Archive for February, 2010

The Obedience of the Son

February 16, 2010 11 comments

We find various images for the Triunity of God throughout the Tradition.  Many are biblical and liturgical (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and other are not (root, tree, fruit).  Each image tries to make sense of how we can affirm threeness and oneness at the same time, generally emphasizing the three (lover, loved, love) or the one (memory, understanding, will).  One dominant modern image for the Trinity is a communion of persons, with an emphasis on the positivity of otherness and the inherently social character of a “person.” But on what grounds do we construct such images, especially ones which go beyond a general attempt to bring together “three” and “one”?  In particular, how are we to conceive of the relations between the three persons?  At the most formal level, the Trinitarian relations are known only through the economy of salvation.  Philosophical reflection may be integral to Trinitarian theology, but the ultimate foundation is God’s self-communication in creation, covenant, and Jesus Christ.

I would like to explore one way of moving beyond this formal level; a provocative way taken by (later) Barth and Balthasar.  Both argue that the ultimate ground for Trinitarian theology is the concrete relationship between Jesus and the Father as it is depicted in the New Testament.  Both further claim that the fundamental characteristic of this relationship is obedience. Balthasar again and again says that the New Testament (particularly John but not exclusively) depicts Jesus as the one who is sent by the Father and who does the Father’s will.  This shows us who he is. Bringing together Maximus the Confessor and Ignatius of Loyola, the Son’s very “mode of being” is this receptivity to the will of the Father and the mission given to him.  Barth is particularly insistent that we must see Jesus’ obedience as revelatory of the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son: to ascribe the obedience of the Son exclusively to his “mode of appearance” in the economy would be a form of modalism. Barth and Balthasar push this point quite far. Barth will go so far as describe this as a relationship of “superiority” and a “subordination,” while at the same time affirming the equality of Father and Son.  Balthasar uses the Son’s obedience as the jumping off point for his (sometimes quite imaginative) descriptions of the inner relations of the Trinity as mutual self-giving and self-surrender.  And although Balthasar will be much more comfortable using human analogies and images to understand the Trinity, both of their theologies are ultimately grounded in the affirmation that God is truly revealed in the concrete existence of Jesus Christ.

The immediate vision of God

February 15, 2010 8 comments

I got into a conversation with a friend recently about the possibility of seeing God directly, and I surprised myself by taking a directly Dionysian line: that the unmediated vision of God is constitutively impossible. I’ve written about Dionysius’s principle of necessary mediation before, and complained that he offered no philosophical justification for the axiom. But I don’t think that’s true. Dionysius doesn’t justify his idea that mediation has to occur stepwise down an ontological hierarchy, but he does (implicitly) justify the necessity of some form of mediation. I find the latter pretty convincing.

We have to begin from a premise (maybe controversial, I don’t know) that Dionysius just takes for granted: God is absolutely infinite. By absolutely infinite I mean not just infinite in one way, but in every way, simultaneously. To make this thinkable, though, consider one example: God as infinite being. All discrete beings are derived from/created by the divinity as infinite being, but the divinity’s being is not itself discrete. On the contrary, as infinite, God’s being encompasses every discrete being. To use Eckhart’s formula, God is indistinct from all creatures—and distinguished from them precisely in the fact that God alone is indistinct from them. (The distinctio indistinctionis he calls it: the distinction of indistinction. Beautiful, hm?) In trying to “see” God as infinite being, therefore, it makes no sense to look for something “besides” discrete, created being; God is actually seen in created being, though as transcending it. “Negative theology,” such as it exists in Dionysius, is just the name for this paradoxical way of seeing: God is this discrete being but not this discrete being.

An interesting consequence of this is that the “necessary mediation” in our vision of God ends up coinciding with a constant immediacy of vision: that creature’s being really is God’s being (which is not to say it’s not the creature’s own, but that’s another story), unmediated but partial. Just as we can only ever see a limited set of numbers in contemplating an infinite series, but what we’re seeing is not “something besides” the infinite series, so in seeing a limited being (or a limited good, etc.) we are not seeing something besides God. And that necessity of seeing God “in parts,” as it were, is intrinsic to the relation between the infinite and the finite, not a result of sin or some eschatologically surmountable limit. (One would have to explain how sin and historical limitations do affect the nature of our current vision of God, but that won’t alter this structure of mediation.)

The church is a collective subject

February 14, 2010 21 comments

Halden Doerge spun out a provocative series of posts last week on the image of the church as the body of Christ. His main contention throughout was that “what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church.” From what I can tell, Halden’s objection to speaking of the church as “one body” with Christ stems from two related concerns: (1) to maintain Jesus’ position as mediator as unique to his historical person, and (2) to avoid rendering the church as a static, coherent “subject” such as could stand in as mediator. The latter seems especially problematic to him in that it divinizes the church understood as a static collective, leaving it in some sense immune to criticism. This is how “the body of Christ” can become an ideological concept.

This is a pretty perceptive analysis, in my opinion—but I think Halden locates the hinge in the wrong place. It’s not the concept of subjective unity that twists the image in an ideological direction, but the portrayal of the subject as static. Notice that in his most direct argument that the church is not a collective subject, the points of criticism tend toward the conclusion that there can be no such thing as a collective subject at all. Collectives are always constituted by a “nexus of relationships.” Because the church always takes the form of of mutual self-giving in love, it’s an “event” rather than a subject. But what does that assume about subjects? Can’t an individual subject, too, be described as a kind of nexus of inner relationships that require dynamic ordering if she is to stay sane, to act as one?

The problem isn’t with the idea of collective subjectivity itself. We live constantly as members of collective subjects, subjects that are more or less fractured, and more or less authoritarian. The problem is with a particular idea of what it means to be a unified subject: denying the “event” character of subjectivity itself, and portraying the subject as self-contained. (This kind of subject, whether individual or collective, is inevitably tyrannical.) Do away with a static, self-contained concept of subjectivity with respect to Christ, too, and Christ’s sole mediation need not preclude a participation in his unique personal identity—it could even be said that the specific form of Christ’s mediation is our inclusion in him as a collective subject. The uniqueness of Christ is precisely that he, unlike other historical figures, is an individual and collective subject at the same time.

This is all very schematic and impressionistic, I know. Bear with me.

Teaching Anselm’s Proslogion

February 12, 2010 16 comments

Reading Brian’s last post brought Anselm of Canterbury to mind.  He’s a medieval who has often been read as a philosopher.  He is the supposed inventor of the “ontological argument” for the existence of God: an argument which would later be polished up by Descartes and spawn centuries of debate regarding its logical validity (see Alvin Plantinga’s helpful little book on The Ontological Argument).  More recently Anselm has been approached as a spiritual writer: a person of prayer and deep existential faith.  Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, can perhaps be given some credit for getting the ball rolling on this more pious line of interpretation.

And yet, the question remains open: How are we supposed to teach Anselm now?  As rigorous philosopher or pious monk?  I faced this problem directly last semester, when given the opportunity to lecture on Anselm to a group of undergraduate theology majors.  I tried to strike a balance, but I think I ultimately slid more toward the pious reading.  In retrospect, I’m not sure this was ideal.  A real balance seems important, if only as a way of being honest about what’s in the text.  Yes, most of it is composed as a prayer, an address to God as “You.”  But the second and third chapters are an argument, in which God is not “You” but “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”

In the future, I might try something like this: Anselm’s argument is a real argument.  He thinks you should be able to know with certainty that God exists provided that you understand that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought.  But we won’t be able to judge the validity of Anselm’s logic unless we grasp that this understanding is a lofty goal.  It’s not enough to have the words in your mind.  You’ve got to understand, deeply, what they mean–and what it means in particular for something to be “greater” than something else.  Anselm seeks this depth of understanding through his contemplative and petitionary prayer, in which he allows scripture and his own experience to shed light on the contours of human desire, which both reveal and conceal our intuition of greatness.  In this way prayer–or something like the contemplation it enables–is necessary for us to test the validity of the argument.

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Reading the medievals as philosophers

February 8, 2010 3 comments

One of my consistent frustrations with secondary sources on medieval thinkers is how extraordinarily pietistic most of them are, and I’ve discovered recently that this is especially true of Bonaventure. There is a positive side to this phenomenon: it’s an expression of the enormous contextual difference between medieval and modern theology. With Bonaventure this contextual difference is exacerbated, since he’s obviously sympathetic with older monastic ways of thinking, and over the course of his career—especially after he leaves the University of Paris to become Minister General of the Franciscans—increasingly interested in Francis’s contemplative life. It makes sense that the spiritual orientation of medieval theology is one of the things that jumps out at people first in reading it, and that it would be one of the key aspects of that age that people might want to revive.

But it obscures so much! I don’t want to deny the importance of that orientation for a proper understanding of what they’re doing—that would actually be impossible for Bonaventure, who makes it part of his definition of theology as a “sapiential science.” What I want to deny is that everything that was written in that period is best understood as an extension of the medievals’ “spiritual theology.” Most treatments of Bonaventure’s commitment to voluntary poverty, for example, explicitly lay aside philosophical or political-economic considerations to get to the real, spiritual poverty that Bonaventure’s concerned with. And this despite the fact that Bonaventure’s commitment to voluntary poverty actually does have substantive philosophical ramifications (more than that through this semester), which is massively interesting.

One genuinely philosophical treatment of Bonaventure I’m looking forward to getting around to is a book called Saint Bonaventure et l’entrée de Dieu en théologie by Emmanuel Falque (1, 2). In its earlier draft, this was the dissertation he wrote under J.-L. Marion, taking Heidegger up on a little research program he noted in his dissertation on Scotus to read the medievals as phenomenologists. He’s since continued the project through phenomenological analyses of birth and resurrection, finitude, suffering, etc., all in close conversation with the patristics and the medievals. From what I remember from a lecture he gave at Notre Dame a few years ago, he could make an interesting addition to Andrew’s list in his own right, and I have high hopes that he’ll make a useful model for constructive philosophical engagement with these thinkers.

Posted by Brian Hamilton

Ways to be theologically Heideggerian (French edition)

February 6, 2010 5 comments

1. Jean-Luc Marion. The general strategy is to move from being to givenness.  First, construe Heidegger primarily as a thinker of being–more precisely, of the ontological difference as it has been concealed in the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics. Second, accept this analysis but argue that it does not apply to crucial figures in the theological tradition (Dionysius, Bonaventure, Aquinas, et al).  Third, posit a more extensive horizon of givenness (phenomenologically) or grace (theologically), which exposes the conceptually idolatrous limits of Heideggerian thought and makes way for the icon.

2. Jean-Yves Lacoste. Basic approach: subvert world and earth with liturgy and the eschaton.  First, characterize Heidegger in terms of a dialectical tension between two horizons of experience: world (structured by the anxiety of being-toward-death) and earth (structured by dwelling natively in the Fourfold of gods, mortals, earth, and sky).  Second, define liturgy (or being-before-God) as an alternative mode of experience which symbolically subverts the play of world and earth while factically retaining them.  Third, present liturgy as a form of eschatological anticipation which abolishes Heidegger’s equation of the definitive with the initial/originary.

3. Jean-Louis Chretien. In short: take Heidegger’s ideas of language as response to the call of being, as the house of being, and as poetic, and transpose them into a prayerful key.  First, make explicit the religious traditions (Hebrew, Greek, patristic, and medieval) undergirding Heidegger’s theme of the call: it is not just being but God who resounds in language, which is always already a response.  Second, replace the image of a house with that of an ark: the home which speech gives to creatures is a vessel in transit toward God.  Finally, think of hymn as the telos of poetry: the point is not just to disclose being in its truth but to sing the whole of creation to the glory of God.

4. Louis-Marie Chauvet. Identify a homologous relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and Christian sacramental theology, in which the attitude is similar but the object is different.  First, use Heidegger to define metaphysics as a problem affecting humans in general–a problem in which one attempts to grasp presence objectively without acknowledging its inevitable historical, cultural, textual, and bodily arrival, and the absence which this implies.  (It may help to relate Heidegger’s account of metaphysics to a psychoanalytic  theory in which the desire for presence without absence is expressed in terms of a neurotic attachment to the Thing and a refusal to mourn the loss of immanence.)  Second, argue that Christian theology addresses the problem of metaphysics by attending to the fundamental sacramentality of the faith (i.e., its ritual mediation, which is historical, cultural, etc.).  Finally, clarify that the presence/absence which the sacraments mediate is not only of being but of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit, and received by the celebrating church.