Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On Heretical Anthropology - A Response to James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith of Calvin College has recently posted on the question of what comprises the elements of orthodox Christianity. The question is about doctrine (not Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and Smith refers to the statements of the Christian creed; for instance, the one affirming the divinity of Christ. Smith summarizes the common understanding of what the term 'orthodox' means with reference to those items of the creed that pertain to the nature of God and so forth. Then he suggests:
In some contexts, the use of the word "orthodox" seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases "orthodox Christianity" means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage. 
Which raises the obvious question: is there such a thing as a heretical anthropology? While I tend to agree with Smith (at least in terms of the somewhat narrow terms of the question as he has defined it), I think the more complicated answer is this: while there is no anthropological heresy, there are anthropological conditions for the possibility of orthodox or heresy. That is: some conditions for the possibility of heresy/orthodoxy have to do with assessing human creaturehood.

What does this mean? I think there are a number of implications, but first, note that I am not trying to heresy hunt, as the expression has it. I am merely following up Smith's observation about the broad use of the term orthodoxy. And of course, there are plenty of theologically driven questions to ask about when it comes to anthropology such as marriage, the role of sexuality in human identity making, the ethical propriety of genetic therapies etc.etc.

So, while I doubt whether one could stipulate an anthropological orthodoxy per se, there are plenty of candidates for false anthropologies floating around that would make for a difficult starting point (or backdrop if we are trying to avoid expressing ourselves in a Schleiermacherian mode) to affirming the Christian creed.

For instance, if one were to articulate human capacities in terms of an inherent perfectibility, that would seem to rule out the need for salvation. The number of ideologies or thinkers whom we might link to an idea of human perfectibility seem clear enough at the outset: extreme nationalists cite the glory of their nation, doctrinaire socialists cite the infallibility of the state, fascists cite some mystical idea that unites the powerful against a disheveled scapegoat. Each of these ideologiues suppose an ideal to which human persons can aspire without worrying about any inherent flaws in our way.

But, are there Christian theologians who believe - inadvertently - in human perfectibility, such that it places pressure on their ability to affirm the creed? Does the condition for the possibility of denying creedal orthodoxy exist in the fields of philosophical and theological anthropology?

I think the answer is yes, and perfectibility is often dressed up with reference to plasticity or malleability. These are philosophical terms that denote a certain interpretation of human freedom, but the scope of the freedom that is implied is very wide indeed. How we measure the goodness of human beings alongside the inevitable character of sin is a difficult task, a task that hangs over the last chapter of the book I am currently finishing. One thing seems certain: simply because an issue is not a question of orthodoxy and heresy does not seem to lessen its importance. Its importance may be indirectly related to a creedal matter. But that does not render it unimportant. Anthropology lurks between the lines of the creed, we can be sure.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ecumenical Christian Art

Matthew Milliner's blog has the details, including a fascinating look at a couple of artists who work at an art centre near Boston.

Monday, July 17, 2017

On waiting

  One of the joys of summer is the experience of spending time doing nothing. It is often a pleasant experience, although some of that waiting is spent by people near big cities who are tied up in traffic, waiting to get out of the city or back into it at the end of vacation.

  Waiting is most often related to the theological virtue of hope, as in expectation: the expecting of a Messiah, of great change, of the parousia, God's interruption and bringing to a close historical time. In yesterday's second reading, we hear Paul speak of the importance of waiting for what one does not have. According to Paul, we await adoption, a good that is for now unseen:    
we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Rom. 8: 23b-25)
  What is less understood is that it is another theological virtue, love, that serves to interrupt the waiting. Indeed, it is love that is often sought or desired in order to stop the waiting. Love is what is awaited psychologically. (Though in a biblical context, it is arguably justice, namely Israel's hope for divine vindication that Jesus' messiahship both fulfills and transforms.) 

  This is why romantic love is often more relevant to the experience of waiting than it first appears. This is despite the fact that we translate love, the theological virtue, as caritas - translated as "charity" in English, but meaning love of God and neighbor in biblical terms. We are accustomed to seeing an opposition between two other kinds of love; agape and eros. These two forms of love are theologically not so much opposed but rather complementary. The experience of eros can (ought, in the context of marriage vows) lead to the self-giving toward one's lover that entails sacrifice, self-sacrifice. 

  Love and expectation are closely related to waiting. On a wooden railing at the hiking area at the Chutes de la Mastigouche in the Lanaudiere region of Quebec a couple of weeks ago, I saw that someone has carved “Fanny et Matthew: jamais un sans l’autre’ (Matthew and Fanny: never one without the other”). One can recognize in the graffiti of lovers an expectation that their love is binding. Two become one. Spatially, these lovers imagine future space as occupied by both of them together or neither of them. Time stands still to somehow honour the unity of this love the power of which feels like it has the authority to be inscribed in wood railings. Grafitti is a permanent marker of love that others will notice publicly. 

  In the experience of intense romantic love, time does have this character of lacking chronology or duration because the waiting appears to be over. What has been so elusive is now within one's grasp - supposedly. Augustine is the one who describes time as duration and it is this very quality of time that disappears in erotic love when physical passion and emotional vulnerability of self-giving allow one to lose touch with events, commitments and other people. This interrupting quality of love ends one sort of waiting and inaugurates another. Human beings are insatiable. We are created with the kind of desires that C.S. Lewis describes: 
"If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
  It is for this reason that erotic love can serve as an analogue for the kind of relationship that we will eventually enjoy in a condition with God in which the qualities of time as duration dissolve. (I suppose this entails some sort of atemporal view of God, which is interesting but not my main claim here.) The fleeting and proleptic features of romantic love are hints of the heavenly ecstasy promised by God as love. God is love according to the Christian tradition (1 Jn. 4:8) 

  Our craving for God –as lovers craving for each other -- consists of a unity that will overcome the business and duration of time. Waiting therefore is the kind of experience that perfectly contrasts the perichoresis or non-temporal succession of love that exists among the persons of the Trinity and our participation in that community in eternal life. Between earthly loves and heavenly love lies the self-sacrifice of agape that straddles time and eternity, which is why married life ought to intertwine both loves (eros and agape) so as to allow the earthly to prepare for the heavenly.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Montreal concert going

Not a theology post! I went to see Jesse Cook the other evening. Not to be missed if you have the chance! My favourite song was Bombay Slam. It was part of Montreal's spectacular and very diverse jazz festival (read: probably too diverse to be called a jazz festival). Last year, I went with my son to hear this band for free in a street venue: Beirut. Also not to be missed!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Chicago, Northpark Seminary Conference - The Theological Interpretation of Scripture and Science

Here is the conclusion of a paper I am delivering at this symposium, which is titled "Evolutionary Psychology and Romans 5-7: The 'Slavery to Sin' in Human Nature":

In Luke 15, Jesus asks his audience of sheepherders, those close to the land, a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” In his appeal to their own sense of selflessness in order to speak of God’s mercy toward the 1 lost sheep, Jesus draws on the experience of ordinary people and their common experience in order to interpret the tradition’s view 
of salvation as it was understood through the Jewish scriptures. The goal is to speak of God, not as an agent whose intentions are reducible to human forms of pastoral activity, but as an agent whose intentions are analogously understood from the most selfless example of love within the available frame of ordered desires of human living.  


The idea here is that sheepherding is a livelihood that meets a set of self-interested desires that is the expression of human nature as this is given particular emphasis by evolutionary psychology in its determination that our interests are preset according to genetic proximity or perceptions of reciprocal exchange that assist our status. Yet, from within the set of tasks that a given livelihood such as this one implies, opportunities exist to offer mercy that would seem to contravene rational self-interest, notably in a case such as this where the pursuit of one sheep puts the herder at risk along with the herd. The point here is that Jesus himself accepts the limits and finitude of human existence yet sees within those limits the episodes of natural living in order to speak of God’s ordered love and God’s inordinate justice.


The parable of the lost sheep affirms the idea that Jesus is concerned for the salvation of the individual. Our natural and cultural environments incline us to sinful behavior in the ways already spelled out, but even within the limits of those inclinations, Jesus manages to identify the kind of activity that suggests the exceptional concern God has for us. If sin is natural, it is also possible to see – in natural terms – the possibility of supernatural love that is a greater power than the sinful power that has befallen nature. A theological interpretation of Romans 5-7 ought not to downplay the genuine paradoxes or contradictions that lie both within human nature and between nature and God. Sin is real and it is not simply a function of the will. 

The modern tendency to see a narrative of progress in human affairs is both contradicted by the New Testament and evolutionary psychology, though it is a narrative that has a powerful hold on the western imagination, in part because it is inspired by the possibility of redemption from falleness. This narrative of progress is contradicted by our evolutionary nature, since a pattern of predictable partiality in human affairs exists by human beings toward kin and toward those with whom we are engaged in reciprocal economic or social arrangements. Human nature is also irregularly distorted by inclinations toward addiction, compulsion, anxiety, hyperactivity that interact with a variety of vices that result in behavior that ill befits the body as it was created It is also contradicted by Christ, whose offer of freedom is a final ‘no’, as Barth said, to a purely natural religious reconstruction of human desire. The ‘ordered desire’ of Augustine’s City of God is consistent with both a recognition of our fallen state and the eschatological tension that exists between this state and our final destination with God. It is fitting to end with Augustine, because as he was the proponent of the Doctrine of Original Sin, he had a consistent, realistic view of the wretched tendency in human wilfulness to disturb the ordering of desire. A theological interpretation of scripture must also be a faithful, realistic interpretation of the human condition, both in all its natural goodness and its tendency to evil.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

June 25 - St. Thomas University: Catholic Engagement in Philosophy of Science


After travelling around a massive thunderstorm, I'm in Minneapolis for a Saint Thomas University conference, the Catholics Engagement in Philosophy of Science conference that is following on the heels of the History and Philosophy of Science Association meeting here last week. Here is the CEPOS conference website.

Below is my paper abstract.And here is the draft of the paper itself on academia.

Lonergan, Science and God: Phenomenology in Nature and Historical Faith

Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (d. 1984) advocated a critical realism, in which scientific and theological knowledge are products of self-critical phenomenological analysis. Allying his thought with Thomas Aquinas in elaborating a cognitional theory to serve epistemology and metaphysics, Lonergan challenged reigning idealist and empiricist philosophies. He expressed an understanding of the human knower as ordered to both the known world and to divine providence. This paper will sketch a few key ways in which Lonergan constructs a methodical link between phenomenology and both contemporary philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other hand. Like several other twentieth century Catholic thinkers, Lonergan rejected the idea of a choice between the thought of Thomas Aquinas and modern thought as regards science and religion. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Viewing & Reading - May 31

With apologies for the lack of posts, despite my earlier pledge to blogging regularity, here are a couple of things that might properly fall under the label of miscellany.

1. Nicholas Kristoff seems to have experienced an epiphany, and I wonder whether it is due in part to having conversations with his fellow New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat. Be that as it may, his Saturday column sort of doubles down on an earlier column which exposed the ideological monolith of contemporary American universities. (The earlier column is linked from the latest one.) I say "sort of" doubles down, because while Kristoff's point is absolutely correct, he lacks the explanatory persuasiveness that the column could have enjoined -- namely as to why and how it is that "liberals" of a particular variety are so dominant throughout the contemproary humanities and social science disciplines. I still cringe at the usage of the word "liberal" in these contexts, because it is a peculiar Americanism that has infected the braoder English language perception of political theory. The liberals Kristoff refers to are not liberals so much as leftists with a quite specific view as to the form of the collective they wish to shape. Classical liberals have had the word wrested from their grasp and are now referred to, often inaccurately, as "conservatives", even though many of them are not conservative. But kudos go out to Kristoff. He has touched a nerve, and as a liberal (in his own understanding of the word) he has credibility in making the diagnosis he's made in the way that Douthat could not succeed in doing.

2. Here is a link to an Anthony Bourdain / Parts Unknown programme that was first broadcast last year I believe. It was re-broadcast yesterday evening and it contains compelling, anecdotal evidence about the current drug use epidemic in the United States that is far more serious than media outlets are able to convey, in their obession with (for instance) Donald Trump's tweets. One of the most interesting aspects of my research into human nature over the past year or so is the encounter with the nature and scope of addiction as well as the philosophical questions that stem from addiction research. Some of the anecdotal evidence that pertains to a proper consideration of substance abuse are the following: its correlation with rates of loneliness, despair and social breakdown, its relationship to the notion of habit (bad addictive habits and the good habits that are necessary to adopt in order to re-wire the regions of the brain) and probable genetic predispositions to addictive behaviour. The brain's reward centers (the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, amygdala and the prefrontal cortex) need re-wiring through supportive and intricately threaded social networks of small groups and voluntary agencies to counteract the corrosive and dangerous personal impact of addiction. It is staggering to me that media coverage of social issues that seem to be banal or even frivolous receive vastly disproportionate amounts of attention in relation to the substance abuse epidemic currently ravaging many parts of North America. Bourdain places himself vulnerably at the centre of this important narrative (by talking about his own prior addiction to heroin) and thumbs up to CNN for allowing him to do so. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Evolution, Theological Anthropology and ... Political Theory?

In connection with an upcoming paper that I will hope to present at the 2016 ESSSAT conference, the following is a good portion of the outline for it. I'm still currently trying to write it up, but there is a lot to say in a short space. The perennial problem. In the paper, I want to make a connection to the political theorist Edmund Burke (1730-97), the classical liberal thinker known (paradoxically) as a father of Toryism. This is the part that is still a bit sketchy in my thinking but Burke's interpretation of society as a natural organic reality, it would seem logical to conceive of his political theory as a sort of natural extension of theological anthropology in a dialogue with nature. He differs from the 'pessimism' of Thomas Hobbes and the somewhat more abstract thought of John Locke. Both of these philosophers preceded Burke by many decades.

Interestingly, I have come across a portion of his 1782 speech on the nature of the representation of the Commons in parliament where he speaks about the importance of time and the rightness of constitutional government. Burke conceives of constitutional government as a kind of prescription which suggests to him that "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right." (Selected Writings, 331) The context for these remarks is the Magna carta and the resulting English constitutionalism. The significance of these comments has to do with Burke's particularly biological way of framing the rightness in a polity that constitutions prescribe - once long periods of time have passed. The biological note is observed in his use of the term 'species'.

In any case, here is that outline: 



Against overly optimistic and negative anthropologies, this paper takes up a theme that is present in three distinct areas of literature: i) Paul’s Letter to Romans, ii) recent literature dealing with the character of addiction and iii) a political theory of human nature. I want to argue for a component of human uniqueness that is tied to what Kierkegaard and others regard as ‘anxiety’. This paper argues that human uniqueness is comprised in part upon an ability to engage in a complex yet necessary assessment of our own human desire in order to arrange human societies in a way that political order reflects human nature as it is found. 

Chapters 5 – 7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides a template for this portrait of human nature by alluding to the following: sin’s entry into the world (5:12), God’s love experienced in our hearts (5:5), the role of law in multiplying the incidence and revealing sin (5:19, 7:7), the experience of enslavement to sin (6:6), the correlation of enslavement with embodiment (6:12), the weakness of flesh (6:19) and the internal struggle between good and evil (7:19ff).

This Pauline template can be shown to have traction within an evolutionary framework in light of current research on the nature of addiction. Addictive personality profiles suggest the presence of a condition analogous to disease. Positive recoveries from such conditions are positively effected through social groups that instill a positive virtue ethics perspective in order to resist addictive behaviours (eg: Alcoholics Anonymous). The classic moral framework of habits, continence and temperance is the most relevant means to understand and overcome these forms of moral weakness. 
 
Historically, the science-theology dialogue has not incorporated reflections on any political theory that is implied by a human nature informed by various disciplines. But, the moral struggle claimed by Paul’s reflection on sin and anxiety as well as the experience with substance abuse demonstrates the need for a political theory that is sensitive to the limits of freedom, socialization of human nature and yet the impossibility of human perfectibility.
 

Edmund Burke (1729-97) is an Enlightenment liberal whose embrace of religion and the need for individual rule over the passions is a timely resource. He offers a political theory that recognizes the uniqueness of moral struggle, the danger of utopianism and the created yet frail character of human nature that can be offset by stable social conventions. The uniqueness of human nature lies not in any particular capacity but in the dialectical process in which prudence, virtue and social order can mitigate natural inherited weaknesses.