Archive for April, 2010

What’s in a rose?

April 30, 2010 3 comments

In contemporary culture, we often give flowers as gifts.  On my better days, a thought may cross my mind: “Maybe I should pick up some flowers for my wife, perhaps some roses, to recall our wedding day.  She’d like that.”  And on my really good days I listen to this prompting of the Spirit.  But lately I’ve been wondering, what is the theological meaning of the flower or the rose?  What does it say, finally, about who we are before God?       

Consider, if you will, two rather floral theological passages.  The first is from Origen’s treatise On Prayer: “‘All flesh is grass’; and its glory, which is shown in the so-called beauty of women and boys, is compared to a flower according to the prophetic word [of Isaiah]: ‘All flesh is grass, and all its glory like a flower of grass.  The grass has withered, and the flower has fallen; but the Word of the Lord stands forever” (XVII.2). 

The second is from Angelus Silesius’ much-discussed mystic poem, Without Why: “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms; it cares not for itself; asks not if it’s seen.”

The flower, in Origen’s reading of Isaiah, is a figure of the ephemeral quality of earthly glory, a symbol of decay, of  nothingness.  It is only a pale and evanescent shadow of true divine beauty.  In Angelus, the rose comes forth as a nonchalant and yet wondrous appearance, which refuses rational or utilitarian explanation.  Angelus’ blooming bloom is retrieved by Heidegger as an icon of his theory of truth as disclosure, of his sense of being as phenomenal (see John Caputo’s study, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, pp. 60ff).  I’m not totally sure what to make of these diverse reflections.  But I will say that, in each case, a flower is never merely a flower.  It unfurls the truth of our condition, as delicately posed between being and nothingness, or as a vulnerable flourishing which impossibly embraces both. 

To challenge Origen a bit, one might suggest that the creaturely conversion to divine beauty cannot forget the rose which passes away, the life which lives in the shadows of being.  God loves the flowers of the field, and not only the immaterial soul (if there is such a thing).  What would heaven be without a single rose?  But in response to Heidegger’s reading of Angelus, one might inquire whether another forgetting of being  may be discerned here, of being in its permanence, in its eternal logos, for the “Word of the Lord stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6).  There is something, then, to Origen’s contrast, which distinguishes the beauty of being more carefully from nothingness, but also something to a discipline of thinking which locates beauty precisely in its fragile and fleeting occurrences.

To give a flower is nothing, or almost nothing, and yet in another sense it’s everything, all that there is to give.

Who is Bernhard Welte?

April 19, 2010 3 comments

His is not a name you hear often in the English-speaking academy.  And yet, Bernhard Welte was a fairly prominent philosopher and theologian living in Germany during the second-half of the twentieth century, who has been the focus of several book-length studies elsewhere.  Anthony Godzieba’s Bernhard Welte’s Fundamental Theological Approach to Christology. New York: Peter Lang, 1994 is the notable exception to this non-Anglophone rule.   

The main reason for this neglect is that most of Welte’s work remains untranslated.  His collected writings have only recently appeared in German (Herder, 2006).  But two of the pieces which do exist in English–“God in Heidegger’s Thought.” Philosophy Today 26.1 (Spring 1982): 85-100 and “Search and Find: An Address on the Occasion of Martin Heidegger’s Funeral.” Universitas 19 (1977): 301–may give you a sense of his potential significance. 

In short, as Bernhard Casper (the editor of much of Welte’s work) suggests in the introduction to Briefe und Begegnungen (Klett-Gotta, 2003), Welte may be one of the key sources for understanding the religious implications of Heidegger’s philosophy in the future.  This seems plausible not only because Heidegger himself has acknowledged that Welte was a faithful interpreter of his thought but also because Heidegger entrusted Welte with the task of saying a few words at his own Christian (!) burial.  Thus, the thinker of the “being-toward-death” resolutely selected Welte to mark the occasion of his “ownmost possibility.”  The philosopher who in later work turned to language as the “house of Being” invited Welte’s words to shelter his own being-laid-to-rest. 

Welte reads Heidgger piously–as a religious seeker, as a reverent person who gave utmost respect to the “high God” and who obeyed with great rigor the biblical prohibition of idolatry.  And this is what makes Heidegger’s evident endorsement of Welte so remarkable.  Is there more piety in Heidegger than his Nietzscheanism would lead one to suppose?  But even so, the question remains whether such a “religious” Heidegger has much to offer a Christian theological tradition with which he seemed quite disenchanted.  In sum, more work needs to be done to determine (1) whether Welte got Heidegger right and (2) what difference this makes.

Younger Scholars Prize in Philosophical Theology

The Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, a relatively new annual series of anthologies documenting the state of the field in philosophy of religion (the first volume appeared in 2008), has just announced an essay competition in philosophical theology for young scholars. Here’s the description:

The Younger Scholars Prize program, funded by The Ammonius Foundation and administered by the Editorial Board of Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, is an annual essay competition open to scholars who are within ten (10) years of receiving a Ph.D. or students who are currently enrolled in a graduate program. Independent scholars may also be eligible, and should direct inquiries to the Editor of OSPR (see below). The award is $8,000, and winning essays will be published in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion.

Submitted essays must report original research in philosophical theology. Essays should generally be between 7,500 and 15,000 words; longer essays may be considered, but authors must seek prior approval by providing the Editor with an abstract and a word count prior to submission. Since winning essays will appear in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, submissions must not be under review elsewhere. To be eligible for next year’s prize, submissions must be received, electronically, by 31 August 2010. Refereeing will be blind; authors should omit remarks and references that might disclose their identities. Receipt of submissions will be acknowledged by e-mail. The winner will be determined by a committee of members of the Editorial Board of Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, and will be announced in late October or early November 2010. (The Editorial Board reserves the right to extend the deadline further, if no essay is chosen.) Each entry will be simultaneously considered for publication in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, independently of the prize.

The first volumes look mainly Anglophone in disposition, but I can’t find anything that would suggest other approaches are inappropriate. Joint submissions are allowed, and you can submit as many essays as you like.

(h/t clavi non defixi)

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Chretien and Lacoste on John of the Cross

April 15, 2010 2 comments

The difference between Jean-Louis Chretien and Jean-Yves Lacoste comes out in one way by looking at their distinct readings of Heidegger.  See my earlier post:  But one could also contrast them by noting their differing interpretations of John of the Cross. 

Lacoste takes John’s dark night as inspiration for his own account of the nocturnal character of liturgy.  When we pray, and place ourselves coram Deo, we do not thereby acquire automatic access to a luminous experience of the absolute, as though God were manifest in the light of day.  Rather, the act of prayer positions us in a mode of patient vigil, characterized by an as yet unverified anticipation of the parousia which is always eschatologically deferred.  For Lacoste, then, John becomes a figure of ascesis or distance with respect to the affect, the senses, and experience in general.     

By contrast, Chretien draws primarily on John’s spiritual canticle in an effort to show that the modes by which the call of God reaches us incorporates all the senses, including even the most basic sense of feeling which is coextensive with the body.  In John’s canticle, the height of mystic encounter involves a moment in which God and the creature “touch,” and Chretien takes this choice of language quite seriously.   The tacticle blends together with the visual and the auditory  in a synesthetic apprehension of the divine summons.  One receives God’s vocation with the ears, the eyes, and the very delicacy of bodily encounter.  Thus, Chretien’s appropriation of John would appear to be more mystical, or perhaps one should say communicative, than it is ascetical.

I suspect that John would discourage us from pretending to choose between the two.  The question becomes: how to think them together?

Žižek’s virtue (or one of them, anyway)

April 10, 2010 4 comments

I’ve been more open, lately, in confessing my deep appreciation for Žižek around the department, and as I do I commonly find myself saying how enjoyable he is to read, how funny, how provocative… and then feeling guilty, like I’ve done him a disservice. I have to backtrack and say that of course he’s an eminently serious thinker, too, doing “important work” on Hegel and Schelling and Fichte.

Still, I’ve just started First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, and again I’m struck first by how straightforwardly pleasurable it is to read his work. The prose is crisp and energetic, his meaning is clear, his arguments are insightful, and he’s consistently entertaining at the same time. And that’s an extremely difficult confluence of features to achieve. Judging from the academic work that I read from day-to-day, it’s nearly impossible.

Žižek really is exemplary here. At some relatively early point in their training, aspiring scholars should try to read as much well written, lively, entertaining academic work as possible, to prove to ourselves that this isn’t an exercise in dullness.

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