Theology and Philosophy – Milbank or Kant?

I hope that friends of the next theology will join me in welcoming the recent remark by John Milbank, in his 2011 Stanton Lectures, that the truer legacy of Thomas Aquinas is better sought “in the current of German Dominican mysticism and its Renaissance heirs” than in the soi-disant “Thomists” of a later day.

However, I cannot square this much-needed tip of the hat in the direction of religious experience with prof. Milbank’s later dismissal of Kant and the post-critical philosophy in the same lecture.  I’m wondering if he has any idea – since he doesn’t mention their names – that a very interesting turn to the subject characterized the work of some post-critical theologians – for example in the very adequate theologies of experience offered by Friedrich Schleiermacher and urged by Soren Kierkegaard.

Here I only wonder out loud about why it seems so important for Milbank to corral and brand Kant as of the herd of Duns Scotus, alleging that “an entire double current of both possibilism and transcendentalism flows from Scotus through Suarez through Wolff to Kant himself.”

Kantian Possibilism?  I have seen this argument in the secondary literature of the Analytical school, but I think they and Prof. Milbank will both miss the key to understanding Kant’s service to theology if they emphasize a single phrase like “Condition of possibility” with a view toward selling this as the sine qua non of a Kantian metaphysics that is all downstream from Scotus.

This gets complicated.  But for the blog, I’m only going to begin the argument with a statement of what I think the definition of philosophy must be if we are going to come to a satisfactory idea of its true relation to theology.

Philosophy’s task is to provide the intellectual methodology by which a person can be capable of simultaneously possessing both a genuine knowledge and a genuine faith.

By this I mean to cover a situation in which (a) the religious method of faith (whatever that turns out to be) cannot rule out-of-hand against the objective data of relations in and with the finite world and (b) the scientific method cannot rule out-of-hand against the subjective data of relationship with God.  As my definition implies, I’m actually talking about one and the same philosophical person using a pure philosophy to negotiate these two sides of the coin of real experience.

A careful reader should see Kant’s name written all over this definition of mine.  But metaphysics?  Not so much that can ‘go forward as science,’ as Kant would say.  Negatives aside, I think the positives in the Kantian program should be seen as good for theology.

I find one other Kantian sympathizer has blogged her misgivings of the lecture’s approach to the Critical Philosophy – Crystal also includes a clip of a Kant lecture by Keith Ward.

HT to Lee for the link to Crystal

And to Marc Cortez for the link to Milbank’s lecture.

Metaphysical verse

Higher readings

.

Our race attains by careful steps (we say),

to knowledge of our clay;

the cleft of rock from whence it came, we know

percents of sand and loam,

of precious ores, and what the lime, and what

the iron readings say.

.

But if we care (says she) who mined the cleft,

who loved us first, gave breath,

and turned us on the wheel – we gain that life

from whence he came, who donned

our clay, to face and finish death – these things

the higher readings say.

.

Needy hearts (we say) put too much hope in

fay warnings and unknowns.

The turning wheel makes us true; we trust in

high firings and fine glazes

for strength and length of days – all these are knowns,

in minutes and degrees.

.

I see shards in a vale like dry bones (says she),

with no prophet sighing,

nor showing any sign worth possessing;

What means “whither after?”

to vessels not caring if they be made

for wrath or for blessing.

.

J.F.S. Anngeister, 2011, all rights reserved.

.

Note:  The poem has absorbed so much time in the past 2 weeks that I publish it here hoping to set it in stone, and to move on (I probably can’t).

The rhyme is irregular but functional, I think, and the six-line stanzas 10-6-10-6-10-6 (with rare but warranted exceptions) helped me embrace words which – out of thousands of wonderfully ‘possible’ and very deserving words – seemed to me most ‘fit’ to join my thoughts together in this particular case.

I worry that my meaning has become too terse from the lines being overwrought, and this makes me feel like writing more lines than I did.  However, I decided that any more than four stanzas would run the pottery metaphor into the ground.

Empyrean Dialogues 3 – The Forerunner

The meeting of Moses and the Son goes on in the Empyrean prior to the Incarnation.  Moses has expressed concern that the Forerunner may be adversely influenced by Jewish apocalyptic writing.

MOSES:  The saints are of course thrilled, Sire, that a native son of Israel will be harbinger of your mission.

THE SON:  The son of Zechariah will be the last of a great line.

MOSES:   His birth will precede yours by only months, and your minister has already contacted the parents.

THE SON:  I heard.  They’ll call him John – ‘God is gracious’.

MOSES:  Gracious indeed, to send one last prophet to the Jews in these latter days.

THE SON:  But the saints are concerned that John will be influenced too much by the Jewish end-timers?

MOSES:   Nobody’s kidding themselves, Sire.  As things currently stand, the forerunner is a cipher, an unknown factor.  Left to himself, we think he’ll come out fighting, and with so many answers blowing in the wind, there could be a down side to putting him out there ‘cold’ like this.

THE SON:  But I like the idea of contingencies.  And the contrasts.  You’re suggesting what – that he should be guided by special divine inspiration?

MOSES:   Think about it, Sire.  Many of your best people will probably come from among his followers.

THE SON:  So you’re saying John’s views – whatever they turn out to be – will be a major context for my own teaching in the minds of those who listened to John.

MOSES:  Seriously.

THE SON:  Nevertheless my mission needs an advance man, some grassroots, a native ‘bellwether.’

MOSES:  Some of the saints are saying ‘loose cannon.’

THE SON:   I don’t deny that we have a lot riding on him.

MOSES:   Maybe too much, Sire.  But I heard Father wants this.

THE SON:  Absolutely.  And no cue-cards – one last prophet of the old school, somebody alone with his doubt and his righteousness, and the still, small voice.  It’s in honor of the Promise.

MOSES:  But the parents, in their advanced age, already marvel at his conception.  And our minister’s visit has caused the old man to start fermenting his own ideas about God’s promise.

THE SON:  These things are in Father’s hands, really. 

MOSES:  And I’m not sure I understand the blood tie – a cousin in the flesh?  You know what that will look like in a more skeptical age?

THE SON:  There’s some backstory there that you should know.  First of all – what we already know – Father has made it clear there won’t be any earthly thrones for me – even if I am accepted by Israel.

MOSES:  Right, whether Israel goes with acceptance or rejection, you’ll be back with us when it’s over, ruling from the right hand of Power.

THE SON:  OK, but Moses, the thing is that Father’s acceptance scenario – if it comes into play – may yet feature a king in Israel.  If all goes well – think of it –  John himself could be that King, after I depart.

MOSES:  Sire, I am increasingly in awe of this acceptance scenario!  And Father’s right – your blood relations will be on their short list, if you can’t be king.  This is all very well.  But I’ve also seen the Mandate for your mission, and it’s not all sweetness and light – especially as far as the temple cult is concerned.

So how are you with Father’s plan as far as the rejection scenario goes?

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues 1 – Annunciation

Empyrean Dialogues 2 – Of Times and Seasons

Kierkegaard – Praying to an unchanging God

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it”

– Soren Kierkegaard (1847)

We misunderstand Kierkegaard’s meaning here if we think he’s saying prayer doesn’t reach God.  Neither is he calling prayer a one-way street, or a futile method of venting hope and desire, or a technique of problem-solving by self-hypnosis.

We Christians know that ‘God does not change’ (Mal 3:6); ‘shows no partiality’  (Rom 2:11); ‘nor shadow of turning’ (Jas 1:17).  But we have also been invited to pray (Mat 9:38 & etc.).  How’s that going to work then?

The average person might admit the Bible teaching but not recognize the theo-logical importance of a concept of an unchanging God.  The point is that prayer  invoked with the idea that God may be changed or show partiality tends to move our worship in the direction of an imaginary being of our own creation – a man-made god.  A prayer made in expectation that God will fulfill our needs and desires is a wish to make God more like us.  This is opposed to that faith which would make us more like God.

Kierkegaard recognized the religious need to reach God – to be heard – and the theological value of the concept of an unchanging God.  He preached an address in May, 1851, entitled “The Unchangeableness of God” (Jas 1:17-21), in which he developed the religious sense of this paradoxical situation – the human need  for change from a God who must be – by the Bible and the best theological definitions – unchangeable in nature.

From the opening prayer to the 1851 address:

“… Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh; this moves Thee, O infinite Love!  But nothing changes Thee! O Thou who art unchangeable!  O Thou who in infinite love dost submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”

I think Kierkegaard’s insight was to recognize that impassibility (freedom from suffering) was not a necessary quality of divine immutability when considered in the context of an unchanging love.

What God gets in this arrangement is a man who seeks in his prayer time the  next move in the continuous change he should be making in the direction of more and more God.

What man gets is a God that hears him, and even suffers affliction with him (if need be) in unchanging love.

Note:  Top quote,  Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (2. “Remorse, Confession, Repentance”) – ET D.V. Steere, 1938; 1851 address, in For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! (Princeton, 1941)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Aids to Reflection (1825)

 

S. T. Coleridge 1772-1834

 

I meddle not with the dispute respecting conversion, whether, and in what sense, necessary in all Christians.  It is sufficient for my purpose, that a very large number of men, even in Christian countries, need to be converted, and that not a few, I trust, have been.  The tenet becomes fanatical and dangerous, only when rare and extraordinary exceptions are made to be the general rule; – when what was vouchsafed to the apostle of the Gentiles by especial grace, and for an especial purpose, namely a conversion begun and completed in the same moment, is demanded or expected of all men, as a necessary sign and pledge of their election.  (Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, Introductory Aphorisms, XXVIII)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s religious writing has always been a bigger draw for me than his poetry.  But Aids to Reflection is not an easy read; some of Coleridge’s concerns are dated, his style is ornate, with his sentences given to long dependent clauses.  Why do I bother?

I have a peculiar brand of liberal Christianity which still has a God and a Christ, still defends a supernaturalist view of the cosmos – but cannot find a liberal church or a secular university that doesn’t demean this God and this Christ and this cosmos.  Consequently I have only a very limited contemporary intellectual mileu and am, by all accounts, an inveterate Anachronist.  My intellectual passion for over 30 years has been dominated by philosophers, theologians, preachers, writers, and poets largely born before 1900 (although I enjoy a handful born later, and a few of the oldies, even, were writing past the 1960s).

Why so few favorites born after 1900?  Well ‘the times’ change, they say.  In our secular age, fewer and fewer really fit human minds are finding the Christian churches and the life of religion and theology to be a lure to their tremendous talents.  Not that I am a talent, but only that I know a good mind when I see one.  My father-in-law, a physician, remarked recently that he has seen evidence of a similar ‘brain drain’ in medicine – I mean of the tip-top minds, the epoch-makers, he suggested that too many who 100 years ago would have seen medicine as the avenue of greatest idealism and service had been attracted (or distracted) into careers that appeared to offer the latest salaries and different fascinations.

So I go back to the age when there were still really top minds able to believe in God and push the envelope of a constructive theology.  It’s that simple.  And it was decades ago that I found in the stacks of a great old seminary library a book by Scottish professor John Tulloch, Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the Nineteenth Century (1885).  In this precious old work I discovered to my surprise  many  inquiring religious minds which suited me both spiritually and intellectually in a remarkable way – and most of them were expressing a significant debt to Coleridge.

Awakened by a cock-crow (a sermon, a calamity, a sickbed, or a providential escape) the Christian pilgrim sets out in the morning twilight, while yet the truth is below the horizon.  Certain necessary consequences of his past life and his present undertaking will be seen by the refraction of its light: more will be apprehended and conjectured.  The phantasms, that had predominated during the hours of darkness, are still busy.  Though they no longer present themselves as distinct forms, they yet remain as formative notions in the pilgrim’s soul, unconscious of its own activity and over-mastered by its own workmanship.  (XXIX)

Lustful looking – when is it sin and when is it not sin?

When Jimmy Carter confessed to adultery-of-the-heart in 1976 he uttered a commonplace (and false) assumption that an unexpressed desire is equivalent with actual sin:

Carter:  “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times [cites Matthew 5:27-28].  This is something that God recognizes that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it… Because I’m just human and I’m tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us.”

Impossible standards? Well yes, if Carter seriously believes that the profound teaching of Jesus at Mt. 5:27-28 applies to unexpressed desires, or to feelings of attraction or arousal in the act of looking at a woman. A little exegesis, however, should show that Carter has allowed a widespread misinterpretation of the Bible to create the illusion of impossible standards – and the illusion of sin.

I say give Jesus a break! Look for the true point of his teaching by seeking a true moral principle in connection with the true Biblical meaning, and not in a ridiculous evangelical can of corn like ‘psychological sin.’

In Mt. 5:28 Jesus’ meaning comes to us on the back of two Greek words: blepon, watching or looking on; and epithymesai, evil desire, lust, covetousness.  But these two words possess a common meaning tone that make it impossible to equate adultery with every feeling of desire at the sight of a woman’s beauty.

First, look at the scripture meanings generally conveyed by forms of the Greek word epithymesai:

Epithymesai is rarely used of a merely passive desire – it always gets or seeks its fill of its object – it’s not just an empty wish that you had something that was someone else’s – it’s the way the wicked covet other people’s fields before they seize them, as in Micah 2:2, cf. Ex 15:9, where we read, “My desire shall have its fill”

Not only does Epithymesai enthrall the subject, it finds ways of testing its object to see if it will deliver its craving unto it, as in Ps 78:18, “demanding the food they craved” (as a test)

It requires the hands to reach out and get a hold on its object, implied in Prov 21:25-26, “desires kill the sluggard, for his hands do not choose to do anything”

The key to understanding this kind of desire is that it is not random or unconscious or accidental but is headstrong and has a selfish plan of conquest, like the “stubborn hearts” in Ps 81:12, “which follow their own counsel” (see also Ex. 20:17; Ps. 10:3; Acts 20:33; Col. 3:5; 1Tim 6:9-10; Jas.  1:14-15; 2 Pet 1:4).

Now look at the second word, blepon.

In three significant places in the Greek Old Testament, the word used by Jesus is not used to signify ‘looking upon’ nakedness:

Gen 3:7 – blepon is not used where there is a need to express the way Adam and Eve ‘look upon’ each other’s nakedness after the fall.

Gen 9:22-23 – blepon is not used to express the way Ham ‘looked upon’ the nakedness of his father Noah.

2 Sam 11:2 – blepon is not used to express the way David ‘looked upon’ the nakedness of Bathsheeba.

Check it out. The word family chosen by ‘the 70’ wise translators was idein and not blepon.

Why?  Because blepon is used in OT and NT not so much for a ‘seeing’ of things in front of you in space but more often for a foreseeing of things, a looking ahead to a situation that is not yet realized in time, such as things seen in a vision – or in a wicked plan (like a seduction).

So Jesus was indeed talking about a sin that is committed in the heart before it has been enacted, but it involves the kind of looking forward with wicked desire to possess that implies overt action with intent to seduce or allure someone, and not simply the childish indulgence of ‘a look.’

But beware, because Jesus has chosen his words so well that they clearly imply that this flirtatious action with intent to seduce is ‘adultery’ even in cases when it is unsuccessful.  If the targeted partner rejects your tacit invitation, or if your aims are frustrated by the least miscellaneous condition or event – Jesus is saying that is still adultery.  You’re liable even if you failed in your aim.

I think this is quite a serious and godly warning against sin, and doubly effective, since it applies to women as well as to men.

What about pornography?  Well there are issues of involvement that make it sin, but I would argue it is not mortal sin on the level of adultery.  Comments about that?

(to be continued)

Kant’s Religion and Schleiermacher’s Faith

I am inspired (again) by the mind of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – the occasion this time being my third trip through Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793, 2nd 1794 – ET 1934).  I’ve read and re-read a lot of Kant’s books since making my first attempt at the Critique of Pure Reason in 1975.  When my wife saw me paging through the Critique again about 7 years ago she asked, “Weren’t you reading that book when we first met?” (like, haven’t you finished that yet?).  But in my view Kant merits (and rewards) re-reading above all other philosophers.

My second solo study of the Religion was only five years ago (margin notes – no paper).  But this week I benefitted a lot from the discipline of a 25-page per day format and the knowledge that I was accompanied by three other students.   Before the new year started I found this very interesting 2011 reading plan in theology so attractive that I’m going to try to keep up with Jeremy and bloggers Wes Hargrove , and A.J. Smith  at least through April, catching the ‘Liberal’ works on his list.  A.J. will lead off the commentary on Jeremy’s blog soon, and I hope to add comments to their posts.

I think my old T.M. Greene translation served me well once again, but I found Werner Pluhar’s 2009 translation, which has some improvements – including an introduction by Steven Palmquist (which amounts to saying I’m bound to read this great work a fourth time someday and am actually looking forward to it).

Meanwhile I’m already embarked on the plan’s second volume, Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (1820/31 – ET 1928).  You think you know what he meant by Absolute Dependence and God-consciousness?  Think again – and join us if you can for 25-pages a day (just started) in this classic work of theology (I haven’t read this one myself except for scattered parts of the text).

Apocalypse now and then

I have absolutely no doubt that warnings about a day of the Lord scheduled for May 21 of this year are false. In fact, somebody who was as sure as I am that this preacher is making a bad call would need to have a vision of his own on the matter.  All right then.

Except my vision doesn’t grant me a view of the future; it gives me hindsight into the past – and I most solemnly warn you that the end of the first Christian dispensation has already happened.

I cannot account for the fact that this is still old news; perhaps others are too cowardly to come forward.  But I know those ‘others’ wouldn’t be the Pope or the Archbishops of any denomination – they were never told. No Synod or any other conference of churches had a clue.  And forget about the Evangelicals and the Jews – God can’t tell them anything any more.

I claim no knowledge of specific dates, but only a kind of ballpark figure.  But what I’m seeing is that, at some point during or shortly after the First World War, God very quietly and unequivocally wrote off the old Christian dispensation as ‘not good enough’ for his Son.  Believe me.

NO, I’m not talking about the alleged Apocalypse called by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for the year 1914 – that was no different than this latest 2011 deal – a makeshift built on Daniel’s well-known figure of 1260 and other textual cyphers.  Funny how it always comes down to these numbers in Daniel, and it’s always wrong.  It was just a lucky hit for the Witnesses that they came up with a year in which a World War started.  But the excitement ended for them on January 1, 1915, when it became evident God was featuring nothing more spectacular than the destruction of Christian civilization. The mistake was soon forgotten; membership was up, they moved on.

But for God this was a big thing.  Again, I can’t pin-point the year for you, but ‘the End’ of the old Christian dispensation was brought down in unheralded despair and gloom during one of those crazy, shifting, catastrophic years between those two monstrous secular conflagrations (WWI and WWII).  After a near-total failure by the Christian leadership to stand by the Gospel of Jesus in the summer of 1914, the Reformation gospel  was out on the dung heap with the Pope’s tiara as far as God was concerned.

Meanwhile God’s life goes on in temples not made with hands…  but those external, sectarian forms of Christianity we see ‘still rolling along’ are moving not by the grace of God any more but only by virtue of an original divine impetus – the same kind of motion a long train would exhibit on a very gentle but steady backwards downgrade after being decoupled from its engine.

The plan was not for Christianity to go away (clearly) but God definitely wanted a new model, a second dispensation, with an effective peace testimony and an end to the awful man-made creeds which had been mistaken for faith and only got in the way of his Son’s offer of love and salvation to all who sought him in spirit and in truth (God’s still waiting).