Friday, September 17, 2010

Theology as craft

Theology is not who you have read most recently. It is not the newest jewel in your cap of jargon. It is not the recognition that the argument has been better traced by another. It is not understanding of the history of ideas. It is not the playground of the leisure class. Theology does not require your razor wit or applicable metaphor. It is not necessary for it to prove anything, nor does one who needs proof go to it. It does not swell with victory over its enemies, nor is it threatened by them. It fills dogma as a vessel. Yet, dogma does not exhaust it. If one learned the Summa by rote for recitation, would it make one a theologian? Doesn’t the Devil quote the bible chapter and verse?

I have degrees. What did I learn?
I have spent. What did I buy?
I have read. What did it profit?
I should know better, and yet have so often regressed.
I should be a teacher, but do footnotes teach?

What is theology, then? I deny it as a footnote or a name. I forbid it to be bound hand-and-foot by historical situation. I forbid it to be owned. And so, not philosophy or taxonomy, it must be something else, something ignored and of little account in modernity. Ah, yes, it is that thing behind the work of self-discipline--that is the way. Theology is rules that engender ways of being. In short, it is a craft.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Channeling Napoleon Hill

What follows is a comment made to a post that my pastor, Father Jody Howard, made following an article in the Living Church about the challenges facing the Episcopal Church. At the end of the article, Rev. Dr. Neal Michell, canon for strategic development in the Diocese of Dallas, writes, “The problems facing our church are spiritual in nature. We have not been faithful enough disciples of Jesus Christ. We have not reached out to those around us with the Good News of Jesus Christ.” My response is as follows:

Brueggemann's call for a return to personal discipleship is definitely part of the solution; however, that is simply not enough. That may become a vibrant monasticism or fundamentalism, (which may be the option that best exemplifies God's design for the church in the world. For me, the jury is still out on that one. And if it does come down here, I choose monasticism over fundamentalism.) but it will not solve the puzzle of why there simply isn't traction in the culture. In my mind, this is a problem with language and with anthropology. Language because there is simply no longer a common linguistic "game" that allows people to talk about religious ideas. (And, one might say, this is part of a broader problem: that the public square has so collapsed that even talking about ideas of public consequence has been reduced to grandstanding, party politics, and the manipulation of conspiracy theories.) Anthropology because the formula for a whole human being living a human life no longer includes the habits and practices of faith as a necessity but has relegated it to, at best, an app that can be downloaded and run on the software of the self if one so chooses, for reasons that are highly personable but lend themselves to the psychotic, the aesthetic, the social/political, or even the pragmatic--but certainly not the necessary. Western human beings are practical atheists, one and all, and it is a struggle even to be religious for the religious. The church catholic in the West has ignored these extremely thorny philosophical problems and applied, instead, Western and especially American ideas of individualism and success-through-right-action (channeling Napoleon Hill).

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Friday, February 19, 2010

GEB 2: strange loops and the back end of materialism

GEB is a series of rooms, locks, and keys, and the first of these keys is the concept of a strange loop. Discussing the central musical idea of the work, the “Canon per Tonos” of J. S. Bach's Musical Offerings, Douglas Hofstadter writes,

What makes this canon different from any other [is that] it is so constructed that [its] ending ties smoothly onto the beginning. . . . These successive modulations lead the ear to increasingly remote provinces of tonality, so that after several of them, one would expect to be hopelessly far away from the starting key. And yet . . . the original key of C minor [is eventually] restored.

This mobius strip of a thing, traveling further and further from a point only to arrive there again, Hofstadter calls a strange loop. It is a phenomenon that “occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system [a tangled hierarchy], we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”

Strange loops occur in different ways. Hofstadter finds them in the work of M. C. Escher in, for example, “Ascending and Descending” or “Waterfall.” But implicit in all of them, he says, whether they encompass a dozen steps or only one, is the concept of infinity. “What else is a loop,” he writes, “but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way.” The representation of strange loops through modulation of musical keys or in the optical illusion of a waterfall existing on two and three dimensions at once is paradoxical—the conflict between finite and infinite. It smells like a higher mathematics and is, as he continues, a kind of translation of the Epimenides paradox or liar paradox, namely “All Cretans are liars,” when Epimenides himself was from Crete. Epimenides gives us a linguistic paradox. A self-referential statement of language which is neither true nor false. What is it?

Hofstadter goes on quite a while discussion twentieth century mathematician Kurt Gödel's discovery of a strange loop at the heart of mathematics. His description is hard to feel, being read today at the end of a continuum that begins with special relativity, quantum mechanics, and the literary term. Nevertheless “Gödel showed,” he says, “that provability is a weaker notion than truth, no matter what axiomatic system is involved.” If I understand him correctly, he is saying that Gödel discovered at the base and heart of mathematics itself that disorder is the beginning even if order is the end: that language shouldn't make sense, but does. That Escher shouldn't be able to draw his waterfall, but there it is. That Bach can write a canon without end, a canon that cannot be written by formula, a canon whose every note makes sense only as it is nested in a network of contexts and relationships, that “there is something deeper” than “mere fugality.” He scrawls a question mark across Euclid's planes and then asks how it can be done.

So what is Hofstadter after? Why paint a picture of the mystery of meaning arriving from an infinite variety of tangled disorder? Hofstadter is after one mystery: the mystery of intelligence. Where does intelligence come from? And can it arise from systems of logic when such systems exist only as they bracket acceptable possibilities—a bracketing unavailable to real intelligence. Life, the context of human intelligence, is not a bracketed thing. Life is messy and random—infinitely so. There are rules, and then there are rules about rules, and then there are rules for constructing new rules, and so on and so forth. “Sometimes the complexity of our minds seems so overwhelming that one feels that there can be no solution to the problem of understanding intelligence.” And, lest it be missed, Hofstadter is a materialist . . . a materialist face to face with the question of the meaning of life and the challenge of transcendence—which, for him, is not an option. He's painted himself into a metaphysical corner, how shall he escape?

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

NYT, Elif Batuman, and theology

Elif Batuman scored a review of her book The Posessed in the February 10, 2010 edition of the New York Times. Not that I am much of an aficionado when it comes to especially contemporary fiction. Nevertheless, there is a part of Dwight Garner's review that caught my eye.

Ms. Batuman’s search for something more from literature than “brisk verbs and vivid nouns” led her, swooning but alert, into the arms of the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Babel.

And it led her to write this odd and oddly profound little book, one that’s ostensibly about her favorite Russians but is actually about a million other things: grad school, literary theory, translation, biography, love affairs, the making of “King Kong,” working for the Let’s Go travel guidebook series, songs by the Smiths, even how to choose a nice watermelon in Uzbekistan. Crucially and fundamentally, it is also an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books?


Now, I ask you. Why can't theology do that? Why can't theology talk about grad school, love affairs, The Queen is Dead, and "our favorite books"?

I believe that as much as it was the printing press and mercantile politics and nationalism and justification by faith, as much as it was all of these, it was also the readability of the Reformation that made it so dangerous and so popular. How many of the church fathers were rhetoricians, trained in the subtle and liquid power of the spoken word? Why is it that the Bible not only can be literature, but is literature?

Our schools produce schoolmen, and their grammar is exactly so. And how many today read John of Salisbury or settle in with a bit of Duns Scotus? Are these inspiring or do they serve as foils for the construction of the endless paper parcels that make for an academic career?

I've said it before, I think to a large degree that the appeal of deconstructionism was a loosening of the corset of tenure for the sake of a little literary imagination. God, I wish theology would take the hint.

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