Monday, September 27, 2021

Methods I Use to Jumpstart Creative Thinking

Over the years, there are a couple of techniques I've used to kick my thinking over into different lanes, which is my definition of creativity. There is nothing new under the sun, so no one is truly creative in the novum sense. What we are creative about is mixing up what is already there. The demands of daily life, of limited resources, and of mediocre expectations combine to keep us thinking safely in the ruts that work. (They may not be optimal, but they work.) Creativity runs outside the lines. Here are a few ways of making that happen, in no particular order:

Adjust your abstraction. You can take anything and adjust between concreteness/quiddity and abstraction. These are called levels of construal, where concrete is low construal and metaphysics is high construal. Picking up crafts for your kid's Sunday School class is low construal. Carrying on the pedagogical tasks of instructing the young in the faith is high construal. The same act can be viewed along either, but high construal provides a motivation and an awareness of purpose that low construal does not, and low construal carries the energy of movement and activity in a way that high construal does not. So, adjust your abstraction.

You already know. (Das weisst du doch!) Ninety-nine percent of the time, we do not express or act or communicate or own-up-to what we already know. My wife calls this "working at the top of your intelligence." That is true, but it isn't all of it. We are always playing games like we don't know things when we do. We just do not want to be honest about whatever it is. Just today, for example, I was in a meeting and someone suggested we look into whether shorter marketing copy is better. We already know that. The paper we need to research. The repair we need to make. The question we need to ask so-and-so. Often, we already know. We can already write that paper, make that repair, and we already know what so-and-so would say. We just are afraid to act. You already know what to do. You already know what you want to do. You have it already mapped out, listed out, and sorted in your head. You are just afraid to admit it for some reason.

A friend of mine has another way of putting this. He says we need to learn to call experts. And by this he doesn't mean other people, but ourselves. He tells the story about a motorcycle repair he was doing, and he could not get something to work. So, he stepped back and imagined that he was a motorcycle repair expert who had been called in. He looked at the bike in front of him through the imaginary eyes of this expert, and he was able to make the repair. He already knew how to do it, but he needed to find a way to unlock that and act. I think of him sometimes and tell myself, "Ok, take the next hour and act like you are brilliant."

Trace the margins and find the best solution. Whatever a problem is, someone else in some other field of humanity (or nature itself) has already found an elegant solution. You think that because you are working in a new technology or because your problem is complex that this cannot be the case, but I assure you it is. There are only a handful of real problems. Like Plato's ideas, they infest nearly everything. Likewise, there are only twenty years worth of problems and these just get recycled over and over again in every field and endeavor. So, whatever it is that you are working on, abstract out the problem so that only the bones of the outline are there. Then, when you have simplified it so that it is almost a template or a shape, like a cut-out moon or octagon or star, look around and see if that pattern exists in other fields. I especially look to fields that have been around for thousands of years. Ask farmers and fishermen, ask weavers and cooks and storytellers and dancers. Ask the insects in the yard or the trees growing beside the walls. There is a good chance that if you will seek and wait, you'll find as elegant a solution as any you would have come up with after expensive trial-and-error.

Incidentally, this inability to discover new problems is frustrating and sad. Most people think there are a lot of problems, but there aren't. When you investigate the coolest programming language or scientific discoveries, they are mostly moving pieces around on the same board but with different jargon. Most businesses talk like they want to be innovative--they don't. Most systems talk a good talk, but they like things the way they are. Real experimentation is alien to human homeostasis along every dimension. We kill prophets and ridicule artists in their lifetimes. Most of the time, I just let myself sleep in the ebb and flow. But sometimes, I wake up. I feel the infinite possibilities of things shimmering underneath every atom and second. And I hunger to get with others and tackle creative problems. But I do not know who these others are, and I do not know what those problems could be. And so, befuddled and unable to act practically from my temporary lucidity, I am sad for a bit, and then it passes. I suspect the problem is a class problem, and that were I not working-class (basically), I might know what to do or have the means to do or at least to stay in that place until I do know what to do. But I don't and it is best to get on with things.

Get in front of a whiteboard (or whatever does the same). There is something about standing there with a marker in your hand and writing that opens up the mind. Wrestle in a different medium. Get your muscles involved. Muscles have memory. They can work problems out. The anecdotal and experimental data on walking and thinking is legion. Let your body help.

Sit with it. People do not appreciate the value of simply sitting with a problem. Bundle it up in the front of your head, and then toss it to the back and let your subconcious masticate on it for a while. Then go about your life. But, be ready. When your subconscious is done, it will throw back some kind of an answer, and you'd better be prepared to record it somehow. Pull the car over. Record it on your phone. Borrow a pen in a restaurant. Whatever. And get it all out because it will not make sense to you partially when you come back and look at it in the morning. You have to get it all out--every weird and funny idea about it, because only the whole thing has value. And then, honestly, it may only be ridiculous, but it may not be. It is the subconscious after all. What can you expect!

Throw Out the Easy Stuff. When considering any real problem, the first few solutions you think of are probably junk. Where solutions are easy, there are no problems. You obviously have a problem, so distrust easy solutions.

Get clear on details. Building from the last point, quick fixes that pop easily to mind or when you are tempted to wonder why people don't just solve using x because isn't it so obvious are signs you need to dig into the details. Creativity requires a clear grasp of the details. Creativity is not an escape from reality; it is a different way of framing what is there. Get curious about everything. The process of acquiring insight stirs up curiosity. Sometimes, though, you'll need to stir the pot with willpower. If your curiosity fails, come at it a new way. But ride that curiosity to clarity.

Go Fish in the Desert. Try applying your hypothesis to an unrelated example. Have fun blowing it up and taking it apart. Take something away; discover what is necessary and what is not. Sometimes changing the color of the background makes things pop.

Friday, August 13, 2021

What is the Gospel?

What is the gospel? I'm not sure I know. And though I ask as an individual, I but form my lips around the question of others before me. And their answers and insights are offered back again.

We pick out constellations in the stars and name them. But astronomy tells us those shapes represent no actual relations. The stars of Orion's belt are separated by light years of empty space. And a September moon to us is far bigger and brighter than the Andromeda galaxy behind it.

When we decide to look beyond the constellations of the way we define the gospel and begin trying to see it as it is in the universe of scripture, the change is no less drastic. I expect we will end up knowing far more than we did. But the gospel we started with may look far, far different in the end. That is what is happening to me.[1]

These were my astronomers. I took a course in the minor prophets from Walter Kaiser and was changed by the encounter. I studied Galatians under T. David Gordon. Gordon was the first professor I ever met who embraced the New Perspective on Paul. Greg Beale introduced me to the profound and intimate relationship between the New Testament and the Old. N. T. Wright helped those seeds grow, as did Michael Heiser and Carmen Imes. And Juergen Moltmann and Johannes Metz made me see that eschatology is fundamentally political and the gospel is fundamentally political theology. The gospel is a political theology if nothing else. And if it is not political theology, it is not the gospel. Political theology is thinking about scripture that begins, is shaped by, and is applied to communities of purpose. I specify purpose because these communities are working together to achieve real ends, and this means that there is a need for theology, there is a need for the gospel. Perhaps it is impossible to have a community without some sort of purpose. (I do not call crowds communities, but mobs rudely are.)

It is not American Individualism

I used to understand the gospel as an appeal to the individual to "Save yourself from this corrupt generation" (Acts 2:40 NRSV). You confessed, believed, and were baptized. You got saved and belonged thereafter to God. This is not untrue, but it is uncontextual.

When a collection of beliefs is lifted out of actual human ways of being, they cannot be lived or practiced but only assented to. Such a cerebral anthropology has little of incarnational, communal Christianity in it.~ C. Humphry

It is not Classic Liberalism

Theologian Roger Olson defines classic liberal theology as "theology centered around symbolic realism-—Christianity mostly cut off from history except for transforming symbols such as the cross and resurrection and Parousia. . . Christianity is largely reduced to spiritual formation and social transformation."[2]

Note this bit from a recent piece about conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson in the New Statesman, "Peterson said to me that religion is a feeling or experience rather than a statement about the existence of God. Religion manifests in the deep sense of awe and the infinite one might experience when reading literature or gazing upon a sunset, he said. He thought that technically there was no difference between great literature and religious experience. If religion is about deep biological experience, couldn’t you say that sex is religious, too? 'It should be, but it depends on how well it’s done,' he said."[3]

So What is It?

The gospel is necessarily political faith, hope, and love

Amos 5

Part of the original Christian message was a radical revaluation of Israel’s legal and prophetic tradition and a thoroughgoing denunciation of the power of Rome and all other empires. Flat things exist on two dimensions. And I, too, am learning to think differently in two ways. One is to fix New Testament language about salvation deeply into its Old Testament context. The other is to understand it in its ecclesial setting and not through the lense of American individualism. I started with a pseudo-Reformational framework sucked through the straw of a me-and-Jesus vertical whose horizontal was only transactional: save the lost. This cannot be correct. The New Testament does not alter so greatly that one cannot talk about an Old Testament church. If anything, the social ethics central to Old Testament piety are not erased by the New but highlighted with eschatological fire.

It is necessary to understand New Testament things within their Old Testament wineskins. So, for example, baptism is circumcision. Missions is the regathering of the lost ten tribes back to the mountain of God. Good works is Torah keeping. Christians are renewed priests in Jesus's living temple. What is salvation, then? Is it an ethical change, like repentance; a change of direction toward the right way? Is it an ontological change from one kind of being into another kind of being? Or is it a covenant marker: one goes from being a pagan outside of the covenant community to which God has made promises to being a member in that community. That community has always been there. Its covenant markers have simply enlarged to include Gentiles. The promise to this community is the eternal, living Spirit. The fire of Sinai only descended on the mountain and on Moses. At Pentecost, each believer became a little Sinai upon whom the glory came to rest. The fire burned inside the living tree of the people of God, and they did not burn up.

The gospel is necessarily good news for matter and our bodies

In an October 27, 2020, podcast of "OnScript," Dr. Esau McCaulley, being interviewed about his book Reading While Black (IVP Academic, 2020), concluded his interview with a discussion about the misshapen priorities which govern the fields of New Testament and Pauline Studies. The emphases of the Protestant Reformation dictate what is considered of primary importance in these fields. This means that a brilliant book on, say, Paul's pneumatology will not be considered a brilliant book on Paul in the same way that a book on grace will, such as John Barclay's Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015). Similarly, the best book on Hebrews ever written will not be called the best New Testament book. The academy privileges certain topics and downplays others. Works on community, eschatology, the Trinity, etc. just cannot be valued in the same way by the academy as, say, a work on Galatians.[4] McCaulley continues:

"Here's a question, Biblical scholars: How do we never talk about policing in our scholarship, when black people have been talking about policing for a hundred fifty years! Why don't we talk about it? What I'm saying is that we have to do better in the things that we center. And there's a reason why this is all masculine, right? It is all masculine in the sense that when you look at the kinds of things that our female scholars--and I'm not saying that female scholars do not write about grace--but look at their interests and look at the things that they write about, and do we consider those things worthy in their own right? . . . [Interviewer Dru Johnson: "You can argue infinitely about it in etheral space, and it never has to get grounded in a body. You can talk about how it comes down to a body--"] See. And this is the question . . . we are talking about New Testament scholarship more broadly. It is a manifestation of privilege to argue for over two hundred years about how we should think about something and not, while at the same time, ignoring so many issues in the Biblical text that touches on the lived experience of oppressed peoples. . . . [Is justification] the only thing?"[5]

The gospel is necessarily good news for the bodies of others, individually and corporately, human and otherwise.

I think of Howard Thurman's poem, "The Work of Christmas"--

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

More later

1. To see the extent of this change, let me copy here a note I made a few months ago in response to a question from one of my kids: "What is God doing now?" I told them, "God is holding the cosmos in being and directing it toward his desired purpose: to bring all things under the rule of Jesus. Therefore, having installed Jesus on the everlasting throne of David, the Father has sent the Spirit who, through the church, his priestly nation, is regathering the ten lost tribes from the nations (which is the mission work of the New Testament.) This regathering will reach its climax in the return of Jesus. Meanwhile, the preaching of the church is putting the Principalities and Powers on notice that their pagan tyranny is over. And the reborn people of the church are displaying the image of God to all creation. The Spirit sanctifies the church and gifts it for participation in the regathering and for displaying to all who God is. The church prays by the Spirit for God to hallow his name, bring in his kingdom, and enact his will in its worldwide situation, and it cooperates with him by grace in the doing of it.

[2] Roger Olson, "What is 'Progressive Christianity" accessed 11/19/2021.

[3] Freddie Hayward, "Why do students still want Jordan Peterson to tell them how to live?" The New Statesman. UK ed. 1 December 2021. accessed 12/3/2021.

[4] This is Thomas Kuhn's paradigmatic framework from the Structure of Scientific Revolutions applied in the humanities. Just as science operates within sets of beliefs called paradigms which are passively enforced by a system of social and financial rewards and punishments. Scientific research, then, is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education" (UCP. 1962, 5).)

[5] OnScript podcast "Esau McCaulley -- Reading While Black" aired October 27, 2020. Accessed November 30, 2021.

Friday, July 16, 2021

A letter to my children on dating

July 30, 2019
Dear K and C,

Sometimes there are topics which require time, order, and right circumstance. Because that so rarely happens, I have decided to give this format a try. The topic on my mind is courtship, dating. I want to give you the best foundation for doing this that I can. The reason why is not because I think either of you are making foolish choices in this area. It is because I want you to know that I have something to say about this very important part of your lives. Or, really, that God has good things to say about it which are far more useful and nuanced than the "don't have sex before marriage" monodrone that blares from the churches. Yes, we live in a sex-saturated culture; you know more about sex and sexuality than many adults did a generation ago. Where we stick to the science, we do well, but what we find mostly are consumer attitudes of self-indulgence. So many are adrift and hurt when it comes to love. Perhaps I can save you some trouble.

God is love, and in him we live and move and have our being.

Just a guess, but most bits of advice on dating do not begin with the love of God. Odd, when you think about it. I'm not talking about the existence of God. If you wish to debate about the existence of God, we may as well debate the existence of the people you want to date in the first place. No. We begin together beholding the love of God. You see, everything we talk about--our hopes and questions, our bodies, our emotional and physical needs, the way that we turn from childhood and begin stepping forward into the future with others, the joy and satisfaction of being together with people in love--all of it is a love-gift of God. Not a distant, unknown God. Not an impersonal force. But a God who is involved with us. All the things I just listed, aren't they the topics we care most about? Our God, because he made us, made those things. And our God, because he lived as a human being among us with a family and friends and so on, knows all about them. And our God, because he has promised to renew the world, values those things. Love gets into the details. Love doesn't keep its distance, and anything that does is not love.

This creating-knowing-promising love of God tells us that love is like a good conversation. It may begin in a lonely, scary place; the sexual chaos I mentioned earlier tells us we are a lonely people. The conversation may begin there. But as we give our attention and ourselves to another person, we get to know them. Should they become lifelong friends or a spouse, we will spend our lives enjoying that ever deepening talk. I am fortunate to have a handful of friends whom I have known for years--what a treasure! We see each other after a long absence, and we pick right up where we left off. Cultivate people like that in your life. Make the effort (love makes the effort). And I think you know that my wish when I was looking for a wife was to find someone I loved talking to and would enjoy talking to as much or more twenty years in as twenty minutes. God certainly blessed me there with your mom; talking with her is a highlight of every day. My point here is to say that love doesn't sit still, it moves toward what is beloved, and it doesn't stop at acquaintance but it numbers the hairs of one's head and plays the finest heartstring of the soul. We cannot talk about dating until we see it within the horizon of the love of God.

Everyone is made in the image of God (the imago Dei) and worthy of respect.

The relevant text is Genesis 1.27: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (NRSV). God is spirit, so this text does not mean that God made people to look like him. That is the way the Greek pagans thought--painting pictures of themselves on the sky and naming them gods and goddesses. The truth is the other way round. Our God communicates. He wants his creation to be ruled by regents who represent him, who speak as and for him, who govern and act as he does. Human beings are meant to represent him to creation. And creation, as it listens and looks to human beings, will know what its creator is like. Human beings are important and valuable, no matter their age, race, class, or sex because they--we--are made in the image of God.

C. S. Lewis talked about the imago Dei when he said, "It is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit." Indeed, it is not immortality but image that should give us pause. It is God's very own.

So, in our relationships with other human beings, we must recognize them as bearers of God's image and treat them accordingly--and they us.

God loves people, so love people

A youth leader of mine once chimed, "You should never date anyone you wouldn't want to marry." All the adults within earshot agreed, and I did too, though I knew little about it. As I aged, I followed their advice, for I knew no better. Now I do. So let me amend this bit of folk wisdom because it is much too serious. It assumes that every date is a potential marriage invitation--which it is not. The world is full of funny, silly, thoughtful, shy, ecstatic, reserved, detailed, slovenly, color-coordinated, rustic, unusual, adorable people. How amazing is that! What riches are all around us. It is stupid to make every conversation ring with the overtones of choral matrimony, and people in real life do not make this mistake. When you begin working, you'll be around all kinds of people for hours and days at a time without the pressure of marriage. So do not be so serious or afraid. Get to know them! Learn how to value and appreciate all kinds of people. Youth is the time of exploration. Stoke your curiosity and meet all sorts of people, men and women. Be curious about them. Even go out with some of them. Your life will be far richer. And you will have an opportunity to practice loving your neighbors in ways small and great.

Practice hospitality.

In 1981-82, a coworker of my dad's started a karate class in his home. His name was Bob, and he had two sons around my age. One was a band kid; the other was a greaser. My dad was at a time in his life where he was trying new things, and he decided he'd try karate. I came along too. We met in Bob's garage. It was filled with mats scattered everywhere on his smooth concrete floor. For the first year, we worked on how to stand properly and throw punches, and we did a lot of kicking. But eventually we started sparring--play fighting. "Today, we are going to begin with some sparring," someone would say. Next you know, you were blocking punches and trying to give as good as you got. Sparring was pretty handy. It proved why standing properly and other points of our training were necessary. There were also skills that could only be taught by sparring. Sparring prepared you for the real world. Think of it like practice.

People practice at anything they wish to do well. Even minor things like keeping good table manners at home, taking a few practice swings with a bat, or writing a rought draft before you start a final paper are forms of practice. Dating is also practice. You spend time with the person you are dating--taking walks, eating lunch, thinking about life, and so on. And, in so doing, you learn a great deal about yourself and them. This practice prepares you for acting well in the communities of your adulthood: in churches and businesses, in taking more of a role in your family, and, yes, for marriage and family life.

Considering hospitality--most people hear the word hospitality and they think of hotels or dinner parties. Both do not equate to what Paul meant when he told the church in Rome to practice hospitality or what Peter meant when he taught Christians to be hospitable without complaining. Hospitality was an attitude of open service and sharing of what one had--even with strangers. It was a virtue highly prized all over the ancient world, Christian and pagan.

The times I've seen it best practiced, it was done by those who planned before the need arose. A pastor in my youth opened his home on Sunday nights to grilled cheese sandwiches and talk. A couple at North Shore in MA always made enough food on Sunday and planned to invite visitors over for lunch. Hospitality is an intentional set of the heart. It puts coffee on and makes sure fresh sheets are on the bed. The people I think best of as I look back through my life are those who welcomed me.

Dating is a form of hospitality. You spend your time and share your table with someone else. You receive them into your circles of friends and family as well as into the inner circles of your stories and hopes and ideas. You may even receive them into your heart. Whether you date the same person or different ones, the opportunity for setting the table is always there, and one should embrace it as a skill that can grow throughout life. Hospitality is a secret to deep and lifelong blessing.

Do not kill.

The commandment not to kill, which sounds a note quite dissonant from hospitality, is ethical shorthand. Though it appears negative, like the other commandments, its meaning is largely positive. Consider a young mom who takes her children out to play at a local park. The sun shines in the blue sky. It is a warm day in late April. Green is the grass, and the kids like to run. "Don't go into the street!" she calls. And a little later, seeing her oldest is swinging very high in the air, she yells, "Do not go so high!" Is this young mom out to spoil their fun? Didn't she bring them to the park in the first place? No and yes: She wants her children to have a great time, but it would be exhausting for her to list everything they can do. More sensible is a short list of what they should not. A few quick boundaries and the rest is open to her kids' imaginations. So it is with the "shall nots" of the commandments. So, how does this help us read the sixth commandment in a way that gives us wisdom about human relationships?

The commandment not to kill releases us to preserve, protect, and value the lives of others--not only with our bodies but with our words and our minds too. It is not enough to refrain from killing our neighbor. By neighbor I refer to Jesus's parable about being a good neighbor and to his summary of the Torah: to love God and to love your neighbor. Our friends are certainly our neighbors. Our enemies are too. We should take pains to keep them safe, valuing their lives as our own. This goes for our hearts as well. We must check our anger and bitterness because murder is but the outward fruit of an inward deed. "We are required faithfully to do what we can to defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever is good for him or her, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and should danger come, assist in removing it." (John Calvin)

Tell the truth.

God tells the truth. "He is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). But our human hearts are shade and shadow. We spend a lifetime trying to understand others and ourselves. Part of the practice you take on with dating is learning how to live and tell the truth.

We tell small children that honesty is best, even if it means a little suffering. That is a good conclusion, but honesty can be hard to come by. What can be trusted? Emotions aren't always reliable. As Agatha Christie's great detective Miss Marple said, "One's feelings are not always reliable guides." Our inner selves rise and fall like the waves. C. S. Lewis has good things to say about the oscillating nature of the human inner life in Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. Sometimes you will look hard for the truth but you cannot find it. In such cases, the search has to be enough. This is part of the practice, digging underneath hurt feelings or anger or whatever else to uncover what is really going on and learning how to communicate that clearly to your person, the imago you are with. You learn how to protect and value their life and not just your own. And when your compass gets spun--and it will--ask God for wisdom and go with the truth you have. As my dad used to say, "Live so you can look at yourself in the mirror."

Because we were just talking about the commandment not to kill, I think now about the commandment not to bear false witness. The context of the commandment is the law court; don't lie on the stand and subvert justice. But think about it this way: without justice--without truth in law--society doesn't work. Community fails. People can't live together. It is the same in the microcosm of relationships. If people lie to each other and cannot trust each other, the community they make together is not going to work. On the other hand, if they speak honestly and come to trust each other, an intimacy can be forged that will not break beneath a lifetime's battering.

Be truthful with your time--and theirs

Being in other's lives takes a significant amount of time. It is also hard to tell whether such time will be short or long. Do not overstay. Try not to waste people's time or your own from a refusal to accept the sweet and the bitter of living.

Be truthful with your words--and practice good listening skills

Becoming a good listener might be one of the most important skills a human being can devote themselves to acquiring. I am a horrible listener, to my shame, and sometimes blame bad memory on what is lack of focus or care. But love calls us to attention. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, "Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for [others] is learning to listen to them." So cherish friends and lovers who want to listen, and take time to listen to them. Good listening is part of hospitality.

As with listening--both that I am terrible at it and that it is such an important part of human maturity, think about the words you use. Do not make promises lightly, if you can help it. And try to use the divine gift of language (λογος) for good and not evil.

Be truthful with your body--and theirs, contra gnosticism.

Human beings have a bad habit of separating our bodies from our minds. Some of us give pride of place to our mental life and treat our body like a braying mule. Others let the body lead. We know we must value both, but the balance is difficult. Like handedness, all of us tend to one over the other, though they come as a pair.

We love with our bodies and our minds. One does not happen without the other. The internet allows us to share our lives in real time with people all over the globe, but it is no substitute for really being there. Words and ideas are not enough. The body wants its part. We shake hands or hug friends. We kiss and caress close family and those we love. Even God who spoke the cosmos into existence, though he is more present everwhere than we are anywhere, became a human being for us. Love moves irresistably toward its beloved. We crave connection. We want to be with others.

Therefore, in a lonely culture like ours, we should not be surprised that sex and sexuality blare from radio and screen. We should not be surprised that sex is used to sell everything, that cultures adopt all kinds of governing rituals around it, that the problems it creates make for the stories of literature and for whole disciplines of counseling and recovery. Sex is how we continue after death. And while we live, our loves move us to intimacy, and intimacy finds its apotheosis in sex. And we should not be surprised the our culture wants to possess the body and ignore the rest. And even the body it desires, and that we are told if not trained to desire, is a customized or idealized body, a body of marketing and advertising, not of life--a lie.

The body, with the mind, should be a keeper and expresser of truth. And what is sex but hospitality! What I am encouraging you to do is to own your whole self and be commited to living truthfully. Tell the truth. Look at the example God gives us. He tells us he loves us, yes, and we see his love most clearly expressed in the crucified body of the dying Jesus. Word and act together speak the same. This is what the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar was talking about when he said, "Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed."


Is it any surprise that forgiveness is such an important part of being with others? Poet and philosopher David Whyte wrote, "Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die." If this is true of friendship, it is certainly true of marriage. If our lives as disciples of Jesus are characterised by grace, should we expect our relationships to be perfect? Perhaps the story we are telling is a gospel.

Let it Shine.

The gospel of Jesus informs all I have said. The summons of the gospel is the honest summons of the whole world to God's great feast. When we--when you--practice these truths, the light of God's character will shine out from you into the world. You might say that dating in this way is just a specific mode of living the Christian life. And if you say that, you are correct.

I hope you will discover that the foundation sketched above will help you ask and answer particular questions in a wiser way. Wisdom is a small compass by which we can orienteer across wild and unknown landscapes. Perhaps my words will help you as you navigate to remember your creator in the days of your youth. And I hope they will bless you as well.


Epilogue: Diotima's Ladder

In the Symposium, Socrates tells about a philosopher he met named Diotima. She was very wise, he said, and she described the quest of beautiful as rungs of a ladder. At the bottom are beautiful people and things all around us. But what calls us through bodies, things, and ideas, she said, is beauty itself. The philosopher must ascend in contemplation upward, rung by rung, to reach the real end of their desire for beauty, which is the form of beauty itself. Diotma's metaphor, though pagan, well describes God's summon to us as we age through friendship and courtship into marriage and parental maturity. Even as these things shape the steps of our outer lives, our inner life progresses through them inward toward the very origin of the beautiful, the true, and the good, which is the Triune God. Life will make saints of us if we choose. Love will lead us up the ladder by the ancient way of purgation, darkness, illumination, and union. Love will lead us through the veil of things into the joy of the living and ever-flowing love of the Triune persons. There is no gnosticism here, there are no secrets. But, like a secret garden, few care to see the door in the center of their daily living and go in even though every relationship they have points the way, though anyone may put their hand to the gate, though a welcome is posted right above for all to read,

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

My Pattern Breakthrough

After my last post on pattern languages, I felt I had the missing piece: patterns are problem-solution vehicles. They are not merely answers. But little did I know how prescient this would prove. I took my deck of patterns to lunch and began to randomly spread them out on the table: TIME, WIDOWS AND ORPHANS, BREAD, TEMPLE and so on. Suddenly, the questions behind these answers began screaming out at me. It was as if I could finally hear. They were always there, but I hadn't considered them. When I created the cards, I was regurgitating concepts with little thought as to why they exist in the first place. Now, the questions revealed themselves. TEMPLE, I read. This answers questions about God's presence with his people and the world. CHAOS AND DISORDER. This is about identifying the problem itself--why things are what they are and what God is overcoming. WISDOM. This answers how we know what to do in the world and how to recognize God's way versus other ways. One by one, as I picked up cards at random, I could easily see the questions behind the answers I'd written down. And then, something more came into view.

I saw real taxonomic order within the questions and their pattern-answers. Let me explain. CREATION. This is about the origin of the world, why it exists and what sort of moral entity it is. Other pattern cards such as HISTORY or the IMAGO DEI or WORK fall naturally under CREATION as they are more narrow in terms of taxonomic categories involved, more influenced rathern than influencers, and have a finer specificity of application. The same kind of relationship exists on the question side. WORK, for example, asks an ethical question about what it is proper to do. The question of what we should do exists within the larger question of where we come from. But, say, one asks about euthanasia. There is no card for this. The pattern language is not meant to be defined by cards. The cards are meant to create a framework of address. Anyway, euthanasia and whether it is morally right to kill yourself or another certainly is a narrower question than the question of why do we die, which is itself a subset of the question why we exist at all.

The taxonomic order extended into the type of cards I had written. Besides obvious patterns like THE SWORD or KENOSIS were cards that aren't patterns but buckets that organize patterns: The last things, Jesus of Nazareth, the missio Dei. These are the classic categories of the craft and creeds. They are probably answers to questions themselves, yes, but they are different too. They are category cards, such as the ones in Group Work's deck, and they answered a nagging question for me about exactly how the categories might fit in a pattern language without making it uniform. I see now there's little danger of that.

A pattern language as I understand it now is highly individual. Even if two were constructed by brothers of the same mind, I think their resemblance, though present, would still differ such as with franternal twins. The patterns that express the language are unique, and how they are grouped together is unique. Using Gadamer's term: what is expressed and how it is expressed is governed by prejudice. Not only, but how it is used to categorize and address questions is unique. As in real life, one man talks constantly of God's simplicity and another of the church and its sacraments. My initial insight was correct: the use of a theological pattern language could allow one to map (and interrogate) their own system and to do the same with the systems of others.

A final thought: like any language, a pattern language has three audiences. In this case, the question, the answer, and the reader or user of the pattern language who is thinking along with it. All three must ultimately be taken into account to make a living language.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Pattern Theory Upgrades

A search on this blog will suggest I have a sweet tooth for Christopher Alexander's pattern language approach to democratizing bodies of expertise. Alexander's initial insights have grown over time as they have been taking up by many different fields: architecture, computer science, education, and social sciences. Now I read architect Hajo Neis's article "From a Pattern Language to a Field of Centers and Beyond" and discover terms like overall pattern language approach and pattern theory and practice. The conversation out there is maturing, and Neis's article has a few upgrades to suggest. What follows is a list of upgrades.

Pattern Development has an Ethical Telos. The discipline has clarified Alexander's "quality without a name" so that it now talks about quality of life. Neis calls it "the improvement of life, human development and improvement of the environment in which we live." This means that pattern theory understands what it is doing as an ethical act and has gone so far as to recommend the ethical principle that should be followed. As I consider how to do a theology pattern language, this asks what my ethical principle is.

Patterns Exist for Solutions. Neis expands on the term pattern and calls it a problem-solution pattern, and he is clear that solving problems is the point. "A pattern is . . . a rule which addresses a clear problem which may occur repeatedly in the environment, states the range of contexts in which this problem will occur, and gives the general features required [to] solve this problem." A pattern is like a hypothesis which is stated with evidence pro or con. It is a system based primarily on functional considerations. The principle of patterns lays out of way of tackling problems that invite dialog. Patterns are formulated as archetypal, general solutions that can find endless forms of specific solutions and applications according to context and interpretation." Patterns should be as clear as possible in order to promote understanding and invite dialog. In this sense, they are a way of scientifically encoding a discipline--I keep thinking of the dialogic system of Thomas Aquinas's great summas.

Connections make a language. Nais confirms what I expected. The language part of a pattern language emerges as patterns are connected to general and to specific patterns around them. A pattern begins by listing off related patterns at a higher level from it, and it ends by listing patterns at a lower level. This democratizes expertise and "provides users an organized procedure to help make sense out of otherwise complex situations." Patterns provide shared grammar. Patterns require user participation to make value; words are made for speaking.

Languages are General and Specific. Nais also confirms how pattern languages are used and how they are contextualized! "An architect . . . select[s] a set of patterns and use[s] these solution-patterns as archetypal starting points for a design and building process." Planners, he continues, will choose out a set of patterns appropriate to their need, and then--here is the innovation--they will create new patterns required for that particular project. The original pattern language Nais calls the General Pattern Language. Such pattners are a archetypal solutions. They are not contextual. The new, customized set of patterns are contextual. Neis calls these the Project Pattern Language. "Each project is different and unique in its own way and therefore needs its own Project Pattern Language as an important aspect of innovation, originality, and creativity within the larger complex system of functionality and harmony. . . . a Project Pattern Language may contain quite a few patterns in their solution or hypothesis form."

Patterns are just part of the thinking process. A pattern language (general or project) sits in a continuum of thinking that may begin in ideas, dreams, poems, and any kind of creativity. "In a project language, patterns are not the only defining elements any more, but all kinds of specific ideas, dreams, visions, may make up a coherent language for a particular project. Narratives, stories and poems could serve as starting points for a project and can serve as starting points of innovation, improvisation and creativity. . . . pattern languages do not replace design, but they are part of the design process."

Anti-patterns: the what not to do. These are proposed solutions that create more problems than they solve and therefore should be avoided. Such bad solutions are called anti-patterns. Neis doesn't go into it, but introducing a no creates a new subtlety to the overall language.

Final thoughts: Combining these insights with other posts I've accumulated on pattern writing, I understand now that simply saying a theological thing like bread, covenant, Son, or water is not making a pattern. Even thought these words may represent a nexus of theological meaning, they don't clearly solve anything. They need to be reworked with the user in mind in order to be made useful for them. Those nodes may often represent the solution to a problem, but saying the bare thing doesn't clearly help the user.

By understanding the problem-solution nature of patterns, I see now that the quality without a name that governs my system must exist on the vertical and horizontal planes simultaneously. In an earlier post, I said worship would be the telos of my system. But this is only the vertical. Recalling the service a pattern should be to a user, the telos must be to guide the user into greater degrees of worship of the triune God.

Monday, June 21, 2021

A friend's wedding toast

A long-time friend of mine recently celebrated a daughter's marriage. He wrote the following blessing for the new couple. I thought it was good and asked him for a copy. It is a product of occasional theology, and it gets at what I think Paul is trying to get at in his treatment of marriage in 1 Corinthians. Anyway, here it is.

To [Bride and Groom], no longer two but one:

Love one another with patience and kindness, with honor and respect. Persevere together in the hope of your shared faith and in the fidelity of your sacred union. Be always seeking the truth, speaking the truth, living the truth, and rejoicing in the truth.

Work hard to discover your unique gifts together--spiritual and vocational--as individuals in Christ and as an anointed couple. Seek to know each other well in order that you may speak courage and wisdom into each other. By the power of the Holy Spirit, advance God's kingdom together, his rule and reign in your own hearts and then out into the world. May the zeal of God accomplish this. May you always work specifically in the areas of your giftings. May you bear much fruit as you abide in the vine. And may material prosperity be yours as well by the success of your efforts. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven. Keep your hearts pure.

If you have children, whether born by water in your image or by the grafting of adoption, love them with the love of Christ, remembering that God has known them from eternity and has loved them first. May you reap from them the joy you have so faithfully sown into your mother and I.

Above all [name of couple], no longer two but one, be conformed to the likeness of Christ, who is the perfect image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. May your union portray the mystery intended, that is, Jesus, the bridegroom of his beloved church. May the grace of God be upon you. Amen.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Doctor Ehrmstuhl on the phone

The other day, I stopped during hours at the office of Doctor Ehrmstuhl and was pleased to find him at his desk. His office was generously lined with books and could have been tidy until he left off shelf space and began stacking along the floor. He motioned for me to come in and he seemed pleased to see me. It had been a while. Nevertheless, he was in animated conversation with someone on the phone. I waited so long that I finally took down some of it, and so here it is. These are my notes, remember, so factual mistakes or exaggerations are my own.


I too was taught that differences between traditions, and especially between east and west, are due to the different emphases along what, for lack of a better term, is called the Christ event: birth-to-ascension. Over that, I lay the linguistic, political, and geographic differences that have shaped and separated both halves. I would add, on my own, that the east seems to properly begin with the community whereas the west has been fascinated by the individual and individualism to our very day. (He drummed his fingers on the table in muted staccato.)

You are right that the east is not as interested in how to be cleansed and more in how to live a holy life. The high example of that for EO are the monks of Mount Athos. EO kept the monasticism that Luther democratized in the West. It also retained a Neoplatonic core that the west gave up for Aristotelianism in the fourteenth century w Thomas Aquinas.

Let's separate mysticism from theosis (deification is a Latin term which doesn't quite ring with the right overtones.) Theosis, the doctrine that the new humanity is made like God, is definitely front-and-center in EO. Funny enough, it is in the west as well. A couple of decades ago, scholars started finding it in the Reformers--especially Calvin. Theosis has been in the west all this time as well. When we talk about the imago Dei's renewal in the sanctification process, the end goal where this is going is Christlikeness or theosis. I asked Tom Wright about it probably ten years ago now, and he affirmed that theosis is not only permissible but biblical. That said, it is NOT becoming a God or God, it is becoming like God: being made in the image of his Son.

That is why I don't like deification. It doesn't leave enough difference in the undertones and it suggests that one, in our own track, can improve and improve until one finally arrives at divinity. This is a kind of Mormon or New Age or New Thought or some brand of Wesleyan perfectionism. I prefer theosis because it keeps a note of distinction in between that which is by nature and that which is by grace.

(At this point, Dr. Ehrmstuhl remembered me. We exchanged some whispered pleasantries, and he assured me he was almost done. But, whomever he was talking to seems to have hit a nerve, and the doctor's attention swiveled back to the conversation.)

Mysticism is a style of discipleship which often refers to saints in the tradition who emphasized prayer and ascetic discipline, figures like Theresa of Avila, San Juan de la Cruz, Francois Fenelon, Catherine of Siena, or anchorites like Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich, and many others. But mysticism is a slippery word. Evelyn Underhill lays it all out in her work on mysticism. There are dangers here. You could be a neopagan and practice this, or a Buddhist or whatever. A deep question in my project is what to do with mysticism in the Christian tradition. Should we jettison it or not? Should mysticism even exists where the Solas exist? The short answer: a highly qualified yes. I do not agree with the hesychastic approach of the EO. They seek the uncreated light born of the energies of the Trinity. I think it is the ever-flowing agape life of the Spirit (Augustine's maestro) who calls us in the solas always higher up and further in. When theology turns its gaze there, it becomes apophatic--it can only say what is not.

(Here, his interlocutor took up the challenge. The Doctor swiveled in his chair. He finally broke in:) There is a Mount Athos documentary on YouTube. It is good. (More from the other side.) Hesychasm has nothing to do with the solas. I was using the solas as a part/whole to mean the framework of Reformed theology. Oh yes, a synecdoche--good catch! What I mean by that is that, because of that Neoplatonic core, EO developed a mysticism that is different than the mysticism of the West. And so I do not find their way into prayer a live option. What I know of it seems a way wholly apart from scripture. It risks keeping the divine Jesus and not the man. Or it might avoid Jesus altogether and try to climb on the rope of the Spirit alone. Therefore, it rings alarms in my head, not least of which is the alarm of gnosticism. I am not saying that EO monks are gnostics. They would probably be quick to shut that down. I'm just saying that it makes me nervous.

The whole essences and energies things comes out of Neoplatonic problems with the doctrine of the Trinity: how does the ineffable God have anything to do with finitude? The thinker here is Gregory of Palamas. (The doctor got up and rummaged around on his shelves.) The general understanding these days is that this language is strange to Western ears, but that it is orthodox. Trinitarian thinkers, EO or Western, are getting at the same thing. I read Palamas in that slim Classics of Western Theology volume. His isn't language I'm adopting anytime soon, but okay. One is stuck with the tradition you grew up with. I am okay attempting to be an informed Westerner.

(Here, again, his interlocutor took up the conversation for some distance.) Your thoughts on individualism and monasticism are good ones. I am not a good guide wading out any deeper into EO waters. I will say this, though. The danger with monasticism is that it has a tendency to create spiritual hierarchies (classism) in the church, and that is going on in EO. I prefer monasticism without hierarchy, and there are models for that even in Protestantism. My own denomination, for example, has various monasteries scattered about, as do other Protestant denominations.

Oh, I completely agree that the path of awakening, purgation, and union is the established way. But it has to be found correctly. Simply put: if it is not in Jesus, it is not available. He is the foundation stone. But not to worry: Paul's language of union with Christ, of being buried with him and raised with him, of being made alive in him: that is the invitation. So the mystic way is not to know nothing and to realize nothing, but to know Christ, following the pull of the Spirit, and to be remade after his image. It is to be invited, because the church has been invited, to the meal that the Trinity has set.


At this point, I got a phone call from my wife. The doctor and I nodded genially, and he may have apologized. And I left.

Hermeneutics is love's desire to know

I haven’t read Hans-Georg Gadamer, best known for his work Truth and Method (New York: Crossroads, 1989), but Roger P. Ebertz, who teaches philosophy at the University of Dubuque, has. And on this Ebertz and I very much agree: Gadamer’s hermeneutic model of knowing is superior to the absolute I (the ego or cogito) of Descartes and Kant and the Enlightenment project.

This makes me a postmodernist of a sort. It means I have made the hermeneutical turn. And I hope it means that I have skipped the turn to the subject as best I can, though as an American, doing that completely is impossible. Nevertheless, I have leapt over it and grasped for the context and community of hermeneutics. I agree with Heidegger that human beings, that I, am thrown into the already spinning world and I cannot deny that or rise wholly above it. There is no absolute viewpoint. There is no point of superior knowing. As I said before, the way human beings are in the world is tensed. We are history all the way down. “In all understanding,” quoting Gadamer, “whether we are aware of it or not, the efficacy of history is at work” (301).

Ebertz outlines several Gadamerian themes that clarify the hermeneutical model of knowing. Let me reproduce them here.

1. We each stand facing the world from a historical and linguistic position as a member of communities. Gadamer calls this qualification prejudice, meaning our knowing is bounded by our finitude. Others call this our social situatedness. What we can know is finite and bounded. Gadamer calls this our horizon.

2. We may as well accept our prejudice as we acquire knowledge. Descartes looked for a method to remove all prejudice from knowing. Gadamer says this is impossible.

3. Without our prejudice, we cannot understand. After all, we can’t begin from nowhere. “Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us” (9).

4. Our prejudice helps us recognize what is new to us. And here Gadamer raises the question of authority and tradition. Both are connected to language, “for language is . . . the reservoir of tradition and the medium in and through which we exist and perceive our world” (29). And both allow us to recognize and be open to the new.

5. Every cultural object, such as another person, a text, a painting, a piece of writing, is an other, and every other has its own horizon. Gadamer called others texts and made the interpretation of a text stand in for the requirement all others make upon us.[1]

6. Bridging the unknown between oneself and the other is the hermeneutical task. Gadamer calls the goal of hermeneutics the “fusion of horizons.” This cannot be a complete fusion. It is just an agreement about the subject matter at hand. It is a loving act.

7. Questions are the spade and trowel of hermeneutics. “Questioning . . . and being questioned . . . is at the core of interpretation. It is a dialogue.” Gadamer calls it play. In play, we risk ourselves, we risk our prejudices. Change may be required. Also, love.

8. Change is always happening. No horizon is ever fixed. Horizons are always being formed and reformed. Others will pull us up short and interrogate us. That’s the nature of the task. Love opens our arms in vulnerability and expectation.

I want to make sure and say that all of this is absolutely in community. Our tools and limitations weren’t invented by us. We grew up in them. And no one seeks understanding alone, but as part of a formal or informal community of seekers. I added love to the above principles because I want to highlight the ethical and personal dimension of the discussion.

I also want to say, as a theologian, that the above is not a recipe for relativism or rampant perspectivalism or psychologism. I confess that the triune God made the world, and that he has spoken to us in flesh and bone in the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth. Here, let me quote Ebertz:

To say that each person’s view of reality is relative to his or her historical, cultural situation does not imply that there is no independent reality which we each view. To say that our language shapes or influences the way we view reality does not imply that reality is entirely constructed by culture and language. As a Christian, I believe there is a reality that transcends my beliefs and culture, my worldview. There is in fact “a God who is there,” as Francis Schaeffer used to say, and a reality that God has created. We can thus affirm that there is a truth, and that it is God’s truth. But this does not entail that any human being can ever grasp that truth fully and see reality without seeing it from his or her own perspective. Since we are finite and fallen, this perspective can never perfectly represent reality.(18)

Now a few words about theology as craft. As I construct my own theology, as I interrogate my prejudice, I seek after God’s wisdom knowing I can never fully contain it. What I can hope to attain is a life given shape by the confession "Jesus is Lord." I can seek as one among others who are also seeking, inhabiting and contributing to a tradition. As Ebertz says, “It is both out of our tradition that we understand the world and into our tradition that we contribute our unique development of that tradition in light of our own experience and work” (28). Finally, I must be suspicious of claims to have arrived as one is suspicious of any idol-—and even my heart may attempt such a claim! To be historical means that knowledge of oneself and others can never be complete (302). Therefore, humility and love seeking understanding are essential to the theological task.

Finally, I mean for this entry to work together with the entry just before it on Augustine and time. In that article, the subject matter of time and eternity is a little different, yes, but the bones are the same: God's is the only absolute seat of being and knowing. Our being and knowing is always qualified. (Ebertz says that is because we are finite and fallen. I think it would be true even if we weren't fallen. Polk says, for example, that once you are in a body, you are limited.)


[1] Note Richard Young's discussion of deeper and surface structures of meaning in language in Intermediate New Testament Greek (Nashville: BH, 1994), 4-7. Surface structure is the spoken or written symbols of a language determined by grammar and syntax. Deep structure he divideds into two parts: the linguistic deep structure, which does not concern this note, and conceptual deep structure which is the total meaning of the communicative act. Some correspondence exists between the surface and the deep structure, but speakers are efficient and do not encode everything they mean. They rely on information shared between speaker and hearer to fill in data. And, because no two people share the exact same pool of experiences and knowledge, communication is never perfect but requires a hermeneutical process or spiral toward clarity just as Gadamer describes. Young writes,

The meaning of an utterance cannot be determined by adding up the supposed meaning of individual words and pieces of grammar. Meaning can only be determined by viewing the communication act as a whole. Each part contributes information to the whole, while at the same time being modifed by the presence of other parts. Thus semantics [the study of language meaning] must be concerned with a wide range of interacting linguistic and extralinguistic data." (6)


Roger P. Ebertz, "Beyond Worldview Analysis: Insights from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Christian Scholarship," Christian Scholar's Review 36:1 (Fall 2006).

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Crossroads, 1989.

----------, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Jean Grondin, The Philosophy of Gadamer, trans. Kathryn Plant. Continental European Philosophy (Montreal, Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.

----------, "Gadamer's Basic Understanding of Understanding," in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Note also Brice Wachterhauser's article in that same volume "Getting It Right: Relativism, Realism and Truth."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Thielicke and the Father's heart

Helmut Thielicke (1908-19086) was a German, Lutheran theologian who helped his nation recover after World War II. He did what Bonhoeffer hoped to do. Thielicke was prolific. He wrote a giant book on ethics, a systematic theology, and many other works, including A Little Exercise for Youth Theologians. Today, I am reading one of his lesser books, I Believe (Ich Glaube. Das Bekenntnis der Christen) Fortress, 1968. And in it, he discusses what it is like to live as one who calls God "Father."
When I deeply love God, my conscience become more delicately adjusted, much more sensitive and responsive. Nor is this any wonder, for now my conduct is no longer determined by whether I should do this or that (my duty, for example), but I do it to please God. At first it is hard for me (even after I have become a Christian!) to work with someone who is disagreeable or whose character is dubious. It irks me to be open to someone like that, to give him a chance, and to speak an encouraging word to him. But now (even thought it still goes against the grain) I remember that Jesus Christ himself died for this man and that God grieves over him and wants to save him. Because I love God, my heart will beat with the Father's heart. Thus, I cannot do otherwise than accept and be "there" for this person with whom my Father does not think himself to good to associate. And when I fail to do this, when I simply cannot manage it, then I do not merely have a sense of moral failure, but rather I am sad because I have grieved God. When you love someone very much, his pain becomes your own pain. This is the reason why there is no more sensitive conscience than that of a person who loves God. It registers every shadow that passes over the heart of God. (6,7)

At first, this sounds no different than any other popular preacher's appeal printed in a thousand middlebrow paperbacks. But there is more to it than devotional good feeling. There is an ethic here. He soundly dismisses the Kantian deontology of mussen and duty. And, in its place, suggests a relational ethic that seems more like the personalism of Buber or Habermas. There isn't enough in this quotation to make it a Christian ethic, unless we give it the benefit of unspoken context. Nevertheless, if one squints a little, if the language is altered here and there, Thielicke could be an Eckhart or a Theresa of Avila. He could be a devoted lowland Beguine. Or, were the language developed and made sophisticated, maybe even an Augustine.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Widow's Mite 3: Return to the Questions

Having begun an initial exegesis and then reviewed the setting of the pericope, Mark 12:41-44, against the narrative structure of its Gospel, I am at a severe and dangerous place. Often, having done a little spade work, I feel I know where I am going. But that is danger made deadly by effort. The level of Bible understanding is so slipshod and lazy in our day that a little work feels more than it is. There remain many questions--a sign the work is unfinished. Ignore them and risk finding what you came for; the first sin was substituting human words for God's. Ergo, it is best to let application come slowly. And, besides, eisegesis is boring. The quest is in the questions.

Therefore, let us return to the original observations and add additional ones based on our investigation. As we discovered, the episode with the widow is the denoument of a two-part interaction between Jesus and the scribes in the Jerusalem temple. Our text is larger. The original pericope of 41-44 now begins at verse 28 (Mark 12:28-44). New material means new observations; the exegetical process begins again.

Observations about Mark 12:28-44

Pericope 1: The Greatest Commandment (28-34)

  • Where does this exchange take place? In the temple (Mk. 11.27)
  • Why is the location important? God has come back to the temple after leaving it in Ezekiel 10. It is the center pole of Israel's identity as a polis in an era when religion and politics were not separated and as a people in covenant with Yahweh. Interrogating Israel's righteosness anywhere else would be meaningless. For Jesus to do it makes it nothing less than a sign that the last days have come and the day of the Lord has dawned.
  • Why does the scribe ask Jesus a question? the scribe wants to know where Jesus stands in relationship to that which is most central to their religious identity—keeping the Law. He has overheard Jesus throw off the materialism of the Sadduccees and re-affirm the importance of Moses's prophetic office in the Torah, not to mention its supernatural character. Jesus begins with the transcendent, ruling reality of Yahweh interpreting their question about the dead around that. So, then, the scribe's follow-up question is not sarcastic or rhetorical. It is genuine. The scribe is asking if this infamous teacher is one one of his kind of people. He is establishing his bona fides. In that sense, he is acting properly as a keeper of the Law for the people both living in Jerusalem and for the readers of this Gospel.
  • Who were the scribes? The beauracratic, professional class of lawyers and religious leaders that interpreted the cultic and legal life of the people. Because of their education and training in the law, scribes were often appointed as trustees for widows and orphans. Sociologically, the rabbis were the successor to the prophets, who mediated the divine will. So one can expect a possible conflict between who is the real prophet; who really speaks on behalf of Yahweh for the people? There is a subtext of Jesus's teaching vis-a-vis the Pharisees. Jesus did not teach like them, quoting and citing authorities. Jesus spoke on his own authority. He spoke like a prophet directly commissioned by God.
  • Why did he ask this question? Was this a common question? Was this a “sure to trick them” question? Was this an “establish your orthodoxy” question? What kind of question is this? Allow me to quote from the Pulpit Commentary about this: "The question was one much mooted amongst the Jews in the time of our Lord. "For many," says Beds, "thought that the first commandment in the Law related to offerings and sacrifices, with regard to which so much is said in Leviticus, and that the right worship of God consisted in the due offering of these." I quote this because Corban--which comes up in Mark 7--is the underlying question of this entire exchange with the scribes. Here is more about corban: "The Greek word korban [קָרְבָּן qorbān] is related to the term korbanas, signifying the “temple treasury.” In Jewish practice, therefore, the word “corban” had been coined as a sort of “vow” term. According to the prevailing tradition, one could designate his financial resources as “corban,” which, practically speaking, was a way of “tagging” them, suggesting, “this belongs to God,” and thus was not to be used for personal interests. There is a passage in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, that illustrates the fact that funds from the temple treasury were “corban,” hence could not be used for secular purposes, e.g., city improvements, as in the building of an aqueduct for water supply (Wars 2.9.4). Thus, in the manner just described, the covetous, ungrateful Jews callously neglected parental responsibility by an appeal to this perverted human tradition. In so doing, they flouted the law of God." Also, this bit from Wikipedia of all places: "The Septuagint generally translates the term in Koine Greek as δῶρον "gift", θυσία "sacrifice", or προσφορά "offering up". By the Second Temple period, Hellenistic Jewish texts use korban specifically to mean a vow. The New Testament preserves korban once as a transliterated loan-word for a vow, once also a related noun, κορβανάς "temple treasury", otherwise using δῶρον, θυσία or προσφορά and other terms drawn from the Septuagint."
  • What was the relationship between the scribes and commandments? The core duty of the scribal class was to maintain and copy religious records and scriptures. The scribes were experts in the Torah. It was their job to interpret it for the people and safeguard its orthodoxy against especially Hellenistic influences.
  • What commandment does Jesus quote? He quotes the Shema: Deut. 6:4-5. The Shema was a portion of Scripture quoted both morning and evening by devout Jews and worn in phylacteries on the arm and forehead by the Pharisees. He doesn't just quote it, though. He reinterprets it so that there is a blurring and uniting of the oneness of Yahweh and his Messiah.
  • What language does he quote it in? Jesus likely knew some Greek, and he knew Hebrew well enough to read and speak it when necessary. But Aramaic was the lingua franca of first century Jewish life.
  • Why does he say these are a “commandment” and not “commandments”?
  • Is it significant that (a) the sacrificial system is mentioned, and (b) a scribe says that system is not primary but secondary to ethics?
  • How would the scribe have understood the Kingdom of God? Though the phrase "kingdom of God" is not found in OT or other Jewish literature, its content is clearly there. He would have understood it to be the realized moment of the rule of God, and Christians see that in the very presence of the King himself. Given that Jesus is evaluating Israel for her covenant faithfulness, his commendation is no empty gesture.
  • Why does he go on to quote the second command? Because love of God and neighbor is the substratum on which any specific commandments required by the Jewish law would rest. If he'd only quoted the first, he'd only have referenced the first table of the law. By quoting the second, he includes the second table--the entire law. He also further explains the principle of his own judgment which he is doing now as God come back to his temple and as king come to his people. // Bill Mounce, commenting on this verse, says that the Greek conjunction kai ties the second together to the first. "God is 'one' and we are to love him." he says. "The single greatest commandment is both the theology of monotheism as well as the recognition that the one God is worthy of our love. Intellectual assent of monotheism is insufficient in and of itself. The commandment is both theology and praxis; all good theology leads to praxis."
  • Why is it that this pericope concludes this way? Why was this question and answer so final that there was no need to repeat it? Because everyone agreed that Jesus's answer is true. Nothing more needs to be said. Jesus has established his right to act as a member of the scribal cast, and he has correctly interpreted the discipline. This is the principle by which Israel's righteousness is to be judged. And those in Israel who are trained in the Law agree.
  • Jesus is first interrogated and, in the process, interrogates.

Pericope 2: Whose Son is He? (35-37)

  • Why does this pericope exist? Having established his right to speak as a scribe and having established the principle of judgment to everyone's agreement, Jesus now does to the scribal class what he did to the other classes: he judges them on their own turf. Here, he takes them to task for not recognizing him. The Shema is the ultimate principle of judgment, but for those who should know better. Recognizing the Messiah, which Jesus said the Jewish leadership should have done (also John's prologue), is the penultimate principle.
  • Could anyone teach anything in the temple? There is at least an informal policing going on. Anyone putting out their shingle would be publicly cross-examined by established teachers. Failure would have at least meant ridicule. And anyone not getting the hint may have faced a sliding scale of expulsion from the temple or worse. People did not separate religious teaching from political speech; look at what ISIS did to imams it did not agree with.
  • What were people’s thoughts on the Messiah at the time?
  • Was Jesus bringing up a common problem?
  • Is Jesus's teaching style reflective of a kind of teaching? Jesus is employing a rabbinic method of teaching called haggadah, which is primarily wisdom instruction for living a God-fearing life. (now quoting some online research): Of the haggadic methods of interpretation, the most frequently used by Jesus is remez. Remez, or hinting, is a very rabbinic way of making a statement or declaration about something or someone by alluding to an Old Testament verse or passage of Scripture. Jesus hints at a biblical verse or passage just by mentioning one key word or phrase in the passage. His listeners, knowing the Bible by heart, much in the same way hear a key phrase and can recall the whole passage. Often, the point being taught is found in the biblical passage immediately before or just after the “hint” from that passage. However, it was unnecessary, in fact a waste of time, to quote a long passage from the Bible which the listeners all knew from memory. The moment the “hint” was given, the whole passage hinted at immediately burst into the mind of each listener.
  • What do we learn about Jesus’s awareness of himself from his use of this psalm.
  • Is this Psalm, Psalm 110, addressed elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel?
  • Was Jesus siding with a certain line of argumentation?
  • Why this psalm? What was this particular point important to bring up in this place? Four Davidic Psalms (2, 118, 110, and 22), each cited or alluded to at least twice, in this order, and at critical junctures in Mark's narrative, play a key role in his Gospel. In contemporary understanding Psalm 2 was associated with the future messianic purging of Jerusalem and especially the temple (e.g.4QFlor, Pss Sol 17). Psalm 118, concluding the Egyptian Hallel, spoke of Israel's future deliverance under a Davidic king with the restored temple as the goal of Israel's return from exile. Psalm 110's surprisingly elevated royal designation, uniquely expressed in Melchizedekian priestking terms, contributed to several portraits of exalted heavenly deliverers, some messianic, who would preside over Israel's restoration (e.g.11QMelch, 1 Enoch) while Psalm 22's Davidic suffering and vindication described the deliverance of righteous Zion (e.g.4QPs). Drawing from the dual perspective of their original contexts and contemporary interpretations, this paper proposes that Mark's careful arrangement of his psalm citations presents Jesus as both Israel's Davidic Messiah (Pss. 2, 118) and the temple's Lord (Ps. 110) who, coming to purge Jerusalem but rejected by the temple authorities, announces the present structure's destruction and, through his death and vindication (Ps. 22), its replacement with a new people-temple centered on himself.
  • Should this pericope be part of the previous one?

Pericope 3: Jesus's Condemnation of the Scribes (38-40)

  • What is the difference between the material above and these open judgments?
  • Is this a rhetorical form--first trounce their teaching and then trounce them?
  • The fourfold things they like: long robes, marketplace respect, best seats at synagogue, best seat at banquets. Why are these so wrong?
  • Why are widow's houses and long prayers even mentioned? The former makes some sense, but the latter?
  • Where did condemnation come up? The "greater" condemnation? What is the lesser one? Are we assuming he was talking about condemnation?

Pericope 4: The Lord's Doom Upon Jerusalem / The Widow's Mite (41-44)

  • Why does this story exist here? Because, quoting again from the Pulpit Commentary: "The Greek word korban is related to the term korbanas, signifying the “temple treasury.” The charge is that the scribes, and indeed all of Israel's rulers, have made a corban (a vow -- kind of like a making a covenant) with the world system instead of living by their covenant vow to Yahweh. Therefore, the judgment will be made in the korbanas of the temple where the world system and Jewish devotion meet each other. It is a deeply ironic location.
  • The people in the story are the crowds, rich people, Jesus, his disciples, temple benefactors, and the widow.
  • The place is the temple treasury (Where is that?)
  • Why does the temple have a treasury?
  • What narrative requirement does each person in the story fulfil? What purpose do they serve?
  • Money is important to the story and how much or little of it there is.
  • Economic class is part of this: some live in abundance, but the widow lives in poverty.
  • The story has Jesus going through a series of postures: he sits, he watches, he calls, he speaks.
  • Jesus praises the largest gift, but based on a value completely other than its commercial value.
  • No one is concerned about what happens to this widow after Jesus's pronouncement. Odd if her character is the point.
  • The author makes a point to tell the reader how much the widow's coins were worth.
  • Even if the commercial value of the coins is not important or, indeed, if money is not the object, is there still an implicit teaching about money?
  • There is a lot of the verb "put" in this story.
  • The dramatic engine of the story is fueled by compare and contrast: wealth and poverty, large and small, the crowd and the individual, Jesus and the disciples, a wide view versus a narrow view, the value of the crowd and Jesus's value, watching silently and speaking aloud.
  • The story doubles up on its description of the amount the widow put into the treasury: everything she had, all she had to live on.
  • Are these two adjectival phrases about the widow's gift meant to give us more information about the widow, or is this just repetition for emphasis?
  • Jesus begins his teaching with "Truly, I tell you." Is this important?
  • The disciples are not present in the story until Jesus calls them.
  • The reaction of the disciples nor of anyone else is recorded. Audience reaction is assumed.
  • Why are all the verbs in the simple past tense save the ones in Jesus's pronouncement. Those are all in the perfect tense?
  • Is there a reason Jesus contrasts the verbs "have contributed" and "has put in" in the final comparison?
  • Does giving tithe to the temple equate one-to-one to contemporary church tithing or to charitable giving today?
  • What did this story mean to Jews or God-fearing gentiles who circulated it a decade or two before the temple's destruction?
  • What status or position in society did widows have in first-century Palestine?
  • Who is Jesus at this point in the Gospel narrative?
  • What more does this story tell us about Mark's Jesus? How does this story advance the story about Jesus that Mark's gospel is telling?
  • There is a kind of implicit narrative blocking that shapes the story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Whatever you think it is, it is worse

Two generations ago, theologians talked about how all theology had to be done in the shadow of Auschwitz. This means that those seeking to think clearly in the work of theology cannot be naive. It does not do to be naive about human potential. One cannot simply posit a benign State or politic. Anthropology does not work from good material. No, whatever you think it is, it is worse.

Epistemology must ask about truth in a room of unapologetic liars. Soteriology must ask about salvation for narcissistic savages. We thought modernity always changed because the market was on its way to perfection. Turns out, constant change is because the center never did hold--nothing did. Social justice will never arrive. Politics will never be just. Ethics is a room full of sinners trying to assuage their guilt. The Bible, of course, is not surprised. As it is written:

There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Theologians must call things what they are. And, in so doing, must realize that whatever they think it is, it is worse.

For this reason, eschatology is fundamental to theology and all theology must be fundamentally eschatological.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Polk on Augustine and Time

In a 1991 article in Augustinian Studies, Danne W. Polk talks about Augustine, Husserl (and to a lesse extent Heidegger), phenomenology, theological anthropology, and the relationship between time and eternity. And because I have written posts and a paper or two about all of them, it seems only fair to write one more. Allow me to begin by summarizing Polk's paper. It is a phenomenological anthropology in which Polk puts the time-awarness of human beingness under the microscope. And, after examination, Polk contrasts it with the being of God so that the being of God is revealed as the ground of the becoming of everything else. Here is a rough outline (Heideggarian language added by me in square brackets):
  1. Human beings are time-trapped creatures [da-Sein]; God is not
  2. As bodied things, humans beings interact with the world from a particular point of view [Geworfenheit, thrownness]; God sees it all
  3. Human beings interact with all things as they arrive and disappear in the flow of time [held out into the nothing]; All things are present to God
    • Attention, expectation, and memory
  4. For human beings, the present is not an objective point but a subjective synthesis; God's eternity is timeless
    • A critique of Aristotle's objective and static model of time
  5. God's being supports beings; eternity is the spoke of time's wheel


Human Beings are time-trapped creatures; God is not

The way human being are in the world is tensed. We move. We have extension. There is a a before and an after, a future that flows into a past. Time is dramatic; time is storied. Our lives are stories, and we tell stories about our lives. Polk says that Aristotle described a cosmic or objective time existing outside us. But Augustine, and much later Edmund Husserl and other phenomenologists such as Heiddeger and Merleau-Ponty, did not understand time like that. They said time is intimate and basic to human experience. Time is subjective to us, an insight that Husserl attributed to Augustine's Confessiones.

Temporality (pro tempore)--what Augustine would call "subjective time" and what Husserl would call "immanent time"--is so close to us that any attempt at uncovering the essence of the human person, or in more modern terms, a description of human existence, must include an equal attempt at a personal or 'authentic' portrayal of the way time in fact appears to us. For Husserl, this amounts to a 'pure' description of how "external" or "transcendent" objects come to be constituted within the continual flow of experience. . . . [Later, Heidegger would say that the] human subject as it exists in time (or as time) is . . . the phenomenological question par excellance.

If Aristotle is right about time being objective, we cannot know. How could we know? We have no access to objectivity. But we know time because we are time. "This field of presence is not the presence of God, but rather, it is the presence of ourselves in the existential unfolding of our own experience" (66)

And why are humans so trapped in time? We are so because our bodies fix us in place. Our bodies locate us. We cannot know nor do we experience time as an objective whole, but only in our fixed locatedness. This qualifies all human knowing.

Things come and go

Time, then, cannot be understood objectively. We only understand it from our perspective. And the same goes for everything else. Things come into our awarness--they come in from the future--and they pass out again--they recede into the past. Objects take time to be. "Neither thoughts nor objects are able to stand still, at least not in the radical sense that it would take to understand the object as God understands it."

Objects (including human beings) are "measured" by birth and death. That is, nascency and finality are the limits or boundaries between which the process of becoming takes place. These limits, and what goes on between them, keep us from knowing the object (or person) as a whole. . . . And it is this existential situatedness which marks off the contrast between time and eternity. (67)

Attention, expectation, and memory

So, then, our perception of an object is achieved by a synthesis in the mind. "Consciousness is a 'bond' which holds the object with its elements of being and non-being together (Husserl's Zeiterlebnisse, internal time-consciousness). We give conscious attention to things (for Husserl, intentionality). We anticipate or expect them. And we hold their passing by us in memory until they are gone into nothingness. Trying to hold anything in stasis, in an unmoving now, is impossible. The now is too thin, too transitory. We synthesize to form a whole. "Memory is the power of synthetically preserving the meaning of an object as it takes its time to make an appearance" (75). Memory is the subjective form of time. Through anticipation and memory, the mind dilates. The sliver of the present is thickened to behold the world. Say a friend recites a psalm. "We do not receive all the words and silences at once, but rather we gather them together in our minds to make a meaningful and understandable unity which fills itself out in its passing, moving from anticipation into the present and then into the past." In the psalm, "each moment exists in relation to all the others." (71)[2] Attention is necessary for this. Without attention, there can be no unity of experience.[1] The whole appearance takes time. Things occur in the realm of becoming, not in a fixed point of time, no matter how slight.

God's Time / Human Time

Objectivity, such as Aristotle's present now, is unavailable to us. Aristotle presumed a now or a present moment as an objective point. Standing apart, high on a height, the world could be examined objectively. But, of course, there is no now from which Aristotle may stand objectively and judge the world. Such objectivity could only be achieved if we could stop time's flow. And that, for Augustine, would be to step into eternity, for only God sees things as they are.

What seems to be present if we could stop the flow is eternity, stillness, sameness, it is the absolute ground of God. But for us, the flow of time continually pushes us off the center point of the exact now. (75)

Augustine said that eternity hides behind the flow of time. And when we raise the question of objectivity (or, rather, when we ask the question about the difference between objectivity and subjectivity), we stand at the rift between being and becoming. Augustine would say that we ask even how time and eternity are compatible, and with that, whether it is possible for God and creation to interact at all.[3]

Being and Becoming

Underneath this reflection on phenomenological, subjective time and experience versus Aristotle's objective time is the deep problem of how being and becoming might connect. Aristotle's objective now was upgraded by Augustine into God's timelessness, an eternity that for timely thing is like a distant star peeking out between rolling clouds. Nothing moves for God. Worlds stand still. Unchanging eternity supports and gives meaning to finitude and change. Eternity supports faith.[4] Consider this Lenten collect:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The thing is, Augustine's Neoplatonic metaphysics have been severely challenged in the twentieth century. There is a great suspicion that says the entire machinery of God's eternity is imported from Greek metaphysics, not the Bible. It is an ontology or onto-theology that has exposed Christian metaphysics to a host of dangers and defeats under the withering blows of Enlightenment ideas, under Spinoza's interrogation of substantia and Kant's critiques.[5] Many say its should be abandoned. A new metaphysics and a new doctrine of God should be built. I do not know. To run the other way seems to me to run into panentheism and process theology. Centuries of theological ground would be overturned. And God would not be eternal but, now, everlasting. God is not being but the most becoming of all becomings. God comes to resemble modernity; God becomes the wave that has us all.

Also to be considered is hamartiology. Augustine's teaching that sin (αμαρτια) is not being is, to my knowledge, the most useful understanding of sin that we have. [Augustine equates temporality with fallenness. "The experience of time indicates that the sould is 'distended,' fallen from the otium, the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy negotium of temporal activity." (Robert O'Connel Art and the Christian Intelligence in Saint Augustine 72.] If being is eliminated as a category to Christian metaphysics, then this helpful explanation of how sin works with disorder is abandoned as well.

Therefore, I hardly know what to do. This is a major question that I have not yet solved. And, the thing is, I have done twenty years of work in an attempt to try and solve it. I'm afraid it is beyond me to understand the metaphysical philosophy necessary to choose wisely. So where does this leave things? I have only the incarnation. Augustine sought answers everywhere but in the narrative life of Jesus.


Danne W. Polk. "Temporal Impermanence and the Disparity of Time and Eternity" Augustinian Studies 22 (1991) 63-82.

See the pattern Opening a Closed Circle for God || Creation; Eternity || Time.

Works Cited

Augustine. Confessions
Ibid., De Musica
Edmund Husserl. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness
Ibid., Phenomenological Psychology
Ibid., Ideas
Maurice Mereau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception
Heidegger. Being and Time


[1] Paying attention--allowing something to unfold itself under sustained contemplation--is learning to see things Coram Deo in the light of the resurrection. This is the theologian's calling a thing what it is. This is what the arts help us to do. Individually, we will never see a thing as it is [its absolute quiddity] with even a fully restored imago. But the community can together over time begin to take steps to reflect God's complete knowing. We are allowed, by grace, to name the cosmos. Human beings are Michelangelo, seeing the David inside the stone. / Here is where I can connect with the contemplative tradition, with the arts, with the ethics of being for others (Bonhoeffer or even Levinas), an ethics that gives others the attention/the respect to become what they are. Simone Weil's work on attention is worth noting. And the scientific method comes sheepishly to the table.

[2] Augustine is reminding me--such as how each and every moment in his psalm singing exists in relation to all the others--of Leibniz's Monadology. In his speculative metaphysics, the cosmos is made of innumerable points called monads. Each monad reflected from its position the entirety of the cosmos. Every monad forms an absolute relation with the others, yet each is its own individual thing. Each has its particular perspective. Each is its own center of the map of the whole. There is absolute individuality and absolute relation. Polk refers to the Confessions (XI, 18): "An essential difference between eternity and temporality is that eternity has no particular perspective while temporality is always situationally located." For more on Leibniz, see my introduction to his Discourse on Metaphysics.

[3] Augustine drew a line between everlasting being and finite non-being. God was on one side; creation on the other. Now quoting from Polk (69) "Being," he thought, "is what it is because of itself, and time at best is only an image of the eternal sameness of Being. This means that objects are not only inadequate because of the way they appear, but because they lack the quality of true existence, 'for what is forever changing is not, since it does not abide.' But objects in the world do abide for a time, they are given a quasi-existence in 'my' time, and it is in this sense that an object is 'not wholly without being; rather, it is not supremely existent.' In this way, earth and sky exist as objects for me. In a sense, they are intimations of objects, subtle and delicate announcements of stability, which even though inadequate, participate in the ontological categories of the good and the beautiful. [Elsewhere, Augustine refers to time as a trace (vestigium or copy (imitatio) of eternity.] Still, in reference to subjective time, the world and things exist, but this realm of becoming is basically and essentially a lack of immutable Being. Unlike the objects of creation, Being has perfect self-identity which, for Augustine, is none other than the absolute being of God. By this ultimate standard, temporal objects are equivalent to nothingness just as our knowledge in comparision to God is equivalent to ignorance." Later Polk says "Augustine does not hold that objects are ever 'really real,' becuase all things are created, except for God, therefore all things are in some way mutable. That is, all things lack Being. (City of God VIII, 6). "Objects do show themselves, but they do so in time where faculties such as memory and expectation must be employed in order to hold the object together." (78) This makes objectivity a problem. // C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce comes to mind. As does Einstein's universe, where everything is exactly this: moving and subject to constant entropy. God, however, calls order from dissolving chaos. This order needn't be thought of as unchanging Being. Perhaps it need only be good enough, and that is as much as any created thing may be. // I cannot help but quote another lengthy bit from Polk--and I quote this because I hear it echo in liturgy even though it is talking about Augustine's view that the flow of time reflects Being's influence in its going:

In his early work, De Musica, Augustine does portray time as an image of eternity, but he moves away from this view toward an exploration of a radical difference between time and eternity in Confessions: 'times are ordered and made and changed, imitating eternity as they do when the turn of the heavens comes back to the same state and the heavenly bodies to the same place, and in days and months and years and centuries and others revolutions of the stars obey the laws of equality, unity, and order. So terrestrial things are subject to celestial, and their time circuits join together in harmonious seccession for a poem of the universe. (VI, 11.29)

Note also how the entire machinery of Augustine's anthropology of anticipation and memory come together in the singing of a psalm (Confessions XI, 28):

Suppose that I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from my province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished and it has all passed into the province of memory.

[4] Because temporality has its source in eternity, God's providence is making of flux his economy--the fortunes of our lives included. // It is good to remember that, like Plato, Augustine believed in the natural immortality of the soul. That belief is the (pagan) flaw in the Western mystical tradition. Because their anthropology is flawed and their exegesis is at best dated, how can they be guides for spiritual practice? For ethical practice, of course, but not for guiding the soul. Augustine wrongly taught an inward journey because the soul participated in God's eternity. Perhaps a robust pneumatology might alter the flooring but keep the walls in place?

[5] See the posts Onto-Theology and Its Fate; On Panenthism; The Three Options; Heraclitus's Chiasmus as a philosophical step toward sacrament; You have to set aside a block of time; Padgett versus Wood on time and eternity; Hannah's Natality and Juergen's Novum.


Excursis: By reading this article, I am set up to make a leap forward. I am set to unify two arguments that, until this point, I had always considered very different. These arguments are arguments about time and arguments about interpretation. The former argument is represented by Augustine and phenomenology. The latter is represented by Hans-Georg Gadamer and hermeneutics. I can now bring them into relationship one another in a vertical and a horizontal. Phenomenology occupies the vertical around the question of God's being; hermeneutics occupies the horizontal with ethical praxis at the center. Both are, of course, united in the one living One. He occupies both and transcends each. At the juxtaposing center is the perfect quiddity of shalom.