Monthly Archives: February 2006


Joey’s dad died yesterday. If you knew him, your heart aches and you miss him; if you didn’t know him, then people you care about miss him so much that it makes you feel bad.

Margaret and I spent bits of the wedding weekend with him, and found him to be every bit the graceful, kind, generous, brilliant, loving man upon whom a guy like Joey might model himself. I’m presiding at Seabury’s Ash Wednesday mass tomorrow, where we will pray for him and remember that we all are dust, and to dust we shall return; yet even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Reverse Tagging

Or “anticipated search terms” or something. I’m filling out the Author Information sheets from Fortress, and one of the things they ask is “Please list ten key words that will assist a customer when searching for your book on a web site. These ten key words should be different than the words found in the title and subtitle of your book” (that is, Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible In a Postmodern World). I’m also working on the fifty-word summary of the two hundred pages worth of careful argumentation I’ve put together over the past fifteen years or so of writing.

It’s great that they’re thinking in these terms (though I’d have written “different from the words”). But since the terms “interpretation,” “bible,” and “postmodern” are already there in the title/subtitle combination, I’m having a hard time coming up with ten other possible searches for which Fortress might want to buy ad space. You, dear readers, have slogged through several of the essays as I churned through them, and you know the kinds of thing I’m liable to say; anything come to your minds?

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She’s Leaving

Yes, “on a jet plane” — but there’s no need to sing the song. We had a marvelous visit, and enjoyed keeping track of Pippa’s adventures in Maine, working on common academic interests, and generally sinking our teeth into a weekend together alone. We’ll connect up again next weekend when we go to see Si in Angels in America at Marlboro.

Pointing to Flickr reminds me of the changes in their terms of service. Much as I like the people behind Flickr, I don’t in the least like the direction their application has taken in the past few months. While they justifiably need to protect their service against abuse (it’s not a bandwidth sink for banners or other page design elements, and they have to abide by others’ copyright laws), the ludic t-shirt phase of Flickr has passed, and the serious button-down shirt phase has arrived — pretty soon, Flickr will be wearing a power tie and fancy suit, and its early enthusiasts will have migrated elsewhere. I don’t assent to the premise that “sharing digitized photos” and “sharing other digitized images” constitutes a fundamental distinction in the value of the service (and if it were that important, it would not be overwhelmingly difficult to implement a “photo” on/off switch to guide searches). I don’t agree that Flickr needs to forbid “photos that include frontal nudity, genitalia or anything else that your bathing suit should cover” (that’s what their sensible “this might be offensive” button was meant to deal with). I don’t think that the recipe for enduring business success involves abandoning the spirit that made you popular.

I wish everyone well, and I may keep on using Flickr out of inertia (even though I regularly upload non-photo images, the horror!). But is this what Web 2.0 is about? I don’t think so.

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Another Kind of Tag

I used to have three taglines for this blog:

All times are local.
Local times may vary.
Minutes do not expire.

drawn from various advertisements and warnings. Our family loves pondering the metaphysics implied by claims such as these.

Margaret reports that Nate spotted another such line in an advertisement for a Rochester auto merchant: “Central location is minutes from anywhere.”

As opposed to. . . ?

And since I’ve found a spot to bury this information in an unrelated post, I will note here that Fortress has announced the publication for Faithful Interpretation for October. W00t!

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Theology Day at O’Hare

I went out to O’Hare Airport to pick up the most wonderful theologian in the world (my fantastic wife Margaret), but her plane was delayed. I took the opportunity to pace back and forth the length of Terminal 1, listening to tunes (i.e., podwalking). As I neared Baggage Carousel One, I ran into Jim Poling, pastoral theology professor at Garrett and all-around nice guy. We usually greet one another at Cafe Express (soon to be renamed The Brothers K), so crossing paths at the airport was both nothing special and a little surprising. But that wasn’t all.

As I gazed at the Xerox Color advertisement by the rest rooms, somebody prodded me — and it turned out to be celebrated nominee for Bishop of California, Bonnie Perry. I respect Bonnie intensely; she’s wise, committed, an extremely effective congregational leader, and would (controversies aside) be just the sort of bishop of whom I wish there were more. She’s the kind of church leader I feel comfortable disagreeing with about the topics on which we do disagree — I absolutely trust her not to go all passive-aggressive on me, or to construe thoughtful, principled dissent as “questioning her authority” or any of that nonsense.

So while I think that (controversies aside) she’d do a great job, one can’t simply wish away the controversies that surround episcopal elections these days, and I was glad to have a chance to say “Hi” to her and promise her that I was praying that God bring about whatever is best for her and church through what will surely be a trying, tempestuous process. She’s a champ, even if she doesn’t turn out to be a bishop.

[I just downloaded the new version of MarsEdit, which incorporates tagging as part of its interface, so from now on I too will tag more regularly. Why I tag? Because it makes the internet ecology a more information-rich environment, where new modes of knowledge thrive.]

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Unsatisfactorily Superficial Prescript on Justice

I think that I shan’t come to a point where my reflections on “justice” both measure up to the standard of deliberation and soundness that the subject requires, and avoid some besetting issues pertinent mostly to my particular situation. Instead of just dropping the topic, though, or waiting till I have time to develop a mini-treatise on what I think, I’ll float a few developed-intuitions, and see what that leads to.

So, first, I’ve been struck by the recent imperative of inserting the word “justice” into every possible liturgical and hymnic opportunity, often with little rationale from context (or in a literarily painful wooden didactic setting). The effect is amplified when the writer extends the phrase to the prosaic (and possibly tautological) “social justice.” My discomfort with the constant refrain of “justice, justice” increases to the extent that these solemn invocations spin free from demonstrable pursuit of robust theological insight into “justice.” While some theologians commendably devote sustained attention to the complexities of what constitutes justice and how an ecclesial body may work toward it, the framers of liturgical and lyrical invocations of justice have generally not successfully integrated those reminders with grammar of eucharistic prayer (and often, without competent poetic expression).

The matter of justice must not be minimized in dogmatic or doxological theology. When we address “justice,” however, the reflexive recitation of the apotropaic formula “justice” neither absolves a theologian of the obligation to work out the meaning of that topic in conjunction with Scripture and the church’s inherited wisdom — not solely in terms of a liberal progressive nostalgia for “the good causes.” One certainly can articulate a theology about justice that reaches many of the ends that left-leaning, or liberal, or progressive Christians espouse, by way of taking pains to enlist a strong array of testimonies from the biblical and dogmatic tradition. That might mean placing a stronger emphasis on righteousness, charity, and impartiality (terms that cover much terrain in common with “justice”), and would certainly mean construing “justice” in terms less dominated by late-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century cultural contexts.

Yet we all ought to resist any tendency to extrude “justice” into contexts where it sits inert, disengaged from context, determined mainly by unstated premises (or by a banal rhetoric of “inclusion”). When good reasons abound for thoughtful, “progressive” theological expositions of what a just life entails, we do no one any honor by skimming past those good reasons. Indeed, if we rely not on the careful reasoning (or in hymnic context, the literary finesse) but simply on the sense that “of course, we all support justice,” we risk engendering the impression that we’re trying to arm-twist people into accepting social-progressive imperatives for societal behavior by putting the word “justice” into their mouths and ears without inculcating a corresponding understanding of what’s at stake. When we do articulate our convictions about the shape of a just life, though, we necessarily set our case in a context within which it might be controverted by people who envision a different sense for “justice”; I regard that as a good thing, since it encourages participants in theological life to offer their best cases for the Name by which they are called and for the hope that is within them.

Now, I’m writing from a position of relative social privilege; I don’t need to worry about “justice” on any social-structural grounds, and I must bear in mind that people for whom justice comes as the flicker of an elusive hope may with perfect wisdom emphasize “justice” as a constitutive element of their Name and their hope. To these sisters and brothers of mine, I conclude by just warning that when privileged people lay claim to a topic like justice and make it dance to their tunes, they often disarm its value for raising consciousness by rendering it so tediously familiar and unthreatening that those who need justice have nothing left to which to appeal: “Of course we’re for justice.” My considered intuition suggests that many of the hymns and prayers that tag “justice” into a laundry list of things “we” support, or that compel congregations into implicit endorsements of policies from which they may be inclined to dissent, do not advance the gospel. In such cases, “justice” no longer bespeaks the love, equity, and mercy of God, but only serves the cause of partisan cheerleading; it makes of “justice” a fetish, a keyword which, if cited often enough, absolves speakers from critical reflection and practice.

But at this, I relinquish the last word, and will not say more unless invited.

In Passing

“In passing” is how Steve and Pippa evidently encountered one another at L. L. Bean’s last Sunday. I love the Web!

Michael Bérubé is shamelessly campaigning for “Worst Professor in America,” and last time I checked he was steam-rollering other candidates. I feel a little chagrin on behalf of the true-red lefties over whom Bérubé is exerting his imperialistic superpower might, but more than that I’m frustrated that an ostensibly “democratic” poll omits any option of writing in a candidate for Worst Professor of whom the Front Page organization might not have heard yet (say, because they work at a small, obscure Episcopal seminary). My students deserve the right to denounce me, and Front Page throttles their free expression by precluding them for voting for me for the Worst.

Richard Kieckhefer’s inaugural lecture “Bewitchment of the Imagination: Mythologies, Witchtrials, and Public Anxiety in the 15th Century” gave my own imagination an exhilarating kick. I can’t adequately summarize Richard’s finely-woven thesis, but it involved distinguishing conventional accusations of miscellaneous sorcery (cursing cattle, love charms, and so on) from prosecutions in the context of an articulated mythology of witchcraft (involving elaborate scenarios of ritualized behavior) — then further identifying two specific patterns of mythologies, one evident in the Vaudois inquisitorial prosecutions and one in Paduan juridical proceedings. The former, it seems, was imposed on the trial by the inquisitors’ expectations; the latter emerged as an expression of common expectations relative to witches (strega sg.) and their behavior. He tied these distinctions into the social function of witchcraft persecution, the social locations of accused witches, and the ways imagination functions to generate, intensify, rationalize, and focus manifestations of mythological power. The lecture was great, I had the privilege of sitting next to Barbara Newman at her husband’s inauguration for the chair in religious studies for which she holds the twin appointment in English, and merely soaking up the ambient intelligence of the audience made me temporarily smarter. Alas, only temporarily — but it’s a start.

I’ve been contemplating my “justice as fetish, process as idol” blogpost for months now, and haven’t gotten to the point that I have a claim even close to readiness. Partly it’s because I’ve been wrestling the last few words of the book review into submission (that’s a joke, friends, a joke), and partly because other topics intervene — such as blasphemy. I was thinking about the ways one might mount an argument against blaspheming other people’s deities. If those quarter-baked ideas come round to anything, I’ll post them.

Day of Healing

Yesterday I pushed some words through my keyboard into the book review and the sermon, and I think they turn out okay (I’ll post the sermon below the jump). It made for a long day of typing, deleting, staring off into space, and so on (and the “day” didn’t quite end till “wee hours of morning,” to be exact). Today I presided at Seabury’s daily Eucharist, with special intentions for Joey’s dad and for another friend who asked for our prayers.

Immediately after mass, we headed into an all-day faculty meeting, and immediately after our faculty meeting I’m heading over to Richard Kieckhefer’s lecture. Luckily, I have leftover pasta from last night’s dinner. Then I collapse in a heap, and try to rest up some on Thursday. (It’s great to see that Pippa’s having a wonderful time in Maine!)
Continue reading Day of Healing

Monday of Reading Week

I spent most of today struggling over a review of Philip F. Esler’s New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, a book that impresses me a lot, both positively and negatively. I’m trying to hit the correct balance between appreciating the book’s insights and identifying the book’s flaws, a job made trickier by the fact that the flaws seem to stand in painfully prominent contrast with the insights (indeed, they undermine the insights). As the day wore on, more of my time was devoted to sentences that I typed, then deleted. I haven’t written anything for the past ninety minutes.

So, I think I have officially given up trying to finish the review tonight. I wouldn’t mind so much, except I have to preach Wednesday morning, so I need to compose a sermon tomorrow; that may interfere with finishing the review, darn it, and then the rest of Wednesday is devoted to an all-day faculty meeting followed by Richard Kieckhefer’s inaugural lecture as John Evans Professor of Religion at Northwestern, so I may not be able to finish the review Wednesday, either. We’ll see.

I found two more hearts yesterday: one in a notebook, and one in the box of frozen veggie burgers. Sooner or later, I’ll run out of hidden hearts — I haven’t found any today, but then I have hardly stirred from my chair except to go to chapel and fix dinner. Oh, and go to Greek reading group, where Brooke and Beth and I had a great time tackling Hebrews 8. But now I’m shutting off my brain till tomorrow morning.

Thinking of Them

The women in my life have not forgotten me, and by their remembrance have enkindled warm thoughts to fend off the cold days of their absence.

Margaret sent me a love note paraphrased from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica:

We can signify God, using the understanding we draw from creatures, although our names for God cannot express God’s divine essence. We know God as God appears to us, but God’s essence exceeds our understanding. The names we use for God apply substantively, but imperfectly, because creatures can only signify perfection imperfectly. These names apply properly to God in terms of what they signify, but not in terms of how they signify, since we, as creatures, can only signify in creaturely modes. The multiple names we apply to God are not synonymous, even as they are proper to the one God, because God’s simple and united perfection appears to our intellects as many and different perfections of the one God. The names that can be applied to God and creatures are neither univocally nor equivocally predicated but rather they are used analogously, in proportion. Even though the names we predicate of God are predicated of creatures first, since we know creatures first, these names are applied primarily to God, since perfections flow from God to creatures. The names that we use for God that imply relation to creatures are predicated of God temporally, even though God is eternal and we are not. As creatures, we are really related to God (in a way that God is not to us), so that our temporality and change can be applied to God, through our naming of God, without imputing temporality or change to God.

The name, God, signifies the nature of God, even though we do not know God’s nature, because God signifies the source of God’s operations, which we do know. The name, God, is incommunicable when the name signifies something singular, but it is communicable in partial signification through similitude, from our experience of God’s operations. This name, God, applies to God by nature, by participation, and according to opinion analogically, and not univocally or equivocally. If God applied to God univocally, meaning exactly the same, then we would be able to know the true God, which we cannot. If God applied to God equivocally, meaning something entirely different, then we would not be speaking of God at all. Instead, God signifies God analogically, such that God participates both in the signification of the true God and in the God that creatures can imagine. The most proper name of God is HE WHO IS, for three reasons: it signifies the existence of God, which is God’s essence; it is universal, indicating the breadth of God beyond our comprehension; it signifies that God is present (eternally present, and not of the past or the future).

True affirmative propositions about God can be formed, because, even though the predicate and subject represent the plurality of an idea, they also signify the unity of one same thing, which the intellect represents by the composition of the proposition.

And if that doesn’t strike you as steamily romantic, then you need a little more semiotics in your life.

Pippa meanwhile, has been kicking up her heels in Maine — but she too has sent me reminders of her presence in my life. More to the point, she has left me reminders. The first day she was gone, I found a little paper heart marked “Bea” buried in the dog food. Yesterday, I opened my pocket watch only to discover another message:

Walk Me!

And today I thought I’d finish off that bottle of wine that had only a drop or two left in it — and when I reached to open the cork, I found

What's This?

that Pippa had left me a note there, too.

Cork Note

Well Done

Two delightful things happened today.

First, Margaret decided we ought to be together tomorrow weekend, so she’s coming up to Evanston for a long weekend.

Second (though earlier), David Efird followed up our earlier conversation about cartoons, etc., with some modal-logic notes on my post on God and games. I had observed in passing that a true-to-life game-designed God would need to be undetectable — and why would one put in the effort to design an undetectable feature of the game?

David notes, à propos this point, “[This] reminded me of an atheological argument I’ve thought quite a lot about in the last few years, the so-called problem of divine hiddenness resurrected in recent years by J.L. Schellenberg:

(1) If God existed, then he would be unsurpassably great, and this property entails his being perfectly loving.
(2) If God were perfectly loving, then God would ensure that every person capable of a personal relationship with him would reasonably believe that God exists, unless that person culpably lacks such a belief.
(3) But there are people who inculpably lack this belief.
(4) So, God does not exist.

Premise (1) seems true, and premise (3) also seems true (I take it the sort of things that would prompt your quote also support (3)). So premise (2) is where the dispute seems like it should occur between the proponent of the argument and the theist. But it does seem at least somewhat plausible especially when one factors in circumstances involving horrendous evils (i.e. evils the experience of which would make the sufferer reasonably wish she had never been born). It seems as if God as a loving parent would wish to comfort such sufferers and that at least some of them would be capable of a loving relationship with God; it also seems implausible to suggest that God’s not doing so is always a result of some culpability in the sufferer. Of course the theist then appeals to some sort of second-order hiddenness to explain the reasonableness of God’s remaining hidden, i.e. the reason that God remains hidden in such circumstances is also hidden from us because we cannot, as finite knowers, comprehend the goods, evils and their relationships generally and particularly in such a difficult circumstance. And then of course the atheist is unconvinced. But when has one side ever convinced the other in disputes such as these?”

What fun, when a casual meditation on divinity and intelligent (game) design should invoke so thoughtful a response! So I wrote back, saying that “I always resist premises that presuppose what we know would be the case if X. My everyday experience suggests that we (even philosophers!) are not reliably good at drawing inferences from data immediately at hand — how much more cautious should we be about proposing what must be the case relative to the motivations and characteristics of a persona not immediately known to us (or, if sometimes immediately, at least not uncontrovertibly) one of whose posited characteristics entails being qualitatively different from us?”

David gently pushes back, “Your response to the puzzle of divine hiddenness (from a theistic point of view) is a very reasonable one. Indeed, there seems to be some precedent in Peter van Inwagen’s (a prominent philosopher of religion and philosophical theologian at Notre Dame) modal scepticism: we can make reliable modal inferences/judgments about matters close to home (about whether the table might have been two feet to the left) but when we venture to more esotetic matters, they become unreliable. This may be a case at hand.

“But on the other side, one might think that in this case, the inference doesn’t seem too far removed from home for if God is like a good parent, then we can make, it seems, certain judgments about how God should act in certain circumstances. If a child were lost in a wood, frightened and alone, it seems plausible that if the child’s mother were around, and she happened to be a good mother, she would make every attempt to make herself known to the child. If a child had to go through a terrible medical procedure in order to be cured of something more terrible, e.g. having to undergo a bone marrow transplant, the child’s parents, if they were good parents, would make every effort to comfort the child, which requires, minimally, them making themselves present to the child. If God really is like a good parent, then it seems God should make every effort to make himself known to his children and especially to to those children who suffer undeservedly. This seems to be a core meaning of what it is to be a good parent. And since God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, it is then a pressing issue for how God, as a good parent, could consistently allow his children, who sometimes suffer horrendous evils, to reasonably think themselves alone.

“So, it seems to me that the problem of divine hiddenness, when added with the problem of horrendous evils, is quite a potent problem for Christian theism, to which, it seems to be, the best (only) response the theist can make is to postulate a further level of hiddenness, i.e. that of the goods, the evils and their relationships, and to say that by making himself known God would thereby cause an evil equally bad or worse than that caused by one of his children suffering alone. The theist, then, it seems must insist on an afterlife of bliss for all who suffer such horrendous evils, and worse, are not comforted by their heavenly Father for (good) reasons. This would then seem to entail universalism about salvation. (To the logical problem of hell, i.e. how is it logically possible that God, as traditionally conceived, damn someone to hell?, I see no plausible solution.)”

I was pleased that David associated my position with Peter van Inwagen; I’ve found several of his essays very helpful to my thinking, and it’s reassuring to hear that a professional philosopher recognizes some kinship between what I say and what van Inwagen says.

But it’s the end of the week, Reading Week is about to begin, and my brain has turned altogether to mush. I’ll think more tomorrow, or sometime, but not tonight, except about Margaret coming back.