an experiment in blogging as intellectual discipline and spiritual practice

Month: August, 2012

Augustine on sex

Augustine has an extraordinarily poor reputation when it comes to his understanding of sexuality; being quickly labeled by modern scholarship as repressed and repressive.  more ambitious freudians then go on and attempt to diagnose the source of his frustrations, conjuring out of the mist of his personal history all kinds of scandalous speculation.

it is true that Augustine did not espouse the permissive ethic of our day, and if one considers the permissive ethic of our day to be normative, than without question he is at fault.  but if we are willing to consider that we are perhaps the ones with the strange attitudes about sex, we may have a thing or two to learn from Augustine still.

for those who are eager to easily write off Augustine’s views out of hand, thinking him to consider sexuality evil and innately sinful, this particular quotation (from On Genesis, IX 8.13) will give some helpful perspective.

We might ask what help the woman would have been made to provide the man with, if they had not been allowed to mate in Paradise.  People who hold this opinion may perhaps assume that all sexual intercourse is sinful.  It is indeed difficult for people who shun one set of vices for the wrong reasons not to fall into the contrary set.  Thus someone horrified by miserliness becomes a spendthrift, horrified by extravagance becomes a miser; you reprove him for indolence, he becomes restless; for restlessness he becomes indolent; on being reproved for daredevilry he begins to hate it, and takes refuge in timidity, or in his effort not to be This happens when people assess wrongdoing by opinion, not by reason.  In the same sort of way, when [people] are ignorant of what it is in adultery and fornication that is condemned by divine law, they execrate conjugal intercourse even for the sake of procreation.

indeed, it seems Augustine himself would counter the repressive misreading of Augustine too often held up as his teaching.

Augustinian perplexions

i am a bit perplexed by James Wetzel’s Augustine: a guide for the perplexed; and more perplexed, i think, than i am perplexed by Augustine himself.

granted, i’ve never been much of a fan of Augustine.  i’ve seen (or rather — i’ve felt) Augustine abused in particular ways, after the exaggerations of the radical Augustinianism of the Reformation, and those particular areas are still a bit tender to me.  i don’t want to get sucked into a dead end worldview that seems to breed effete intellectual assholes.  and frankly, i am not interested in the longstanding debates about Augustine’s vision of the will, or of original sin, or grace; as much as those subjects interest me in themselves as dimensions of anthropology.  when the whole context of man falls away, they become rather limpid, just as by saying a word too many times, it seems to loose its meaning.

Augustine was not a peddler of abstract philosophical theories; not a tortured soul who filled the hours by writing books against various schools of thought he found wanting or disappointing; not a brilliant mind who synthesized out of his own particular genius in his own particular cultural-intellectual context a new school of Christian thought because he thought it a nice thing to do one afternoon at the university of Hippo.  such a reading of Augustine is about as interesting to me as chewing a mouthful of rocks.

Augustine was first and foremost a Father of the Church.  and i do not mean this primarily in the antiquarian sense, that his writings bear a certain weight of authority (although they do).  i mean this in the practical sense.  he was a spiritual Father: a pastor, whose primary concern was the shepherding of the people of God, and their protection against the pernicious heresies that sought to divide and devour that little flock.  he was a bishop — a primary responsible for the cure of souls, and the edification of the body of Christ.  his genius is not in his opinions on various matters philosophical (although without a doubt he make some contributions in this field along the way) but in the way in which he executed his charge, the way in which he read scripture, the way in which he loved God and instructed his people in the love of God.

and until we learn to read him this way, i imagine we will continue to be perplexed.

hebrew hermeneutics

when i was a child, i reasoned like a child: i also studied hebrew because i thought it would give me some kind of mystical insight into the meaning of the Christian faith.  (of course, i was also attending a messianic synagogue at the time, so that was the main impetus — but i also fully expected these other benefits.)

when i became an adult, i realized that my time would have been much better spent studying the Fathers of the Church.  the hermenutical mentality that the Fathers bring to the hebrew scriptures make them come alive; reveal extraordinary depths and insights; make the OT dance with the light of Christ.  it was this kind of magic that evangelical influences taught me to expect from a knowledge of hebrew, but hebrew does not open those doors.  rather, it is when we begin to read the scriptures with the mind of the Fathers, with the mind of the Church, then we see something extraordinary and beautiful and compelling.

look, if you’re going to follow the hebrew path of biblical scholarship, you’re going to end up falling into the gravity of two non-Christian traditions: historicism or hebraicism.  historicism seeks to interpret the hebrew scriptures “as they really happened” — which means, implicitly, apart from the nonsense of Christian dogma, one way or another.  hebraicism seeks a kind of mystical insight through assumptions about the absolute verbal inspiration of the hebrew texts.

the Christian mind is wholly other than either of these: with Christ as the beginning and end of interpretation.

as i often say, Christian scholars should be required to study Syriac before they study hebrew.  through such a channel, the Christian scholar can begin by recapturing the Christian semetic mind, then reintegrate that with the mess of OT scholarship that is really about some marginally interesting ulterior agenda,  scarcely affecting the faith and life of the Church.

this is all a needlessly lengthy prologue to my thoughts on reading Augustine’s On Genesis, which i actually haven’t gotten around to saying anything about.  but it is — on good authority — on of the best texts to read to get inside Augustine’s hermenutical mind.  and what a mind it is.

mother church

well, i’m almost as pleased with Carl Braaten’s Mother Church as i was disappointed by Avis’ Anglican Understanding of the Church.  i find the whole orientation of Braaten’s approach generally more satisfying than Avis’, and see it as generally immune to the intuitive critiques i leveled against Avis’ work.

there are a number of excellent passages and quality insights in Braaten’s presentation that i have flagged for further reflection, and will have to address piecemeal.  over all, articulating an evangelical – catholic vision, Braaten treats ecclesiology as intimately related to the proclamation of the Gospel, giving the whole a formidable zeal and fervor.

still, Braaten’s work is not without its weaknesses.  for one, it is a conversation that lives very much on the Roman Catholic / Lutheran axis, and has some oversights and blind-spots consequent to that heritage.  some of the imagery he uses does not transfer, and some of the appeals he makes do not apply in exactly the same way on the Anglo-Eastern axis i tend to inhabit.

it does raise an interesting point about the difference between Anglican and Lutheran ecclesiological instincts, however.  the classical Lutheran link between Gospel and ecclesiology causes Lutheran ecclesiology to default to confessionalism.  Anglicanism, meanwhile, operating out of its erastian instincts, defaults to its structures.  the former, if not outrightly better in all circumstances, is at least more dynamic and more interesting.


i tend to style myself a monarchist in political conversations, partly to play devil’s advocate, but mostly because i do find within the medieval cosmopolitical taxis a certain palate of vital truths worth recovering, both in the Church and in secular statecraft.  this whole business of excommunicating our ancestors in the name of some mythical standard progress is somewhat upsetting to me.

needless to say, my arguments find little traction; largely because of the authoritarian connotations we’ve imbued the notion of monarchy with through our historical myths, cultural images, national identity, etc.  but that authroitariphoia is understandable, if somewhat exaggerated   

perhaps the way forward, then, is to revivify the salient points of monarchical ideology, apart from these authoritarian aspects of monarchism, under the neologism of henarchy.  

henarchy advocates the rule of oneness, of unity — and hence, the unitary.  this is necessarily embodied in particular leaders, who as symbols are the focus of this unity.  but this oneness can be invented and maintained without the use of coercive force, through the use of descriptive mythioistic system, rather than prescriptive.  this is in many ways what is already in place in the American ethos — but the system i am advocating would be more transparent about its hierarchy and more intentional about substantiating unity in symbols and personal foci.

the question of law becomes thorny, of course, but we have our complicated questions of law to deal with even in a “free, democratic” society.  Aquinas worked this out fairly well; and i’m sure the preceding and following generations of scholastic jurisprudence would serve as a fairly workable model.  i mean, after all, our system was invented by a handful of elite being inspired by the Greeks … why not invent a new system off of an inspiration from the medievals?

adapting collects

one of the core liturgical principles in the Anglican tradition has been the economy of language.  there has been an attempt in the liturgical language, and indeed, in the larger liturgical ethos, to strip things down to their bear bones, to distill every liturgical action to its most basic possible expression.

this is obviously a problem in any kind of liturgical interface between eastern and western traditions.  thus far, in adapting eastern liturgical material for western use, i have tended to proceed by drastically abridging the prayers; reducing numbers of repetitions, removing excess clauses — i have tried to maintain the poetry and the theological ethos, but condense the form.

and yet, the same kind of adaptation process could happen in reverse: expanding and elaborating the sparse Anglican prayers to be more flowery, more image driven, more concerned with broader poetic form.  this would be another kind of adaptation.

i think we have moved past the age of enlightenment reductionism that bawlks at repetition and linguistic excess on principle.  at least, i can testify to that shift in myself, noting that that kind of repetition is part of what makes the eastern liturgies so poignant.

let’s try it out, shall we?  here is this week’s collect:

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

a terse 58 words, and almost a third of them are devoted to the doxology, leaving 37 to express the core idea of the prayer, which is a plea for a spirit of thought and action that enables us to live in accordance with God’s will insomuch as we have already been created in accordance with his desires.

for an expanded version, we might pray something like:

O Lord our God, who by thy power didst forge the immovable heavens, by thy goodness didst found and establish the earth, and by thine ineffible condescension didst save us as a peculiar people for thine own possession: pour out upon us as thy people, we beseech thee, a second share share of thy Spirit; grant us, though we already owe thee all things, that extra measure of thy grace, that we may be directed by thee who directest all things, and that by thy direction we may think and do all things that are right, all things that are good, all things that are in accordance with thy will, O Master, and enable us always to give glory to thee, O God, who art always and everywhere worthy of praise, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.

communicating the same core idea and clocking in at a more leisurely 147 words.

somewhat interesting as a devotional exercise … not sure that it would be edifying for circumstances of public worship.  certainly the easiest thing to do for adaptation is to simply use propers as they are in a way that accords with their original purpose.  adaptation takes a lot of work.

the joyous peril of orthodoxy

Fr. John Behr, who i have the tremendous privilege of calling one of my teachers as well as one of my heroes, gave the excellent address below at Augustine College.  he seems to have done an excellent job summarizing in one hour what took me two months and thousands of pages of reading to wrest out of his bounteous treasury of insight.

always the provocateur, Fr. Behr titles this talk “The Shocking Truth about Christian Orthodoxy.”  and the shocking truth is this : it was not the early Catholic Church that was intolerant, authoritarian and patriarchal — it was the heresies that displayed these qualities.  contemporary scholarship of the early church delights in telling the opposite story; it seeks to paint early Christian history as the Church’s ruthless oppression of all who differed from their orthodoxy.  but in fact, as Behr delightfully discloses, early Catholicism was Catholic precisely because of its abundant tolerance.  the heretics left the Church because they couldn’t handle being a part of a body that didn’t profess precisely the theology that they were proffering, and founded new organizations organized around their ideas.

moreover, so far as the supposed conflict between faith and reason is concerned, “The rule of faith does not limit reason to make room for faith,” he says, quoting Eric Osborn, “but uses faith to make room for reason.  Without faith, reason is lost in an infinite regress.”

in spite of what it may seem to an outsider, it is an especially joyous thing to be an orthodox Christian these days.  you get all the guilty, conspiratorial pleasure of being a heretic in the eyes of the dominant powers of this world, but all the absurd confidence of being in communion with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful — or perhaps more to the point, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

+ Hilarion on the human person

Met. Hilarion’s chapter on the human person in The Mystery of Faith is the best short introduction to Orthodox theological anthropology i have run across.  it is clear, well-organized, and chock-full of patristic quotations.

most western Christians would find his treatment of the fall and original sin to familiar and quite acceptable.    there’s a rumor floating around that the Orthodox don’t have a doctrine of original sin, per se, but that is just that — a rumor.  it doesn’t hold quite the same kind of key place in Orthodox theology that it does in western conversation, but that is helpful.

more helpful are the eastern insights Hilarion brings to the question of image and likeness and soul and body.  the image/likeness distinction is of course key to eastern theological anthropology; generally interpreted that the image is an indelible quality of humanity, where the likeness is an assimilation to God through virtue.

with respect to soul and body, Hilarion rightly points out that the Fathers are unjustly accused of dualism.  he then goes on to make a very helpful observation about the ascetical ethos of the early church:

In Christian ascetic literature, whenever questions of enmity between flesh and spirit arise — beginning with St Paul: ‘For the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh’ (Gal 5:17) — the concern fallen flesh as the totality of passions and vices, not the body as such.  The expression ‘mortification of the flesh’ found in monastic sources, refers to putting to death the sinful desires and ‘lusts of the flesh,’ not a contempt for the body itself.  The Christian ideal is not to debase the flesh, but to purify it and transfigure it, to liberate it from the consequences of the Fall; to return it to its primordial purity and make it worthy of assimilation to God.


i wonder if there has been an effective synthesis of Anglican theological anthropologies.  i somehow expect not.  if we had that kind of clarity, i doubt we’d be in the kind of mess we’re in now.

features of devotio moderna

getting further into Van Engen’s research on the devotio moderna, as he compiled it for the CWS edition of some basic writings of the movement.

first, he highlights four sociological features of the movement.

  1. the core aim of the devotio moderna was to enable a simple, community life supported by manual labor (men made books, women made clothing) and oriented around devotion.
  2. at the same time, however, members refused to found a religious order or take vows; instead, they gathered and persist in religious life voluntarily.  they were able to win the support of many local townships, but tended to be regarded with skepticism by the ecclesiastical establishment
  3. nevertheless, the brothers and sisters of the common life were obedient to ecclesiastical authorities and committed to orthodox teaching.  the fact that they had no unique doctrine to promulgate aided the acceptance of the movement.  nevertheless, their conservative alignment on the structural-poltical problems of the Church (viz., they supported the Roman pope, against other claimants) periodically caused political trouble with the locals which caused communities to relocate more frequently, aiding spread of the movement.
  4. the ultimate program for interior discipline was a voluntary submission to the life of the community in humility and love in pursuit of virtues.  this was an essentially moralistic environment

consequent to these values, the brothers and sisters of the common life found themselves on the margins of a decadently religious society, where the institution of the church still stood at the center of public life, but few people took it very seriously.  still, they did not judge the rest of society, but rather focused on their own conversion and moral and spiritual progress.

with respect to the spiritual features of the movement, again four

1. emphasis on Christ, although this is common in late medieval piety.

Van Engen notes that their piety is largely oriented towards imitation of Christ: but neither imitation in a strict sense, as in works of mercy, nor on “mystic union” as in the teachings of many late medieval authors, but rather on an individual and affective identification with particular moments in Christ’s life, chiefly his passion, with a fourfold purpose:

  • to relive with Christ his virtuous life and saving passion
  • to have him ever present before one’s eyes
  • to manifest his presence to others
  • to orchestrate all of one’s mental and emotional faculties around devotion to him (25)

2. emphasis on Scripture –a highly literate spirituality very much dependent on the rising middle class

3. emphasis on moral sanctity – again, moralistic emphasis on cultivating virtue. anti-speculative: reading and exercises aimed toward believing and acting on the truths of the faith, rather than abstract, speculative questions.  emphasis on “utility” (in this case, increase of personal holiness) congruent with rising bourgious attitudes

4. developing interiority, rather than engaging with the problems of society

the strands of piety that would be picked up by both roman and protestant devotion in the reformation/enlightenment. through the present day are, i think, quite evident.  clearly, this movement represents a crucial transition between late medieval / early modern religion, and is fascinating case study in religious change during a time of transition.

prayer and presence

they’ve had to call on the reserve of the reserve to run services in the chapel of St. Silvinus this week; with the “A” team off for the summer, and the “B” team out for the week, it’s been us “C” team benchwarmers up to the liturgical plate.  which has meant, for me, spending a lot of extra time this week out in chapel — and by “a lot” i also mean “as little as possible,” but one can only be so efficient in doing all the little tasks that need to be done.

yet i’ve observed some things accidentally in this time as well.  profoundly, just a slight change in my attitudes, my preparations before prayer can yield huge dividends in terms of my presence in prayer and the perceived effectiveness of prayer.

this is immensely humbling.  as a person who, with a modest liturgical formation, suddenly feels qualified to issue citations for liturgical faux pas to every clergyman i come across.  if i myself am so variable in my devotion, why should i expect absolute consistency from anyone else?  far better for me to redouble my own commitment to prayer, and guide myself into a more pious and appropriate practice, than worry about umpteen external circumstances that are far beyond my control.