to the sciences but to the humanities, and waiting for a consensus on any noteworthy subject within the latter is like waiting for Godot. The main point here, however, is that the traditional criteria, which were devised as checks and balances for our subjectivity, have not delivered. The scope of diversity proves that we are still as embedded as ever in that subjectivity. All our methodological erudition, our repeated attempts to refine and heed criteria, have failed to impose order on our discipline: the Jesus of one book often does not look much like the Jesus of another book, even when those books employ more or less the same method. Surely we are no closer to any uniformity of results to-day than we would have been had we never heard of dissimilarity, multiple attestation, coherence, and embarrassment.

Doing history, which is an art requiring imagination and conjecture, cannot be identified with the mechanical observances of directives. The rules of chemistry mean that, if you follow the instructions, you will get the same result as everybody else. The criteria of authenticity are more like the rules of language: you can use them to say just about anything.

Dale C. Allison, Jr. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), location 762 (Kindle edition).

On nationalism and pledging allegiance

[There is] an impulse that can be dated back to the beginnings of the modern era and the rise of the state. Before the latter’s ascent, memberships in various social settings were overlapping and varied, ranging from families, neighborhoods, townships, boroughs, regions, guilds, Church (parish and Catholic), nation, even empire.

The state undermined competing allegiances by demanding primary allegiance to itself alone, and only secondarily and ‘voluntarily’ to these preexisting institutions. Such memberships became less and less ‘constitutive.’ Rather, such associations and memberships came to be viewed as secondary to our primary allegiance to a State that reserves the right to control, oversee, and define any other institution….

The only liberty that could be recognized was the liberty of individuals to ‘pursue his or her own ends.’ The ancient rights, privileges, immunities and liberties of institutions—the Church, universities, guilds, localities—were redescribed as forms of oppression. The increased power, even intrusiveness, of the state, was justified not as a form of oppression, but rather in the name of liberation of the individual….

During the bloody twentieth century, the Church stood against the totalitarian ambitions of Fascism and Communism. A third ideology is clearly flexing its muscles today—threatening to make those victories of the last century merely Pyrrhic. The totalitarian impulse today is embedded in the very logic of liberalism, which seeks to expand its dominion into every aspect of life and against every competitor to its demand for the exclusive allegiance of individuals. We need to keep firmly in mind the picture that adorns the Leviathan, and resist our absorption as individuals into the body of the state by retaining deep, abiding, and even primary allegiance to family, locality, and Church.

Patrick J. Deneen, “President Obama’s Campaign For Leviathin” (First Things blog, October 3, 2012).

The Religion of the Market

[For] all of the religions of the world, however they differ from one another, the religion of The Market has become the most formidable rival, the more so because it is rarely recognized as a religion. The traditional religions and the religion of the global market … hold radically different views of nature. In Christianity and Judaism, for example, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein.” The Creator appoints human beings as stewards and gardeners but, as it were, retains title to the earth…. In The Market religion, however, human beings, more particularly those with money, own anything they buy and—within certain limits—can dispose of anything they choose.

Harvey Cox, “The Market as God,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1999, 18-23.

Epistemological Humility or Potluck?

The Emergents confuse incomprehensibility with agnosticism, while they make mystery into an excuse for doubting divinely revealed propositions, and they pervert paradox by denying the very ground on which it is created: an a priori commitment to absolute, logically consistent Truth. Their doubting is not any kind of “epistemological humility”—it’s intellectual (and spiritual) suicide. Finally, Emergents repudiate logic while simultaneously angling the conclusions of their own humanistic reason against the Scriptures. It’s an epistemological potluck on the village green, complete with half-baked chicken, stale heresy-crackers and the moldy rolls of relativism. I’ve also heard the salad isn’t too fresh.

“Recovering Orthodox Epistemology — An Open Letter to Conservative Evangelicals”, THEOparadox blog (December 4, 2009), retrieved from http://theoparadox.blogspot.com/2009/12/recovering-orthodox-epistemology-open.html

The life cycle of a theory

In the life cycle of a theory, it starts off simple and then gets fancier and fancier, as brainy thinkers mount objections and the theory’s proponents develop a more subtle, complex, and well-defended theory to stave them off. Then it dies. Actually, before it dies, it lives in a special preserve for theories too complicated to survive in the wild, called a university.

Eric Kaplan, Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation (New York: Penguin Group, 2014), 39.

Reading Multiple Perspectives

Read and listen to one thinker and you become a clone; Read two and you become confused; Read ten and you get your own voice; Read a hundred and you start to become wise.

Timothy Keller