NAPS 2010

I received some good news in the last week. My proposal to the “Rhetoric of Heaven” section was accepted, so I’ll be presenting a paper at NAPS in Chicago this coming May. Here’s the abstract that I submitted:

Gregory of Nyssa’s Bodies: Human, Animal, and Celestial

Inhabiting the boundary between heaven and earth, the human body is the site of intense scrutiny in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio. The task of understanding the human body necessitates concomitant inquiry into the nature of animal and celestial bodies in order to see more clearly the differences and similarities that constitute humanity’s liminal nature. My paper argues that Gregory is concerned with the “making of the human” not only in terms of an etiological reading of Genesis, but also that Gregory himself “makes the human” in relation to animals and angels, and that in the process Gregory has a strong theological investment in the conceptual construction of animal and celestial bodies.

In a close reading of De hominis opificio that draws on the research of Sarah Coakley and J. Warren Smith among others, my paper proceeds in four sections—the first considering the formal and functional implications of the divine image in human flesh (and its absence in the flesh of animals); the second examines the material difference that the image of God makes in human flesh, and the physio/logical construction of human flesh over against animal bodies. The third section inquires into the eschatology of human flesh and the double function of desire as both bestial and angelic. Paradoxically for Gregory, the very structure of desire that is shared with the animals constitutes the propulsive drive by which humans are drawn along the trajectory of spiritual ascent to join the celestial crowds in God’s praise (albeit animal desire in a sublimated form). Finally, the fourth section determines more precisely how Gregory’s theological investment in human uniqueness guides the contours of his construction of bestial and angelic bodies vis-à-vis the human in De hominis opificio.

Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). Continue reading “Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)”

on gender and God :: Gregory of Nyssa

“No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, mother is mentioned in place of ‘father’ (Song 3:11). Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in the divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either? But we all shall become one in Christ, we will be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man). Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled nature is contaminated by neither female nor male….Hence the Song says that a crown is placed upon the bridegroom by his mother. Since the nuptials and bride are one, one mother places the crown upon the bridegroom’s head.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.

the demise of a doctrine? :: Weinandy and Tilley

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

–G.K. Chesterton

While this quip from Chesterton may not quite capture the contours of the conversation, may it at least bring a touch of humor to an unfortunately acrid encounter between Terry Tilley and Thomas Weinandy.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation (and care to acquaint themselves further): Tilley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, chairs the department where I am a student) delivered the presidential address at the CTSA this summer on three Christological impasses. Weinandy responded, pointing to what he regarded as superficial, fallacious, and theologically dangerous elements in that address. This article subsequently sensationalized the conflict. Tilley gave a short reply, to which Weinandy added a full stop. I, on the other hand, learned about the whole mess from a fellow student.

Being neither Roman Catholic nor a member of the CTSA, I am an outsider to this conversation in many regards; but I am also, perhaps, uniquely prepared to comment on it, having taken a course on Christology from Tilley and worked carefully through several of Weinandy’s texts on the same subject. Furthermore, this conflict raises questions about the nature of the theological task and the relation of contemporary theologians to a normative tradition (and about the nature of theological normativity itself). I hope to comment on the larger issues afoot in this conversation without getting too far embroiled in the ecclesial politics surrounding them.

Weinandy’s reading of Tilley’s address is not charitable; that much is hard to dispute. Weinandy’s reading is best explained by a perception (perhaps a fear?) that Tilley’s address is indicative of a larger glacial shift, one that remains largely unspoken in the address itself, but which nevertheless represents the slow drift of academic theology into vapid conformity with an anti-ecclesial culture. Weinandy’s concerns about “relativism” and “style” certainly sound this note (though I should add, having been graded by Tilley, I can personally attest that his Christological relativism is not absolute!). To my mind, the most prescient question is less whether Weinandy responded to Tilley’s address with sufficient care and charity, (I am convinced that he did not) but whether this larger perception/fear is justifiable and whether it is justifiably applied to Tilley, or whether it is altogether misplaced.

So, where precisely is the disagreement?

Weinandy and Tilley agree in speaking about the task of theology in terms of clarifying or illuminating the mysteries of faith, taking care not to misrepresent or prematurely resolve those mysteries. Yet, Weinandy accuses Tilley of a determination to explain away the mysteries of faith in the kind of resolution of paradox that has historically marked heretical movements. And in his defense of the CDF, Tilley likely sees Weinandy upholding an unhealthily narrow fixation on particular terminology, a cathexis that distorts the concepts originally communicated by that terminology—to the detriment of the faith. In other words, both see each other defending a position that would lead to the collapse of the mysteries of faith, putting the task of theology at risk either in the stalemate of a dogged dogmatic insistence on the sufficiency of fifth-century terminology or in capitulation to a contemporary rationalistic historicism averse to any advent of the supernatural (such as the Incarnation).

So, it would seem that Tilley and Weinandy agree about the task of theology, but differ substantially on how to carry out this task. Weinandy, the historical theologian, would have us accept the dogmatic formulations of conciliar history, and then illuminate these formulae by filling out their meaning through distinctions, elaborations, and elucidations that maintain the absolute integrity of the verbal formulae used. The theologian is to explain the Christological formula of Chalcedon, for example, from the inside taking the propositional content of the formula as a foundation. The tradition’s normativity for Weinandy is largely propositional (though, I think that for Weinandy this normativity includes the cultural-intellectual framework where those propositions arose, i.e. the Christian-Platonic synthesis).

Tilley, the constructive theologian, would have us labor at some length to understand Scripture and the negotiated settlements of the conciliar tradition, and then to communicate the living truth of the tradition in the terms that best make that truth present in the contemporary situation. The theologian is to work in radical continuity with the tradition precisely by extending the tradition into the present. The tradition’s normativity for Tilley, then, is largely conceptual, and thus to a degree, not susceptible to containment within a single static vocabulary, as essential as a given vocabulary (say, Chalcedon) may remain for coming to grips with the concepts of the tradition. Tilley himself insists on expressing this in terms of a normativity of practice (in opposition to a purely intellectual conceptual normativity), but I think that the broader approach of which Tilley is representative is marked by this concern for conceptual fidelity.

Weinandy, then, either thinks that conceptual continuity is not sufficient to authentically practice theology (as distinct from propositional continuity), or thinks that Tilley’s particular conceptual development of the tradition breaks continuity and fails to measure up to the norm of the tradition. The latter charge would require a substantial engagement with Tilley’s published work, and frankly, such an engagement will fail to produce anything approaching the adoptionism/arianism that Weinandy alleges. The former, I think, requires a more extended argument than Weinandy is able to provide in his short article. Such an argument would also entail invalidating an enormous swath of contemporary theology, from Rahner to Pannenberg and beyond, figures deeply concerned to think faithfully in categories and conversations not available to early Christian writers.

Tilley is not arguing, as Weinandy suggests, that he has a monopoly on the original meaning of the terms of the Chalcedonian definition, nor that they are irretrievably lost in the abyss of history. Rather, he is arguing that it takes long, arduous work (the very sort of work that Weinandy does quite well) to inhabit the tradition sufficiently so that one can follow the contours of complex ancient conversations, and that employing the same language cannot guarantee that the same concepts are communicated. It is truly perverse for Weinandy to argue simultaneously that the plain meaning of Chalcedon is accessible to any intelligent person who reads the text with a degree of care and that Tilley has not (after a career of research) adequately grasped the Chalcedon definition. Nowhere does Tilley repudiate Chalcedon, nor call it a “total failure.” If Tilley’s recent book on Christology does not take Chalcedon as the starting point, it’s not because he’s abandoned the Incarnation of the Logos, but rather because he is tracing out the trajectory of other biblical christologies (particularly in the synoptics) that were instrumental in arriving at the convictions formulated in the creeds, but nevertheless underrepresented therein. The Disciples’ Jesus is, quite literally, a discursive effort at retracing the steps of the earliest Christological confessions, confessions that were rooted in and sustained by the practices of the communities that forged them.

Tilley’s presidential address is not sufficiently clear in articulating his conviction that the variety of christological traditions in the New Testament are not contradictory (a view that Weinandy unfairly imputes to him), but complementary in their diversity. There is more to the mysterious life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ than a single narrative trajectory can possibly contain. While Chalcedon provides a helpful hermeneutic to the New Testament, the compositional statement about two natures and a person cannot supplant the range of views of Jesus Christ that are contained in the New Testament and early Christian traditions.

To conclude, is Weinandy’s perception of an anti-ecclesial drift in the culture of academic theology justified? Perhaps, but this drift is no recent phenomenon, and it is a matter of certain conversations and movements, not a ubiquitous tipping of the theological playing field so that the academy becomes a slippery slope. Can the perception of this drift justifiably be applied to Terry Tilley in the public excoriation that he received from the pen of Thomas Weinandy? Not in the least. Weinandy needs to pick a new figurehead for the movement leading to the “Demise of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.”

never trust anyone with the first name pseudo

Over the weekend, while reading an excellent book on the reception history of 1 Enoch  (what a life, eh?)[1], I found myself thinking through pseudonymous authorship and the nest of problems that it raises for contemporary readers in a new light. Of course, pseudonymity is an issue with a document that claims to be penned by a character from the primordial history of Genesis 1-11, but it is also an issue when we come to many of the books of Scripture (i.e. 2 Timothy, 2nd/3rd Isaiah, etc.). Posed in its sharpest form, the question that pseudonymity raises might be posed like this: “How can we ascribe the authority of divine revelation (which almost always functions as a guarantee of truth)  to a text that contains an intentional deception about its author?” The standard apology for the practice—which I think is quite a good start—points out the cultural gap between our notions of the book as a finished product resulting from the creative effort of a single person (or discrete collective) and ancient notions of authorship and authority or the challenges of textual transmission.

The piece that Reed added for me was a careful attention to the fluidity and interchange between orality and textuality—something quite remote to our own practices. First of all, the practice of reading in silent solitude (primarily as a visual activity) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ancient reading, even if it was done in solitude—though that would have been much rarer as well—was likely done aloud. Reading was an auditory activity as much as visual.

In addition, the relative rarity and prohibitive cost of books meant that even knowledge that was written down was likely passed on elsewhere as “oral” tradition. Many historians, biblical scholars, and theologians operate with a somewhat romantic notion of oral traditions being passed down through centuries until some enterprising figure has the temerity to put it down in writing, upon which momentous occasion the oral tradition is frozen and becomes a treasured piece of the communities literary legacy. Even stating it reveals it as simplistic. Even with the same stories or teachings, oral traditions and written traditions likely overlapped and were mutually informative. A text is “read” and interpreted even where it is repeated orally, and this “reading” affects the hermeneutical approach of the hearer to all subsequent readings/hearings of any related material.One person might recount a (textual) reading to another in some detail without the benefit of the text for reference. That “reading” may be passed along to several more hearers, before being integrated into another text. Where this is the case,  oral and written traditions are mutually informative.

The role of the author in such a setting is profoundly more ambiguous than our preference for the solitary creative genius. Someone who is compelled to put a narrative or teaching to writing may have heard several versions, deriving from textual recitations and/or oral recitation. She may have a text in front of her that carries most, but not all, of the detail that she considers crucial to understanding and communicating the heart of the message. At any rate, where there is a fluid relationship between orality and textuality, and a concern to collect and pass on what one has received, it is actually an act of profound hubris to name oneself as the author of a text. Where traditions have been passed on in varying degrees of orality and their genealogy is not easily traceable, it is quite reasonable that teachings and stories should coalesce around a major figure, in whose name they are retold. In a context where orality and textuality commingle far more than our own, pseudonymous authorship is less likely a rhetorical ploy on the part of an unimportant author to gain credibility and readership for the text (by the way, this post has been guest-written by Ben Myers), and more likely a recognition that the text itself is only the transmission of a tradition that predates it by far.

_______

[1] Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

h/t to a venerable teacher of my past, Bruce Fisk, for the title of the post.

faith is a ghost that haunts: Zizek and Barth

“One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted ‘between the lines,’ through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition.” [1]

“‘[Luther:] Only when that which is believed on is hidden, can it provide an opportunity for faith. And moreover, those things are most deeply hidden which most clearly contradict the obvious experience of the senses. Therefore, when God makes alive, He kills; when He justifies, He imposes guilt; when He leads us to heaven, He thrusts us down into hell.’ [Barth] The Gospel of salvation can only be believed in; it is a matter for faith only. It demands choice. This is its seriousness. To him that is not sufficiently mature to accept a contradiction and to rest in it, it becomes a scandal–to him that is unable to escape the necessity of contradiction, it becomes a matter for faith. Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative distinction between God and man and God and the world.” [2]

 Zizek and Barth (quoting Luther) resonate here in emphasizing the anti-humanist element of faith that cannot be fully exorcised. 

I like that contradiction is inescapable for Barth—faith is not a matter of resolving the contradictions of searching and longing for God in the world, but of moving forward through the scandal in awe. I like that Zizek understands that rolling the comforting words of the tradition around in one’s mouth is still superficial. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Job. 

Living in (and living out) the Christian tradition is not always uplifting, inspiring, and empowering. The faith that always smiles remains suspect. Has it ingested the contradictions, the fears, the doubts, the pain that are as integral to the transmission of the tradition as its hope, its joy, and its light?

This isn’t to valorize suffering and darkness as honorable, good, or even useful—it’s just to recognize that the Christian tradition has its ghosts and that all along the way the journey of faith is accompanied by these ghosts—even where they are supressed. 

________________________

[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 128.

[2] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1933), 39.

worship and service :: theological epistemology is praxis

“The pluralism of biblical symbolism reflects the real multivocity of human experiences of salvation granted in Christ, experiences that are contextual and perspectival. The variety and even apparent incoherence of the corresponding symbolism can be but little reduced and never resolved through conceptual analysis and systematic theology. Instead, salvation and the cross must be integrated and appropriated through the kinds of Christian practices (liturgy and ethics) within which New Testament metaphors for salvation were generated in the first place.” 

The range of metaphors that Scripture contains for the salvific human encounter with God cannot be contained in a single book or system. The word of God itself strains beyond itself, stretching at the limits of the language in which it is heard to express what that salvation is and how it has come to us through Jesus Christ. In the end, Christians can only come to understand the various aspects and dimensions of salvation by participating in the worship and the life of service which is (or ought to be) found in the church. Salvation is about the liberation of economic and political justice—and one learns this by means of concrete solidarity with people whom Jesus loves. Salvation is about the forgiveness of human guilt and shame—and one learns this in the daily rhythms of the community that sings and prays to the God who has carried human guilt all the way to hell. Salvation is about transforming broken human lives into images of God’s faithfulness—and one learns this by proclaiming the gospel of God’s basileia (reign) and being transformed in the process. One learns the multi-faceted significance of Scripture’s teaching about salvation by actively participating in the community (the body) whose historical experience stretches across the centuries to include the writing of that very same Scripture. 

____________________________

Lisa Sowle Cahill, “The Atonement Paradigm: Does it Still Have Explanatory Value,” Theological Studies 68 (2007): 421.