Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Body is Not a Problem

I started reading Louis Marie Chauvet's Sacraments and will hopefully include interesting insights along the way. It's trying to incorporate anthropological and sociological data in order to think through the Biblcial testimony concerning God's interactions with Man. This is a case of fides quarens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).

Anyway, Chauvet explores a certain view of language as an instrument. What this means is that man experiences reality directly, with both man's impressing upon reality and reality's impressing upon man. Language, in this view, is a tool for man to share this reality with others. This view presupposes that man pre-exists language (which is problematic), but I will focus on one particular issue.

Chauvet quotes Augustine and Thomas (quoting Augustine) who find language as a problem. For Augustine, language is a product of the fall, a kind of crutch. In Paradise, Man will not speak for his intellectation will be pure and unmediated between himself, the saints, angels, and God. In some ways, differentiation seems hard to imagine. But the purity of thought uncontaminated with the created will be overcome.

This view, thus, implies mediation is, itself, a problematic reality. Mediation is not a created good, nor a reality to be transfigured. Rather, it will burn up in the Eschaton. This view implies that temporality is itself a flaw, inheriting a Platonic suspicion of the fleeting and passing. This is not to say that Man's blessedness does not find itself in communion with the Eternal and Infinite Creator Lord. But, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and our eternal dwelling is in being the Body of Christ. Our experience of the Father is always mediated through the Son, in the Spirit. This is not a symptom of This Age, but a constitutive element of our glorious future.

The Human body represents a nexus of mediated experience, between the external reality and the internal life. It makes sense that certain Platonized elements in the Church would revolt from the very bodiliness of our salvation. Origen was perhaps the most explicit to try and reconcile the clear biblical data of the resurrection with the Platonic sensibilities that would find mediatedship as a problem that needed to be overcome.

I think St. Maximus' theology helps us overcome this problem. His monastic disciplines were fundamentally different than some other Origenistic monks. His vision was not the erasure of the body, beating it into a kind of stupor in which it would cease to meddle with the life of the nous (the intellectual, and thus most true, part of the soul). Instead, the body became the site in which worship was given and blessing received. It needed discipline so that it would be a purer site of mediation of God's grace to the person. This has nothing to do with earning salvation, but as a process of "working out salvation with fear and trembling".

The body, like language, is transformed by the gospel. Our words need to be reformulated and altered in order to bear the weight of God's revelation. Scripture provides this, a canon (rule-stick), for both language and for the practices of the body. It helps guide us in how to speak about our world and experiences therein. It also helps us transform the body. It teaches us of prayer and fasting. It teaches us to stay away from fornication, while teaching us to embrace our brothers. It teaches us to eat the Body and Blood of Christ in the elements of Bread and Wine. It teaches us that we must be washed in the water of Baptism.

St. Paul warns St. Timothy of the practices of these Origenistic monks. They become obsessed with the destruction of the body that they deny the goodness of God's creation and, in the end, tend towards the demons. To put it in other terms, St. Paul is attacking those who would remove the mediated presence of God through His good gifts and His Incarnate Presence through "silly myths". Not only does this call God's will for Creation into question, it asks us to, essentially, throw away the Scripture, stripping God's word bare in order to scratch some gnosis (secret, salvific, directly experienced knowledge).

But of course, what we do with the body matters, in a way that infinitely transcends the Platonists. We must avoid gluttony and the love of things, not because they are evil or merely because they are fading, but so we might properly worship the Lord. Fasting teaches us to rely upon the Word of God, for bread alone is not enough. Prayer not only sends our petitions and thanksgivings up to the Lord, but also sets us in proper relation as in communion with the Father of All Light. It's in the body that we experience the Lord, whether in our earthen vessels now, or the incorruptible bodies after the resurrection. It is in the body that we will worship the Lord, seek the manifold glories and beauties of His Kingdom, and rejoice forevermore. Amen

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Update (1/15/19): This post has been sitting here for awhile, but having had some recent interactions on a similar set of topics, I thought I'd revive it. I originally wrote this post with the subtitle "The Heresy of Direct Experience". I was both right and wrong. My major concern, in appreciating what little I read of Chauvet, was that mediation was not, fundamentally, a problem, especially through created media. God could be present, as an example, truly in the Supper without Platonic qualifiers about being so many rungs down the ladder-of-being.

And in that much I was correct. Origen was wrong and Evagrian spirituality was, without correction, self-destructive. However, I realized, not too long after I wrote this post, that there was still a problem. Could we ever truly have face-to-face communion with God? Could a man ever have a direct revelation of God? I struggled because this point not only inserts a lot of difficulty when engaging in a reading of Scripture, it also gets us right back to the ladder-of-being or in an infinite separation. As Augustine and Thomas (who I cited above), in their own ways, recognized that mediation only ever really happened through created means. Augustine, in De Trinitate, believed that the appearance of God in the OT was the whole Godhead (not the Son as Irenaeus had said), and that it was through a created medium (a vision was a created bundle of experiences, with words, pictures, etc.). Thomas saw communion with God through a created grace dropped down onto the heart which could be activated and salvific through its cultivation into habitus. But, and what gets spooky here, is how Thomas talks of the beatific vision, which becomes a kind of oblivion, an absorption back into Godhead, a kind of the Platonic reditus.

And, at the same time, I had read some Gregory Palamas which had attacked these development, as they were articulated through the clever and learned monk Barlaam. So I deleted the subtitle, but I do think this point above needs to not stop at saying that the body, or any created thing, is not a problem. It's not, and God can, and does, use created media to act and meet. But if we accept the Palamite distinction between essence and energies (something I'm more convinced of the more I use it), I can take the Biblical account on a face value without qualification. We can, and will, have a direct experience of God, not in such a way to know as God, but in the way that we see how the Father manifests Himself, through the work of the Son in the Spirit. When Palamas defended the Hesychast claim of having a direct vision of God through the light, he was saying that the Christian was given an experience of God through His work of Light, a work that remains eternally present and distinct (without opposition) among other works like Justice, Goodness, Intelligence, Providence, Being, Life, etc. Created works analogously related to uncreated works, but the uncreated does not need the created to bear it about. When Jesus exuded power, it was not merely the results of a miracle that got men to fall on their face, but that they saw the work of God performed. This is precisely what Palamas was getting at in talking about energies.

So the point is that while mediation through created works is possible, it's not the only way God makes Himself present.  It's here why Palamas' use of Hellenistic grammar of philosophy is so good, because it ultimately takes the lies of demons and turns it into an antidote for the mad ravings of the Greeks. As an apology and answer to the foundations of Hellenism, Palamas allows the Scripture to speak more clearly. Philosophy is not faith's handmaiden, as Thomas would have it, tarrying on Lady Theology lest her dress fall in the mud. What nonsense.

Friday, January 11, 2019

God is a Rock: A Brief Reflection on Biblical Diction and Metaphysics

I was recently listening to a discussion that involved the defense of what was termed "classical theism" (which usually means the mash-up philosophical theology of the Latin West, usually linked quite substantially to Thomism). The point the speaker made was for the need of analogical ontology/reasoning: the Bible says God is a rock, but clearly that can't be true.

The problem here is what, exactly, do we mean by "rock"? Cut to the humorous, and endless, mockery of Aristotelian metaphysics: "what makes opium induce sleep? The virtus dormativa of course!" But more seriously, consider Descartes' detonation of Aristotelian metaphysics. He asks us what wax is. Well unless begin to balloon into Aristotelian categories and dialectics, we'd probably give empirical descriptions (tactile description, smell, taste, look). But then what happens if we stick the wax in fire? All of these descriptions change. So is it still wax? We don't have to follow Descartes any further to understand that he's put his finger on the problem. We don't have to adhere to some insane Platonic dimension of forms and ontological participation. Instead, we can take the very Human (and almost chauvinistic) approach and describe wax as it is for us. That's what wax *is*.

Thus, when the Biblical author describes God being rock, we need to take a step back from our quasi-Aristotelian desire to find some vantage sub species aeterna and ask what we even mean when we ask what a rock *is*. And our common-sense serves us, generally, well in this regard. Even a child could understand that when I say rock, I'm not necessarily talking about a substance, but refer to something more specific. She wouldn't get confused if I started to shift and talk about pebbles, mountains, stones, shale, etc. Why? Because those things *are* different, even if we might say, from a totally different perspective, say they're all granite (and that's not quite right when approached at a different level).

Well, we might wonder, why does God speak so imprecisely? That's the wrong question because our brains have been so addled by the desire for scientific categories (that we don't generally use!) that we can't appreciate what's being said, which from another mouth would make total sense. We shouldn't chide the biblical authors for not saying "God is ***LIKE*** a rock". No, because they weren't wrong. God is a rock. But what do I mean? Well, what did a Hebrew mean by rock? He meant strength, toughness, power. A rock is those things. However, a rock could be, theoretically, moved, refashioned, and stationed as a pillar, or a palace, etc. Is it still a rock? No, because it's not functionally that thing anymore. It's something else now that is determined by what it does out in "nature", by which the Bible never made any distinction between the world of fauna/flora and Human societies.

So when the Hebrews said "God is our rock" they meant that God was, ultimately, strength and durability. But, they would say, "Our Rock is not like others", which is to signal, as the Bible constantly does, that their rock is not simply a rock, but ROCK, a rock unlike other rocks, beyond other rocks, above qualitatively all rocks. We forget because of centuries of linguistic baggage, but that's precisely how the term "god" is used in the Bible. And we shouldn't be too much at fault, because the euphemistic redirection of the Tetragrammaton as God or Lord is quite common in all of Scripture, particularly for the Apostles. For St. Paul's divine identity, the Father is God and Jesus Christ* the Son and the Word is the Lord. A god (el) invoked ideas of rulership and judgement, and thus ANE peoples referred to divine beings as gods, as well as very mortal, but still usually somehow connected to the divine, as gods.

If we unplug from philosophical-theology grammar, and take the Bible a little more for granted, then we might not reach for our qualifiers when we hear that God is a rock. We might call this language metaphoric or poetic, and that's true, but it's because all language is metaphoric and poetic. Hence the desire, every now and then, by some mad scientist, to purge Human languages, or build a new one, or talk in math, so as to speak truly. That project collapsed when Wittgenstein showed how stupid it generally is. But we don't need to revert into the sollipsistic madness of the post-moderns to take their point: language is symbolic and semiotic. It's not empty reference because, and this is where philosophy must prostrate in the court of the Gentiles, there is a world pulsating with the divine creative energies. Berkeley is the Christian response to Descartes and Locke, following through with their rejection of Aristotle, but seeing that the only way out of the puzzle is to see the Logos through His works. Thus language can be referential and deflective (semiotic), but it can also pulsate with life and be the place where we meet and commune with reality.

Thus, the Classical Theist quest is itself a bit of bad faith and self delusion. Sure, the grammar from philosophy can, and has been, redeployed to speak the truth as revealed by Christ. But it's redundant if we understand the Biblical grammar and think along its line. If we do, we can smile and state clearly, "Christ is the rock, He's my rock, and He's unlike other rocks", as a confession of faith. Maybe that's why Peter got his name.

*Lest it be thought to be strictly binitarian, the fact that Christ means "Anointed One", and that anointing is clearly connected to the descent of the Holy Spirit, to call Jesus Christ the Lord is to inextricably link together the mission of the Word/Son and the Spirit. Paul's formulaic greeting has a trinitarian ring, even if doesn't fit later dogmatic approaches that stress the Holy Spirit, usually in relation to outside contextual fears and dangers.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Nativity: A Reflection on the Calendar

I have a strange relationship to this time of year. I simultaneous deplore it and yet find some glimmers among the wreckage. I'm talking about Christmas, its meaning, its symbol, and its practices. When I first became a Christian, I rapidly became hypersensitive to the issue. Christmas has no biblical basis or justification, and I was allergic to the consumeristic practices. But the latter point is not really the issue. The question is more about whether Christmas ought to be celebrated, than whether how it is celebrated.

To put my thought in a nutshell: I see no problem with Christmas as a remembrance of the Nativity, a calendrical means to discuss this section of Christ's life and its connection to the fulfillment of God's dealing with His People, with Abraham, with Israel.

Of course that's not what it means for most people. Instead Christmas is the most important holiday of the year, a sacred day when all business shuts down and cities/towns go quiet. People do not so much believe in the temporal metaphysics of the Middle Ages, but its still around in the way people talk and think. As Charles Taylor explained in his Secular Age, Medieval people saw holy-days as a kind of temporal gateway, a repeating type that gives access to the prototype. Thus, in the average Medieval mind, Christmas 2018 is closer to the birth of Christ than December 24th of the same year. It's the same metaphysics that informs how Orthodox talk about icons: the painted image gives you a gateway to the one it displays. Space and time are crunched in a moment. Thus many sappy and saccharine songs, as well as many sermons, speak of the Baby Jesus in a present tense. If we are to speak of such a moment, that moment is historical and needs to be reckoned in its redemptive-historical moment, not something that is still present and real.

That's the holiness of the day that I think is a critical error, and it still informs the way some people think (Christian or no). But what about the question of calendars. What right do Christians have to institute these? Is it a false binding on the conscience? I don't think so, but we have to piece this point out a bit. If a certain day, marked out as Nativity (or even the Advent period) is a mechanism to engage in a particular portion of Scripture's arc, that's not the same thing as declaring a holy day, at least not in the sense that some use it. In a way, to mark out a specific time to do something is to sanctify it, to set it a part. Do Christians have the right to do this? Yes and no. The Church was authority through the power of the Spirit to enter into the Eternal Temple and before the Eternal Altar anywhere and at anytime. There was no long a needed and special space or time that God had ordained. Christians could gather anywhere and at anytime to worship, in the words of the Lord and feasting on bread and wine. Why? Because the High Priest, of the order of Melchizedek, was before the Heavenly Altar, and the Spirit He gave His people empowered them to open that juncture. Contra Calvin, the congregation is not lifted up to Heaven from Earth, but that Heaven and Earth meet in this worship. We are not trying to climb up, and God is not lifting us up or coming down, but the two intersect and we participate in the worship of angels and all of the saints. This was the metaphysical reality in the Temple and on the ordained holy-days. But for the Body of Christ, this space and time is freely open to us whenever and wherever.

But this freedom is for our unity, our love, and our strengthening. Thus these times must still be ordered. I'm a proponent of sola scriptura, but I don't really care to defend that point. Why? Because the point of the doctrine is to recognize it as the binding authoritative measure. And yet we still must understand it, translate it, and contextualize it. These methods and modes of discernment are Human practices, even if their success and power come from On High, from the hovering and blowing of the Spirit. Advocates of sola scriptura might recoil from my emphasis on tradition (literally, the process of handing down cross-spatially and cross-temporally), but I find it amusing that some advocates will put heavy amounts of weight on concepts/events that are either foreign to the Bible or have a kind of strange presence within.

For example, many will understand and interpret various parts of the NT in light of the historical event of the Jewish Rebellion and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. But where is this event in Scripture? We wouldn't know about it if we did not read historical records or engage in some contextual reading. Or some Reformed people heavily weight the idea of a probationary Covenant of Works, not only an abstracted  concept amalgamated from the text of Scripture, but peculiarly read into Genesis. A lot of this interpretation relies on understanding the context of the surrounding Ancient Near East, and a hermeneutical decision to focus on covenant (I think at the expense of other conceptual arcs in Scripture). If you're going to make this point, fine, but don't tell me you just found it off the pages of Scripture. Even our discussion of "the Fall" (a phrase not found in Scripture, and coming from Origen and his doctrine of pre-existent souls) is tilted. Adam is a very important figure in Scripture, though he's mostly hidden. Paul makes his importance clear in Romans 5, but the Roman church and its heirs has depended upon Augustine's idiosyncratic, and textually erroneous, interpretation of what this means. So instead of seeing a development or progressive component to what happens post-Eden, there's a metaphysical system built on top of Fallen Man that feeds into many Roman Catholic and Protestant notions of anthropology. If we're reading carefully none of these points are obvious. On this point, Protestants are all too comfortable with maintaining tradition rather than receiving correction and learning. Careful textual study, combined with an awareness of the tradition, can correct false readings.

A bit of a digression, but my point is that while the Scriptures possess ultimate authority, the process of discernment belongs to the Church. Not to a legalistic notion of proper authority channels that exists in Rome and among some Orthodox, but to the whole body of Christians who gather. It's from this that its argued that while Sunday as the day for Christians to worship is not explicitly in Scripture, its discernible implicitly in the way a few phrases are used, and the historical tradition as its picked up in various records. If Sunday was the generally decided upon day to worship, the record fits it. Does Scripture set this day apart? Yes and no. It's not stated, but implied. What does this mean? I'd say that it means that the Church, from the Apostles on, recognized that the day had a certain symbolic worth that possesses a didactic value. However, it is not discussed or set a part in the way that the Torah described the holy days. Instead, the NT transmutes these temple strictures into the kind of dispositions one brings to the gathering of the People of God around the Supper Jesus instituted, a new, everlastingly new, covenant meal of Passover. But when are we to celebrate this point? How are we to explicate the Scriptures, seeking Christ (even the whole Christ, Head and Body)? What order and when? Because the metaphysical reality is established according to the Spirit, there's a certain freedom that is able to be applied for various didactic purposes. Sunday is important because it speaks the victory of the Lord, not because Sunday is an open window when God will hear our prayers or deign to allow us approach. It's holy, but not holy. It's formative, if not pertaining to the Real.

But these decisions pertain to the authority of the Church. We're under the authority of the Apostles, but the authority to gather and scatter, to proclaim, even to bind, belongs to the Body of Christ, and the ordained leaders from and among the People. As the Father gave authority to His Christ, the Word made flesh, and Christ granted authority to His Apostles, these Apostles granted authority to be exercised according to what had been passed down. Congregations have the right, I believe, to set aside days to gather and worship, free in the Power of the Spirit to participate in the Eternal Temple. And this time may revolve around a focus on a portion of Scripture. It's an issue pertaining to good order, not to the salvific worship of Christ and our transfiguration into Him. It's an issue of wisdom. As had been pointed about New England Congregationalist ministers, they seemed to avoid texts that did not fit their personal interest or their theological acumen. Using a lectionary or a calendar forces congregations is a way for congregations to bind themselves to a more comprehensive engagement with Scripture, a teaching tool, and confront otherwise invisible fears and lusts, and avoid the tyranny of popularity.

Does this mean Christmas does a good job on this point? No, it's usually a mess of false pieties. Is this an ex-post facto justification? Yes, because I was born into world not of my own making, with various traditions that must be seriously engaged and grappled with. Perhaps congregations need to seriously engage whether this calendar is actually a wise and worthwhile didactic tool. Are various churches actually growing in the knowledge of the Lord, deepening in their appreciation for the Incarnation, of God's condescension among man, in the various forms of the NT, ultimately in the full appearance of the Word who becomes a man? In many cases, probably not. However this conversation ought to be had, even with the sensitivities of the weak, who have a deep need to celebrate this season, in some shape or form, in mind. We are free and we are to build up. We need fresh air as well as good order. May God equip us for the task.

P.S. It should also be added that even as we think about Scripture, we're talking about something that is a product of ecclesiastical discernment. We do not read originals, but scribal copies. We do not read in the original language, but in translations that depended upon a mix of scholarly linguistic practices and the process of traditioning. We do not read the texts on individual scrolls, but in a single bound book (the Bible). And we don't even just read the Bible, but we read it with textual divisions through chapter-verse divisions, sub-chapter headings, footnotes, and streaming commentaries running down and across the page. And in all of this, the category of Scripture is a conceptual set, the People of God still involved themselves in the process of discerning which books were, in fact, Scripture (which is totally different from saying the Church determined Scripture). All of these things are Humanly processes, and yet we have every reason to argue for the Holy Spirit's providential guidance and use.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Apocalypse of Trump: The Unveiling of the US Machine

I very much appreciate the work of John Pilger, renowned journalist and documentary producer. He was recently interviewed by RT for his thoughts on various events throughout 2018 (here). I thought the following quote on Trump, the US, and its current relation to the world was too good to pass up, so I transcribed it below. I don't exactly agree with Pilger, I think there are some rogue elements to the Trump regime that make it not merely a revelation, but actively seeking to scale back US global force, but Pilger is, basically, right on the money:

"Trump's an embarrassment...the problem with Trump...[well,] he doesn't see himself as a problem... but for the so-called resistance that sees American politics as anti Trump is that Trump is a caricature of the whole system whereas Hillary Clinton embodied the system. Trump is a caricature...and worse the very presence of Trump strips the mask of all those things that bill Blum [recently deceased investigative historian] wrote about those years, it strips away the the the mask of this great rapacious rogue state, as bill Blum called it, that's very embarrassing to those who've been giving us nonsense such as: the Democratic Party, the Clintons, the Bushs, the Obamas... As Obama said America is the only exceptional nation. Well Trump...this is a family show I won't really say what it comes down to... Trump's very presence and what he does, his grotesqueness if you like, his tweeting his odiousness, that's the system."

I can guarantee that, while generations of the future look back on regimes of various empires with some confusion and disgust, contemporaries within those states never thought of themselves as the bad guys. They never saw themselves as the black hat oppressors that brought ruin to many peoples. Instead, they thought of their rules like the recently deceased George HW Bush: a good and decent man who served his country, but who was, according to plain testimony of evidence, a criminal, a spymaster, a butcher in a suit and with a fountain pen, who ran a global terrorist ring called Operation Condor, among many other nightmares. Later generations will see Bush in this light, but in the haze of our own hagiographers, our propagandists, and our editors, it's easy to be confused. It's easy to buy the line because it possesses a level of plausibility, a level of commonsense, a level of appeal. Trump's greatness, if we can call it that, is to show the face of the system, both in his own use of power and authority, his openness to calling things what they are, as well as in his being systematically targeted by the architects and managers of the National Security State.

Christ will one day slay the Leviathan we call the American Empire with the breath of His mouth. Another antichrist will die dead and defeated and become a feast for wild beasts (i.e. the nations). Sadly, this means the American people, many of whom have ignorantly profited from this system, many of whom are relatively innocent to these operations, will suffer. Perhaps God will spare the Americans, perhaps for His Church's sake He will grant mercy, dissolving a beast without much violence and tumult. I don't know, but I hope to God that the decent will find decency while the filthy will be handed over to the mud they desperately seek. God help us, and may the kingdom come.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Confessional Foolishness: An Open Expose of Lutheran Stupidity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFr4g6WHILM

The above link is to the "cutting-edge" of American Lutheran thought, being some of more confessionally loyal, thoughtful, and clear. It starts on the topic of Law-Gospel, but quickly spirals into insanity as one Lutheran, whose far more insightful than the rest, pokes the sleeping bear: what exactly is law-gospel? He does this through talking about "gospel imperatives", which are assaulted idiotically. The usual (and traditional) law-gospel division is applied: imperatives = law; promises = gospel. Thus, "Believe" is law and so is "Take heart" and "Fear not". I guess on the flip-side, when it is written that "To dust you will return" that's sheer sweet gospel, as well as "They shall never enter My rest". The confusion goes on from the 30'' mark to about the 40'' mark.

Confessionalists are many times just as bad as theological liberals. In terms of method, they try to channel the zeitgeist of a foregone age or try to import said spirit into the contemporary situation with odd results. Like theological liberals, their methods teach you to distrust the Scriptures and the Apostolic deposit of faith through the ages. Instead, you're to rely on a dubious scholarly edifice that was built in an academic lab and suspiciously confirms everything your faction believes. It doesn't matter if it was a university from the 16th/17th century or from the 19th/20th/21st century, it's the same method. I'm not dismissing scholarship, but I am suggesting suspicion of scholarly schematics. It's one thing to read the text to better understand it, and it's another thing to submit the text to a brand new theological schema and compel people (or at least your gatekeepers) to obey.

 The irony is that many a Confessional apologist will try to tell you it's the reverse, that confessional loyalty protect churches from slipping into another zeitgeist. Yes, because they're attempts to freeze a past zeitgeist and hang onto it for dear life. Evangelicalism is not sliding into oblivion because it abandoned confessions. Rather, it's because Evangelicalism has little regard for the long arc of historical traditioning and it seeks socio-political and cultural relevance so as to rule and to reign. The end result is to *not* learn how to think along the lines of the Apostles, but to despise them.

These people are so stupid that they don't even realize that the New Testament is totally alien from their foreign theological constructs. Many of them go heresy hunting after N.T. Wright, whose primary sin is for affronting the sacred Talmud of Confessional purity. I don't agree with Wright on everything, but he's a good scholar and a very faithful exegete. But the thing that gets me is the pretty underwhelming conclusion: surprise! looks like the Reformation wasn't right about everything, and the early church for centuries wasn't off for not inventing sola fide and making it the article by which the church stands or falls! Turns out law-gospel doesn't make any sense! And Wright doesn't even deny that sola fide is a necessarily bad doctrine, just that that's not how the NT organizes ideas! He thinks Calvin was a pretty good exegete of Paul when compared to Luther. He's not an expert of Reformational theology, but he's doing all he can to please the stiff-necked clerical Pharisees in the US seminary complex.

But returning to the first point: it's all very silly. These guys think they're the vanguard, but they're just a joke. And so the Gentiles blaspheme us. God help us.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The National: An Excursus

When I first became a Christian I came to face one of the (many) demons that plagued my soul: nationalism. I had a desire to envision the United States as the key to global redemption, with my heart beating with the pantheon of greats and republican myth. In retrospect it was pretty silly. I remember having a debate with a sympathetic neo-con friend over whether the US is (or was) an empire. Even he found my attempts to explain how the Spanish-American War was not a war for empire (even though many participants said it was!) as untenable and bizarre. When I became a Christian I slowly repudiated this mythologizing of my nation and reacted pretty violently against it. All well and good.

However I think the truly insidious thing was not what I believed so much as what I could not believe. It's wrong that I believed in America as some sort of providentially, semi-divine, twinkle in the eye of God. That's idolatry. But even then I had this strange hope for America as among equal. I did not believe in global empire, or even in America as World Cop, but in some sort of regional power in a multi-polar world. This belief waned as oscillated between being neo-con, quasi-libertarian, and some kind of nationalist. The latter instinct I picked up from having listened to Michael Savage, who was probably one of the more honest and provocative figures in talk-radio. He was not a propagandist like so many of the others (which won him few friends). But, as I was saying, my problem was with what I could not believe. Per the weird conversation above, I could not believe America had ever failed her mission; I couldn't even believe America had ever elected the wrong president (I was incredulous, at the time, when Obama won; I was too young to be bothered by the Clinton years)! I was blind and dumb in an incredibly juvenile way, and it was this mode of thought that almost got me to sign away my body and soul to the Marine Corps (God spared me; I signed the papers, but never got on the bus). My inability to believe made me the worst kind of zealot and zombie: I really believed in America and that she could do no wrong.

When I became a Christian, I slowly realized that nationalism was a poison for my soul. I renounced it, and quickly took up a more international appreciation. Slowly I realized all the many, and deep-seated, sins of this country. America was no hero, and many times the villain. But I was also sliding into an even worse error. I never became a globalist because I had imbibed enough anti-Constantinian thought to make me, as a Christian, wary of participation in any regime. But it has become quite common, and popular, for Evangelical rags, like The Gospel Coalition, to embrace this kind of neo-liberal internationalist order. Of course, the problem is that the United States, as the premier global world empire, is, in many ways, the international order. And when I mean the United States, I mean a ruling class of elites, plutocrats and oligarchs, who reign through a network of power that crisscrosses government office, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence-terror complex, media, corporate structures, and the financial-services sector. Thus, it's easy to find on TGC advocates who argue for open borders as a Dominical imperative, usually avoiding more complicated questions. Why are these people here in the first place? Why did they leave their countries? Can our social infrastructure handle these people? What will they do? Where will they live? With and among whom? And whose paying for it?

Perhaps many forget, but Bush II was a "compassionate conservative", which was code for lax immigration policies and government subsidies in the world of business. What that amounted to was corporate welfare and cheap labor. Thus it's fitting that TGC has both pro-Obama articles and pro-Bush II articles: it's the same agenda, cloaked in sophisticated neo-liberal internationalism, globalism combined with American prestige. It's a way of downplaying the American nation, while supporting its imperial masters. It's a bizarre and heady mix. The more I learn, the more I realize how toxic these people were. Thankfully, when I was waking up to the problem of nationalism, this antagonistic orientation to the US was not yet in full force. I was radically learning how to rethink without being taught from poorly scripted articles.

Why am I writing all of this? Because in my deconversion from the cult of nation, I forsook the nation, but wrongfully. It's perhaps too subtle for some, or too strange, but I think there's a way of embracing an association or support for one's nation, without giving into the cult of it. And the cult of a nation becomes a demonic mechanism to rally the kind of support I was willing to give support. Blind obedience, not just ignorant, but incapable of learning the truth. If I may make an artificial distinction, to offer support for a territorially distinct and sovereign body of people, the nation, is to support the national, in difference to a deification of a sovereign body, oriented towards conquest and dominion over all others, nationalism. Of course the engine of empire emerges not so much from nationalism, which is many times a rallying flag or ex-post facto justification, but from the real driver of war: Mammon. And Mammon is not just wealth as such, but wealth as none other than pure, liquid power. The ultimate goal is to build the Tower of Babel, it is to master the Cosmos, which is the practice of magic and witchcraft, to learn the secret rules of things and assume control of the world-order. Nationalism is but a face of the Devil.

In my mind, support for the national is quite common among economic nationalist. It's pretty easy to pick up a pattern over the last 200 years to see that the Anglo-American Empire has almost always targeted regimes that threatened international financial capital for liquidation. How did these regimes do that? Easy: state repossession of privately, and foreign, owned centers of wealth and land redistribution. To put industry or agriculture back in the people's hands was to sign a death warrant, with many regimes toppled, if not exterminated, through military intervention, economic warfare, or an assassin's bullet.

Now when I talk about nations and the nation-state, I'm not trying to create a myth of just origins. Most peoples were forged from ugly conflict and past evils. There's no impetus to excuse these, but there's also no desire to become obsessed with them either. Thus, yes the United States committed many ugly crimes, ranging from murder to theft, to forge the 50 province-states that make up this country. The people were not autochthonous, but were many times colonists from across the sea. But there's no turning the clock back. No, it doesn't mean ignoring present injustices, like the seizure or destruction of lands presently owned by American Indian nations. But there's no reversing the clock. And despite a handful of liberal, university affiliated, agitators, most of these people want realistic equity now, not a fantasy rescripting of the past. They want their homes and lands, that they currently possess and have attachment to, to be left alone. They want recognition of current plight. Ideally, nations could forge through a federal collation of various population settlements, just as town form from a collation of various family settlements. But that's rarely the case. I can appreciate how, in the late 19th century, there was a fantasy among some in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a Mitteleurope, a federation of the various ethnic peoples that made up the kingdom. It didn't happen, with the closest being Yugoslavia, but, as is clear in the 90s, this federal polity was intransigent to imperial absorption and was targeted for villification and liquidation. Milosevic is the war-criminal and the gangster KLA are freedom fighters.

As an American, to support a national settlement is to basically be at war with the state. It's essentially treason in this idolatrous empire. Speaking the truth is a crime. I live in a Terror-State, an Imperial matrix of international domination and brutality for the purposes of ever-flowing liquid power. Such is this Empire of Mammon, trying to build a portal to the gods. I live in Babylon. But it also means that I don't hate America, not the nation, not the people, many of whom, are trying to etch out a living, many times in relative ignorance of the world swirling around them. I won't wave a flag not only because that's generally strange, but because to do so usually condones the vicious stranglehold the imperial establishment exercises globally. I am not ashamed of being American, but because I am not bashful to say that I am American I am ashamed. I am ashamed of this filthy haven of demons. It was not always so, or at least it was not nearly so bad, but it is and so I am ashamed.

I do not write that this support flows from a Dominical command. I won't associate Christ's rule and reign over the nations with a particular orientation. However, I believe this assessment, and how it might govern how we think and act, is consonant with our command to pursue justice for the city in which we stay in. St. Daniel is perhaps a fitting figure for our current state. Enslaved and dragged to be a part of a monstrous regime, he did not flinch, but he did not cease to be faithful. For doing so, for speaking the truth, for refusing to worship the beast, he was threatened and nearly killed if it were not for the LORD's intervention. And in so doing the king stayed his hand; the imperial machinery stopped for a generation. Perhaps there's hope for us Americans (and, in a way still, for the British) in this account.

But I don't think there's a sin to pursue justice in the city, without ever forgetting that I'm an alien. My citizenship is in the New Jerusalem: it is there that the Eternal Temple, the Eternal Cult, the Eternal Altar, the Eternal Throne, reside and to where I offer sacrifice and the praise of my lips. And it is from this vantage that I can remain, without confusing the eternal of God for the temporary regimes under sin, and maintain a national association, even as my faith belongs in the Messiah Jesus.

I know there are many American Christians who can't distinguish the difference in what I'm saying. They'll make a similar claim about having citizenship in Heaven, but proffer earthly service to the nation. But, as clear in the history of Lutheranism, what they really mean is that God's reign is bifurcated. Instead, they worship the nation, build and staff its cult, because they believe its actually the rule of God, whether they frame it providentially as Evangelical pagans do, with non-sense about forming a covenant with God, or as devilish Lutheranism does, ascribing it to the Left-Hand Government. My heart burns with hatred with this mode of thinking, because it was the bondage I came from: it can't conceive that they are, in fact, servants of satan, worshiping an idol, unable to hear the truth. For some reason they're unable to understand how wicked and imperious Assyrian can be described by the holy prophet Isaiah as a beast with a hook in its nose, being turned by the Lord's Hand. They think that must mean that Assyrian is the Kingdom of God; at least that's how they connect God's providence to America.

So here I am left in a strange bind. Because I embrace the national, association with the nation without deification or rejection, I hate, and am hated by, globalist Kellerites, Moral Majority nazis, etc. etc. etc., pretty much everyone besides those trying to tell the truth and don't hate themselves for the country they're born in. I've matured (at least I think so) from a more youthful antagonism. I can reject the mythology of the "Founding Fathers" without rejecting the genuine good that many were able to accomplish, even if it was for impure motives. I live in the dirt and grime of a World (an Age, a Cosmos, olam ha-zeh) to which I owe honor to where honor is due (and thus criticism to where criticism is due). It's trying to appreciate the good throughout American history without shying away from the evil, and live in the world as it is, without taking my eye off the Kingdom to which my life belongs.

Being an alien is a tough road.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christ Against Nicaea II (?)

This post is basically an open challenge to any Eastern Orthodox apologist, or anyone, to prove that their practice conforms not only to Scripture, but the traditions of the Church. I've looked for defenses of Orthodoxy that can explain the evidence of the first five centuries of church history, but I've found nothing. All I get is confused argumentation, theological reasoning that tends towards the a-historical, and stupid pragmatic arguments. The only justification I can find is Development of Doctrine. Ok, if you accept that method then you're basically a perennialist and a pagan and have signed up for the quasi-totalitarian clique of John Henry Newman. That's a path many legit and serious Orthodox have declared war on at all costs. Good, but I don't think there's a way out for them. For example, see Irenaeus describe the gnostic, semi-pagan, Carpocratians:

They [the Carpocratians] also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them [Note: One should consider parallels with the story of King Abgar of Edom-cal]. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They also have other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles. (Against the Heretics, 1.25.6)
By "same manner of the Gentiles" Irenaeus is referring to venerating the deity or divine figure through the image. The point is, and it's huge, pagans were not so stupid to literally think their god was made out of wood or stone. When Jews, Christians, and even pagan philosophers, insulted the practice of idols, they were going beyond some simple minded critique. It was not so much that they really thought pagans thought that their god was a piece of wood, but that men could, with their own hands, create a space for gods to reside, using their own imagination to make a god that looks like created and corporeal stuff. There's a two fold sin and error: 1) man inventing the terms of agreement with the gods; 2) gods residing in images that look like dumb and deaf created things. While YAH indwelt the Temple in Jerusalem, His space was not an image, but an empty throne surrounded by the angelic host and symbols of creation. When the God of Israel revealed His face, it was on His own terms and it was the face of a living man: Jesus the Christ. Before that we get glimpses of temporary visions, brief interactions, and heavily symbolic and figural appearance.

And that's the kicker because there's a HUGE difference between Christian art and iconography. If Orthodox apologists don't understand it, that's either because they're ignorant or deceitful. There's major conceptual difference between what a piece of art is, what it's supposed to do, and how one treats it. To point out that Christians had art in the catacombs or decorating their churches (c.f. 3rd century Dura Europos church and synagogue) is totally irrelevant to this argument. Gregory the Great, 6th century(!) bishop of Rome, defends the utility of art as visual Scripture, a retelling of scenes for the unlettered. That's *NOT* the same as claiming that the image gives you a portal from type to prototype and that you can travel through this portal with one's venerative actions. That's precisely what Gregory the Great was saying was not happening in trying to restrain the zealous bishop Serenus. Gregory says this:

For pictorial representation is made use of in churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, so that persons ignorant of letters may have something so that they may gather knowledge of the story and the people might not sin through adoration of a picture. (Gregory the Great to Serenus Epistle 9.105)

Ok, the Damascene says that we do not venerate created matter but the Creator who made all matter. That's obscurantism. Yes, I'm sure some of these congregants believed that wall-pictures had some potency to effect reality. Well, that sounds pretty par for the course in folk Orthodoxy. Whose restraining these people? But I'm really bending backwards on this one because no one can tell me what Gregory thinks these people are doing. Is it that they are really worshiping gems, paint, and mosaic tile? Gregory and Serenus think these people are even dumber than pagans? Unlikely!

To the contrary, the same arguments Damascene used were being deployed before Gregory ever wrote Serenus. Augustine was quite aware that critiques that Christians had used against pagans were being turned against them and these new practices. He even offers the counter-example from said Christians that "'We' they say, 'don't adore images, but what is signified by the image'". Augustine's response was that it'd still be wiser to pray directly to the saint, not through an object (Sermon 198.17).

Iconodulia is, and has been, about far more than pictures. It's about what these icons are doing. And for iconic theology it's that these types access a more substantial reality that abides through the presentation. It's metaphysical, not didactic or intellectual. That's why icons are, many times, portraits. It's why figurative and symbolic art is generally absent. The distinction within art is absolutely fundamental to this debate because art is not just art. Christians defense of using art came with several caveats about how this is, precisely, not what pagans use idols for. There's nothing like later iconic practice for centuries, not until well established pagan customs regarding portraiture and veneration became normative within the Christian Empire.

It's easy to pretend like the Copts and the Syrians don't exist, but while both of them have near-opposite appraisals of Ephesus (431) neither possessed anything like Byzantine iconodulia. In contrast, they used symbolic art to draw their minds to the work of Christ, usually displaying plain crosses (compare with 4th century bishop Cyril of Jerusalem's explanation of symbolic uses of the cross).

The problem is best laid out by Margaret Robin Jensen's Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity (2005) in her summary of the early church's relation to portrait art:

In summary, the problem of portraits was at least twofold: they were likely to be misused-set up and covered with garlands, scented with smoking incense, illumined with votive candles, and offered worship or prayer like [not the same, but 'like'--cal] the idols of the polytheists--and they were false and imitative copies of something that was absolutely beyond their ability to represent. [...] The usefulness of art was in the realms of the symbolic and didactic, where it referred directly to the intellectual and cognitive realm of ideas and arguments, stories and lessons. And visual representations of stories and lessons are unlikely to attract offerings of flowers, incense, or even prayers. (28)
I'm seriously open to revision, but the argument has to be along the lines of history and Scripture. If you say, "Look at the Temple!" or "Look Christ was Incarnate!" that is worthless: clearly the Apostles did not draw the same conclusions, nor did Christians for centuries. The only ones who came to these conclusions were syncretists: pagans who added Christ to their pantheon (as the emperor Alexander Severus was believed to have done). If you're going to bind people under this stricture, as Nicaea II, you can't call it the faith of the Apostles or the Fathers (well, you'd keep Damascene).

I'm being polemical, but again, I'm just trying to understand how an Orthodox person justifies this from the criteria of Tradition (capital t) and the consensu patri. Please respond if you're Orthodox or are an iconodule, and pass along if you're not.

Addendum: I realize that my above list is primarily composed of western Latin speaking Christians. So I can imagine an idiotic reply: "Aha! Evil Latin Christianity messed up again!" Well, Epiphanius has to be explained away. Also I left out quoting Origen, who in his Against Celsus, rejects even wall art. Given that Origen was the "teacher of the saints", leaving a demonstrable impact on figures ranging from the Capadoccians to teachers like Didymus and monks like Antony the Great, there would have to be positive evidence from these figures that they reject Origen's conclusions. There's some evidence Basil has stated toleration for wall art in churches, but, again, that's still multiple steps from iconodulia. Where there's no evidence a silent and invisible tradition has to be cooked up. If you're going to believe that, you might as well believe that St. Peter was a pope, tiara and all, with a council of cardinals and reigning over the Romagna.