Monday, May 30, 2005

Is faith unreasonable?

A friend of mine recently was surprised when I suggested that the future is likely to be more religious than the present. "Isn't it true," he said, "that the major religions have been discredited? Haven't we shown them to be irrational?"

This is a recurrent theme, that religion is somehow irrational. But if one takes a close look at the structure of knowledge, one will find that there is an irrational element at its core, at the very least in its dependence on sensation, which is not subject to reason, but is presented to it as a given. In fact, modern and post-modern protestations to the contrary, every act of knowing is an act of reception, of gift. To steal another quote from David Hart, ``It is not until one adequately recognizes the degree of sheer faith that inheres in every employment of reason that one can turn again to recognize what degree of rationality is or is not present in any given act of faith.'' (145) Rationality has an element of faith, and as long as we don't realize that, we are in no position to judge faith's rationality.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Nietzschean affirmation

I've been reading David Hart's book The Beauty of the Infinite, and it has been a treasure house of insights. The latest is his dissection of the problem of postmodernity, which exalts flux over substance, difference over identity, and as a remedy for this Heraclitean flux, proposes affirmation. Consider Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return--one knows that one is not suffering from a sickness of life-denial when one is able to say that one would affirm with joy the eternal repetition of everything that has happened and will happen.

The problem, as Hart points out, is that in the affirmation of the likes of Nietzsche and Foucault, there is no way to figure out what one ought to affirm. ``A philosophy whose concept of affirmation is merely the result of a reaction against dialectical negation (thus retaining the narrative of ontological violence that dialectic presumes) cannot ultimately make a morally credible distinction between hospices and death camps. . . .'' (72) The only sort of affirmation that can do the job they want it to do is the affirmation of God: "It is very good," an affirmation both transcendent and creative.

Anyway, it's a good book.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A bleg

As you may have read a few posts down, I'm involved in the founding of a new college. We've set up a weblog to give our thinking on why such a thing is a good idea. If you would be so kind, could you go take a look and maybe link to it? Go here. See the college website (still somewhat primitive, soon to be updated) here.

Gnosis, particularity, and the Church

Now that I can read what I want, I'm reading a (so far) marvelous theology book by an Orthodox theologian, David B. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. He says something interesting about the particularity of Christianity (that God became man, not just man, but a man, a Jew in Palestine of all places): “Wherever theology seeks to soothe those who are offended by the particularity of Christ, or struggles to extract a universally valid wisdom from the parochialism of the Gospels, a gnosis begins to take shape at the expense of the Christian kerygma.” (22) An interesting insight. One attempts to universalize the gospel into some symbolic truth about humanity in general, that becomes a way of flight from the messiness of particular human beings. You know, the sort of thinking that wants to make Christ the guy who said "Love one another" but not the guy who said "Don't lust" or "give your cloak to the guy who has none."

He had another interesting thought which I think has application to those of us who are offended by the humanness of the Church, saying that the Church is a society, and parenthtically "society, therefore, as potentially the church". If we say that God founded a Church that is human and divine, this means that our society also has the possibility of becoming divinized, becoming the Church writ large. This is threatening. Much easier, I think, to throw stones at the Church for its humanness than to turn the mirror on the humanness of our own society. The Church is a human society, full of sin. That is certain. But it is also divine, and therefore presents itself to us as a challenge, since if it is divine, so can we be.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

I've put a new post up on Go take a look.

Here's a copy if you don't want to click through:

Beauty as Evangelization

I still remember the first times I experienced the Byzantine Liturgy. The first time was in Bethlehem, PA during my short time as a seminarian. I was overcome by the beauty of the music. Here was a parish without organist, without choir, where the liturgy was sung by the entire congregation in harmony. I was able to pick up the melodies pretty quickly, and sang along for two glorious hours hymns of overwhelming depth. I wasn't in tears after the liturgy, but my sentiments were something like those of Augustine:

``I wept at the beauty of your hymns and canticles, and was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart: so that my feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them.''

After seminary, I went to Marquette to get a doctorate in philosophy. Providentially, a Melkite parish (St. George) was just down the street. I walked in one Sunday, and again was profoundly affected. This time, what struck me first of all was the sound of bells coming from behind the iconostasis, sounding like sleigh bells. What could be happening? It was like a child hearing Santa on the roof. Soon, Something Important was going to happen! Then the priest and the altar servers processed out from behind the screen, and we sang the great doxology. Something important did happen: Christ came among us, and I was hooked. I've been worshiping in Byzantium ever since.

I don't bring up my experience because there's anything particularly special about me. I bring it up because I think it is typical of the reactions of the world to the liturgical traditions of the East. Our liturgy is missionary as Pope Benedict pointed out, by means of the very beauty present within it.

What impressed onlookers about the liturgy was precisely its utter lack of an ulterior purpose, the fact that it was celebrated for God and not for spectators, that its sole intent was to be before God and for God "euarestos euprosdektos" (Romans 12:1; 15:16): pleasing and acceptable to God, as the sacrifice of Abel had been pleasing to God.

Beauty draws us up to the transcendent God. Beauty is evangelical. In fact, in the postmodern world of today, where there is no general confidence in any sort of metaphysics, it might be that beauty becomes the way to evangelize. I think that it is possible to do metaphysics, but even so, I recognize that a proof for the existence of God is not a proof for Christianity. Such a thing cannot be offered. But Beauty, the beauty of Eastern Christian practice, can be persuasive. David Bentley Hart puts it thus: "[Christianity] stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity--and the rhetorical richness of its idiom." In other words, Christianity presents a vision of life that persuades through its beauty. Our music, liturgy, and iconography can be evangelical, as it was for the emissaries of Prince Vladimir, who said "When we came to the country of the Greeks, we were brought to where they celebrate the liturgy for their God... We do not know if we were in heaven or on earth... We experienced that there God dwells among men..."

It is my hope that Transfiguration College can contribute to the re=evangelization of the world through our emphasis on beauty. It is the reason that our curriculum will have seminars on the liturgy, that we will teach the chant of our churches, and that our students will have practical experience in iconography.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A New College?

I have been fortunate to be involved with the planning of a new Catholic college. It is going to be a Byzantine Catholic Great Books school. For more information, go to our website and our weblog. More information will be posted on the latter very soon. In fact, it will require me to curtail this blog just a bit.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

That's the question posed to Jesus in the Gospel for yesterday in the Byzantine churches. There is a man who has been born blind, and the questioners ask a reasonable question. Why is it that he had to suffer in this way? Is it a result of sin?

We know that some illnesses are indeed the result of sin, and not just sexually transitted diseases. If I am a glutton, I will suffer the penalty in my own flesh. If I am a drunkard, I will destroy my liver. Even on the spiritual level, it is clear that sin can cause disease, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians:

1Co 11:28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
1Co 11:29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
1Co 11:30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

Abuse of the Eucharist can cause bodily illness.

But in this case, Jesus does not say that sin caused the disease. Rather, it was "that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9:3) The man was sick so that Christ could show mercy to him. I wish to extend this thought to the sick and aged of the world who are often told that they are a "burden" to society, or who even themselves will prefer death rather than being a burden. If we are Christians, we should realize that it is no burden, but an opportunity. The illnesses and needs of others are opportunities to love, to heal, to care as Christ cared. The proper response to "I don't want to be burden on you" is "It's no burden. It's a privilege to care for you!" It's an imitation of Christ.