frozen by demons :: a new excuse for failing to finish your reading

I wanted to pass along this gem from Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century Christian whose life took him from his native Cappadocia (where he was friends with Basil of Caesarea and a close associate of Gregory of Nazianzus) to the desert of Egypt. He fled to the desert to avoid temptation after falling in love with a married woman. Also, he had trouble staying awake while reading.

“There are certain impure demons who always sit in front of those engaged in reading and try to seize their mind, often taking pretexts from the divine scriptures themselves and ending in evil thoughts. It sometimes happens that they force readers to yawn more than they are accustomed and they instill a very deep sleep quite different from usual sleep. Whereas some of the brothers have imagined that it is in accordance with an unintelligible and natural reaction, I for my part have learned this by frequent observation; they touch the eyelids and the entire head, cooling it with their own body for the bodies of the demons are very cold and like ice; and the head feels as if it is being sucked by a cupping glass with a rasping sound. They do this in order to draw to themselves the heat that lies within the cranium, and then the eyelids, relaxed by the moisture and cold, slip over the pupils of the eyes. Often in touching myself I have found my eyelids fixed like ice and my entire face numb and shivering. Natural sleep however normally warms bodies and renders the faces of healthy people rosy, as one can learn from experience itself. But the demons provoke unnatural and prolonged yawning, and they make themselves small enough to touch the interior of the mouth.”

From On Thoughts, chapter 33.

That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!

Among the many unsung benefits of entering the discipline of theology is the opportunity to ponder brilliant thoughts from some of the most erudite minds and sensitive spirits of history. Another unsung benefit is getting to read the bizarre nonsense that some of the same erudite minds slough off  along the way.

Along the lines of Stephen Colbert’s occasional segments by the same title, I thought I’d offer two quotes (with commentary) that made me say, “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

Paul Tillich:

“The concreteness of man’s ultimate concern drives him toward polytheistic structures; the reaction of the absolute element against these drives him toward monotheistic structures; and the need for a balance between the concrete and the absolute drives him toward trinitarian structures.” [1]

A Tillich-inspired Recipe:

  1. Take your ultimate concern.
  2. Average the concreteness of your ultimate concern with the absolute element also found therein.
  3. Remove the polytheistic and monotheistic by-products.
  4. Voila! A Trinitarian drive!
  5. Drop the trinitarian drive in your Volvo, and not only will your gas milage dramatically improve, but the circumincessio occuring in your engine is now totally self-lubricating!

Friedrich Schleiermacher:

“Thus, in fact, people become all the more indifferent to the church the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves from it proudly and coldly. Nothing can in fact be clearer than that seekers of religion are in this association [i.e. the church] only because they have no religion; they persevere in it only so long as they have none.” [2]

Indeed, one excellent measure for just how much true religion a person might have would be the degree of coldness and pride with which that person passes by any religious establishment. People with a wholehearted dedication to the church are clearly (nay, most clearly) the most muddleheaded irreligious shams you could ever encounter!

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[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 221.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

Theologians from the Abyss :: Symeon the New Theologian

 

Um...roar...I come to over-analyze your ontology!
Um...roar...I come to over-analyze your ontology!

“[Humanity] was made in the image of God and deemed worthy of angelic and immortal life, but if he was rightly deprived of that angelic state as well as of eternal life and condemned to death, corruption, and the curse, all because he transgressed that one commandment of God, then what will happen to those of [Adam’s] race who meddle in theology while they still bear the image of dust and have never been purified? You are trying to meddle in the teachings about God and divine things, but you have never been taught yourself. Tell me, have you first come up from hell to appear on earth? How did you manage this? Through what steps and stages did you make the ascent? Who helped you, and what manner of creature were they? You came to the surface stinking and rotten with corruption, no more than a corpse in the thrall of death.” 

 

I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard some of my friends in Biblical studies say something similar about those who “meddle in theology.” Pretty run of the mill polemic, actually… 

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Symeon the New Theologian, Symeon the New Theologian: The Practical and Theological Chapters and The Three Theological Discourses, trans. Paul McGuckin, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982), 120.

words I learned while reading The Beauty of the Infinite

David Bentley Hart has expanded my vocabulary to include the following list of obscure, polysyllabic words: 

ordonnance
parataxis
diegesis
chthonic
amphiboly
caducity
inspissated
nisus
diremption
aleatory
orphic
subtend
debile
velleity
risible
tabescence
piscine
oneiric
eidetic
indiscerptible
obsecration
temenos
concatenation
identism
crepuscular
estaminet
probatively
decortication
Taboric
foison
opalescence
porrection
persiflage
sublate
syntagma
griseous
catalectic
anacolouthic
metonymy
asymptotic
ambit
recrudescence
melismatic
apotropaic
mactate (and mactation)
farrago
galvanism
medicament
peripety
appanages
demesne
soupcon

To the first person who can correctly define 12 of these words without using a dictionary, I will mail a Snickers bar.

 

David Bentley Hart :: Nietzsche and the Market

In a book that I’ve enjoyed immensely, I came across what is likely the most ingenious footnote I’ve ever read. Hart is in the midst of an argument connecting the postmodern deconstructionist philosophers and the logic of capitalism, arguing that both reinforce the absolute freedom of choice for selves increasingly isolated and punctual. According to both, no power may be allowed to dominate the public space in such a way that choices are determined for the others—every identity is held in check by the inviolable “other-ness” of every other; thus, every self must be given the space to choose between all the possible identities available (all of them bound in place side by side as equivalent products on the shelf, each with a different wrapper). As Hart was dealing with Nietzsche in particular, he offered the footnote that delighted me at the tail end of this sentence: 

Nietzsche, however much he detested bourgeois values, perhaps knew not which god he served.

And here is the note itself: 

Nietzsche’s avowed god, Dionysus, is of course an endlessly protean and deceptive deity and a wearer of many masks. When he makes his unannounced appearance at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, as its secret protagonist, whose divine irony has occultly enlivened its pages, he exercises his uniquely divine gift, the numinous privilege of veiling and unveiling, concealment and manifestation; he is the patron deity, appropriately of the philosophical project of genealogy. But perhaps another veil remains to be lifted, and the god may be invited to step forth again, in his still more essential identity: Henry Ford. After all, Ford’s most concise and oracular pronouncement—“History is bunk!”—might be read as an exquisite condensation of the theme of the second of the Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (…). And there could scarcely be a more vibrant image of univocity’s perpetual beat of repetition—of eternal recurrence, the eternal return of the same—than the assembly line: difference here is certainly not analogical, but merely univocal, and the affirmation of one instance is an affirmation of the whole. It is moreover, well documented that Ford was a devotee of square dancing, which is clearly akin to (perhaps descended from) the dithyrambic choreia of the bacchantes; Ford was a god who danced. 

Hart’s argument is, of course, quite serious, but it is refreshing to see someone argue with such a wry smile visible between the lines. And one can hardly help but laugh at the picture of Nietzsche as the devotee of a square dancing magnate of the auto industry. 

David Bentley Hart,  The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 435. 

 

Augustine on liberal arts education

On the off chance that things were getting a bit too stuffy around here, I’ll offer a little gem from the Confessions

“I read and understood by myself all the books that I could find on the so-called liberal arts, for in those days I was a good-for-nothing, and a slave to sordid ambitions” 

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Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 88.