Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Random connects on art and beauty

The quoted material which follows is from Luci Shaw. Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination and Spirit: A Reflection on Creativity and Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007.
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"The benison (blessing) of the sacramental view of life, then, is that the Logos which first called the universe into being, now embraces and defines it, assigning meaning and value at every level. As C. S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as i believe the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else." Some people say that seeing is believing, but Flannery O'Connor tells us, "For the writer, to belive nothing is to see nothing." As we write about what we see, in all its concrete detail, its hard and shining edges, or its half-glimpsed outlines..." We call attention to. We reveal creation to be beautiful. Beauty is always tied to the real, the observable. It is there to be seen. Experienced. Beauty is perhaps one of the few things that constantly calls us back to God, that reminds us of an ideal of goodness and vitality, a reality that embodies the beautiful. The Benedictines hold that beauty is "truth shining into being," a principle adopted by John Keats in his famous "beauty is truth, truth beauty." In this sense beauty is redemptive. It motivates and awakens us. It surprises us and leads us to pursue a new objective.

"There is something that art says which is so qualitatively different that it demands a radically different expression. Where linear, logical thinking may produce prose with a specific function--information, or historical record, or critical analysis, or instruction, art selects and reflects on a small slice of human experience and lays it out there, a gift to anyone who is willing to savor it and enter into the artist's experience even in a minimal way. The artist, ideally, communicates experience in images and forms so precisely tailored, so personal, so multi-leveled that its insights go far beyond bare facts or mere usefulness.

"When the artist lives in the house of faith, her or his consciousness is suffused with and informed by Christian images, and when that imaginative intelligence is allowed freely to describe life-experience, the images and words supplied and shaped by the artist will reflect Christian belief even when there is no overt effort or intention to do so."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hannah's natality and Jürgen's novum

In his short essay "Natality or Advent: Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Moltmann on Hope and Politics" (in The Future of Hope. eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 125-143), David Billings, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, discerns a hidden-yet-implicit advent in the political eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann. He does this using concepts found in the naturalistic philosophy of Hannah Arendt. Arendt taught in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace 1973) and other works that political hope requires a concept of natality which sees in each new generation something altogether new. The enemy is a repetitive, circular understanding of time in which nothing new has ever been or will ever be. It is true that, like all living things, human beings live and die. This is the fore and aft of their being. Nevertheless, as Moltmann and Arendt agree, such circularity deflates political motivation.

Hannah Arendt defines natality as "the fact that we all begin this life in birth and that each birth represents something radically new—a new beginning—a newcomer and an individual the world has never seen before." (127) Natality requires linear time. Each individual is an unrepeatable subjectivity that transcends the sameness of the animal world. Natality also suggests a foothold for political hope. In each new person, there is the prospect of actions that have not been before, there is the hope of change that may come. (Contrast this against Martin Heidegger's "throwness" and "being unto death".) "With natality we have an opening of future horizons and the possibility of hope" (132).

Hannah Arendt developed her concept of natality based on an argument in Augustine's Civitas Dei (though Augustine talks about creation rather than birth.) In this particular section of the Civitas, Augustine argues against reincarnation and with it any belief that what seems new in nature is but the product of what has previously existed. This entire wheel of fate, in Augustine's mind, must be broken simply because it denies redemption. If there can never be a new, then there is no possibility of redemptive escape from calamity and evil.

Hannah Arendt's natality takes up the threads of this debate. She seems to bring Augustine's insights constructively to bear on twentieth century political action. Yet, there is a fatal flaw: naturalism. Hannah Arendt was a naturalist, and therefore she could not with Augustine affirm a future eschatological redemption. As Billings begins interrogating the superstructure of Arendt's natality–the basis of her political hope - it crumbles. "Taken by itself and stripped from a context of eschatological ends, natality provides little hope. Yes, the future may be different because of the implicit promise of "the new" in each new birth; this difference may, however, be evil" (134). Political hope demands a surer foundation than what might be. It requires meaning which is grounded in absolute transcendence.

At the same time there is a weakness in Augustine. Denying the circularity of the ebb-n-flow living world in its natura naturans, Augustine sets his sight on redemptive apocalypse. Yet, he skews too far toward into the immaterial, a by-product of latent Manichean neo-platonism. Augustine holds out hope, but not political hope. It is hope that does not suggest action in the world. Billings turns to Jürgen Moltmann.

Jürgen Moltmann's eschatological program, as set out in a dozen or so books between his Theology of Hope and Coming of God, understands a thoroughly proleptic apocalypse. His eschatology is not futurist (not-yet), nor presentative (now-already), but adventus (that which is is coming, but is not yet here). Moltmann teaches this according to his category of the novum. The novum is the breaking open of linear time by transcendent, eschatological time (there is significant borrowing from Karl Barth's understanding of God's temporality). In his promises, chiefly incarnated in the Christ-event, God has begun to arrive. These advent-points open up a history of God, whereby the One who is and was, is also to come. "God's future is not that he will be as he was and is, but that he is on the move and coming towards the world. God's being is in his coming, not his becoming" (137). God's arrival, too, is not an end, but a taking up, a fulfilling. Not a destruction, but a reconstruction in an altogether better way.

The novum provides a powerful political category that corrects Augustine and suggests Arendt. The novum cannot be anticipated by anything that is already here, freeing history from the past. Its entry creates new possibilities against the promise of God's ultimate redemption when he arrives and becomes all-in-all. The novum enters history as advent, and stimulates human social hopes toward the resistance of faith and the patience of hope. Its penultimate example is the resurrection of the Christ. The resurrection "lets us look beyond the horizon of this world's end into God's new world. Life out of this hope then means already acting here and today in accordance with that world of justice and righteousness and peace, contrary to appearances, and contrary to all historical chances of success" (138). Here is Augustine corrected. But what about the suggestion of Arendt?

There are many similarities between Hannah Arendt's natality and Jürgen Moltmann's eschatology. Billings notes that both desire political action on the basis of the radically new. Yet, Arendt's naturalism cannot take in Moltmann's eschatology. The novum is a miraculous inbreaking ex nihilo that has no analogue in Arendt. But what about the other way round?

Moltmann avoids language about birth because the birth-process resembles so much that old idea of nothing new under the sun. The infant comes forth from its mother, there is nothing new after all. But, as Billings says, "It is the new, utterly unique life inaugurated by birth that can astonish us, not the mere fact that a birth follows labor," leading him to conclude that "the new of natality could be incorporated into Moltmann's thought" (140).

This is a charming and human insight. Natality has a lived humanitas about it, which the abstract novum lacks. Whereas novum only exists as one of two opposing points vis-à-vis reincarnation, natality reveals a continuum between them. Natality finds a middle-way so that it is a new beginning toward the future that does not completely jettison the past. "Natality's newness comes from within. The newcomers that form the new generation are always our children" (141). Note the parallel between natality's newness, which arrives outside of expectation but not outside of being, and the new which politics requires, because it is always immersed in context and tradition.

David Billings suggests that a "Moltmannian natality" enhances the power of political hope beyond that created by the novum. It does so because it does not deny or condemn the past. Both of those options are dangerous in every context. It does so because it sounds the most like redemption and renewal and denies eschatological annihilation. Indeed, writes Billings, "we must not forget that this coming of God is a return. The one who is returning is the one who was born unto us. A stranger is not coming but one of us, a part of the human community" (142). Billings concludes by suggesting that Moltmann's christological perspective should include natality. A union of advent and natality is not unlike the incarnation itself, he says. "When natality is understood in the context of a christological eschatology, the new thing of which I am capable may be a reflection of the birth of Christ within time and within me" (145).
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do evangelicals simply postpone the inevitable?

Evangelicals make strong claims about the power of the gospel, that is true. So why, then, do they tend toward pessimism when it comes to eschatology & social expectation? Again, if the stories that people tell embody their hopes, why are evangelicals attracted to the negative? This is the central question that Daniel Johnson, associate professor of sociology at Gordon College, asks in his essay "Contrary Hopes" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg (Eerdmans 2004), 27-48.

In the section "The Contrarieties of Evangelical Social Hope," Johnson admits that there are several answers. A minority of evangelicals take salvation to be largely an inner, spiritual affair. Therefore, they do not see the need for a social conscience. "Christ is to come back . . . to receive his own. . . . nothing else of the world need be transported" (33). This does not reflect the majority of evangelicals, nor the social history of that movement. Evangelicals have historically displayed a social hope. But, as Johnson continues, this hope is tempered greatly by an emphasis on depravity. "The evangelical community has been less sanguine than most about the prospects of actually fulfilling social hopes in the present age." (35) Set in the foundation of depravity, an immovable point of human limitation, is the doorway of apocalypse. Apocalypse opens a way past human limitations into possibility and reveals "the coming-to-be of the "like new" world that is the ultimate object of social hope" (36). Thus, evangelicals do not arrive at hope without first crossing an apocalyptic end.

Such juxtaposition of absolute finality and social hope is the primary gestalt of Johnson's argument. Evangelicals, he says, actually express social hope in the form of stories of civilization gone wrong. Citing Sacvan Bercovitch, Johnson says that American jeremiads are meant to motivate rather than squelch social action.

Johnson offers several reasons for this paradox, grounding each in changes to the society at large. In the section "Hope Lost or Reconfigured?", he begins by noting that culture as a whole, religious or otherwise, has lost the ability to sustain social hope. For one, so many social groups exist that no one can contribute a solid enough narrative upon which great hopes can be hung. The result is a kind of communal melancholy: "the collapse of compelling shared narratives has made conventional forms of social hoping unsustainable" (41). For another, as technological prowess has reduced the threat of natural calamity, it has also introduced new forms of threat, such as nuclear catastrophe. This new class of threats empty apocalyptic hopes, since the end we usually thought of has now been replaced by global, technological calamity. Instead of embracing our apocalypse, we want to avoid them. Hope is hoping such things do not happen, and especially not today. Finally, the expression of social hope in politics used to discover itself in the distribution of wealth, but now consists largely of arguments over where to put various technological "bads" - nuclear power plants, chemical storage facilities - and in the avoidance of risk. Politics is about distributing risk, at much an anti-hope. "If many of the principle actors in a political environment are accustomed to engagements wherein "avoidance imperatives predominate," then they have little cause to entertain positive visions of what the world could become. Still less do they have cause to come together in pursuit of such visions." (46)

Johnson concludes this section by noting that the burden of managing risk has become personalized. Each person is responsible for governing her own exposure to risk in innumerable areas using many different forms of "insurance" (monetary or otherwise.) In the face of risks arrayed in such overwhelmingly complexity, hope becomes a protest against the possible, rather than a campaign for it. "In short, the principal orientation toward the future in evidence today encourages a negative form of hoping...[a] guarding against discretely determined negative outcomes....this may help to account for [evangelical's] satisfaction with purely negative expressions of social hope." (48)

Anyone interested in changing the tide had better take Johnson's diagnosis to heart.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Smith's 3-points of phenomenological analysis

James K. A. Smith, associate professor of philosophy, Calvin College, details three key elements of phenomenology in his article, "Determined Hope: A Phenomenology of Christian Expectation." I'm going to quote the entire few paragraphs here, risking redundancy, because Smith's explanation is so straightforward.

"First, as Edmund Husserl observes (in contrast to Descartes), consciousness is intentional; that is, consciousness is never without an object or a world; rather, I always have before me--whether I am perceiving, judging, feeling, or remembering--an "object" of consciousness. I cannot think without thinking of something. Thus, the first fundamental insight of phenomenology, known as the doctrine of intentionality[1], observes that consciousness is always consciousness of.

Second, the object intended is constituted by the ego. This simply means that the ego "makes sense" or, literally, "gives meaning" (Sinngebung [Sinn, meaning; -gebung, given]) to experience by "putting together" or constituting the data of experience into an identifiable "object."[2] The wave of data coming at my senses right now is "put together" and "make sense of" by consciousness so that rather than waves of color and light, I perceive before me a screen, books, a watch, and so on. Anything that would be completely undetermined could not be constituted into an object, and thus could not be "intended" in any way. it would have no "significance" (recalling the connection between something having meaning and being significant) and could not, in the technical sense, be "experience."

Finally, this process of constitution can happen only within horizons of constitution, which provide the context within which I "make sense" of what is before me. In other words, constitution happens within horizons of meaning which enable me to see the object before me as a lamp or as a cup.[3] Thus these "horizons of expectation," we might say, while functioning as conditions, are also precisely what enable me to make sense of my experience."
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[1] Consciousness is described as "intentional" because it always "aims" at objects; the Latin term for this kind of aiming (found in Aquinas' epistemology, for instance) is intentio. In Husserl's terminology, to intend an object is also to "mean" an object, to intend it as something; this relates to the principles of constitution and horizonality.

[2]This is a largely passive process according to Husserl, and is governed by processes of habituation and the historical formation of the ego (at least as it is described in later works such as Husserl's Cartesian Meditations).

[3] This is analogous to the role of as-structures in Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001). It is precisely when these horizons are "out of joint"--as in cross-cultural situations--that I constitute objects differently. I might, for instance, like Ariel the Little Mermaid, find myself in a foreign environment where I have difficulty constituting the objects before me because I lack horizons, or I constitute them differently, as when Ariel spots the fork and constitutes it as an object for combing her hair.


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Friday, May 05, 2006

Archer logizes the phenomena

Ken Archer, a graduate student at the School of Philosophy, Catholic University of America, makes a good argument for the usefulness of phenomenology to Christian theology in his paper "The Turn to Husserl and Phenomenology by Protestant and Catholic Philosophers for the Redemption of Reason." Taking Dallas Willard, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Archer argues that all three men understand benefits from Husserl phenomenology as (a) a reading of Scripture rooted in epistemic realism, and (b) a nonfoundational doctrine of ethics built on what people do rather than on abstract first principles, the result of which is " a consequent concern for the formation of ethical people within Christian theology."

Reason, he begins, was pulled away from anthropology and made its own thing. Reason and the rational became a discipline of specialist, tinkerers of method reserving "truth" for whatever is arrived at by their own machinations. Thus "to be rational [was] reserved to those who mastered the activities of mind through the application of methods of inquiry." Phenomenology does not breathe such rarified air.

Rather, says Archer, phenomenology is inherent in everyday thinking. It is not the development and mastery of a method, but a description of what is there, a description "of the structure of all cognitive experience present in all human living." And this is a major point that Archer makes: phenomenology view our daily cognitive experience as already structured towards revealing the truth of things." Phenomenological inquiry, therefore, is but the "discovery and description of everyday reason." "Our daily cognitive lives are inherently structured towards revealing the truth about reality, and are thus inherently rational." So much for the enlightenment.

Husserl discovered, as it were, an Achilles heel above the rim of Descartes's shoe. The enlightenment took reason as "a method or tool of the mind used to master its own actives." Reason was said to operate in a spatial context, leaping out of the so as to talk about the truth of things outside the brain. Consciousness exists on its own, then, an absolute solipsism that collects a real knowledge of the world by the application of an appropriate method. The senses, what the mind knows, require such a method to achieve real knowledge.

Husserl, with others (Archer identifies Lambert, Kant, Hegel, Brentano and Mach) redefined mind. Consciousness, he said, is always consciousness of something in extra-mental reality. Solipsism is impossible, then, because thought is thinking about, thinking of something else. The play between one's ears is impossible because the play itself requires a supporting relationship to the world ad extra. "Consciousness and the world are so directly and inseparably related that, without the world, there would be no consciousness." Therefore, Husserl rejected both legs of Enlightenment reason, and called for a do-over. Why not begin with actual acts of thinking, he said. Instead of requiring a special method to know anything about the world, Husserl said that thinking reveals "the direct and unmediated relationship between mind and world in which the mind present the world as consciousness . . . a consciousness naturally ordered toward revealing the truth of things." A new epistemology is needed, one that examines the structure of this revealing. The way consciousness comes about "reveals the reasonableness of thinking itself."

Now where language is concerned (language in general, scripture in particular), language is no longer a symbolic method to get at the world. Husserl believed thinking, that relationship that is the "thinking of," precedes language (rather than the view that says that if we don't have the language for it, we can't think it.) Language and texts, for all three of Archer's representative thinkers, disclose, rather than prejudice and shut out, the world. Of course, when applied to scripture, this means that scripture is not true for any other reason than reality, itself, is true. Authority has to rest on the truth of the real world, and not in arguments about whether something is revealed or not. All language is structured to reveal the truth of the world, to bring the world to a greater presence for ourselves and others, and this is true whether that language is in the Gospel of Mark or in a "polemical essay, poetry, math equation, the script of a play." The "world revealed in scriptures is fundamentally the same as our world today." Elsewhere, Archer discusses the truth-telling importance of the "theory of theatre" on John Paul II. Therefore,

The approach to texts just discussed does not look for axiomatic claims in texts to serve as foundational premises for knowledge of reality to be certain, rather it allows any text to disclose any essential elements of reality for the reader. An insightful text thus fills in our knowledge of our world by unfolding and revealing more essentials of our world to us.

And what is this but the epistemological principle of identity applied to hermeneutics!

Now the way phenomenology's reconstruction of reason connects with ethics is rather intuitive. Archer explains that "one we learn that reason has been trying to tell us the truth of things" we become more responsible to act rationally. Contemporary ethical theories are either consequentialist / utilitarian or deontological / duty-based" theories. Both assume a foundation, a method. Phenomenology denies the quest for the perfect method. We shouldn't be continually waiting to know more, always carrying about a hermeneutic of suspicion. Rather, we should act on our experiences and memories. What matters is not the formation of an ethic which must then be enacted, but the formation of ethical persons who simply do what they do--live ethically. Archer quotes Dallas Willard, "The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law." (Divine Conspiracy 184) And, as Archer admits, all three men understand Husserl's ethical move as a serious return to Aristotle, where ethics is "simply revealing what ethical people do."

John Paul II absolutely conjoined the epistemological and ethical aspects of phenomenology; "moral action [like reason] is also essential to human living." Just as reason is thinking of something inseparably, so living is always moral living. "Man interacts with reality continuously not only via consciousness but also via moral action, which is made possible by the continuous presence of reason which is the basis for responsible action. . . . action and thus moral agency is a constant concomitant to reason. . . . Right reason does not simply give us answers to occasional ethical dilemmas that we face, rather it reveals all of life to be a continuous occasion for moral action." Note, please, this quote Archer pulls from Willard's Divine Conspiracy:

First we must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God's kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being "right," we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life." (348-349)



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