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Nietzsches Nietzsches Everywhere — Patrick Connelly

March 17, 2014
Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche's contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.

Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche’s contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.

Patrick Connelly is associate professor of history and director of the Honors Program at Montreat College. This is a reblog from books and He reviews Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas below.


Zarathustra in America.
The tragic and ironic final chapter of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life began with a spectacular collapse into debilitating insanity on the streets of Turin, Italy. It ended with the incapacitated philosopher occupying the second floor of a Weimar villa that housed the archives from which his sister Elizabeth would assume controversial control over his legacy. Prior to his breakdown, Nietzsche balanced his expectation of being a seer and facilitator of a civilizational crisis with the conviction that he was criminally underappreciated in his lifetime.

The European “Nietzsche vogue” of his incomprehensible final years, however, gave credence to the notion that his time had indeed come. Among the witnesses of this phenomenon was Wilbur Urban, an American doctoral student at the University of Leipzig and son of an Episcopal priest who discovered The Genealogy of Morals in a local bookstore. Urban later described the resulting personal encounter with Nietzsche’s ideas, as he read through the night and undertook an intellectual and spiritual reevaluation of everything he held dear.

Urban’s experience of reading Nietzsche is recounted in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s richly textured and absorbing American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas. The juxtaposition of Nietzsche near death in Weimar with a young American graduate student transfixed by his writings just miles away captures the importance of biography in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account. Nietzsche’s “persona” became a focal point for readers and reviewers who “interpreted his philosophy through the lens of his biography.”

Yet American Nietzsche is also about the stories, emotions, and longings of Nietzsche’s readers and the “strong affective dimension” involved in how his ideas were received. The act of reading Nietzsche is narrated through published sources, personal recollections, marginalia, and fan letters written to Nietzsche and his sister. They give evidence of a thinker who struck a nerve with American readers due to his unconventional biography and singular vision of a modern world without foundations.

“Antifoundationalism” is a foundational idea in American Nietzsche, which explores how a motley crew of readers in the United States appropriated Nietzsche’s “denial of universal truth” in a distinctly American context. Academic philosophers, literary radicals, clergy, and political thinkers of various stripes are among the cast of characters concerned with the implications of Nietzsche’s ideas for “the moral and cultural grounds” of modern Americans. Ratner-Rosenhagen draws a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche helping Americans understand themselves. This transatlantic intellectual and cultural exchange began, as Ratner-Rosenhagen tells the story, with an American thinker providing a transformative reading experience for Nietzsche himself.

Other commentators have noted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche and discussed the affinities between the two thinkers, but no one has made such a forceful case that Nietzsche’s encounter with Emerson was so decisive and transformative. Ratner-Rosenhagen analyzes Nietzsche’s heavily annotated reading copy of Emerson’s Essays and notebook of Emerson quotations.

She credits Emerson with teaching Nietzsche about the “external forces that constrain individual autonomy.” Emerson is presented as providing Nietzsche with the example of the intellectual as provocateur, as one who doesn’t provide direct answers but provokes from a position “without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.” Emerson’s influence, Ratner-Rosenhagen speculates, was particularly crucial in Nietzsche’s loss of faith, with his discovery of Emerson seemingly “the turning point” leading to his decision to abandon Christianity.

 Nietzsche biographers may wonder whether Ratner-Rosenhagen overstates Emerson’s role in Nietzsche’s personal and professional development (a recent biography by Julian Young contains only two references to Emerson in 562 pages of text), but American Nietzsche persuasively portrays Emerson as the “exemplar of the aboriginal intellect” abroad who helped Nietzsche to feel at home. It was a favor that Nietzsche would return to American readers in the decades to come.

Ratner-Rosenhagen does not exhaustively record every reference to Nietzsche in American print, though she examines in great detail how Americans experienced Nietzsche’s ideas. Her thematic and somewhat chronological survey begins with “the making of the American Nietzsche” by literary radicals and cultural critics. Literary radicals fretted over the state of American culture while hoping for a “cosmopolitanism” that would look to the example of Europe, which they believed had already been transformed by Nietzsche’s “challenge to all external authority.”

H. L. Mencken was among an eclectic group of cultural critics who focused on “the persona of Nietzsche.” Mencken’s influential monograph on Nietzsche refashioned the philosopher in Mencken’s image while suggesting that Americans desperately needed Nietzsche’s “fearless independence and fierce intelligence.” American Nietzsche later returns to the allure that Nietzsche contained for literary radicals and critics. Once again, Nietzsche’s biography educates these enthusiasts, who gravitated toward his paradigm of “the unaffiliated intellectual” changing the world through “literary expression and the social efficacy of ideas.” Writers and activists such as Emma Goldman, Kahlil Gibran, Randolph Bourne, and Walter Lippmann drew deeply from Nietzsche’s model of “the antifoundational intellect” and expressed hope that he could help them renew an impoverished American culture.

Mencken and other critics believed that religion was significantly to blame for that cultural poverty and were gripped by Nietzsche’s extraordinary attack on Christianity. The repercussions of Nietzsche’s critique were taken up by American clergy and theologians, who used the occasion to take inventory of Christianity’s future prospects and “to reassert their flagging moral authority in modernizing America.” Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account of Nietzsche’s religious readers is heavily weighted toward liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers, though she does consider Catholic apologists who viewed Nietzsche as the natural consequence of Protestantism.

Liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers understood Nietzsche as a “fellow seeker” and a “challenging doubter” who remained a vital instrument “for refitting their faith to the modern world.” Protestants less interested in this refitting, with a few exceptions, remain largely on the sidelines in American Nietzsche. Conservative Protestants are mentioned, but their collective perception of Nietzsche as an insidious force in the culture-shaping institutions of Germany and the United States remains underdeveloped.

Fundamentalists, who frequently lumped together Nietzsche and Darwin, are virtually absent from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s story. The addition of these neglected constituencies would strengthen the case that Protestants of all theological persuasions worried about the prospect of a civilization adrift from Christian foundations — even if they defined the problem and solution differently.

“A world after God” meant the arrival of the Übermensch for Nietzsche and his enthusiasts. The most ambitious section of American Nietzsche unites seemingly disparate individuals, discourses, and events around their fascination with one of Nietzsche’s signature ideas. Harvard philosophers, political radicals, and conservative New Humanists are portrayed as wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of the superman.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch later appeared in wartime debates less as a “constructive ideal” in antifoundational discourse than “a symbol for the German imperial temper.” The Übermensch seeped into the popular imagination through events such as the Leopold-Loeb trial, where the defendants murdered a boy due to their belief that “they were Nietzschean supermen.” Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a good case for the importance of the Übermensch for American readers, though as an interpretive construct it occasionally feels stretched.

Creating a coherent narrative is an arduous task for any reception study, of course, let alone one regarding a remarkably pliant thinker like Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s post-World War II examinations of the American reception illustrate that elasticity by focusing on the creation of numerous Nietzsches.

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was liberated from the taint of National Socialism, established as a serious philosopher who negotiated the analytic/existentialist divide in professional philosophy, and credited with transforming “American cold war culture” and fueling the discontent of the Sixties. Harold Bloom’s Nietzsche helped the critic move beyond the postmodern literary theories of Europe while enabling America to embrace its “alienated majesty” in a world without authorities beyond the self.

Richard Rorty’s Nietzsche inspired a “pragmatic antifoundationalism” that explored the tensions between self-creation and social solidarity in a world shorn of transcendent grounding. Stanley Cavell’s Nietzsche served as “a midwife of Emersonian philosophy” who helped Americans to rediscover their native antifoundational thinking. Allan Bloom’s Nietzsche was misappropriated to sustain “an unwholesome, lighthearted and softheaded ‘nihilism with a happy ending.’ “

Given these and other appropriations, can the real Nietzsche be discerned in an America awash in Nietzsches? It certainly goes against the grain of many of the thinkers discussed in American Nietzsche to suggest that a single understanding of Nietzsche is necessary or even possible. Epistemological and critical humility are needed — we do, after all, see through a glass darkly — but it is difficult to criticize misappropriations or misunderstandings of Nietzsche without having some sense of what he meant. This is especially challenging for a reception study.

Ratner-Rosenhagen contends that her book “is not even a book about Nietzsche” but rather “about his crucial role in the ever-dynamic remaking of modern American thought.” American Nietzsche is certainly about the latter — and engagingly so — but it is about Nietzsche as well. Ratner-Rosenhagen resists a full-fledged exposition of Nietzsche’s ideas, though she does selectively elaborate, taking several opportunities to correct perceived misreadings and resisting fashionable assumptions about the “death of the author.”

The emphasis on the act of reading Nietzsche also leads to questions about how to understand the cultural and intellectual setting those acts transformed. What impact did Nietzsche have on American culture as a whole, as opposed to select individuals? One instance where this issue becomes problematic is Ratner-Rosenhagen’s discussion of celebrity.

She discusses, in fascinating detail, letters from the Nietzsche Archive that were written to Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche by her brother’s American fans. Ratner-Rosenhagen suggests that the letters reveal “Nietzsche’s emergence as a celebrity in American culture.” Historians of celebrity, she argues, have focused inordinate attention on musicians and actors and their respective industries while neglecting the emergence of “the prophetic thinker” as celebrity. But it is difficult to see how a relatively small sample of letters can be used as evidence of celebrity, which by its very nature is about mass appeal and consumption.

How then does one gauge Nietzsche’s broader impact on American culture? Ratner-Rosenhagen provides much food for thought on this question throughout American Nietzsche, particularly when she discerns a larger popular effect as in the case of Walter Kaufmann’s monograph and translations. I wonder whether a more specific distillation of the notion of cultural authority would be instructive as well.

“Cultural authority” is an amorphous term that sociologists and historians have used more than defined. It involves the authority of individuals, ideas, and institutions to promote certain understandings of meaning and values in the culture at large and to shape core assumptions about God, human personhood, social and political order, science, economics, law, and other spheres of public and private life.

Protestant Christianity had long informed the American cultural milieu but faced substantial challenges to its authority by the time Nietzsche’s ideas first registered in the United States. Sociologist Christian Smith writes that a “secular revolution” was afoot, involving “secularizing activists” seeking “to overthrow a religious establishment’s control over socially legitimate knowledge.” Many of the same American academics, critics, activists, and clergy who appear in American Nietzsche were participants in the seismic shifts of authority in culture-shaping institutions.

Nietzsche’s early American admirers may have questioned whether the European “Nietzsche vogue” would take root in the United States, but they recognized his awareness of and contribution to the larger story of secularism. William Mackintire Salter wrote in 1917 that “a subtle, slow secular revolution in the mental and moral realm was what Nietzsche had in mind.”

Nietzsche himself realized that uprooting Christianity’s cultural authority was a long historical process involving more than simply rejecting traditional beliefs. It would be overreaching, of course, to suggest that Nietzsche’s ideas singlehandedly accomplished this revolutionary aim in the United States, but many of the subjects of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book were willing to utilize his ideas to accelerate the process.

The result of this secular revolution, along with the rise of competing authorities and understandings of the world, meant further openings were created for Nietzsche’s antifoundationalism to gain a hearing in the decades to come. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s wonderfully written and stimulating American Nietzsche compels us to reckon not only with what he said, but with what we have become.


Time’s On Our Side — Matthew W. Maguire

January 27, 2014
Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality.

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality.

A review of The Illusion of History: Time and the Radical Political Imagination by Andrew R. Russ. Matthew W. Maguire is associate professor of history and Catholic studies at DePaul University.


A century ago, Charles Peguy observed that self-consciously modern intellectuals “want for everyone to criticize everything. But they don’t want anyone to critique critique.” For Peguy and others, “critique” broadly designates thinking in which reflexive suspicion of truth and truth claims is assumed to be superior to any reasoned assent to those claims, and analyses of becoming and historical flux are increasingly assumed to be more powerful, more valuable, and more honest than thinking affirmatively about being, nature, truth, goodness, God, or any metaphysical term intimating abiding “essences” in the world and beyond it.

From early modernity forward, a doughty and eclectic succession of thinkers have criticized this kind of critique. Pascal, Johann Georg Hamann, Peguy, and many others have exposed its tendency to depend tacitly upon bold metaphysical commitments that it elsewhere decries.

That is, modern critical thought often loudly proclaims its radical skepticism and the need to take nothing from metaphysics — or nothing that it cannot establish entirely on its own — but then smuggles into its arguments and exhortations to readers a silent metaphysics of truth, of the good, the beautiful, and the ultimate nature of reality, all the while claiming to emancipate those same readers from metaphysical burdens. Critics observe that modern critical thinking is often rather amusingly inconsistent and — more seriously — threatens to deprive us of the metaphysical freedom that is indispensable to human flourishing, and with it our potential for living lives of purpose in the time available to us.

Yet the critique of critique can sometimes develop the destructive symptoms that it attributes to critique. For all its acute observations about critique’s shortcomings, it can include only tentative gestures toward affirmative metaphysical arguments about truth, goodness, or meaning, creating an amorphous protest against the presumptions of modern critique. The critique of critique can thus be parasitic upon the apparently parasitic tendencies of critique, and thus does not cure but intensifies the malady it encounters.

In The Illusion of History by Andrew Russ, the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant is the supreme transformative moment in modern critical thinking. Kant claimed that his philosophy defended (certain kinds of) metaphysics and constituted a refutation of David Hume’s radical skepticism. But for Russ, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, Kant points the way toward an account of human being in which a radically autonomous will exists apart from creaturely history and the historical institutions that help to orient us in the world.

Kant’s philosophy of history posits an ultimate rapprochement between the autonomous rational will and human experience, but for Russ, these Kantian ends stand in remote repose, far from the institutional, continuous, and organically historical realities of human life. After Kant, these realities were diminished in both meaning and importance and left undefended before a fiercely historicizing skepticism.

For Russ, Kant created the space for the most radical forms of modern critique. Human being is separated from its indispensably embodied, temporal, and culturally instantiated conditions of experience. This separation produces seemingly liberated but thoroughly alienated modern persons, who are then compelled to protest their alienation in uncompromising terms, often by lurching toward still more radical forms of critique — attacking remaining claims about truth, purpose, goodness, and so on. It is this move that first appears by way of prolepsis in Rousseau and is transfigured by Marx and Foucault.

The audacity of this argument is not to be gainsaid: Russ claims that the philosophies of Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault are not, as conventional wisdom generally assumes, distinct movements toward a thoroughly historical understanding of human experience. Rather, they are three philosophies that tacitly rely upon an ahistorical dualism with profound Kantian resonances, in which the shared historical world we inhabit and the metaphysical traditions conveyed by our cultures are assumed to be lies.

To create their distinctive forms of radical critical distance from their places in a continuous history, Russ claims, Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault imagine three different stark, timeless, yet immanent metaphysical ideals that stand in perpetual critical judgment upon our experience. The fictive past of Rousseau’s state of nature and his selective account of life in ancient Sparta serve him as idylls.

Marx’s dialectical and universally valid “scientific” affirmation of use value, labor power, and the quotidian hunter, fisher, cattle-raiser. and critic of The German Ideology places his timeless yet historical ideal in the communist future. Foucault’s universal emptiness of historical time. at once “autistic” and without consciousness, allows the “imaginative critical individual” to survey history’s “species of thought” while remaining forever separated from history in an isolated present.

For Russ, these critical positions serve as implicit trans-historical standards: They are Rousseauian, Marxist, and Foucauldian illusions of history rather than engagements with history. Hence the pride that modern critique takes in its uncompromising historicism is also illusory.

That some of the most important thinkers and methods of modern critique rely upon a tacit, often Kant-inflected ideal of critical autonomy that is placed in time yet set apart from their putative historicism is a bold and important argument, and it is generally persuasive. Russ is also incisive when reading fiction preoccupied with modern critique; the pages devoted to literature are among the book’s best. For him, Camus and especially Kafka expose with uncanny clarity the dilemmas attending a culture in which critical imaginings begin to form the habitual ways of thinking.

Russ also alludes to a rich counter-critical philosophical history to affirm the importance of historical continuity and its institutions when modern critique has left us alienated and diminished by reflexive suspicion. He commends, for aid in responding to those he calls “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a what’ but a `why” when they investigate human experience, attention to Montesquieu, Jacobi, Hamann, Burke, Hegel, and Eugene Rosenstock Huessy. These philosophers sustain his critique of critique; they are “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a `what’ but a `why” when they investigate human experience.

While there is much to praise in The Illusion of History, there are dubious generalizations at work in its treatment of its major philosophers, especially Rousseau. Furthermore, while it is an author’s prerogative to identify unexpected correspondences, it does not require a scholarly obsessive’s party-pooping pedantry to observe that thinkers like Burke, Hamann, and Hegel are generally not identified as part of a single school of thought, and that there are important reasons for distinguishing among them.

Precisely which institutions do they variously affirm? As for why institutions are legitimate and important, is it because of their particular and organic duration that cannot be entirely subjected to reason (Burke), or as part of the universal, cumulative dialectical realization of the Absolute (Hegel)? Or are they best conceived by the continuous power of the Incarnation, through which eternity fuses sense and reason, matter and language (Hamann)? These differences are essential; here they are mentioned in passing or passed over in silence.

The subtitle of the book, Time and the Radical Political Imagination, offers the prospect of investigating time and imagination, but here that work is often left undone. There are interesting passages about Kant’s account of imagination, but the extraordinary importance of imagination in Rousseau’s philosophy — where it has an altogether different and often intensely political function — is simply absent.

Working with Rousseau’s earlier account of imagination’s power would have allowed Russ (in keeping with his own argumentative commitments) to write with greater sensitivity to history, rather than repeatedly enlisting Rousseau as an awkwardly anachronistic philosophical emanation of Kant.

Above all, Russ fails to reckon with the question of time, a preoccupation of both Christian and modern secular thought. In these pages, time is generally identified with history and the timeless with the trans-historical, but later sections of the book jettison this already debatable usage.

Russ claims there that the organic, “unbroken” trinity of past, present, and future has been shattered by modern critique, and he hopes to reveal “time in its Trinitarian unity.” The theological implications of sustained trinitarian language are undeveloped; they are abandoned abruptly in favor of “all four dimensions of time,” including eternity, which appears only as a posterity that permits institutions to perpetuate the vision of their founders. A book promising to explore time and the political imagination must take more care with its major terms.

The Illusion of History is an ambitious, original, and often truly insightful book. Its argumentative shortcomings leave the reader wondering whether critiques of modern critique would benefit from greater attention to their animating, positive commitments, whether those commitments are “historical-institutional” or philosophical.

The critique of a now-conventional critical habit of thought requires that its critics dare to know — and to explore openly with lucid, peaceful, and reasoned confidence — precisely where and how they have found themselves beyond the increasingly closed and institutionally fortified frontiers of modern critique, and how readers might find their way there too.


The Poets’ Incarnation 3 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 23, 2013
The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. Note that all references to “this book” and various chapters refer to Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


In common parlance, the word “evangelical” has both a more generic meaning, referring to all styles, schools, and denominations of Christianity that are explicitly confessional, and a more specific (and usually American) meaning, which refers to specific churches and denominations that require a confession of Jesus as Lord for church membership.

Thus there can be evangelical Anglicans within the Church of England, while other (usually independent) churches are entirely evangelical. My title of course is meant in the generic sense, but not as if only some Catholics confess Jesus as Lord and others don’t. The word here is meant in the methodological sense: rather than arguing to the possibility of confessing Jesus as Lord (that would be the apologetic approach), I shall begin by presupposing the faith that Jesus is Lord and then seek to understand what that means scientifically (the explicitly confessional approach).

That said, I should also add that my years of involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together have taught me how little divides Evangelicals (in the specific sense) from Catholics in matters of Christology. For that reason, especially in the historical sections of this book (Chapters 4 through 10), I shall freely draw on Protestant and Orthodox authors who are themselves evangelical (in the generic sense). In this I will of course be following the directive of the Second Vatican Council, which urged Catholics in these terms:

Catholics must joyfully acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of praise. [Vatican II, Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), §4, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 349.]

As the subtitle indicates, this work will also be frankly and unapologetically Catholic in its outlook, as will emerge especially in Chapter 11, where the developments of modern Christology will find their response in the contemporary Roman magisterium. Throughout the history of Christology the reader will notice a dialectic at work in which certain proposals are moot by individual Christians: when inadequacies are noticed, other writers m respond, often heatedly, but the ultimate resolution of these debates will found in official responses by magisterial bodies: ecumenical councils p manly but also by individual bishops, very much including the Bishop Rome; and what was true of the ancient Church holds true for the Rom Church today.

Finally, there is the matter of the title itself, which is meant as no mere nod to the poets, insightful as they are. It will be the fundamental thesis this book that there can be no getting around the essential paradoxicality the Christian confession of Christ as Lord. “Take away paradox from thinker,” Soren Kierkegaard once quipped, “and you have a professor.” Transposed into Christology, we may paraphrase the line as: “Take away paradox from a theologian, and you have a heretic. [As we will notice throughout this book, but especially in Chapter 4, denial of the central paradoxes of Christology will inevitably lead to heresy; and pagan critics of Christianity were explicit in their rejection of the Christian message for that same reason: "For the one whom the church was calling God was also the one whose suffering and death on the cross were the burden of the church's witness....

The claim that he who was God had suffered called forth some of the earliest doctrinal controversy in the church. Speaking for pagan critics of the gospel, Celsus made this claim the object of his attack, and he contended that `the body of a god would not have been born ... nor eat,' ... and the Gnostic gospels sought to put a screen between the person of the Savior and the pain and suffering described in the canonical Gospels." Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100- 600), vol. I of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 174.]

Indeed, long before the poets began to sing the praise of infinity dwindled to infancy, the most important defenders of Christian orthodoxy were adamant that theology would invariably go astray if it did not openly confess the utter strangeness (strange to worldly logic, at least) of the Christian message of salvation. For just that reason, early Christian writers were generally suspicious of Aristotle, not so much for his specific and distinctive philosophical doctrines but because his logic was unsuited, they felt, to the transcendent “logic” of the Logos incarnate, the application of which was bound to lead to heresy. As Harry Wolfson observes:

Patristic opponents of Arianism as well as Patristic Church historians a heresiographers trace the Arian heresy to Aristotle…. But when we study the passages in which Aristotle is mentioned as the source of this here we are surprised to discover that the reference is not to any particular theory with which the name of Aristotle is generally associated, such, for instance as his denial of Platonic ideas, his belief in the eternity of the world, his conception of God as only a prime mover, or his view that the soul is only a form of the body, but only to the Aristotelian method of reasoning….
And when we examine these references to the Aristotelian method of reasoning as being the cause of the Arian heresy, we are further surprised to discover that they do not mean reasoning by the Aristotelian method from premises which are also Aristotelian, but rather the application of the Aristotelian method of reasoning to generally accepted Christian premises.
[Harry A. Wolfson, Philosophical Implications of Arianism and Apollinarianism, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Number Twelve (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 3-28; here 5; emphases added. Thomas Aquinas of course had a much higher appreciation for Aristotle, as everyone knows. But he too admits the limitations of reason vis-a-vis the mysteries of Christology: "Among divine works, this [the incarnation] most especially exceeds reason.” Summa contra Gentiles IV 27.1, a passage that will be cited at greater length at the end of this chapter and in Chapter 5. Aristotle, by the way, was perfectly aware that logic could not dictate reality but was merely an instrument for its clarification, which was the whole point of his book Sophistical Refutations: “By a sophistical refutation and deduction I mean not only a deduction or refutation which appears to be valid but is not, but also one which, though it is valid, only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.” Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations 16gb2o, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), vol. i, p. 287.]

As we will see in Chapter 4, this is particularly true of the fifth-century Cyril of Alexandria, without whom the Council of Chalcedon — itself the touchstone for all later orthodox Christologies — would never have had available to it the conceptual armory that proved necessary for its teaching. Indeed, Cyril frankly avows that in Christ we find “the strange and rare paradox (aethes to kai xenon paradoxon)” of a master who serves and an abased divine glory. ["We see in Christ the strange and rare paradox of the Lordship in servant's form and divine glory in human abasement." Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, trans. John Anthony McGuckin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), p. 101. Earlier in that same work Cyril describes the incarnation of Christ as meaning that "... the one who is immaterial could [now] be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all-righteousness was numbered among the transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death” (p. 61).]

In another work he describes Christ in these terms: “He is filled with wisdom who is himself all wisdom…. Rich in poverty; the Most High in humiliation:… so thoroughly did God the Word empty himself!” [Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, trans. R. Payne Smith (New York: Studion, 1983), p. 63.]

Such statements could be multiplied at will, both in Cyril’s writings an throughout the annals of historical theology. For example, Cyril asks why the Fourth Evangelist said that the Word became flesh rather than became man. The answer for Cyril was that John wanted to stress the paradox of the incarnation:

That, in my opinion, is the most probable reason why the holy Evangelist, indicating the whole living being by the part affected, says that the Word God became flesh. It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the remedy, the patient together with the physician, what sank towards death together with him who raised it up to life,… that which has been mastered by death together with him who conquered death, what was bereft of life with him who was the provider of life. He does not say that if Word came into flesh; he says he became flesh in order to exclude any idea of a relative indwelling, as in the case of the prophets and the other saint He really did become flesh, that is to say, a human being.
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, at John 1:14a, in Cyril of Alexandrea trans. N. Russell (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 105-6; emphases added.

Going back even further, as early as the second century we read in Ignatius of Antioch: “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ of Lord. [Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.2, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Michael W. Holmes, p. 141. A bit later, Melito of Sardis speaks of Christ's crucifixion as predicating Christ both as divine Creator and as the one who suffered a shameful death: "He who hung up the earth is himself hung up; he who fixed the heavens is himself fixed [upon the cross]; he who fastened everything is himself fastened on the wood” (Melito, On the Past p. 96).]

Origen agrees: “He who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffer and the invisible is seen.” [Origen, In Leviticam Homiliae 3, 1; Origen's Homilies on Leviticus 1-16, trans. W.Barkley (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 52: qui immorta est, moritur et impassibilis patitur and invisibilis videtur.] Athanasius, who would later prove so instrumental in undermining Origen’s proto-Arian subordinationist Christology, refused, however, to jettison Origen’s paradoxes; indeed, he attacked Origen Christology for the sake of these same paradoxes:

For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes more fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine.
[St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by a Member of the C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1953), p. 25]

To be sure, “there is,” as Paul Gavrilyuk rightly reminds us, “a thin line between a plain contradiction and a paradox,” [Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 14.] and how that line should be drawn will occupy much of the rest of this book. In that regard, we will discover that Paul’s use of the concept of the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Logos in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians will prove crucial. [The very fact that Cyril's paradoxes will find their resolution in his interpretation of the kenosis passage in Philippians once again points to the intricate connection of Christology with Trinitarian doctrine.]

But one thing will become clear in the course of the history of Christology: attempts to dissolve the paradox because it is somehow found to be scandalous will invariably run into dead ends, usually heretical. [As the renowned nineteenth-century theologian Matthias Scheeben says: "Here again the Church proposes two doctrines that seem to contradict each other; yet both have been simultaneously upheld by the Church.... With regard to Christian epistemology, the same order is mysterious, that is, it is hidden from natural reason which, by itself and its natural resources, cannot know such an order. It lies above the reach of reason, for it surpasses reason as much as it surpasses nature." [Matthias Scheeben, Nature and Grace, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. (St. Louis: Herder, 1954), pp. 7, 14] Reason’s final task, says Pascal, is to recognize where reason’s competence ends; or as Thomas Aquinas says:

It now remains to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation itself. Indeed, among divine works, this most especially exceeds reason. For nothing can be thought of which is more marvelous than this divine accomplishment, that the true God, the Son of God, should become true man. And because among them all it is most marvelous, it follows that toward faith in this particular marvel all other miracles are ordered.
[St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, 27.1]

Maximus the Confessor agrees: “For who could know how God takes on flesh, yet remains God? How he, while remaining true God, is yet truly a human being? … Only faith understands this, by paying silent homage to the Word of God.” [Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1057A.

A few pages before, he says: "For the super-essential Word, who took on himself, in that ineffable [virginal] conception, our nature and everything that belongs to it, possessed nothing human, nothing that we might consider `natural’ to him, that was not at the same time divine, negated by the supernatural manner of his existence. The investigation of these things exceeds our reason and our capacity for proof; it is only grasped by the faith of those who reverence the mystery of Christ with upright hearts.” PG 91, 1053A.] John Calvin builds on this tradition and shows how this Christological paradox is fundamentally a saving paradox:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us: that, by his descent on earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself that had so sore oppressed us, he has clothed us with his righteousness.
[John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1362, at 4.17.2]

Joseph Ratzinger adopts this same perspective and locates the most fundamental of Christian paradoxes above all in the execution notice that Pontius Pilate placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” Pilate spoke more truly than he knew, as the future pope explains: “This execution notice, the death sentence of history, became with paradoxical unity the `profession of faith,’ the real starting point and taproot of the Christian faith which holds Jesus to be the Christ: as the crucified criminal, this Jesus is the Christ, the King. His crucifixion is his coronation; his kingship is his surrender of himself to men, the identification of word, mission, and existence the yielding up of this very existence.
[Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francis( Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 2o6; emphasis added.]

Such a stress on paradox can lead to some astonishing vistas for apologetics. Even though this book intends to speak within the faith, rather than arguing from skeptical positions to show the reasonability of faith in the manner of apologetics, nevertheless an admission of the paradoxicality of the logic of the incarnation can itself be an entry point for addressing the concerns of the skeptic, even the atheist, a point stressed throughout Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this is what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God…. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God…. [Let] the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
[Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 145. The paradoxes of the Trinity will not be the focus of this work except as they affect Christology proper, probably the most important of which is the one noted by Ratzinger: "[According to Augustine] `In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation’ [quoting De Trinitate 5, 5.61. Therein lies concealed a revolution in man's view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality." Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 184. See further on this point Francis Cardinal George, "Being through Others in Christ: esse per and Ecclesial Communion," The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (New York: Crossroad, 2009), pp. 307-26.]

So much, at any rate, for the title and subtitle of the book. As to its structure, the chapters follow in rough chronological order: Chapters 2 and 3 give an overview of the New Testament witness to Christ; they survey the titles applied to Jesus in his lifetime and then in the proclamation by the early church of him risen.

Here the question of the historicity of the Gospels will constitute the main focus of treatment. Chapters 4 through io then give an overview of the history of Christological reflection from the close of the New Testament canon to the present. Finally, Chapters 11 and 12 provide an overview of current magisterial teaching on the identity and work of Christ. (Past magisterial teachings will be taken up as they arise in the course of Christological history covered in the earlier chapters.)

Now because contemporary magisterial teaching has taken in, and responded to, the many challenges thrown up by modernity to the Christian gospel, we shall be discussing church teaching not as a kind of reference work that can enable the student to look up “the right answers” and be done with it.

Rather we shall see that the teaching of the contemporary church takes place in the same kind of context as did the teaching of the church in the great councils of the first six centuries that will have been treated in Chapter 4: that is, it is a teaching that responds to challenges and speaks definitively from the crises thrown up in each period of church history.

One final point: precisely because Christology is confessional and ecclesial, it both springs from and returns to worship. Nor should this surprise us. As Abbot Vonier says so marvelously:

Christ the Son of God could never be man’s eternal life, if He were not man’s eternal wonder. A Christ whom we could fully comprehend, who we could understand through and through, could never be our life and our hope because we could not wonder at Him anymore. It is an indispensable condition of all true and lasting admiration that its object should be greater than our knowledge of it; and the growth of knowledge far from touching the limits of the marvelous, should convince us more and more of their inaccessibility. Love, no doubt, is born from knowledge and understanding; but short-lived and fragile would be the love which would be merely commensurate with knowledge and understanding. Love is actually noblest and strongest when we know enough of a person to realize that there is in him vastly more….
We find strong love for Christ the Son of God, a love fresh as a spring morning and unchanging the eternal hills, only where there is the belief in His divine nature, because there alone the created spirit has scope for endless wonderment. To make of Christ a merely human being is to deprive Him of the attribute incomprehensibility. Such theology would be the cruelest science, destroying in the soul the most life-giving element of religion — that wonderment which makes it `old yet ever new”
[Abbot Vonier, The Personality of Christ, in The Collected Works of Abbot Vonier, vol.1: The Incarnation and Redemption (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, no date for publication but The Personality of Christ was itself first published in England in 1914), P. 107.]

So the paradoxes of Christology not only give rise to theology but, when rightly understood, they also return to worship. In a fascinating collection early liturgical texts, The Lenten Triodion, we find, not surprisingly, the worship of the early church expressed in the most frankly paradoxical terms.

For example, in Canticle Five of Good Friday, the early church prayed thus: “I seek Thee early in the morning, Word of God; for in Thy tender mercy wards fallen man, without changing Thou hast emptied Thyself, and impassibly Thou hast submitted to Thy Passion. Grant me Thy peace, O Lord who lovest mankind.” [The Lenten Triodion, translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 593.]

And at the moment in the service when the church commemorates the ninth hour, when Jesus gave up his spirit, the congregation sings: “Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is fixed with nails.” [The Lenten Triodion, p. 609] And then comes silence. We should expect no less:

Jesus, we will frequent thy Board,
And sing the Bounties of our Lord:
But the rich Food on which we live
Demands more Praise than Tongues can give.43
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “The Church the Garden of Christ,” in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 149.

But that speechless, tongueless praise is still at all points the praise of prayer, where reason finally yields to the light of reason-transcending faith, a point made to brilliant effect in what is probably the most famous English poem of the nineteenth century, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove.


Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, ed. Erik Gray, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004/1850), Prologue, p. 5.

This book, too, is but a “little system” and will someday “cease to be. And even if it speaks the truth, it will do so only as a “broken light of they for God-in-Christ is more than all can say.


The Poets’ Incarnation 2 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 20, 2013
The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


All the problems listed in the previous post will be the focus of the rest of the book (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy) But before outlining by anticipation the structure and strategy of the following pages, let me first dispatch this question of paradox, at least provisionally — and once again with the help of poets, who perhaps are those members of each society best endowed to see the value of paradox as a valued avenue to truth. Poetic use of paradox does not of course necessarily justify theological paradoxes; but if the reader can recognize worldly truth lurking in poetic paradox, at least reason will find itself initially open to the possibility of truth embedded in theological paradoxes.

Let us take as our lone example of a non-theological poetic paradox passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, chosen more or less random (since Shakespeare is so fond of paradoxes, one could choose just about any play or sonnet for an example here). In this passage Friar Lawrence is speaking to Romeo right before he is to marry Juliet. They have been apart for only a few hours after their parting on the balcony, but to both of them it seems an eternity (teenagers in love, and all that), and so when Romeo seems too eager for Juliet’s arrival, the good friar issues this warning:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss, consume.
The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore, love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

So how can too swift arrive as “tardy” as too slow? “Tardy” means “late” not “early,” and the swift arrive too early, not too late. So how can “early” mean “tardy”? How can what is sweet repulse the taste, when “sweet” means what attracts the appetite and is pleasing to the taste?

Pedantic questions surely. The friar is obviously not indulging in word games and confusing the two lovers with logical conundrums about square circles and married bachelors. No, he is using the surface language of opposites to get at something deeper, more real than what a flat, stale, and unprofitable use of words in their dictionary meanings can provide. And this is certainly something everyone the world over has recognized and continues to recognize. So it is no wonder that Christian poets glory in the very paradoxes that often intimidate their more pedestrian brethren, the theologians.

Nor will it do to dismiss paradoxes as the indulgence of those who have applied and qualified for a poetic license. Philosophers have long known of paradoxes, from Anaximander and Zeno through Kant and Hegel and down to W. V. O. Quine and our own day. Indeed, in one sense, one may say that paradox has given rise to philosophy in much the same (formal) way it has done for theology. [See Roy Sorensen, A Brief History of Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), and W. V. O. Quine, The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).] In that history, one encounters a variety of definitions for paradox: riddles like the one given to Oedipus by the Sphinx, [Riddle: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening?" Answer: "Man, who begins life as a baby on all fours; then learns to walk upright on two legs, and finally spends his twilight years using a cane."] or the ones popular on the grade-school playground, like this one recounted by Anaximander: “What has a mouth but never eats, a bed but never sleeps?” (Answer: a river.)

But riddles are theoretically resolvable, even the ever-popular “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” (Evolutionary biology answers that one.) Of greater interest to the philosopher are the truly irresolvable paradoxes, which Gareth Mathews defines as conceptual statements that conflict with other conceptual statements but which still remain true, such as the Stoic claim that those and only those are free who know they are not free. [Gareth Matthews, "Paradoxical Statements," American Philosophical Quarterly 11 (1974): 133-39]

Here the conflict is not seen as an outright contradiction that simply cannot exist  (married bachelors, square circles), but as an apparent contradiction that hides a deeper truth (hence the family resemblance between riddles and paradoxes), despite what the dictionary meaning or the rules of logic might say. [R. M. Sainsbury defines paradox as an argument that has acceptable premises an valid inferential logic but an apparently unacceptable conclusion; see R. M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1995). Quine agrees: "May we say in genes then, that a paradox is just any conclusion that at first sounds absurd but that has an argument to sustain it? In the end I think this account stands up pretty well" (Quine, Ways of Paradox, p. 1).]

Speaking of logic, important developments in that formal science since the Austro-American mathematician Kurt Godel first proved his two “incompleteness theorems” have also established the cognitive power of paradox. These theorems both, in combination, proved that it is impossible to prove the formal consistency (that is, non-paradoxicality) of mathematics within the mathematical system itself. ["What Kurt Godel proved, in that great paper of 1931, was that no deductive system with axioms however arbitrary, is capable of embracing among its theorems all the truths of the elementary arithmetic of positive integers unless it discredits itself by letting slip some of the falsehoods too. Godel showed how, for any given deductive system, he could construct a  sentence of elementary number theory that would be true if and only if not provable in that system. Every such system is therefore either incomplete, in that it misses a relevant truth, or else bankrupt, in that it proves a falsehood" (Quine, Ways of Paradox, pp. 16-17).]

Prior to Godel’s proofs, this view had seemed absurd to most mathematicians, above all to the German David Hilbert; but all that changed in 1931 when Gödel published his proof, at which point paradox took on a new epistemological sheen, at least according to one of Gödel’s keenest interpreters:

The possibility of paradox, meant to be forever eliminated by Hilbert’s program, reasserted itself. And one of the strangest things about the odd and beautiful proof that subverted Hilbert’s defense against paradox was the way in which paradox itself was incorporated into the very structure of the proof.
[Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, (New York W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 164]

Nor is the paradoxicality of Gödel’s proofs an arcane point of use or to mathematicians, for Gödel himself saw its theological relevance: “It [is] something to be expected that sooner or later my proof will be made useful for religion, since that is doubtless also justified in a certain sense.” [From a letter Godel wrote to his mother on October 20,1963, quoted in Goldstein, p. 192]  As G. K. Chesterton saw so well:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.
[G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995/1908), p. 87].
At least in the formal sense, Quine agrees: “Catastrophe may lurk, therefore, in the most innocent-seeming paradox. More than once in history the discovery of paradox has been the occasion for major reconstruction at the foundations of thought” (Quine, Ways of Paradox, pp. 16-17). That Chesterton, himself famous for his fondness for paradoxes, had anticipated these later developments is itself remarkable.

Thus, if Paul Ricoeur is right that “the symbol gives rise to the thought,” so too does that hold for the paradoxes of the Christian religion: they are believed because both simple and learned recognize, by a kind of supernatural intuition, as it were, that paradoxes speak the truth. [Pascal, perhaps Christianity's greatest apologete, agrees: "All these contradictions, which used most to keep me away from the knowledge of any religion, are what have led me soonest to the true religion," Blaise Pascal, Pensees and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 8.] Which is why, in Cardinal Newman’s famous words, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” [John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua (London: Longmans, 1878), p. 239.]

But reason wants to know why and how they can be true, which is why the application of reason to the phenomenon of Jesus Christ in history has given rise to thought, to theology.

Now the application of reason to the data of revelation can be either internally or externally focused: the first shows how various doctrines are interrelated, and goes under the name of systematic theology; while the second attempts to address the objections of outsiders who claim that belief in such a revelation is irrational, and goes under the name of apologetics.

As the word “evangelical” in the subtitle indicates, this book means to be systematic, not apologetic. In other words, it uses reason to reflect from the faith, not to it. In either case, results must perforce be nugatory, as the logician Peter Geach rightly notes:

Of course I do not think that natural reason can establish even the no contradictoriness, let alone the truth, of the Christian belief that a certain human being was and is Almighty God in person…. A demand for a strict proof of non-contradictoriness is anyhow often unreasonable even, as recent logical researches have shown, in pure mathematics. Certainly, if the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, it will not be self-contradictory, and any argument that it is self-contradictory will contain a flaw; but saying this is very different from saying that if the doctrine true, we ought to be able to see, or prove once for all, that it is non- contradictory.
[P. T. Geach, God and the Soul (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 106]
[Thomas Morris adopts the same approach: "[This] book as a whole should be viewed a defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, the two-natures view of Christ, against contemporary philosophical attacks. I do not purport here to show that the doctrine is true; I seek only to answer some contemporary arguments against accepting it as true.” Thomas Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 16.]

In other words, the chapters that follow do not claim to have resolve the paradoxes of Christology, nor do they wish to, since, again as we shall see attempts to resolve Christian paradoxes often lead down heretical trails. Nor do they wish to win over, at least as a direct purpose, the skeptical and the unbelieving. They merely seek to set forth, as simply and as clearly as t subject matter allows, the many ways that Christ has given rise to thought, theology, to Christology.

The title for this book, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic a Evangelical Christology, is meant to set the methodological limits and to determine its operative principles. To work from back to front, the word “evangelical,” as we said just above, explicitly avows that, to the extent Christology is scientific; it is so only from inside the confines of a confession of the Lordship of Christ already made. [By "scientific" I am of course referring not to test-tubes, white coats, statistical analysis, and the like, but to that objective method that seeks to conform subjectivity to the reality of the object. But as with all other sciences, matters can sometimes get quite complex. facilitate the use of this work as a textbook on both undergraduate and graduate classes, have sequestered the more complex topics inside the cordon sanitaire of four Excursus, which can be omitted by those less interested in these specialized topics.]

To be sure, secular sciences (above all, history) both impinge upon and influence a scientific account of the identity Christ. But the New Testament is unanimous in holding that a true knowledge of Christ comes only through faith. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). For that reason, little attention will be paid to non-Christian critiques of the coherence of Christology except as they prompted a deepening and development of the faith of Christians (just as Celsus did for Origen or Friedrich Nietzsche did for some twentieth-century theologians).


The Poets’ Incarnation 1 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 19, 2013
For this above all is the basis of Christianity: Christology is a truth about God, just as the Trinity is a truth about Jesus.

For this above all is the basis of Christianity: Christology is a truth about God, just as the Trinity is a truth about Jesus.

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. In the opening chapter and the introduction I am posting here, Oakes develops a theme that runs throughout the book, namely, the paradoxical nature of the incarnation.

According to Oakes, this paradox has often been captured best by Christian poets.  Indeed the title of Oakes’ book is taken from a poem by nineteenth-century Jesuit priest and poet Gerald Manly Hopkins. For Oakes, attempts to explain away the paradox of the incarnation run the risk of heresy. The mystery of God becoming man — the infinite becoming finite — is, in a sense, a datum known only to faith.  It is in this sense that Oakes intends his volume to be “evangelical”: he is seeking to develop a Christology from within the faith rather than an apologetic addressed to those outside of the faith.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


“Christology,” as the two roots “Christ” and “-ology” embedded in the word indicate, means the study (or science) of Jesus Christ, just as “biology” means the science of life, and “psychology” the science of the soul or mind. But the resemblances of these various “-ology” words can be deceptive. For most sciences regard themselves as publicly accessible, accessible precisely because their field of study is recognized by all. Everyone, after all, knows what life is and what a mind is (one’s own, if no one else’s).

To be sure, some people — called materialists — deny that there is anything special about life, which for them results only from the accidental concatenation of chemicals into ever more complex forms (indeed, for them chemicals are themselves just complex arrangements of atoms). Similarly, materialists regard consciousness or mind as but the exhalation of electricity in the brain (“the brain secretes thoughts the way the liver secretes bile,” as one materialist put it).

But still, even the most hardened materialist recognizes that the very complexity of organisms and of the human mind requires a shift in methodology and of scientific discipline when one studies a frog instead of a stone, or decides to examine the breakdown in a marriage instead of the formation of a galaxy. Here, at least, agreement is both fundamental and universal: biology and psychology are true sciences because their respective fields of investigation are open and accessible to all rational beings.

But not with Jesus Christ. Here the “science” of Christ becomes accessible only to believers, that is, to people who confess that an itinerant rabbi in first-century Galilee was also “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” How can that be? Such is the problem set before that branch of theology called “Christology.”

Even a cursory glance at the history of this branch of theology shows that the fundamental problem running through all Christological thought centers on this juxtaposition of the infinite with the finite. But as we have just seen, that problem has a problem of its own: the problem of the infinite-becoming-finite in Jesus of Nazareth is recognized only by Christian believers. In fact, non-Christians stand outside the precincts of Christianity precisely because they deny that Jesus is (at least in any proper, strict sense of the word) the very enfleshment of God.

Let us, however, leave aside (at least for a while) this preliminary, propaedeutic problem of Christology’s inaccessibility to the non-Christian. The scientific status of Christology is problematic inside the realm of Christian faith too. This is because, for believers, there still lurks a more fundamental conceptual problem: How could the supposedly unchanging, eternal God become anything else?

After all, the word “become” usually denotes change in time.

[Just as the verb "to be" has, from the time of Parmenides, been taken to be the main verb denoting stasis, so "to become" is the quintessential verb for denoting change, of whatever type. Of course there are all kinds of change, from such "weak" types of becoming as when we say, "Socrates is becoming wiser by the day," to such "strong" examples as when the Biology textbook says, "the tadpole became a frog" or when the Brothers Grimm tell us that he pumpkin became a carriage. The first type denotes the becoming of growth from latent potential to full actuality; the latter is the becoming of metamorphosis. But neither sense can apply to God strictly speaking, since first, as Pure Act, God has no potential left to fulfill, and second, because if the Logos of God, as we say, "turned into" a man, he would no longer be God, anymore than a frog is still a tadpole or the carriage has any "pumpkinhood" left in it. Yet the Bible uses that verb explicitly when it says "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14), and so the paradox remains.]

Moreover, what God has “become” in Christian doctrine is not just something else, something conceptually opposite to the infinite and un-changing deity. More crucially, God has become a member of the very race that should be worshiping that changeless God. Among other consequences, this becoming of God “into” a man seems to shift worship away from the eternal God to one of the members of the human race, who as a member of that race should supposedly be worshiping, not being worshiped.

So here is the dilemma: How can the infinite become finite without losing its infinity? Can such a question even be meaningfully asked without lapsing into hopeless contradiction? In other words, how do we develop a Christology without thereby violating the central logical axiom of all sciences without exception, Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction? Put even more glaringly (to use the striking line of the nineteenth-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that is both the epigram for this book and the inspiration for its title), what does it mean for God’s infinity to “dwindle” to infancy?

Of this baffling paradox at least we can say this: Christian poets have qualms with the paradoxes of Christology; indeed, they seem to wallow in it. Take, for example, the poem “The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” by Christopher Smart (1722-71):

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.
Christopher Smart, “Hymn 32,” in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed. Donald Davie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 182-83.

Or this Christmas poem, “New Prince, New Pomp,” from the Jesuit Robert Southwell (1561-95), martyred during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I:

Behold, a silly tender babe
In freezing winter night
In homely manger trembling lives:
Alas! a piteous sight.

Despise him not for lying there;
First what he is inquire:
An orient pearl is often found
In depth of dirty mire.

This stable is a Prince’s court,
The crib his chair of state,
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
The wooden dish his plate.

With joy approach, O Christian wight, [wight: fellow]
Do homage to thy King;
And highly praise this humble pomp
Which he from heaven doth bring.
Robert Southwell, “New Prince, New Pomp,” in The New Oxford Book of ChristianVerse, pp 51-52.

Christmas has often sent Christian poets on these paradoxical flights of fancy, even in modern times, as in John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas,” the last three stanzas of which speak frankly of the odd juxtaposition of corny sifts around the Yule tree with the real miracle of the Incarnation:

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine

And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
John Betjeman, “Christmas,” in Collected Poems

The Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century made such Christological juxtapositions and paradoxes their metier, from George Herbert’s ‘The Son” (“For what Christ once in humbleness began / We him in glory :all, The Son of Man”) to John Donne’s “Upon the Annunciation and Passion ,Falling upon One Day, 1608,”[In 1608 Good Friday, set by the lunar calendar, occurred on March 25, the annual solar date of the Feast of the Annunciation, a perfect occasion for Donne to reflect on the juxtaposition of these two mysteries.] where he calls Mary “at once receiver and the legacy,” a paradox that shows that “death and conception in mankind is one.”

Even more poignant is his more simply titled poem “Annunciation,” a lovely meditation on the paradox of infinity gestating in the womb of the Virgin:

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is All everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
So, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie In prison, in thy womb .. .

… who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceiv’d; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shut’st in little room
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.
John Donne, Annunciation, in John Donne’s Poetry.

And finally my favorite, an anonymous poem from the fifteenth century, called, appropriately enough, “The Divine Paradox”:

A God and yet a man?

A maid and yet a mother?
Wit wonders that wit can
Conceive this or the other.
A God, and can he die?
A dead man, can he live?
What wit can well reply?
What reason reason give?
God, truth itself, does teach it;
Man’s wit sinks too far under
By reason’s power to reach it.
Believe and leave to wonder.
From Religious Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Carleton Brown (Oxford University Press,1939), P. 187 (spelling modernized).

Ah, but that is just what Christology has refused to do: just believe and wonder. Christology would never have arisen if Christians had decided only to wonder and to leave it at that. Both Plato and Aristotle said that philosophy is born in wonder, but the same holds for theology as well. Reason was to give reasons for believing what goes beyond reason. Reason wants to understand. That is its function in the human mind.

And if that same mind is believing mind, its reason will want to understand what it itself has been prompted by faith to believe. And so if theology is ultimately faith seeking understanding, what is faith called upon to understand? Nothing less than this: an infinite God who is a finite man, a virgin who is a mother, a God who dies, a dead man who lives, a baby born into the very world it made, a prince who is a pauper, in short, Infinity dwindled to infancy.

[Thomas Aquinas too tried his hand at poetry from time to time, and we are not surprised to find in his efforts the same chiasmic paradoxes that characterize the best of Christian poetry, as here from the second stanza of his poem Adora Te Devote, Latens Deltas: Visus, tactus, gustus, in to fallitur;/ Sed auditu solo tuto creditur./ Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius./ Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius. "Sight and touch and taste here fail;/ Hearing only can be believed. I trust what God's own Son has said./ Truth from truth is best received." In The Aquinas Prayer Book: The Prayers and Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Robert Anderson and Johann Moser (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2000), p. 68.] These are the problems of faith seeking understanding — and for that same reason, these are the problems of Christology too, which come in several guises.

Take, for example, the problem of time. Here I am not just referring to the knotty philosophical problem of the eternal-becoming-temporal. More crucially, the question of time raises the question of salvation-history, indeed of salvation itself: If Jesus came to save the whole world but was born, as all human beings are, in one period of history and not another, how do his saving effects reach out to all those who came before him or to those who could never have heard of him after his birth due to geographical limitations and different civilizational presuppositions?

The second-century pagan philosopher Celsus raised this objection just as the Christian religion was beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire: If Christ came to save all, why was he born in such a backwater province of the Empire and so obscurely known by his contemporaries? So natural and obvious is this objection that missionaries often encounter it. For example, Francis Xavier had to face exactly the same question that Celsus had hurled at Christian apologists like Origen:

If God was merciful, why had he not revealed himself to the Japanese before the priests came from Tenjiku? And if it was true, as they taught, that those who do not worship God go to hell, God had had no mercy on their ancestors, since he had let them go to hell without granting them a knowledge of himself.
[Georg Schurhammer, Francis Xavier: His Life and Times (Rome: Jesuit Historical In-,t lute, 1982), vol. 4, p. 222. As Celsus saw, the temporal particularity of the incarnation also entails spatial particularity, a point addressed by Thomas Aquinas when he took up the question why Jesus was born in Bethlehem: "If He had chosen the great city of Rome, change in the world would be ascribed to the influence of her citizens. If He had been son of the Emperor, His benefits would have been attributed to the latter's power. But we might acknowledge the work of God in the transformation of the whole earth, He cI a poor mother and a birthplace poorer still. `But the weak things of the world hath God sen, that He may confound the strong' [r Cor. 1:27]. Summa theologiae III q.35 a.7 ad]

This problem, as we shall discover, is part of what may be called soteriological problem. Another problem that must also be touched on be called the psychological problem, that is, the problem of the mind or consciousness of Jesus: If he is God, does he think God’s thoughts? Does think only God’s thoughts? That is, has the divine Logos (the Greek word “logos” can in certain contexts mean “mind”) replaced the human soul of Jesus, or what would have been the human soul of Jesus had he been conceived in the normal way?

What did Jesus know? Could he foretell the future? Did he know all the languages of the world? How did he pray? Did he fear death? Did he know that he would rise from the dead? Was he always aware of his union with God? Did he have a direct vision of God (the “beatific vision” at all times, so that in effect he dwelt in heaven while he was on earth? What kind of awareness did he have of his mission?

Was he suffused with a messianic consciousness; and if so, when did it come upon him? Did he plan to found a church, or did he expect the end of the world in his lifetime? What did he think was the purpose of his death? Did he despair? Did he think death would provoke the end of the world? What did he think of the Judaism of his time? How did he relate to it? Did he expect to found a new religion only to reform Judaism from within?

Related to these questions is the epistemological or historical-critical problem. If the psychological questions about Jesus’ self-conscious have answers (and perhaps they don’t), how are we to discover them? (documents written almost two thousand years ago provide answers to such questions, especially if the authors of those documents did not pose the questions in a modern way?

Furthermore, does it distort the answers these essentially historical questions if faith brings to bear its presuppositions on the question of history, or is faith the only door that can give us true access to the mind and mission of Jesus? And in either case, what role does historical research, whether faith-based or not, have to contribute? Is it a threat? An aid? Or is it more than a mere aid; is it simply downright inc pensable, perhaps the only standard at all for answering these questions In other words, if Christology is, as we have previously asserted, a “science” peculiar to belief, what does history contribute? What if the historian is an atheist, an agnostic, a Jew, a Muslim, a classicist, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, a scoffer?

And then of course there is the aforementioned philosophical problem, one so beloved of the poets: How can infinite and finite be equated? How can the eternal become the temporal? How can a baby born into the world be worshiped as the Creator of that world? How can the One enter the world of the Many? the Unchanging into the world of change? the Immortal One into the world of death? And finally, how can these paradoxes be protected from the charge of outright contradiction, so that theology does not become a kind of high-grade chatter about square circles and married bachelors? Can paradoxes yield a form of truth that outright contradictions cannot?

Finally, there is the trinitarian problem. Gradually, with the increased specialization of theology over the centuries, the theology of the Trinity began to be treated separately from Christology; and indeed there are issues (such as the procession of the Holy Spirit) best dealt with on their own terms, distinct from Christology. But it is a fact of Christian revelation that the church only came to know of the triune God in Christ, and correlatively only knew of Christ’s saving work in terms of it being a Trinitarian event.

The mutuality of Christ and Trinity emerges in the church’s consciousness as early as St. Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost, when the first apostle speaks of God making Jesus both “Lord and Christ” in the resurrection, who “has received from the Father the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36, 33). Although the center of gravity of this book (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy) rests more on issues pertaining to the identity of Christ, we will also see how intimately those questions are affected by decisions regarding the Trinity, and how much those decisions will in turn affect later christological debate.

For this above all is the basis of Christianity: Christology is a truth about God, just as the Trinity is a truth about Jesus.

["In the `bad old days' one could write a christological study and largely leave out the Trinity, and -- vice versa -- one could write a trinitarian study that made little or no reference to Jesus of Nazareth." Gerald O'Collins, S.J., "The Holy Trinity: The State of the Question," in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, S.J., Gerald O'Collins, S.J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999), pp.1-25; here 3. This approach is now almost universally regarded as impossible; hence the axiom cited above. For example: "In Bonaventure's thought the Trinity and Christology are inseparably intertwined. It is the mystery of Christ that leads us to the Trinity; and the Trinitarian concept of God is developed as a function of Christology." Zachary Hayes, O.F.M., introduction to Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, in Works of Saint Bonaventure, ed. George Marcil, O.F.M. (New York: Franciscan Institute, 1979), vol. 3, pp. 30-31. What holds true of Bonaventure will prove true of nearly all the theologians treated in this study.]

Indeed, one can rightly say that Christology is a sapiential “science” that only becomes possible in and by the Holy Spirit: according to Paul, “No one can say `Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1Corinthians. 12:3). As the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Ignatius of Latakia said at the Assembly of World Council of Churches in 1968:

Without the Holy Spirit God Is Far Away
“Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit …
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.”

Available online from at  translation emended. Other sites vary the wording slightly.


Book Review: The Gap — David Barash

November 22, 2013
Rock paintings from the Neolithic era in the Tassili n'Ajjer mountains in what is now Algeria. Thousands of images made beginning as early as 8,000 B.C. depict cattle, crocodiles and humans.

Rock paintings from the Neolithic era in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains in what is now Algeria. Thousands of images made beginning as early as 8,000 B.C. depict cattle, crocodiles and humans.

Mr. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is “Buddhist Biology.” This is his review of The Gap by Thomas Suddendorf recently featured in the WSJ.


Why is our species different from all other species? This isn’t a Passover Seder question but a genuine scientific one that can be divided into two parts: How are human beings different from others, and by what means has this difference come about? It turns out that neither question has a simple answer, although the former may be more amenable to productive inquiry.

For “true believers” among the Big Three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — there is no problem answering either question. Why are we different? Easy: because we Homo sapiens possess immortal and God-given souls, chips off the old Divine Block. And what produced this difference? Also easy: Hashem, or God, or Allah made us that way. Things aren’t so simple, however, for a scientist, even though Thomas Suddendorf is a good one — a remarkably good writer, too, as he leads the reader on a rewarding, thought-provoking journey to understand what he calls The Gap: not the clothing and accessories retailer but the hard-to-define qualities that distinguish our species from the rest of the organic world.

I was favorably disposed toward Mr. Suddendorf’s book as soon as I saw its subtitle: “The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals.Not only is “science” — rather than theology — right up front, but instead of embracing the frequently employed but altogether misleading construction that sets people apart from animals, the phrase makes clear that human beings are to be treated as just another species. Mr. Suddendorf, I am pleased to note, has no doubt that, whatever else we are, we are also animals, although this doesn’t blind him to a degree of self-proclaimed (and likely justified) species-centrism.

“The physical continuity of humans and animals is incontestable,” he writes. “But the mind is another matter.” We think, therefore we are . . . special. (Ambrose Bierce modified Descartes’s famous “cogito” as follows: “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am,” adding that this was as close to certainty that philosophy was likely to get.

Thanks to researchers such as Mr. Suddendorf, comparative psychology, informed by evolutionary biology, may well get closer yet. But then again, when it comes to its presumed specialness, every species is unique; that’s how we identify any species as distinct. “Always remember that you are absolutely unique,” wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead, “just like everyone else.” Although she was referring to individuals, she could have had all human beings in mind.

There is quite a history of scientists as well as philosophers trying to distill the unique essence of humanness, attempting to improve upon Linnaeus’s Homo sapiens (“Man the knowing,” or “wise”). Such attempts have included H. ludens (“the player”), H. religiosus (“the religious”), H. lingua (“the language-user”), and H. cultura (“the culture-using”), as well as some tediously anatomical monikers, such as H. glaber (“hairless”) and H. bipedalis (which should be self-explanatory). Over time, most of these traits have been shown to be “less unique” than their promoters had hoped.

If we limit ourselves to animal language alone, cases of remarkable capacities — verging on the human — are legion. For example, vervet monkeys have four acoustically distinct kinds of predator-alarm calls, evoked by leopards, eagles, pythons and baboons. And even non-primates come close to human language. Prairie dogs — not normally considered among the brightest bulbs in the animal chandelier — have different alarm calls for humans, coyotes, domestic dogs and red-tailed hawks. Moreover, they employ modifiers that even specify the size and shape of an individual predator.

Research by Irene Pepperberg on her pet African gray parrot strongly suggests that he could understand and employ nouns, verbs and adjectives, as well as sophisticated concepts such as “different.” And the brilliant border collie Rico not only learned more than 200 distinct words but, when asked to identify an object that he didn’t know amid several other items, all of which he had previously identified, he correctly chose the new and unknown object — a mental feat that is not only remarkable but also replicable and that cannot be explained except by granting this animal extraordinarily complex mental agility.

Some decades ago, one of the more promising candidates for human uniqueness was Homo faber: man the tool-user. But in the early 1960s, a young Jane Goodall — studying free-living chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park — watched two of her subjects pick up twigs, strip off the leaves and smaller branches, and use them to “fish” for termites. Not only were these animals using tools, they were making them When Ms. Goodall’s mentor, Louis Leakey, received her excited account, he famously wrote back: “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

None of these possibilities transpired, and the search for human uniqueness went on. Chimps have been found to chew leaves and then dip them into otherwise inaccessible puddles of water, using the mashed mess as a sponge to soak up moisture; at a different location, they were observed smashing recalcitrant nuts with stones.

Other animals, including several bird species, are also known to employ tools. “He who understands baboon,” jotted Charles Darwin in one of his notebooks in 1838, “would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Thanks to a veritable army of field researchers, we understand baboons quite well these days — albeit not entirely — and yet the metaphysical payoff remains elusive.

Into this gap comes “The Gap,” offering an easily digested and suitably unbiased overview of the current state of what comparative psychologists have discovered about the traits typically considered to be uniquely human: language, intelligence, morality, culture, “theory of mind” and “mental time travel.” When it comes to interpreting examples of seemingly insightful animal behavior, Mr. Suddendorf employs philosopher Daniel Dennett’s dichotomy of “romantics” vs. “killjoys”: Romantics posit mental processes in animals that are similar to our own, and killjoys look for simpler, more “instinct-based” interpretations. In describing their debates, Mr. Suddendorf cuts an entertaining swath through a thicket of research studies on primate cognition, of which most of the original technical accounts I at least have always found terribly boring.

The author’s style is not only consistently interesting and informative but at times delightfully playful, as when he describes how human language — unlike the communication systems of other animals — is governed by rules of word order or syntax. “You may remember some of them from school (or you may remember that you have forgotten them),” he writes. “Even if you are not able to explain them, you still know when they violated being are.”

Mr. Suddendorf’s goal is to answer this seemingly simple question: “Which characteristics of the human mind, be they distinct traits or gradual differences, enable and motivate us to do the great diversity of things that other animals do not? What makes us human?” He points to two “master adaptations” as fundamentally responsible for The Gap: a purported “drive to connect with other minds” and what he calls “nested scenario building” — aka mental time travel.

We struggle not only to be understood but often to maximize the number of others with whom we are able to communicate (think of blogging and Twitter). We are also predisposed to imagine situations without necessarily experiencing them and to imagine what someone else is imagining: “I think she thinks that I think that she likes me.” But here Mr. Suddendorf is regrettably, and surprisingly, unpersuasive, since the evolutionary relevance of these characteristics is simply asserted, and then reasserted, rather than demonstrated.

One can point to any number of other defining human traits, as did Mark Twain when he proclaimed that “man is the only animal that blushes — or has reason to.” We may also be the only animal that wastes energy and efforts engaging in spite, thereby demonstrating a unique degree of independence from those fitness-maximizing tactics to which other animals are bound by the dictates of natural selection.

Primatologist Richard Wrangham has made an impressive case that — strange and simplified as it may seem — cooking was our ancestors’ key humanizing adaptation. And language still remains a strong candidate, as does death awareness, as championed by the late anthropologist Ernest Becker.

Mr. Suddendorf does a good job of discussing the fraught question whether other apes possess a theory of mind, which involves developing a mental picture of what another individual knows or is thinking. The adaptive significance of such a theory is presumably that it allows humans to navigate the complex, shifting shoals of social existence. We might call it the Burns Benefit, after the poet’s plaint:

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”

I was disappointed to find no serious consideration of the role of consciousness in generating the Gap. My German Shepherds are exquisitely alert, responsive to and aware of their environment, much more so than I. But insofar as they lack a recursive awareness of their own awareness, I think we are justified in questioning whether they are conscious, at least as human beings are. My own guess — and it is little more than a guess — is that consciousness underlies many of the uniquely human traits that contribute to the Gap.

There is, nonetheless, much to admire in “The Gap” — the book no less than the phenomenon. Despite its imperfections, it is a welcome addition to the growing literature explaining science to the intelligent layperson, although a clarification is in order: Publicity surrounding this book gives the impression that it develops the thesis that human beings are taxonomically as well as metaphysically alone because we have likely killed off our near-relatives. This is an attention-grabbing notion, one that may indeed be true and could well warrant its own book-length treatment; certainly, as Mr. Suddendorf, to his credit, points out with appropriate outrage, we are currently pushing our existing great-ape relatives to the brink of extinction.

But at present we simply don’t know if other species in the direct line of descent to Homo sapiens (known these days as “hominins”) disappeared because they were ill-adapted to changing environments or if our ancestors killed them off directly, “defeated” them indirectly via ecological competition, swamped their genomes by interbreeding.

Or it could be that our current existential and biological loneliness is due to something else. It is even possible, as suggested by the fossil of H. erectus recently found in the European state of Georgia, that there weren’t that many different hominin species similar to us after all. In any event, you have just now read more about what might have befallen our ancestral and collateral relatives than you will find in all of Mr. Suddendorf’s book.

Mr. Suddendorf’s lively attempt to discover what exactly makes humans different from other species raises other questions. What is the adaptive significance, the evolutionary payoff, of these Gap-generating traits, whatever they may be? Why should natural selection have favored early human ancestors who were able to engage in mental time travel, or who strove to link their minds with others, or who achieved consciousness? Was there a payoff in terms of intergroup competition, within-tribe coordination, enhanced sexual opportunities or something not yet identified?

However you slice it, there is much to be said for the ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself,” and “The Gap” is an excellent place to start.


A Clash of Pentecosts — Robert Joustra

October 29, 2013
Rembrandt, Two Old Men Debating 1628. The Incident at Antioch was an Apostolic Age dispute between the apostles Paul and Peter which occurred in the city of Antioch around the middle of the first century.

Rembrandt, Two Old Men Debating 1628. The Incident at Antioch was an Apostolic Age dispute between the apostles Paul and Peter which occurred in the city of Antioch around the middle of the first century.


French Catholicism and the secular state. Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editor, with Jonathan Chaplin, of God and Global Order (Baylor Univ. Press).


Every Pentecost is loud. In that first, in dusty provincial Rome long ago, storming winds and tongues of flame made manifest the promise of a curtain torn, of a tomb split open. It was a new communion, one in which barriers of language, race, and gender were remade in the person of Jesus Christ. The curse of Babel undone, humankind found wholeness.

The French Revolution sparked its own Pentecost, with the acrid smell of powder and flint and the scream of metal and steel striking mortal blows to the Ancien Régime, the old order which divided a sovereign people by the hubris of divine right and the paternalism of the clergy. The Revolution brought the masses into the political arena. It was a political Pentecost, a civic epiphany that sparked an explosion of activism.

The story of Emile Perreau-Saussine’s Catholicism and Democracy is a clash of Pentecosts, a clash of sovereignties — one too many for most Catholics, who were just as happy with the one they already had. It is a remarkably powerful story, told by a political theorist of extraordinary talent and depth, a story with its own sad ending, if marked only by his tragic death at such a young age from a heart attack.

The book was published posthumously, and over it hangs that lament which Alasdair MacIntyre puts so poignantly in the foreword: “I shall resist the temptation to note here the occasional doubts that I would have wanted to express to the author or the questions that I would have been anxious to put to him. But I do so with unusual sadness, since I shall never learn what he would have said.”

Yet what Perreau-Saussine bequeathed to us in Catholicism and Democracy is an inheritance worthy of his brief genius. The questions he brings into focus are twofold:

  1. First, why and how did Catholic France, and Catholicism generally, accommodate the spirit of revolutionary democracy, of the sovereignty of the people, which seemed so contrary to the theology and practice of the Catholic Church?
  2. And second, far more subtly, why was it so easy for Protestantism

Of this last question he says very little explicitly, but the consistent suggestion is that Protestantism, and what he calls liberal Protestantism especially, is essentially ideological modernity with theological dressing, tending toward pantheism. Conservative Protestantism comes off rather better, but you might be forgiven for reading the book as concluding that there is no real political or theological vitality in Protestantism — which is, I hope, an overstatement.

Few things seem less palatable to the American religious and political imagination than French Catholicism, and yet there are remarkable parallels between Protestant America and Catholic France, a tether across space and time that Catholicism and Democracy teases at, but never stretches out and sermonizes. Perreau-Saussine’s enviable restraint yields a striking counter-narrative of religious freedom, statehood, and the Catholic faith. Americans, Laotians, Bolivians — everyone — should take note: how we tell that story, how we understand the practice and power of religion and politics in the nation-state’s European past, will profoundly inform our present and our future.

Catholicism and Democracy is the story of Catholic political ideas in an age of democracy, told to complete or at least explain the connection between the origins and applications of Vatican I and Vatican II. It is Perreau-Saussine’s argument that the seemingly radical transition which took place between the two was not so radical at all, but that in fact the resources that yielded these conciliar engagements with modernity, especially in the Gallican and ultramontanist traditions [vocab: the traditions/policies that the absolute authority of the church should be vested in the pope], existed in a productive tension which gave rise to one, consistent theological and political strain.

Consistency of tradition is important in a way to Catholics in which it is, of course, not to Protestants, so the value of that argument might be lost on some readers. But even if the argument is a stretch, and I think it may be, it is not made disingenuously and neither without some solid evidence. Perreau-Saussine traces in the work of Maistre, Lemennais, Tocqueville, Comte, Littré, and Péguy an existential struggle: how can a person who professes to be the slave of Jesus profess in that same breath the ultimate sovereignty of the people? In these thinkers the rushing, horizontal immanence of a Pentecost of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” meets head on the hierarchical pillars of a faith which recognizes no God but the Lord, no sovereign but Jesus Christ.

This is precisely where the book offers such richness for those who are neither French nor Catholic. The crisis of revolutionary France was how to combine a system of sovereign, equal, political peoples with a system of faith, stewarded and safeguarded by a historic hierarchy, deeply entrenched and in many cases internally divided about what paths of justice to follow. The answers were far from obvious. The question of how to live as people owing oaths of loyalty to both Caesar and God is not new, even if the specific institutions and history of late-modern Catholic Europe are, and the answers — and failures — are instructive for more than that time and place.

Leave aside the spat with Protestantism for the moment and consider Islam, a religion which some scholars and pundits have suggested is simply incapable of reforming around the idea of representative democracy. Can there be hope for Islamic states to forge a theological consensus around the rights and duties of democratic liberalism?

The Catholic tradition suggests there might be, provided the internal resources of Islam can fund these commitments and, perhaps most challengingly, if a certain kind of ultramontanist theology can take root — an emergent loyalty to a supranational spiritual rather than spiritual-political office. It is the irony of medieval Catholicism that the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican and the papacy proved a secularizing rather than radicalizing force, as states relinquished their hold on clerical offices and popes relinquished theirs on political ones.

There is, I think, one significant oversight in Perreau-Saussine’s story. It is misleading to starkly state that the deconfessionalization of the nation secured a secular society. Disestablishment is not the same as deconfessionalization, and in this sense Maistre, and in the later tradition Schmitt, might be right, contra Perreau-Saussine, in talking about “political theology” and religion as “the constitutive principle of every society.”

If, as contemporary theologians like William T. Cavanaugh have argued, religion itself is a normative rather than descriptive term — if what we have come to define as religion is in fact an invention of the modern period — then the very categories of our analysis and belief have been predefined by a kind of secularism. This is certainly Charles Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age, where secularity is not neutral and nonreligious but rather, as in Cavanaugh, depends upon its own kind of thin theological consensus about the very definitions of sovereignty, politics, and religion. Where we draw those boundaries — indeed, whether such boundaries exist at all — is as much a matter of theology as of politics. Religion and its boundaries had to be invented before a secular society could claim to secure its freedoms.

This helps render Catholic (and Islamic) squeamishness at the prospect of secular society in a better context: what Catholics were being asked to do was not simply refashion their political loyalties, but fundamentally change their religion, by definition.

And if this secularism, this thin consensus at the basis of the Westphalian state, is indeed an act of theology as much as of politics, if it is religare in that binding original sense, then what we must admit, contra Perreau-Saussine, is that it is no accident of apostasy that Protestantism came to this first. Perhaps — and here I intentionally push back on his unqualified celebration of Catholicism — it was because Protestantism stands a better chance of Reformation, of making new consensus, on the basis of understanding old ones to have been wrong. It may be impolite to say it, but from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy by the Constituent Assembly on July 12, 1790, to the 1965 Declaration of Religious Freedom is an awfully long stretch. There was much profound political philosophy in the Catholic Church during this period, but that glacial growth is itself something of a concern to Protestants and secularists alike.

For Cavanaugh, the nation-state is an apostasy, and he would find a strong history in Perreau-Saussine’s account to draw on for that case. For Taylor, the thin consensus around which secularism persists in the Western state may well depart from orthodox Catholicism, but that is as politics is. A good compromise leaves everyone miserable, politicians will remind us, and to say that a serviceable lie persists at the basis of the nation-state might just be another way of saying we have found something thin enough, if unsatisfying, to largely agree upon, for the time being.

Perreau-Saussine, taking after his great mentor Alasdair MacIntyre, offers only the most tantalizing hors d’oeuvres in conclusion, leaving to us the feast of applying his argument and working out its contemporary applications. Clearly he believes in a kind of secularism — a positive idea of laicity — which understands the secular state to be funded by virtues laws cannot make, and values markets cannot sell. Liberal democracy, for all its freedoms and its rights, now finds itself with an ironic deficit only the Church can fund. As philosophy turns in upon itself, with the idea of autonomy of the will, of indefinite perfectibility, of profane manipulations, Perreau-Saussine wonders whether liberal democracy has not in fact already succumbed to its own totalitarian excesses. And here he concludes with a moving appeal to the papacy, to “the Vatican’s man in white” who is a sovereign with no crown, a witness to a reality which transcends the general will:

[H]e manifests the Christian refusal to be entirely swallowed up in the democratic order. That is the church’s service to society: to resist the docile conformism to which egalitarianism can lead. In a democratic world that works ceaselessly to eliminate otherness, even (perhaps especially) when it proclaims its commitment to pluralism, believers have an eye to something beyond the society of the here and now, and thus have an escape route from conformism. They form a breakwater against the tide of conformity. They are, par excellence, a sign of contradiction.

If it were to be the Catholic Church that so wrestled to come to terms with the measures of liberal democracy, which proved a salve and a savior for that same democracy, the power of that irony must surely wash whatever smug secularism still clings to our Western politics. I suppose Emile Perreau-Saussine now knows that answer, but I for one am very grateful to him for writing out its introduction in this important book.


Time Reborn by Alan Lightman

August 9, 2013
A pregnant moment in intellectual history occurs when H.G. Wells’s Time Traveller (“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”) gathers his friends around the drawing room fire to explain that everything they know about time is wrong. This after-dinner conversation marked something of a watershed, more telling than young Wells, who had never even published a book before The Time Machine, imagined just before the turn of the twentieth century. What is time? Nothing but a fourth dimension, after length, breadth, and thickness. “Through a natural infirmity of the flesh,” the cheerful host explains, “we incline to overlook this fact.” The geometry taught in school needs revision. “Now, it is very remarkable that this is so extensively overlooked…. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.”  From James Gleick’s review of From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

A pregnant moment in intellectual history occurs when H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller (“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”) gathers his friends around the drawing room fire to explain that everything they know about time is wrong. This after-dinner conversation marked something of a watershed, more telling than young Wells, who had never even published a book before The Time Machine, imagined just before the turn of the twentieth century. What is time? Nothing but a fourth dimension, after length, breadth, and thickness. “Through a natural infirmity of the flesh,” the cheerful host explains, “we incline to overlook this fact.” The geometry taught in school needs revision. “Now, it is very remarkable that this is so extensively overlooked…. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.”
From James Gleick’s review of From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

A Review of From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. Mr. Lightman is a novelist and physicist and teaches at MIT. James Gleick reviews the same  at The New York Review of Books.


In one of the more fanciful conceptions of nature, the British physicist and philosopher Julian Barbour proposed that the world is just a “heap of moments,” each an instant of frozen time. There is no order to the moments, no sequence, no cause-and-effect relationship. We exist only from moment to moment.

If we experience time passing, it’s because this particular moment has memories of another moment woven into it. Some moments are interesting: they contain complexity, stars and planets, life. Others are boring: they contain only energy or perhaps nothing at all.

In his new book, Time Reborn, Led Smolin, a physicist and author of The Life of the Cosmos (1997) and The Trouble With Physics (2006), recounts Barbour’s cosmology with some admiration and then goes on to offer even more radical ideas of his own. Smolin argues that the Now has been taken out of physics, and it is time to put it back in.

For example, Smolin says that Newtonian physics expresses the notion that the future is determined by the past and so, in a sense, the future already exists. He rightly remarks that Einsteinian physics frames time as a relative concept in which the line between past and future varies with the observer. To remedy these perceived problems, he suggests major structural revisions to the two fundamental pillars of modern physics, relativity and quantum mechanics.

His book, a mix of science, philosophy and science fiction, is at once entertaining, thought-provoking, fabulously ambitious and fabulously speculative. Although full of wonderful metaphors and analogies, it may prove heavy sledding for many readers.

Twentieth-century physics has brought us two kinds of strangeness: strange things we more or less understand, and strange things we do not understand. The first category includes relativity and quantum mechanics. Relativity reveals that time is not absolute. Clocks in relative motion to each other tick at different rates. We don’t notice relativity in daily life because the relative speed must be close to the speed of light before the effects are significant.

Quantum mechanics presents a probabilistic picture of reality; subatomic particles act as if they occupy many places at once, and their locations can be described only in terms of probabilities. Although we can make accurate predictions about the average behavior of a large number of subatomic particles, we cannot predict the behavior of a single subatomic particle, or even a single atom. We don’t feel quantum mechanics because its effects are significant only in the tiny realm of the atom.

The category of strange things we do not understand includes the origin of the universe and the nature of the “dark energy” that pervades the cosmos. Over the last 40 years, physicists have realized that various universal parameters, like the mass of the electron (a type of subatomic particle) and the strength of the nuclear force (the force that holds the subatomic particles together within the centers of atoms), appear to be precisely calibrated.

That is, if these parameters were a little larger or a little smaller than they actually are, the complex molecules needed for life could never have formed. Presumably, the values of these parameters were set at the origin of the universe. Fifteen years ago astronomers discovered a previously unknown and still unexplained cosmic energy that fills the universe and acts as an antigravity-like force, pushing the galaxies apart. The density of this dark energy also appears to be extraordinarily fine-tuned. A little smaller or a little larger, and the life-giving stars would never have formed.

The haunting question is why these fundamental parameters lie in the narrow range required by life. What determined their values? One explanation offered by physicists, called the “anthropic principle,” is that there are, in fact, a great many universes, with widely varying properties and parameters.

In most other universes, the strength of the nuclear force, the density of the dark energy and so on are much different than in ours. Those universes would be lifeless and barren. By definition, we live in one of the universes with parameters that allow life, because otherwise we would not be here to ask the question.

Smolin has his own theory to explain why we live in a life-supporting universe, which he calls “cosmological natural selection.” He proposes that new universes are spawned at the centers of black holes. As in biological natural selection, those universes with the right parameters for producing new black holes have descendents; those that do not disappear. What’s more, it turns out that some of the conditions needed to form black holes, such as the right parameters to form stars, are the same as those needed for life.

Despite its appeal, there are several problems with Smolin’s theory:

  1. First, there is no evidence that new universes are created at the centers of black holes.
  2. Second, even if such evidence existed, why would the parameters of a universe so created bear any resemblance to the parameters of its parent universe, as required by the theory? If the parameters differ by more than a little, the new universe would not have “survivable” characteristics.

Cosmological natural selection does have one feature that relates to Smolin’s dissatisfaction with the relativity of time. The succession of parent and descendant universes necessarily unfolds in time, and Smolin believes that this is “real” time (as opposed to what he calls the “unreal” and “inessential” conceptions of time in traditional physics).

He goes on to propose a variety of revolutionary ideas to codify further his notion of “real time.” In one, he suggests that every atom in the universe is causally connected to every other atom in the universe, no matter how many light-years away. According to his notion, the failure of standard quantum mechanics to predict the behavior of individual atoms arises from the fact that it does not take into account the vast numbers of interconnections extending across the universe. Furthermore, this picture of the cosmos requires an absolute time (in violation of relativity), which he calls “preferred global time.”

One of Smolin’s most astonishing ideas is something he calls the “principle of precedence,” that repeated measurements of a particular phenomenon yield the same outcomes not because the phenomenon is subject to a law of nature but simply because the phenomenon has occurred in the past. “Such a principle,” Smolin writes, “would explain all the instances in which determinism by laws work but without forbidding new measurements to yield new outcomes, not predictable from knowledge of the past.” In Smolin’s view such unconstrained outcomes are necessary for “real” time.

Putting aside the sensational ideas proposed in “Time Reborn,” it is a triumph of modern physics that we are even asking such questions as what determined the initial conditions of the universe. In previous centuries, these conditions were either accepted as given or attributed to the handiwork of the gods.

A triumph, and also possibly a defeat. For if we must appeal to the existence of other universes — unknown and unknowable — to explain our universe, then science has progressed into a cul-de-sac with no scientific escape.


A Galilean Holy Man — By Sarah Ruden

August 7, 2013
William-Adolphe Bouguereau November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905) was a French academic painter and traditionalist. In his realistic genre paintings he used mythological themes, making modern interpretations of classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female human body. During his life he enjoyed significant popularity in France and the United States, was given numerous official honors, and received top prices for his work. As the quintessential salon painter of his generation, he was reviled by the Impressionist avant-garde. By the early twentieth century, Bouguereau and his art fell out of favor with the public, due in part to changing tastes. In the 1980s, a revival of interest in figure painting led to a rediscovery of Bouguereau and his work. Throughout the course of his life, Bouguereau executed 822 known finished paintings, although the whereabouts of many are still unknown.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905) was a French academic painter and traditionalist. In his realistic genre paintings he used mythological themes, making modern interpretations of classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female human body. During his life he enjoyed significant popularity in France and the United States, was given numerous official honors, and received top prices for his work. As the quintessential salon painter of his generation, he was reviled by the Impressionist avant-garde. By the early twentieth century, Bouguereau and his art fell out of favor with the public, due in part to changing tastes. In the 1980s, a revival of interest in figure painting led to a rediscovery of Bouguereau and his work. Throughout the course of his life, Bouguereau executed 822 known finished paintings, although the whereabouts of many are still unknown. From Wikipedia.

The claim here is that there was no neat progression from Jesus’ sayings, life and legend to Christian theology. Review of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth By Reza Aslan  and  and Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea By Geza Vermes by two controversial writers. The reviewer, Sarah. Ruden, is the author of Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time.The review is from a recent WSJ.


A certain notoriety surrounds Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, but only because a Fox interviewer recently questioned whether, as a Muslim and scholar of Islam, Mr. Aslan was qualified to write about “the founder of Christianity.” His basic approach to his subject, however — his decision to treat a major religious figure historically, with a life-and-times analysis — is considered hardly worthy of comment.

Such wasn’t always the case. In the 19th century, only Darwin’s On the Origin of Species caused more scholarly controversy than the two volumes of David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835 and 1836). Among those swept up by this new historical view of Scripture was George Eliot, who translated The Life of Jesus into English.

In her novel Middlemarch, that crown of the Victorian enlightenment, she shows her heroine finally seeing her husband’s pious pedantry for what it is when the young radical she will eventually marry asserts that only German research matters these days. He means, of course, the examination of Jesus as a human being within the context of his times — a man who can be evaluated freely and rationally: Should he be a guide to life and, if so, what kind of guide?

But that was then. In the 21st century, the examination of Jesus as a historical figure has been domesticated far and wide in Christendom, even in seminaries and divinity schools. The full development of fields such as linguistics and archaeology — and their application to ancient texts — may, in a supreme irony, provide material for Bible study. (Hardly, sez I, if all you come away from the Gospels is that Jesus was a “Galilean Holy Man”) within churches more than offer temptation to leave the fold.

In “Christian Beginnings,” Geza Vermes, whose death in May, at age 88, ended perhaps the most celebrated career in Middle Eastern studies of the past half-century (among other distinctions, he published the first English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls), lays out and enhances some of the most important arguments that he helped to make familiar. He asks us to see Jesus as a Jew, a man whose outlook and belief were grounded in Judaism and who did not in any way imagine himself to be reinventing his religion or founding a new one.

In many ways, according to Vermes, the Galilean holy man resembled, among others, the prophets of ancient Israel — men like Elijah and Isaiah. Their uniting quality was “charisma,” or manifestations of the power of God, mainly through preaching, healing and other ministries. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke — probably all written between A.D. 50 and 80 — give a credible picture of such a mission and are divided and equivocal regarding Jesus’ identity as the messiah. They are even less forthcoming about him as “the son of God” — a Jewish honorific but, when meant literally, blasphemy to traditional Jews of any period.

The Book of John — most likely written around the end of the first century — was a major break. Christ as the Logos or Word in John 1 — a being existing along with God from the beginning of time as the essential force of creation — is a concept traceable back to Plato. It is easy to see a Greek philosophical influence on the “Johannine” corpus, which includes the Epistles of John and Revelation, as well as the Gospel text. One source may be Philo of Alexandria, whose philosophy epitomizes the Hellenized Judaism of the first century. But is hard to imagine such thinking as part of the peasant, artisan and Temple milieu of an historical Jesus (hard to imagine if your historical Jesus is only, once again, is just a “Galilean Holy Man.”).

There was, however, no neat progression in time from Jesus’ sayings, life and legend to Christian theology. True, the theology was inexorably refined into the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), which decreed that Christ was “consubstantial with the Father,” part of unitary godhead and not even subordinate to it. But the startling strangeness in Christian formulations about the unseen — the sharp break with anything that came before and the necessary launch in a completely new direction — was evident long, long before.

The earliest extant writer to address the Jesus movement was Paul of Tarsus, who knew some of the disciples, observed (and helped persecute) the sect in its very early form in Jerusalem, and some time after his conversion became the sect’s main missionary to the gentiles. But Paul shows almost no interest in the life or sayings of Jesus (?). Instead, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were the touchstones for his theology, which is still almost universal among Christians: God’s sacrifice of his son to save sinful humankind from death. Paul’s example strongly suggests that, whatever Jesus’ background, personality and day-to-day mission, it was the crucifixion and resurrection that riveted his closest associates and nearest contemporaries. To argue that Christianity is artificial, a distortion of what Jesus was and what he did — as Vermes did in a lifetime of well-regarded scholarship and as others do less carefully — shortchanges history.

Reza Aslan, in “Zealot,” assembles evidence that, like a number of Jewish dissenters under Greek and Roman rule, Jesus was a hot-headed champion of the poor and oppressed against the Jewish hierarchy, whom he saw as puppets of the Romans. He was also, Mr. Aslan argues, a defender of religious purity who did not eschew violence against even Jewish institutions. He was thus in spirit like the revolutionary Zealots of a generation later. Mr. Aslan cites Gospel accounts hard to explain otherwise, such as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his attack on merchants and money-changers at the Temple. He stresses how anomalous a prophet of peace would have been in such violent times.

It is certainly plausible that various Christian authors themselves tried to censor Jesus’ politics. It was in the interests of Christians both before and especially after the Jewish rebellion against Rome — which led, in A.D. 70, to the destruction of the Temple and unprecedented slaughter — to dissociate themselves from Jewish resistance of any kind and to protest that they were docile servants of the Roman Empire.

But Mr. Aslan’s claims, as well as those of Vermes, evade the key historical problems. The complete story of Jesus, as his closest followers knew it, made no sense and needed extraordinary explication — hence the quick and extensive development of theology, from Paul all the way to the Nicene Creed. Crucifixion was a vile death, on its own soundly repudiating Jesus’ reputation as a charismatic holy man, since divine providence was central to Jewish thought. For a would-be rabble-rouser, on the other hand, crucifixion was a routine, quickly forgotten fate. Yet Jesus was said to have achieved what had not been granted even to the Patriarchs: He had risen from the dead, in the flesh.

Concerning the resurrection, even the earliest scriptural accounts are more like classical historiography or even forensic oratory than like any other Scripture — the story was supposed to represent empirical fact as well as religious truth. And there was no disagreement about the resurrection between Paul’s gentile-friendly party, which triumphed in time, and the community of James, the brother of Jesus, with its doomed insistence on full adherence to Jewish law.

Vermes, Mr. Aslan and many other fashionable historical critics hold the conflicts between these two groups to have been critical for the branching off of Christianity as a deracinated, Greco-Roman religion. But both groups were “Christian,” which literally means that they believed that Jesus was the messiah, their explanation being his defiance of death; nor did intense persecution or even the threat of death change any of the leaders’ minds.

Perhaps the most solid statement that anyone can make about history is that nothing is completely explainable. But the sheer amount of data that scholars like Vermes and Mr. Aslan command — and their ingenuity in deploying it — seems to encourage overreach. I sense an attitude that they themselves justly criticize in the theology-happy Church Fathers: a refusal to let any topic alone until every detail is pulled in one direction under a mighty wave of discourse. This attitude can of course yield violations of common sense.

Vermes employs the Greek lexicon quite selectively to argue that traditional Jews recognized Christians, for a time, as a legitimate sect of their own, like the Pharisees. But that’s demonstrably untrue: Jesus — the cult figure if not the person — was never Jewish to that degree. What happened to him in the end of his life abruptly and necessarily split him off from the Jewish tradition and establishment.

Mr. Aslan goes as far as to claim that the verb in Jesus’ well-attested command to “render unto Caesar” means to reject the whole system of imperial taxation. “Throw it back in Caesar’s face,” would be the meaning. But Paul, in Romans 13, uses the same verb, apodidomi, in its usual sense of “pay what you owe” — all taxes without exception, and in a cooperative spirit. It is linguistically impossible that, through this well-attested Gospel command to “render” taxes (it appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus showed himself as an anti-establishment rebel, let alone one sympathetic to violence.

But the popularization of historical criticism provides its own correctives. The facts are laid out and open to investigation, and seldom are the facts more generously and engagingly laid out than in these books.


Reading Selection: The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

July 19, 2013


Recently I had one of my Communio friends recommend this book strongly and I also came across another resounding endorsement while finding it on a list of 10 best 21st century novels. So I sat down and devoured all 500+ pages and came away impressed by the range of Franzen’s imagination how he combines a marriage, a family, a whole culture extending from the Midwest to Lithuania. Here Alfred Lambert scuttles about his basement following his rescue from taking a dive off a cruise ship. Albert, losing his sanity to Parkinson’s, the patriarch of a modern family of individual catastrophes, a modern comedy we all become part of. This scene will give you a taste. You can find the book here.

This is why you won’t like it:

The book is a series of stories of the main characters, each of whom are ‘correcting’ what came before. They want to correct each other, their parents, their partners, their siblings and themselves. Each of them seems to think that if they change a behavior, the outward appearance of their lives, they will be successful is becoming the person they want to be. Or more accurately, avoid becoming the person they do not want to be. The inward journeys of the characters do not go deep. These are not thoughtful people. There is no moral basis for action, no questioning, no intellectual component to their lives, no weighing of choices, no wrestling with larger themes. Their lives and decisions are nearly always a reaction to something else and Franzen cooly, coldly and unkindly just watches.

The result is like being at a cocktail party,listening to an intelligent, perceptive and well spoken drunk skewer everyone else in the room. It’s entertaining, but after a while, you begin to hope he will either reach a conclusion or just go home.

Franzen see everything, and understands a good deal less. Or he is cleverly telling us that modern society understands nothing–which he could have done a good deal more briefly. For me, the book becomes distasteful in its lack of sympathy for the characters who are largely all flaws. Perhaps the requirement of contemporary writing is terminal cynicism. Perhaps the author thinks there is little redeeming about any person. Perhaps it is a clarion call to deepen the public psychological discussions of ourselves. If so, the snide, sarcastic and superior tone and lack of empathy ovewhelmed a larger message.

There is no doubt he writes well, can sustain a narrative or, rather, a series of narratives barely tied together by a single Christmas. The day finally arrives, and for no reason, Chip’s behavior changes, Enid is reconciled to her martyrdom, Gary fades away entirely, and Denise continues on. The father’s physical and mental unravelling is detailed but unresolved. The day carries very little weight, no heavy lifting.

I ended up saying to myself, “Yeah? SO…? And…?” Is it the writer’s obligation to tie up, find conclusions, illustrate important things, simulate thoughts of what might have been, or what really was, or anything beyond the surface of the story? Perhaps not. The Corrections has been hailed as a masterpiece. It is a very good act of observation. Because he does little else, I found it hard to care about the book, the characters or the author’s point of view.

Or you will agree with me that it captures something significant and you can perform the take-aways which are not as all cynical as the above reviewer would lead you to believe. A more positive review here and some interesting stuff about Franzen.


Down in the basement, at the eastern end of the Ping-Pong table, Alfred was unpacking a Maker’s Mark whiskey carton filled with Christmas-tree lights. He already had prescription drugs and an enema kit on the table. He had a sugar cookie freshly baked by Enid in a shape suggestive of a terrier but meant to be a reindeer. He had a Log Cabin syrup carton containing the large colored lights that he’d formerly hung on the outdoor yews. He had a pump-action shotgun in a zippered canvas case, and a box of twenty-gauge shells. He had rare clarity and the will to use it while it lasted.

A shadowy light of late afternoon was captive in the window wells. The furnace was cycling on often, the house leaking heat. Alfred’s red sweater hung on him in skewed folds and bulges, as if he were a log or a chair. His gray wool slacks were afflicted with stains that he had no choice but to tolerate, because the only other option was to take leave of his senses, and he wasn’t quite ready to do that.

Uppermost in the Maker’s Mark carton was a very long string of white Christmas lights coiled bulkily around a wand of cardboard. The string stank of mildew from the storeroom beneath the porch, and when he put the plug into an outlet he could see right away that all was not well. Most of the lights were burning brightly, but near the center of the spool was a patch of unlit bulbs — a substantia nigra deep inside the tangle [vocab: The substantia nigra is a brain structure located in the mesencephalon (midbrain) that plays an important role in reward, addiction, and movement.] He unwound the spool with veering hands, paying the string out on the Ping-Pong table. At the very end of it was an unsightly stretch of dead bulbs.

He understood what modernity expected of him now. Modernity expected him to drive to a big discount store and replace the damaged string. But the discount stores were mobbed at this time of year; he’d be in line for twenty minutes. He didn’t mind waiting, but Enid wouldn’t let him drive the car now, and Enid did mind waiting. She was upstairs flogging herself through the home stretch of Christmas prep.

Much better, Alfred thought, to stay out of sight in the basement, to work with what he had. It offended his sense of proportion and economy to throw away a ninety-percent serviceable string of lights. It offended his sense of himself, because he was an individual from an age of individuals, and a string of lights was, like him, an individual thing. No matter how little the thing had cost, to throw it away was to deny its value and, by extension, the value of individuals generally: to willfully designate as trash an object that you knew wasn’t trash.

Modernity expected this designation and Alfred resisted it.

Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to fix the lights. He didn’t understand how a stretch of fifteen bulbs could go dead. He examined the transition from light to darkness and saw no change in the wiring pattern between the last burning bulb and the first dead one. He couldn’t follow the three constituent wires through all their twists and braidings. The circuit was semiparallel in some complex way he didn’t see the point of

In the old days, Christmas lights had come in short strings that were wired serially. If a single bulb burned out or even just loosened in its socket, the circuit was broken and the entire string went dark. One of the season’s rituals for Gary and Chip had been to tighten each little brass-footed bulb in a darkened string and then, if this didn’t work, to replace each bulb in turn until the dead culprit was found. (What joy the boys had taken in the resurrection of a string!) By the time Denise was old enough to help with the lights, the technology had advanced. The wiring was parallel, and the bulbs had snap-in plastic bases. A single faulty light didn’t affect the rest of the community but identified itself instantly for instant replacement…

Alfred’s hands were rotating on his wrists like the twin heads of an eggbeater. As well as he could, he advanced his fingers along the string, squeezing and twisting the wires as he went — and the dark stretch reignited! ‘The string was complete!

What had he done?

He smoothed out the string on the Ping-Pong table. Almost immediately, the faulty segment went dark again. He tried to revive it by squeezing it and patting it, but this time he had no luck.

(You fitted the barrel of the shotgun into your mouth and you reached for the switch.)

He reexamined the braid of olive-drab wires. Even now, even at this extremity of his affliction, he believed he could sit down with pencil and paper and reinvent the principles of basic circuitry. He was certain, for the moment, of his ability to do this; but the task of puzzling out a parallel circuit was far more daunting than the task, say, of driving to a discount store and waiting in line. The mental task required an inductive rediscovery of basic precepts; it required a rewiring of his own cerebral circuitry. It was truly marvelous that such a thing was even thinkable — that a forgetful old man alone in his basement with his shotgun and his sugar cookie and his big blue chair could spontaneously regenerate organic circuitry complex enough to understand electricity — but the energy that this reversal of entropy would cost him vastly exceeded the energy available to him in the form of his sugar cookie. Maybe if he ate a whole box of sugar cookies all at once, he could relearn parallel circuitry and make sense of the peculiar three wire braiding of these infernal lights. But oh, my God, a person got so tired.

He shook the string and the dead lights came on again. He shook it and shook it and they didn’t go out. By the time he’d coiled the string back onto the makeshift spool, however, the deep interior was dark again. Two hundred bulbs were burning bright, and modernity insisted that he junk the whole thing.

He suspected that somewhere, somehow, this new technology was stupid or lazy. Some young engineer had taken a shortcut and failed to anticipate the consequences that he was suffering now. But because he didn’t understand the technology, he had no way to know the nature of the failure or to take steps to correct it.

And so the goddamned lights made a victim of him, and there wasn’t a goddamned thing he could do except go out and spend.

You were outfitted as a boy with a will to fix things by yourself and with a respect for individual physical objects, but eventually some of your internal hardware (including such mental hardware as this will and this respect) became obsolete, and so, even though many other parts of you still functioned well, an argument could be made for junking the whole human machine.

Which was another way of saying he was tired.

He fitted the cookie into his mouth. Chewed carefully and swallowed. It was hell to get old.

Fortunately, there were thousands of other lights in the Maker’s Mark box. Alfred methodically plugged in each bunch. He found three shorter strings in good working order, but all the rest were either inexplicably dead or were so old that the light was faint and yellow; and three shorter strings wouldn’t cover the whole tree.

At the bottom of the box he found packages of replacement bulbs, carefully labeled. He found strings that he’d spliced back together after excising faulty segments. He found old serial strings whose broken sockets he’d hot-wired with drops of solder. He was amazed, in retrospect, that he’d had time to do all this repair work amid so many other responsibilities.

Oh, the myths, the childish optimism, of the fix! The hope that an object might never have to wear out. The dumb faith that there would always be a future in which he, Alfred, would not only be alive but have enough energy to make repairs. The quiet conviction that all his thrift and all his conservator’s passion would have a point, later on: that someday he would wake up transformed into a wholly different person with infinite energy and infinite time to attend to all the objects that he’d saved, to keep it all working, to keep it all together.

“I ought to pitch the whole damn lot of it,” he said aloud.

His hands wagged. They always wagged.

He took the shotgun into his workshop and leaned it against the laboratory bench.

The problem was insoluble. There he’d been, in extremely cold salty water and his heavy legs cramping and his shoulder useless in its socket, and all he would have had to do was nothing. Let go and drown. But he kicked, it was a reflex. He didn’t like the depths and so he kicked, and then down from above had rained orange flotation devices. He’d stuck his working arm through a hole in one of them just as a really serious combination of wave and undertow – the Gunnar Myrdal’s wake — sent him into a gargantuan wash-and-spin. All he would have had to do then was let go. And yet it was clear, even as he was nearly drowning there in the North Atlantic, that in the other place, there would be no objects whatsoever: that this miserable orange flotation device through which he’d stuck his arm, this fundamentally inscrutable and ungiving fabric-clad hunk of foam, would be a GOD in the objectless world of death toward which he was headed, would be the SUPREME I-AM-WHAT-I-AM in that universe of unbeing. For a few minutes, the orange flotation device was the only object he had. It was his last object and so, instinctively, he loved it and pulled it close.

Then they hauled him out of the water and dried him off ant wrapped him up. They treated him like a child, and he reconsidered the wisdom of surviving. There was nothing wrong with him except his one-eyed blindness and his non-working shoulder and a few other small things, but they spoke to him as if he were an idiot, a lad, a demented person. In their phony solicitude, their thinly veiled contempt, he saw the future that he’d chosen in the water. It was a nursing-home- future and it made him weep. He should have just drowned.

He shut and locked the door of the laboratory, because it all cairn down to privacy, didn’t it? Without privacy there was no point in being an individual. And they would give him no privacy in a nursing home They would be like the people on the helicopter and not leave him be.

He undid his pants, took out the rag that he kept folded in his underwear, and peed into a Yuban can.

He’d bought the gun a year before his retirement. He’d imagines that retirement would bring that radical transformation. He’d imagines himself hunting and fishing, imagined himself back in Kansas and Nebraska on a little boat at dawn, imagined a ridiculous and improbable life of recreation for himself.

The gun had a velvety, inviting action, but soon after he bought it a starling had broken its neck on the kitchen window while he was eating lunch. He hadn’t been able to finish eating, and he’d never fired the gun.

The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid this price for its privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.

There came a time, however, when death ceased to be the enforcer of finitude and began to look, instead, like the last opportunity for radical transformation, the only plausible portal to the infinite.

But to be seen as the finite carcass in a sea of blood and bone chips and gray matter – to inflict that version of himself on other people – was a violation of privacy so profound it seemed it would outlive him.

He was also afraid it might hurt.

And there was a very important question that he still wanted answered, His children were coming. Gary and Denise and maybe even Chip, his intellectual son. It was possible that Chip, if he came, could answer the very important question.

And the question was:

The question was:


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