Monthly Archives: November 2008

Ascetical Theology at the Cafe

Ok, Annie–you asked for itso now it’s up.

Well, it’s not a summary of the piece, but it’s an introduction to the topics he was discussing. Now, you’ll notice that the abbot uses the term “moral theology” where I use “ascetical theology” the reason is because all of the items in moral theology of which he speaks are congruent with and used in a manner that I associate far more with ascetical theology. Moral theology for me reaches its hey-day later and is found in the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori.

In any case, there it is…

Lee on Christian Formation

From Lee–the rest is here.

Consequently, mainline churches need to be much more intentional about Christian formation. Incidentally, I don’t see this as meaning that the mainline should become more “conservative.” Rather that they should become more Christian.

No question. And, by the way, the way to address a rise of fundamentalistic tendencies in one’s denomination is not to stop reading the Bible…rather you must read far more of it. The Daily Office is certainly a good start.

New Rig!

Case and power supply arrived yesterday; the hardware’s together and I’m using it as we speak. Still need to troubleshoot some motherboard driver issues and get the old hard-drive slaved in but other than that—I’m good to go!

And only 1,148 feeds have appeared in my rss-reader since the old unit went down… (oy vey!)

Intellectual Lightbulb

I just figured out how to put into words why I’m unlike many of my colleagues in Biblical Studies:

I don’t see biblical interpretation as an end in itself. Rather it’s a means for forming Christians according to the mind of Christ—forming holy habits—as communicated by preaching and enacted in liturgy and ascetical theology.

That’s not to say that all of my colleagues somehow think that biblical interpretation is an end, but that I feel the need to go all the way to the application end where not all of them do. This isn’t a critique of biblical scholars, it’s just a realization of why my scholarship and interests head off in different places.

Another angle from which to approach it might be this: Approaches to preaching, liturgy, and ascetical theology that aren’t firmly grounded in the Scriptures will range from the anemic to the futile.


…is having a smokin’ new motherboard with a dual-core processor, 2 gigs of RAM, and a fat SATA hard-drive

and no case to put it in.

The second half of my new computer shipment is delayed. I would pull out some fingernails if that would help it get here—but it won’t…

A Monk on Climate Change, Sustainability, and Moral Theology

Go read it now!

The key to addressing sustainability, he suggests is a return to the roots of of our moral theology.

Virtue: Justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence exercised in harmony. Cultivating these and collaborating with others who seek them is the goal. The church’s distinctive touch are the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.

Furthermore, he points to the Transition Towns initiative as a way forward, with which I heartily agree. The Transition Towns concept is not about legislation or top-down change but local networks doing what they can to spread awareness and changes. The governments, the systems, are not going to save us.

Maria Mater Ecclesiae

Answering the Scotist

The Scotist posted a reply to our ongoing discussion of Mary in a comment which I missed—I’ll now respond and move things forward.

1. The Scotist contends that my reference to his theory of “anonymous Marians” as condescending does not prove it false. He is right. However, while Rahner uses the notion of the “anonymous Christian” address the vexing issue of reconciling the Church’s proclamation of Christ as the only way to the Father with a tolerant pluralism, the Scotist’s use of his wrestles not with pluralism but with intra-Christian theological matter.

I would explain the difference thus: If Rahner asked one of his “anonymous Christians” who happened to be, say, Hindu, if he confessed Christ as his sole Lord and Savior, the only path to the Father, his anonymous Christian would deny it—that being part of the definition of an “anonymous Christian”.

If, in the second century—pre-dating the fourth century Council of Nicaea—you had asked a theologically orthodox Christian—call her an “anonymous Nicaean”—if she believed that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father and was not the first of God’s creations, she would most likely either agree or plead ignorance. I can’t imagine that she would deny it. And yet I and millions of Christians throughout history would deny that Mary is co-redemptrix. God alone redeems. Yes, Mary played a very special and very important part within the unfolding of that redemption, but she does not redeem me. God does.

Of course, this still doesn’t prove it false—because the “anonymous” notion makes it non-falsifiable. But the notion of anonymity is what I find problematic in the Scotist’s instance on defining it as dogma.

2. Then the Scotist makes this puzzling remark:

Moreover, you have not clarified the argumentative role of the distinction between dogma and doctrine. It keeps popping up, but does no apparent work. Maybe a substantive point is buried in these references; it would be nice if you could bring it to the surface. Hide not your light under a bushel, if light there be!

I say puzzling because I already addressed this here:

Moving along, the Scotist addresses my distinction between doctrine and dogma. This, as far as I’m concerned, is why this is worth fighting over. Doctrine is what may be held; dogma is what must be held. To put it another way, it’s possible to have a doctrinally minimalist Christianity and to still have it recognizable as orthodox Christianity. For example, it’s possible to lop off many of the doctrines and practices relating to the saints and the sacraments and still be “Christian” as described by the Scriptures and the Creeds.
I think it’s a lot more fulfilling and a lot more fun to have these, but I’ll recognize Reformed and Baptist folk as fellow members of the mystical Body even if they don’t sing the right antiphons on the Benedictus for the feast of St Ethelreda. But “dogma” means that it must be held in order for it to be a valid Christianity. A “dogma” is the kind of thing that if you went, in the Spirit, to an orthodox mother and father who died before its establishment and asked, “Hey, do you believe X”, they’d respond, “Well, of course—but that’s so obvious we’ve never had to say it…”

Would the great Baptist, would the great Reformed, forebearers respond this way in regard to the BVM as “co-redemptrix”—and are you prepared to cut them off from the Body of Christ if they answer in the negative on that account?

While the Scotist says: “There is no reason, as an Anglican and an Episcopalian, I have to convert him and others to belief in the fifth dogma as dogmatic, however desirable conversion would be” he is, in fact, mistaken: that’s exactly what dogma means. If he wants to talk about “co-redemptrix” as a doctrine, then he’d be absolutely correct and I’d have no problem with his decision.

Dogma is the fighting word here.

Perhaps the Scotist is having trouble understanding this. When a doctrine is defined as dogma, Christians are obligated to believe it. It is not optional. Hence the problem of allowing it to be “anonymous”. Those who deny the divinity of Christ are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith. Those denying the resurrection of the dead are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith as well. The Scotist would like us to believe the same for those who don’t consider Mary co-redemptrix.

I’m going to problematize this notion of dogma a bit further down, but the Scotist is the one who started playing with the “D” word and who won’t let it go and seems to be insisting that it means something other than what the Western Church has always understood it to mean. If you’re going to use a technical term in a technical discussion then use it properly or choose another word!

3. Then the Scotist accuses me of holding a heretical understanding of the will relying as I do on John Cassian. However in his comment and in his subsequent post he displays an utter ignorance of what Cassian holds and what I hold following him. The Scotist writes:

Semipelagianism (hence “SP”)–developed by John Cassian in response to Augustine’s polemic against Pelagius–implies that one makes a free first step toward salvation, a first step that is in the power of the individual apart from grace. That first step in itself is incomplete, and can be completed only with God’s assistance by means of grace.

It seems that SP implies

(A) there can be human actions apart from God’s grace,

and that is a proposition I wish to deny. No aspect of human action is possible apart from grace. Insofar as there is an aspect of human action–moral or otherwise–it owes its reality to God’s act of creation. But God’s act of creation is one of grace–it is a sheer gift. However, since SP implies (A), and (A) is–so far as I can tell–false, it follows SP is false.

Of course premise A is false and neither Cassian nor I would disagree. In fact, Cassian says the opposite quite explicitly. Go read Conferences 3. Here’s some of the pertinent material you’ll find…:

“Germanus [the student interlocutor who summarizes the previous discussion and moves it forward with a question]: In what does free will consist, then, and how may our efforts be considered praiseworthy if God begins and ends in us everything that pertains to our perfection?

Abba Paphnutius: It would be odd indeed if in every work and practice of discipline there were only a beginning and an end, and not also something in the middle. Accordingly, just as we know that God offers opportunities for salvation in different ways, so also it is up to us to be either more or less attentive to the opportunities that have been granted to us by God.”
(Conf. 3.11-3.12.1)

“Abba Paphnutius: By these words [of Jeremiah and Ezekiel] we are very clearly taught that the beginning of a good will is bestowed upon us at the Lord’s inspiration, when either by himself or by the encouragement of some human being or through need he draws us to the path of salvation, and also that the perfection of virtues is granted by him in the same way, but that it is up to us to pursue God’s encouragement in either a haphazard or a serious manner.”
(Conf 3.19.1)

“We ought to believe with a firm faith that nothing at all can be done in this world without God. … Let no one try to take what we have put forward in showing that nothing is accomplished without the Lord and twist it by a wicked interpretation in defense of free will in such a way that he attempts to remove from man the grace of God and his daily assistance… By what we have brought forward we do not want to remove the free will of the human being but to prove that God’s help and grace is necessary for him at every day and moment.”
(Conf. 3.20.1; 3.22.1; 3.22.3)

It’s patently obvious here that Cassian insists that God’s grace is essential throughout the process. The Scotist’s notion that Cassian holds his premise A is completely refuted here and elsewhere in Cassian’s writings. Yes, human cooperation is required, but God’s grace is always present and active.

Theologies: Scholastic vs. Ascetical

To this point I’ve been playing on the Scotist’s turf and he’s right, it doesn’t seem to have furthered the discussion much. Personally, I blame the turf. So let’s play on mine for a while…

The Scotist likes to play in the realm of Systematic Theology. As its name implies, this body of knowledge deals with seeing Christian thought as a system, as an inter-related whole that can be intellectually apprehended, questioned, and explored. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines it: “Its purpose is to investigate the contents of belief by means of reason enlightened by faith and to promote its deeper understanding”. When taken to an extreme, systematic theology leads to a hyper-intellectualization of the faith and faith becomes a set of ideas or propositions that can be expressed as logical syllogisms that are then affirmed or denied. I see this discussion currently on that edge—and that’s not where it belongs.

While I appreciate and sometimes rely on the insights of Systematic Theology, that’s not my turf. Rather, I prefer to play in the realm of Ascetical Theology. As we’ve discussed before, ascetical theology is:

The theological discipline which deals with the so-called ‘ordinary’ ways of Christian perfection, as distinct from Mystical Theology, whose subject is the ‘extraordinary ‘ or passive ways of the spiritual life. It is thus the science of Christian perfection in so far as this is accessible to human effort aided by grace. It also treats of the means to be employed and the dangers to be avoided if the end of the Christian life is to be attained.

Ascetical theology isn’t about investigating the contents of belief and their relation to one another; rather, it’s about how we live in light of those beliefs. It’s less about thoughts and more about habits. As Aquinas or Barth are the chief exemplars of Systematic Theology, the chief exemplars of Ascetical Theology would include Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. Evagrius of Pointus holds an important place there too and in mentioning him it’s worth noting that all three of these have been viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by the sysematicians, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. For instance, I think they’re wrong about Cassian. The Scotist is clearly wrong about Cassian. At issue here is perspective. The systematician works with ideas; the ascetical theology works with far more squishy stuff—life and how we live it. Ideas can be expressed in syllogisms that can be proven true or false; there’s a clarity to them that real life lacks. As a result, the systematicians with their clear-cut syllogisms that must fit together just so often find themselves at odds with those whose theological convictions come from the laboratory of human sin and stumblings towards sanctification.

For me, faith is not a body of beliefs to be held. Holding the Christian faith does not consist of checking the correct boxes on a list of dogmas. (I’m not accusing the Scotist of holding this view—but the way he argues can certainly tend in this direction.) Being a Christian is about consciously living out the relationship that Christ facilitated (through incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and his continued presence with us) and proclaimed (in both his words and works) concerning God. It’s embodying the life hid with Christ in God. Holding right beliefs is important because we make choices about how we live based on what we believe. An intellectualist view may say that ticking the right dogma box is what matters. I’d heartily disagree—that’s a beginning, not an ending. We don’t hold doctrines because they assure us of our salvation, we hold them because they ground fundamentals about the relationship that we’re living within. To hold incorrect views is to mistake the nature of the relationship and thus to err when we try to live that relationship out. This, in my view, is what’s problematic about deny Christ’s divinity or the resurrection of the dead. They’re not wrong because they’re lacking the check mark, but because the relationship will be skewed in ways that it should not be.

A Proposed Statement on The Blessed Virgin Mary

Ok—so what about Mary? What is her proper place?

For the moment I’m going to toss aside the Scotist and his “five dogmas” (whatever those actually are) and will discuss Mary as I see her. Perhaps the Scotist will find his dogmas here—perhaps not. In any case, this is a first attempt towards what I think about Mary and her place in the Christian life…

The Blessed Virgin is indeed most properly dignified with the twin titles of Theotokos (God-bearer) and Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) and it is in relation to these that I consider her.

Christ is our great Exemplar. He is God-made-flesh, the true man (yet very God) who shows us what it is to will and to do what the Father commands. Perfect obedience, perfect holiness. Growing into the Mind of Christ is our great duty and delight as members of the Body of Christ.

Mary is our secondary exemplar. She attained most perfectly those deeds after which we strive as described in the gospels and Acts: to acquiesce to God’s invitation (Annunciation); to recognize the eschatological action of God in society and the world (the Magnificat); to grow Christ within her and give birth to him in the world (Birth narratives); to ponder all things—the Scriptures, the Tradition, our lives—in relation to Christ (Luke’s birth narrative); to intercede for Christ’s eschatological remediation of our human condition—making the eschatological reality present in our lives (wedding at Cana); to invite others to attend to and enact his words (same); to stand unflinching at the foot of his cross (all crucifixion narratives, esp. John’s); to be a witness of his resurrection (Resurrection narratives).

In light of these historical realities, the Church understood the songs of wisdom particularly in the Apocrypal books as referring to Mary—as mentioned here.

If Christ is the exemplar of our consummation (which he certainly is), then Mary is the exemplar of our method. In order to achieve the goal of being like Christ, we must follow in the footsteps of Mary.

As Theotokos, Mary is the literal God-bearer as the one who carried the embryonic Christ and gave birth to him as a child. Given the description of Mary in Scripture, the Church has understood her as God-bearer in the mystical sense as well, the mother cleaves closest to the child and most closely embodies the Mind of her Son.

If we believe the confession of the Church as the Body of Christ, our incorporation into Christ through Baptism and Eucharist, as more than a metaphor but a mystical reality, then as God-bearer, the literal mother of Christ then becomes Mater Ecclesiae as well. As the literal mother of Jesus when we are grafted into him she becomes our mystical mother. But she is the literal mother of the Church, the organization, as one of the first witness of the Resurrection and a participant at Pentecost. She is mystical mother, too, of the faithful as she serves as the exemplar for our ways of being in the world.

Perhaps once again the key to the confluence of realities represented and embodied in Mary is best represented in the Scriptures, in the Church’s interpretation of the Song of Songs. As we pass through the ages there are three enduring—and intertwining—strategies that the church has used to understand the Song as Sacred Scripture. It is a love-song between the Godhead and 1) the Church, 2) Mary, 3) the soul of the believer. It is only when we grasp the nexus of the three that we fully grasp the role of Mary in relation to both the Church and the soul.

So—in my view (subject to correction, growth, and revision, of course)—I see Mary as the second great exemplar within the Christian faith who exemplifies the means to reach the end (the End) who is the chief and greatest exemplar, Christ himself. Our imitation of the means of Mary is to attain the end that is Christ.

In light of this can Mary be considered co-redemptrix? Not in any way that accords with the fullness of redemption. That is to say, if we held a merely Abelardian view that sees Christ solely as Redeemer through serving as Moral Exemplar (no doubt a caricature of Abelard’s thought itself) then there might be grounds for that—but it’d be an uphill argument. However, the Western Church has never held that the fullness of Christ’s redemptive action is entirely subsumed in his role as exemplar. Mystical Conqueror and Spotless Victim are also facets of Christ’s redeeming work.

So if you can find co-redemptrix here, Scotist, you’re welcome to it—but I don’t see it, nor find here a warrant to make it dogma rather than doctrine.

Computer Death

My central computer has died. (Thankfully it’s a case/power supply/motherboard failure, not a disk death.) Pithy analysis, absurd witticisms, and liturgical minutae are on indefinite hold. That having been said…

Congrats to Obama for an historic run but—as I said with +Gene et al.,—I sincerely hope he’s not remembered primarily as the nation’s first African American president but as a great president who also happened to be the first African-American.

I’m pleased the Democrats didn’t get a super-majority in the Senate; the nation won’t tolerate too many Republican filibusters and the parties having to cooperate in order to legislate is usually better in the long run. I hope McCain remains a leader for effective bipartisan action.

The Platform I Wish I Could Vote For

Well, I went and did my civic duty. Can’t really say I “dropped the handle”; “touched the screen” doesn’t really have the right ring to it…

This election for me was a lesser of two evils decision. If only McCain had run the platform he ran in 2000. If only Lieberman had been his running mate. Oh well—we rarely get what we want…

But I did start thinking about what I want. I think it’ll be a term for that. With—most likely—a Democratic president and Congress, it’ll should provide space for thinking about the shape of politics to come. Here’s what I’d like:

  • A moderate coalition
  • fiscally conservative (pay as you go only)
  • economically moderate with a focus on conservation and localization

To expand a bit on that last point, I’m not a free-trade capitalist. Some interference in the markets is necessary. And, for the desperate cause of moving away from a cheap energy economy that means  tax credits and incentives for:

  • business and households that reduce energy consumption/are fitted for demonstrable energy conservation (including incentives for telecommuting and mass transit use)
  • emphasize local industries
  • support a move away from service industries and cultivate local food production and small manufacturing industries
  • tax out-sourcing for investment in local community colleges/vocation programs 
  • stop fuel subsidies by taxing fuel to the real cost of production and use the tax gains to work towards a lower energy infrastucture (electrified railways, et al.) 

Would this look like protectionism? isolationism? On the first, yeah—it would. On the second—not in principle but in practice. 

On social issues? Give me a break… We’re tired of the culture wars. I have yet to see a cogent argument for how gay marriage is an attack on hetero marriage. If you want to protect marriage, then make marriage counseling mandatory for couples of all sorts.

I don’t know—it’s still stuff I’m kicking around. And it’s not like anyone’s going to ask my opinion anyway—it’s just what I’d like to see…

Final Spider Bite Update

At long last we close this painful chapter…

Ten months after the original bite, I’m 100% back to normal with no more infection. From not being able to walk for two months, I finished an 8K cross-country race yesterday. 

In the aftermath of the bite, M and I have been doing a lot of lifesyle reassessment. The doctor told M at the time that the only reason I was survived was because of my good physical condition. Since then, we’ve committed to keep ourselves in better shape. Last month M made the determination (and I jumped on board) that not only would we run more and get into decent cardiovascular shape but that we would enter at least one race a month to give us something to shoot for. She ran her first 5K last month; my first competitive race since high school was yesterday.

My time qualified me for our next big training milestone: The National Half-Marathon next March in Washington, DC. If any of you DC area readers want to join us, just let me know…