Monads for Jesus

In my on-going (some might uncharitably say “obsessive”) concern to articulate the ways that faith and culture, reflective theology and daily life interact, I’m working out some premises of which I’ll try to persuade my students this fall. This morning’s premise concerns the relation of the self to culture, and how that affects the ways we prepare for and exercise our ministries.

Premise: We do not have “selves” in a way we can analyze apart from our involvement in particular cultural (social, relational) circumstances. Such selves presumably exist with God — but we do not have access to them, except by way of the culturally-inflected understandings with which we recognize, puzzle out, assent to, strive to correct, and confess our faith. “Inflected,” not “determined”; that is, all our understandings partake of cultural infusion, though we trust that they also partake of a truth that subsists distinct from mortal cultures.

Several points seem to follow from this. First, we mustn’t think of ourselves in the [modern] sense of individual selves; that necessarily involves a distorting isolation from the lives and settings with which our own lives are intertwined. (One of the many problems that afflicts our recent convulsions about holiness in intimate relationships derives from our willful occlusion of the extent to which two people’s intimacy and commitment affect the world around them, as should be obvious to anyone who has spent time around two infatuated high-schoolers or has lived through the dissolution of the marriage of two beloved friends.) The “selves” that we know always involve other people’s selves, and environmental dimensions, always in ways that elude our apprehension. No one is an island, and so on; it tolls for thee.

Second, if the selves we know and the selves with whom we interact as disciples and as ministers of the gospel always intertwine with others’, then we need always to attend to communicative, interactive aspects of our claims and behavior (or, I suppose, just say “too bad for you-all” and write off everyone else). With regard to my special area of concern, we (my students and I) simply must learn to act and speak with care for what we express. I can imagine no excuse we could plausibly offer God for choosing carelessness.

Third, if we don’t have access to some insulated, pristine “self”or “truth” (and I know I haven’t been arguing about “truth” heretofore, I don’t have time to double back and fix it up, but I suspect that the same points hold), we stand under a greater obligation to understand that which share with others whose solidarity we claim to share. That is, if I say that you and I have something in common (“Christian faith”or “Anglican identity,”for instance), only an boor would presume that she or he already knows what that common inheritance entails without attending to her or his partner’s sense of the shared inheritance. Under present circumstances, this point cuts two ways. It absolutely requires “conservatives” to offer honest, open attention to different senses of “what is shared.” If the Anglican tradition affirms that churches can err on matters of faith (and Anglican traditionalists should be comfortable with this premise), we can never foreclose the possibility that the churches have in fact erred.*

It also absolutely requires that “liberals” offer honest, open attention to what millions of [non-liberal] sisters and brothers hold and teach and live by, and have done so for centuries. There’s a whole lot more “objectivity” in the overwhelming consensus of practically everyone who has accepted the new life offered in baptism than there is in “what my friends and I are sure must be true.” People always tend to believe what they want to; when people want to believe something that contravenes long-affirmed premises, they have to be honest about the extent to which they’re proposing a novelty, about how thin the basis for that novelty is, and about how precarious a position that proposed innovation puts them, us all (since we are not islands), in.

* One of the awkward torsions that contemporary stress imposes on admirable, pious people is the simultaneous claim that Anglican identity involves adherence to claims that Anglicans have “always” held, and that this settles one or another important issue — when the very identity of Anglican Christians rests on the corrigibility of matters of dogma and discipline. That does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that we can’t rule out a prior any possible claim, much as we might like to, and as improbable as that claim may look at the outset. At the same time, the more far-reaching the claim that the church has erred, the stronger the argument needs to be, and it’s difficult to overstate modern people’s overconfident, condescending, dismissive, feeble arguments when they suppose that a past dogma or practice has become old-fashioned.

Beauty, Kitsch, and Theology

Beauty, truth, excellence are hard; they cut through encrusted bullshit. And if you open your heart to beauty, truth, and excellence, they will not let you off the hook. They will haunt, afflict, beset you.

One of the pernicious dimensions of the da Vinci Code phenomenon derives from the extent to which both its conspiratorial advocates and its horrified detractors occlude the truth in the interest of upholding something they want to be true; the element of wish-fulfillment prevails over critical questions relative to the narrative’s beauty (despite the frequent concessions that “it’s a good thriller,” I found the book tediously flat and predictable), its truth (despite the proud assertion on the front page, there is hardly a shred of truth to it), and its excellence.

They like it, or they can’t stand it, but questions of truth get derailed by the strength of people’s desire to believe one thing or another.

“Liking” is easy, though, and “opinion” is cheap; anyone can like something, everybody’s got an opinion. Though one would like to like what is beautiful, and to hold true opinion, one’s preferences and opinions don’t depend on truth or beauty.

“Liking” doesn’t exclude loving, knowing, appreciating — but if one always only likes, one forgoes the opportunity to gaze into the truth, to work into love.

If I understand theology correctly, we have the opportunity to endeavor one of the hardest things people can venture, to witness the beauty of the gospel, to share the truth of the gospel, to participate in the excellence of the gospel — but these require something more than liking Christian faith.

Emptier Nest

Margaret and Pippa took off this morning for their summer vacation with east-coast family, from which Margaret will fly directly south to begin her next academic year at Duke. Si will be home with me for a few more weeks, but (especially since Si spends so much time at work and away with Laura) the house feels pretty empty. I have tons of tasks to do: my presentation on education for the Christianity and Anarchism conference, the Catholic Biblical Association meeting, and now the panel discussion on “Discovery Tools: Replanting the Tree of Knowledge” at the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s Top Management Roundtable.

Oh, and a book, course prep, and so on.

It’s awfully quiet around here.

Scholars and Oracles

As Margaret and I batted ideas around this past weekend, we noted again that so many people show a proclivity to accept claims on the basis of a speaker’s authority, without qualification. We were thinking of a scholar we know of, whom people quote as though his words settled an issue once and for all.

(This called to my mind the phrase ipse dixit, Latin for “he himself said it,” a locution associated with Pythagoreans’ invocations of their founder’s authoritative pronouncements. Then I wondered what the Greek for ipse dixit was, since Pythagoras presumably dixited in Greek, and in my grandfather’s Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations tracked down the phrase autos epha, αὐτὸς ἔφα. But that’s all a digression.)

We batted the problem around for a while. It’s more complicated than it appears, since we know a little about so many fields in which we’re dependent on the words of experts for even what little we know. If I say something about macroeconomics, it’s usually not on the basis of my having thought through the disciplinary logic of an assertion, but on the basis of my taking someone’s word for it. All the more so for, for instance, neurology; radically less so for, say, philosophy (an area in which I’m not a specialist, but am moderately well-read).

I’ve encountered numerous people who seem to think, though, that citing what Derrida, or Karl Barth, or Dom Crossan, or Walter Brueggemann, or Chris Seitz said, settles an argument. Ipse dixit! While each of these constitutes a formidable authority, I’m troubled by the notion that their words might carry a point solely by virtue of the fact that they spoke (or “wrote”) them; only a shade more justified is the assumption that the argument a scholar advances should carry decisive weight just because he advances it. The fact that Crossan thinks something is a powerful argument impresses me (because I know him to be a thoughtful, reflective intellect) — but I can still call his argument into question. He’s a scholar, not an oracle.

Still, I’m accepting somebody’s ipse dixit much of the time; I’m not immune to the problem I note in others. If there’s a difference, I suspect it may play out in this kind of way: First, in my area of greatest special interest, I believe hardly anything on the basis of who said it. My closest friends and allies, or my most persistent discursive adversaries, in all cases I expect that an argument win me over, not collegial sympathy or partisan alliance (when I hear people soft-pedal the shoddiness of an argument because it’s from someone on their side of an issue )—whether a “prophetic” reappraiser or an “orthodox” reasserter — I wince with disappointment. Second, since we will always rely on the guidance of people more expert than we, we ought also try always to stay humble about the claims we reject out of hand: “— as though Schüssler Fiorenza hadn’t settled that years ago!” Well, maybe she did, and maybe she didn’t, but let’s look at the arguments.— Third, I suspect we should be extra cautious about ipse dixits where we have a pro or con investment, since it’s so devilishly easy simply to treat our hero as the one who solved all vexing problems with his brilliance, or to derogate our adversary as the one whose ludicrous misstatement (often misquoted or taken out of context) reveals the vacuity of everyone who agrees with her. We are rarely so very right, and our adversaries never so very wrong, as overblown rhetoric suggests (except when I criticize Dan Brown or some ecclesiastical counterpart of his).* Fourth, we should watch out for ipsedixitism in more of our discussions; when someone says, “Well, Roger Ebert liked it,” or “Well, President Bush says this is necessary,” or “Jon Stewart called her ridiculous,” not just to rest content with our hero’s vindication or our foe’s discountenance, but to press for reasons.

It won’t work in any far-reaching way. Most of us want to accommodate our intellectual convictions to our likes and dislikes, rather than acknowledging that some things and people we like are not intellectual heavy hitters, or that those we dislike might be even more profound than our allies. And since so many people really are quite clever, our appeals to their personal authority aren’t groundless; they know more about X, Y, or Z than we do. On the other hand, it won’t kill anyone for more of us to make an effort.

*This is deliberate self-mockery. Of course, I’m liable to overstatement even when I’m criticizing the empty-headed, leaden-prosed charlatanry of Dan Brown, or What’s-his-name, or Tut-tut-tut, or even You-know-who (but the task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you).

[Later: I wrote this before I read the latest JOHO Newsletter, though I probably was half-thinking about what David wrote about knowledge the other day.

Rolls Eyes, Gulps

Somehow, I have lost about a week of work on my James manuscript. I can’t find the relevant file anywhere on my main drive, on my backup drive, in any way, shape, or form. My best guess is that Microsoft Word crashed sometime in the background, and I didn’t notice, and hadn’t saved for a few days; that would be highly atypical of me, but “atypical” doesn’t mean “impossible,” and when we eliminate alternatives that appear to be counterfactual, then that which remains — no matter how uncharacteristic — must presumably be the case.

Sighs deeply. Back to the writing board.

Lend Them Your Ears

Margaret and I had one of our insta-vacations this past weekend (only one day, sadly, but a change is almost as good as a rest, or something) — so I have all sorts of ideas percolating behind my glasses. Rather than rush one to expression, though, I’d like to put in a word for the musical participants in this year’s Ekklesia Project gathering, the Psalters. The Psalters travel from location to location, living in their renovated, biodiesel-powered converted school bus, playing intriguing music that doesn’t sound just like anything I’ve ever heard. I’m looking forward to seeing them again at the Anarchism and Christianity conference week after next.

They offer a number of downloadable selections (click “Media” then “audio,” cursed frames!) and have produced at least one CD. I’m intrigued by the music, impressed by the example of consistent commitment, and appreciative of their expression of what “being disciples” can mean.

Happy Approximate Birthday

About six years ago, give or take a few days, Beatrice was born. Nine or eleven weeks later, Margaret brought her home.

Bea on Arrival

Yesterday was something vaguely like her sixth birthday. She has aged a little, but has not lost her puppy-cuteness.

Bea on the Couch

Now, on her most recent trip, the vet noticed that someone has been giving her more food for breakfast and dinner since Margaret moved to Durham (AKMA looks innocently away); she’s up to twelve pounds from her ideal weight of nine pounds. So she’s on a diet, even on her kinda birthday. But she still has fluff for brains, a sweet disposition, and is harmless as a butter knife. Happy birthday, Bea!

Stromateis Update

David Knight: friend, Seabury alum, Katrina survivor, and deputy to General Convention reflects on the Episcopal General Convention 2006 in two posts.

Thomas Knoll writes to ask, “How many students would you need to make it worth your time to develop a course on Beautiful Evidence? In other words, if I found 5, 10, 15, 20, more people, could we take a go at a Disseminary course?”
I don’t have a predetermined answer. If I were to cook up an online discussion group, it would involve a number of books that people might not want to bother tracking down and reading, and I would probably incline toward drawing on Visual Explanations rather than Beautiful Evidence. If the course were a formal academic course, I’d use that and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, perhaps Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style (with a connection, then, to this interesting article on liturgical printing), perhaps my book coming out from Fortress, maybe some others I’m not recollecting (help, Laura?). If people were wanted to talk through these books, I’m sure I’d be delighted to discuss them on a Disseminary sub-site. Leave a comment if you’re interested, OK? (And yes, I know the comment function is clunky. I’m sorry.)

And now I have a USB cable for my Motorola V265 phone, and can peer into its file system, but I can’t find the photo files in the directory structure.

Top 100?

I’m a dreadful old curmudgeon about “top music” lists; I (naturally) prefer music I know well to music that I haven’t heard often enough to appreciate, and I don’t listen to very much brand-new music these days (and never quite caught the hip-hop bug). So my sense that most “top” lists favor very recent selections has both a legitimate empirical basis (we can run the statistics to prove this, but even a cursory look at many lists reveals that they favor releases within the past five or ten years) with an entirely arbitrary, unjustifiable, old-codger preference for older material that I like more.

That being said, I’m watching the Stylus “top 100 music videos” list (they’re unveiling the list progressively, so as of this morning they’ve only named the bottom 60) with some interest. So far, the list does seem biased toward recent material, but that could be because I just haven’t seen most of the recent choices, and also because the craft of music video direction has improved over the last couple of decades. I’ll wait and see how the list shapes up.

Wonderful as it is to have these videos available for watching (thank you, YouTube), it would be even better if the videos appeared in a shade better quality.


This morning ends the Ekklesia Project gathering for the year, with Joel Shuman speaking with us about the benefit of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for imagining the Kingdom of God. By reading the poem in its entirety, Joel learned to face some challenges he had previously overlooked. The poem constitutes a very long parable to the effect that, “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .”

Joel argues that Dante understands that all the things of this world belong to and are redeemed into the Kingdom of God. He cites five features of particular importance: first, Dante’s effect on the imagination. Dante creates a landscape of the imagination, and invites his readers to join him there. He, like Jesus, treated the imagination as among the most important of the moral faculties. Faithfulness demands imagination, the capacity to discern God’s work in the world even when the appearances seems to contradict that possibility. Second, Shuman cites Dante as an exemplar of “wakefulness.” Dante stirs us to rouse from a sleepiness that blinds us to the reality of grace. Most people prefer sleepwalking, in seeking gods of our own making; Dante narrates for us a waking at the grace of God’s beauty. Third, Joel notes the power of desire. Dante encounters threatening beasts that emblematize the desires that drive us away from God (as Jesus notes in Matthew 13:22 the seed that gets off to a good start, but that succumbs to the cares and desires of this world). Fourth, Joel notes the effect of habit on our lives. Purgatorio concerns our learning to live well (whether in a post mortem interval, or in daily terrestrial life). Dante encounters encouragement and scolding as he passes through the Purgatorio, illustrating that salvation requires not individual effort, but the shared diligence of lives bound together. Dante’s goal can only be accomplished in communion. And I must have missed the transition to the fifth point, because Joel just wound up the talk.