Monday, September 30, 2013

Untitled (poem)

I found this one scrawled in my HUM 103 teaching notes. I cannot remember when I wrote it, although with this set of notes it would have had to have been within the last three years...I think. There is no title on it.


A poet is to take the unspeakable
and gently place it into
the container of words.
The ocean in a jar
both is and is not.
For that within is an image,
an icon,
with a longing to return.

So the words that circumscribe
Partake and like the salty brine
cause the water and the drinker
to yearn
To long for communion where they
are not lost
But have their fullest place.

Nepsis (poem)


What is love but watchfulness?
An ascesis of patience
A participation in He who is
with another.
Our communion becomes
in His patient passion

The voices of children
proclaim the good news:
the two intertwined
Two persons mirroring
the One
Who in the Love He is
has made us
the one Flesh
Which is the Life of the World.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Triduum (poem)

The Triduum

It was a day of tumult and song
When the Conquerer conquered was
And our masters swooned their devilish delight
To see the one who refused at the pinnacle
Fall from such a great height.

That auspicious day! Day of triumph and victory!
was no day of light
but deepest gloom that could be felt.
For his cross was the bar
that pried the doors from their hinges.

And the gates of hell
shall not prevail
And devil's flee
from sinners set free.

For it was not just a mere incursion
But a full blown invasion
as he fit each captive now free
with weapons sharp and two-edged.
This one has, since that dark day,
ne'er failed to steal more away.

Our songs are new
as we come full force
past the strong man bound and gagged
to do these works of God
for the life of the world.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A New, but Really Old, Vision for the Humanities

Disclaimer: This rethinking is for a Christian college/university setting. I cannot claim to speak for those parts of the Western humanistic tradition that aren't Christian.

Teaching the Humanities in today's academy can be hard. We are, essentially, teaching a history of Western civilization to many who have been so divorced from a pre-Enlightenment past that we seem to be nothing more than bemusing antiquarians. Why does the Theogony matter? Who cares about Homeric understandings of hospitality? Does it really matter that Roman social classes were based on an honor/shame dynamic? Everyone knows there aren't nine levels of Hell and so few of us live in Florence, so why read Dante? etc. Most of all, aren't these things in the past? We live in an ahistorical world, one that believes we have left home, so to speak, and that has made all the difference in our wild, wonderful, and utopian modern world.

And here the most bizarre element in student (and, I would argue, public and political) thinking comes out: we often reject the past because they didn't have it together, like we do. But, we don't have it together. The last century was the most violent in human history, with most of the deaths being administered by governments on their own people. So much for the equity and justice that will come from breaking old kinship ties and establishing the nation-state (this, of course, is not to argue that the nation-state has not brought some good things -- it is, however, to argue against the bizarre myopic utopianism that still accompanies pretty much anything out of the Enlightenment, even if it has been uniformly bad). We refuse, possibly because we are afraid to fall into in anomic Void, to see that the Emperor has no clothes, much less to call him on it (one risks being a "premodern" or a "fundamentalist" if this is attempted). It is precisely the power of the Humanities to bring on a clarity of vision that allows us to call things what they really are. Plato's Allegory of the Cave is apropos here: all that we see is not necessarily the true reality.

One of the greatest problems, though, is our way of teaching the Humanities as history. We bow to modern standards of what history should look like, how it should be told, and we wonder why students have no interest. History, alas, means very little to people, unless if it can be connected to aliens. I don't think we should abandon history, but it cannot be the framework in which we tell the story of Western Civilization. Part of the reason for this is because we lack a cogent Christian philosophy of history. While linear progression theories, popularized I'm told by St. Augustine, seem to make some sense, they fail for two reasons: 1) we disagree about what the ending will look like (pre-, post-, a- mill, for example) and this makes telling the story incoherent (see, for example, what happened to the show Lost, both before they knew what ending they were making and then after they determined a milquetoast finale) and 2) linear progression assumes, implicitly, a "betterification" of the world, that is, we have surpassed our elders and so can learn only from their mistakes (if that). I see this last one a lot in many Protestant views of Church History, calling the Fathers the "Church Babies" for instance, or in generally thinking that the Reformation put the Fathers right where they had erred (especially when they cannot hold a candle to the holiness of the martyrs and confessors). Until we rectify these things, our teaching of Humanities as an essentially historical discipline will fail.

Instead, let me harken back to a formula that still has some cultural cachet, goodness:beauty:truth. All Western humans, and Christians especially, have some sort of sense of these things. Yes, our understanding of each of them is hindered by emotivism, but often we attempt to reach beyond ourselves in getting a grip on them. The Western tradition could be classified as the search for these things, whether as universals (Plato), as discrete units (Aristotle), or as participation in the logoi of the Logos (Maximos). What that might mean, in practical pedagogical terms, is this:

Goodness is the study of philoethikos, of "love of ethics": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions about what it means to live a good, successful, pleasant life that reaches the human telos of glorification in Christ.

Beauty is the study of philokalia, of "love of beauty": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions of what it means to ascertain and use (in the Augustinian sense) beauty, aesthetics, proportion, and cultural artifacts.

Truth is the study of philosophy, of "love of wisdom": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions of what it means to connect to that which makes the world work on the human level, whether through asking questions about society, about human constitution, or about the "natural sciences."

It is possible to make this a three-course sequence, one leading to the other. They could be treated historically, or they could be treated in a "classics" or "Great Books" way. But they would, in a Christian setting, end in philotheos, or "love of God" in which we see how these things all are gifts from the Divine Benefactor who created all beauty, goodness, and truth so that He might sacramentally unite us to Himself in Jesus Christ. Theology, that is the study of God through prayer and ascesis, would take her rightful place as the apex of the sciences that transcends all science: for we must know God through created means while still knowing that He transcends all created categories.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Failure of American Christian Culture

This week, due to my wife's birth-giving of our third child, I've been around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. It is a place, in common evangelical terminology, ripe for the harvest of the Gospel: gays, lesbians, drag queens, homeless, "loose" people populate the streets. This, combined with a first reading of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, has led me to reflect on why Christianity is becoming less and less of a viable option in American culture generally, and with the young, urban, educated set particularly.

To do so, though, will require engaging MacIntyre's understanding of what "emotivism" is. "Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments [that is, judgments as to whether something is "right or wrong", "good or bad", "true or false", etc.] and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character" (12, emphasis original). In other words, all value decisions are based on what we take, in our various and self-contained "sub-worlds," to be good, true, and beautiful. There are no rational or universal outside standards on which to adjudicate such evaluative claims. MacIntyre goes on to argue, and I think he is substantially right, that our culture is, by-and-large, emotivist. Mutually exclusive moral claims, such as for or against action in Syria by the US military/government, cannot ever really talk to each other because the claims themselves are not based on any shared rational grounds, nor can they be since there are no shared rational grounds on which to be based.

To return to my initial reflections, I see two dominant Christian cultures in the United States today, both of which are unable to speak in the public square (say, at Pitt) because they cannot overcome the emotivist quandry. The first culture is the culture of moralizing Christianity: the claim is that these folks are "living in sin" and need to change their lifestyles to avoid [judgment, Hell, social breakdown, etc.] However, in the face of emotivism, these claims are nonsensical: how can this group say what is "good" or what human teleology is, since that is reserved for the autonomous individual? The call to a different way of living, whether done in or out of love, ends up being a personal assault on the hearer -- the call to a lifestyle change is a call to living in the confusion of the void, as their identity is, more often than not, tied to the various social and sexual roles that they inhabit. To say that their reasons for doing something or living a certain way is an assault on the autonomy of the individual, which in an emotivist context, becomes an assault on sense of self. This method is, alas, doomed to fail in any long-range way (this is not to say that individuals are not converted through such presentation, but this old revivalist style has had its day -- many historians question whether or not within its day it was actually effective, but that's another matter entirely).

The second culture is that of telic Christian identity. This culture hinges upon language such as "your true identity is in Christ" or "become what God made you to be" or some such. This culture is the one that I am most comfortable with, as I believe (emotivistically, I'm sure) that this is proper linguistic framework, building off, as it does, the Biblical and Patristic "image of God" tradition. However, this too is bound to fail, but for significantly different reasons. If we are to call others to a different moral framework, one which is founded and maintained outside of the human self (outside of individual emotivist restraints), we need living exemplars to refer to. However, as the amount of moral scandal in evangelical Christianity proves, this is no easy task. We are, by-and-large, without consistent standard bearers. Not only with those who fail, but often with those who have some sort of moderate success. Either they become "A-holes for Jesus" (as I've heard them described before) or they are attacked under the rubric of antinomianism: Christianity isn't about how you live, it is about Jesus' grace, blah blah blah. (The historical fact that a strident "Law/Gospel" distinction always ends up in a rejection of Christian virtue or a legalistic Pietism seems to be lost on modern exponents of it). Some might say that we have the exemplary lives of the saints of yore to point to. While this is a good option, it fails to answer the question of our contemporary moment: is this sort of thing possible still? Or has the world changed too much (whether we consider it to have matured or devolved) for that to even be possible? To cut to the point, the phraseology of telic evangelism falls short since no contemporary examples of the category can be produced, whether because of moral failure or actual impossibility. For an emotivist to make the jump from self-sustained identity to Christic identity would require not just rational dialogue, but actually examples of the jump that can be imitated with some measure of success (this is not, however, to be read as an easy task: ascesis is not easy -- we do no one any favors by broadcasting Christianity as 'easy').

What to do, then? Are we stuck, at this historical moment, with an impotent Church?

Option one, moralism, is unsustainable. If we latch onto this particular brand of Christian life and witness, we will continue to fail. As I've heard a couple of preachers put it, "God didn't come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live." Same goes, I imagine, for women. It is futile to call those who have identity formation tied closely into lifestyle choices to a facile, will-driven change of existence.

Option two, telic identity, is still workable; but not in the current instantiation. One of the present ways that we've sought to overcome our inability to produce exemplars is by focusing on shared "brokenness." We are all broken, so we cannot judge those outside, nor those on the inside. While, of course, there is some truth in this (we all inherit something from Adam other than a baseline human nature), it is a celebration not of what Christ came to do or has, on the Cross and through the Resurrection, done, but rather it is a celebration of a failure to have become what His actions have made it possible for us to become. That is, this point of "brokenness" is where the two cultural forms of Christianity seem to meet and fuse: we are supposed to become like Christ, Christ is moral (defined as "He perfectly keeps the Law"), therefore our ultimate end is to be moral; however, we fail to be moral, but since Christ is "our righteousness" this doesn't actually matter, therefore we celebrate our continued lack of morality or failure to be moral as a sign of God's continuing grace towards us. We might (should!) question a few of the premises in this argument (I do not know of anyone who puts it this way, but it seems to be a common enough, yet implicit, argument), most especially that of the "active/passive obedience" paradigm that informs both Reformed and evangelical Christianity (that remains for another day, however). The celebration of "brokenness" is rather a tacit celebration of the ineffectiveness of the Cross and Resurrection in the face of sin, death, and corruption. Any time the Christian Gospel speaks of defeat, whether in the eschaton or in history, it has ceased to be the Christian Gospel.

A different way of understanding our telic identity in Christ, then, is necessary. I do not think, though, that this needs to a new or novel understanding. In our theological heritage, we have plenty of unmined resources to draw from. Particularly, the inheritance from monasticism would be powerfully useful. However, for it to speak to our current cultural malaise, it would have to be un-cloistered: to separate from the world, while still a powerful witness (I think of St. Antony of the Desert as the prime example) would miss the cultural effectiveness I am aiming for. Rather, the concept of ascesis, which has historically been guarded and maintained in monastic communities, would allow many to become the effective exemplars of Christian identity (that is, of post-Resurrection Christic participation).

But isn't ascesis the same as moral striving? Yes and no. They do share some of the same forms, but for different reasons and ends. Morality hinges, normally, on the anger/judgment/wrath of God. Do this or be damned! Ascesis, though, hinges on the actual becoming because of the love of God: we fast not because we are avoid God's wrath, but because this is the means by which we disconnect from the corruption of the world and connect to God's grace which is remaking our nature. It isn't being moral for morality's sake; it is become like Christ for the sake of the world. More needs to be said on this, of course, but I should go back to attendance on my young family.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Gay Science (with some half-hearted apologies to F. Nietzsche)

The Madman

"Where is Man gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying Man? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even we human divinities putrefy! Man is dead! Man remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? We mortals aspired to God and earlier killed Him; so we took His place. And now we have become mad and slit our own wrists and throats with democracy! There never was a greater event - and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!" Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. "I come too early," he then said. "I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling - it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star - and yet they have done it themselves!" It is further stated that the madman made his way into different embassies on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam homo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: "What are these governments now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of Man?"

On the brink of war, he who has ears, let him hear.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Ozymandius (poem)

Irony is what I saw near Ozymandius' sandy grave
For this once great king eulogized
By a once great poet
of a once great civilization
Had asserted his power one last time.

And Shelley's point of power fading
Has been lost on all leaders,
great and small;
For the feverish grasp of authority
legitimacy and legality
Has ground us down finer than his powder.

Caius remains a mortal; yet no mortals are we
if care we take to guard our legacy --
we shall be remembered as the freedom fighters
who destroyed the tyrannies
of marriage and bonded sexuality;
of peace and the rule of law;
of religion and the healing of man.

The great statue's somber sneer
has, as of late, taken on a queer
aspect as his frown
has contorted the other way 'round.
A chortle one might hear
escape those sun parched lips
as his message rings out loud and clear.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The West II (poem)

In the twilight of the West
when the sun completes his crest
we prepare for the long dark.

For the world once so sure
does not appear quite secure
and the dawn may never spark.

But the light of the blasts
and the breaking of the castes
assures us of their target mark.

Let us then, night dwellers,
Bomb the world from our cultural cellars
And alight the world in her glorious stark.

For this night, our night,
Has long been our eager delight
And this tomb is our self-made dark.