I’ll Give YOU a Grammatological Contour – Theopoetics in John Caputo’s “The Insistence of God”

This post is part of a blog tour around John Caputo’s latest book – The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Check out this link to see lots of other folks weighing in on this book. My post engages Chapter 4 “The Insistence of God.” I was sent copy of the book as part of participating in this blog tour. It was made out of paper.

As per usual I was too lazy to condense my thoughts into the written word, so a video (in four parts) is what you have.

[These links go into the video itself if you want to skip around]

First Part: Contextualizing this book in Caputo’s trajectory

Second Part: Discussing the broad content of the chapter itself

Third Part: Caputo’s use of theopoetics in the context of his “theology of perhaps”

Fourth Part: My commentary on the nature and Caputo’s (possible) intent for this project.

A Sketch of a Theology of Ministry

 

Primarily, I intend this document to articulate my understanding of ministry in a general sense. That is, the material here addresses what I think ministry is in a functional and definitional way beyond just what I think ministry “means to me.” In attempting to be so bold as to title something “A Theology of X,” it strikes me that what is produced ought to be more than just individualized conviction, ought to attempt to lay out a sense of things beyond the personal level. Thus, I think it is vital to be able to articulate a category like “ministry” in a way such that it is not simply a personal statement of preference and opinion, but an attempt to actually make a claim about the nature of ministry in a denominationally and historically justified context. This is an attempt to make just such a claim.

 

NOTE: This is to be considered a permanently in-process draft. It is here both (1) for others to read in the event it is of use to them and (2) so that I can continue to develop it as I think through it in community. If you have thoughts you’d like to share one way or another I’d appreciate comments.


On the Nature of Ministry

At the core of my understanding of ministry are three affirmations.
  •  Ministry arises in individuals in the context of community for the sake of helping people enter the Kingdom of God.
  • All people – of every age, sex, and orientation – are called to ministry and some are called to a greater degree than others.
  •  The gifts of the ministry are not the minister’s but God’s, stewarded by the minister while they rest with his or her person.

Inherent to this view of ministry is an understanding that the Priesthood of all Believers is an actual work of Grace from God such that the notion of “the laity” has been abolished. All are called to the ministry and are ordained by virtue of their baptism into service for God to the whole of the world. Those of us who serve more intentionally or regularly are merely called to that task more directly, there is nothing more granted to those who serve in the ministry than that service and the opportunity to more faithfully labor under the yoke of Christ. That being said, I do affirm that “some have a more particular call to the work of the ministry and that therefore… are especially equipped for that work by the Lord. [And that our] work is to instruct, exhort, admonish, oversee, and watch over our brethren more frequently and more particularly than the others” (Barclay 215).

I believe that the gift of prophecy – in the sense of Divinely Inspired speech, not future predictive speech – is yet still poured on flesh and that it is especially upon those who serve in Ministry to not speak frivolously or without mind towards the possibility that we may be called into speaking prophetically at any time. “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:31-33). In more contemporary terms I find that I unite with the language of Brian Drayton who writes that “a concern for the ministry is a calling to be intentionally available to put our experience of the divine light and life at the disposal of others, for their refreshment and encouragement… a commitment to redouble our inward watchfulness, so that we grow in faithfulness, and grow in our ability to serve” (Drayton 17). In effect, I understand Ministry as an act of catalysis, the bringing forth of some word, some story, or some comfort that enables those present to come more fully into the Presence of God which was most certainly there prior to the minister’s arrival. The particulars of the action(s) done by the minister differ according to the spiritual gifts and leadings of the individual, but their effect is that people are intentionally brought closer to one another, to God, and/or to Creation.


On the Calling to Minister

While it follows from the above, it is worth mentioning the means by which one is called to ministry. Put another way, how does one come to be a minister? Again, I stand firmly with my tradition and affirm that “by the inward power and virtue of the Spirit of God, which will not only call the minister, but will – in some measure – purify and sanctify him or her… Since the things of the Spirit can only be truly known by the aid of the Spirit of God, it is by this same Spirit than one is called and moved to minister to others. Thus, the minister is able to speak from a living experience…” (Barclay 219). The intent here is to affirm that from beginning to end, to the extent that there is any transformation or revelation through the work of the minister, its source was not that person, but the Spirit which inspires all.

I think that it is incredibly important that those of us called into ministry never come into contempt of those we are to serve or come to think that somehow we have been given more than them. I think often of Paul’s letter, “for what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). The calling is not into any social esteem or power. Mine is the task to be of service to others, not to adjudicate or cast dispersions upon them, but to be a servant to them. A bondservant.

Furthermore, as a calling, I believe that the impulse to serve can also be lifted such that the “more particular call to the work of the ministry” no longer compels someone into service. I do not think that God ever withdraws the call to serve, which we are all to be engaged in, but I do think that the “more particular call to the work of the ministry” can have its season and may then transform or be put to rest. This means that we must be in regular discernment: Am I being called into a particular service? If I have been called before, is that calling still live? Is it changing?


On the Qualities of Ministry

Ministry is a way to embody the claims of the Gospel about liberation, justice, and freedom through service. Enacting ministry is to demonstrate that when we act from our core convictions we can bring an increasing awareness of the presence of God. That is, ministry is both about action and being. That being said, it ought not be measured by the worldly yardstick of “success,” lest we forget the parable of the sower and lose track of the fact that ours is merely the task of sowing seed and not to ensure that each one cast grows. Conversely, while faithfulness – rather than “success” – is always to be the primary mark of “a job well done” it is important that attention be paid to the wake in the minister’s passing. That is, if the minister is constantly leaving behind crowds of sad, weary, and listless people who do not seem any more marked by the Kingdom of God, well… then something might be up.

In a situation such as this if I maintain that I have been nonetheless faithful though no mark of love, joy, or liberation is noted, a sincere and weighty period of discernment is in order. I believe firmly that our service in ministry is a form of discipleship and ought to be patterned as Jesus taught: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). My service is perhaps best marked not by particular sermons, services, or articles, but in the character of the relationships I cultivate within and beyond my community.

I think that Ministry also has the quality of transforming not only the communities in which the minister serves, but also the minister. I agree with Lloyd Lee Wilson that “the individual who does not feel stretched out by calling, who does not feel to some degree exposed and made vulnerable by the act of ministry, is not likely to be surrendered and accountable to the true promptings of the Holy Spirit” (Wilson 73). Another way of thinking about this is that I believe that the minister functions as a conduit of God’s Grace and Spirit, and as such, the ministry that flows from the minister will be marked by the qualities of God’s Grace and Spirit as well, namely that God “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-3). As a conduit to these graces, if I find that I am myself not more deeply reflecting these qualities I must question the rightness of my service.

Note that nowhere in this articulation is a description of powerful intellect, rigorous debate, or proof. This is on purpose as I believe the fullest power of God does not come through physical or mental coercion. That is, I believe that “Truth proceeds from an honest heart. When it is forthrightly spoken by the virtue and Spirit of God it will have more influence and take effect sooner and more forcefully than a thousand demonstrations of logic”(Barclay 200). I think that academic prowess can certainly supplement faithful service, and, in fact, feel that sometimes education can be a ministry, however the emphasis is always to be on God and the Kingdom of God and not on my own faculties.


On Scripture

The minister’s relationship to scripture is two-fold.

First, it is one of a dear companion with whom much is shared, all is entrusted, and yet with whom there are sometimes terrific arguments and disagreements. Scripture is the record that we have of human reflections upon God, including the life and sacrifice of Jesus and the culture and world from which he came. It is inspired and yet if we are to be critically engaged, thinking servants we must acknowledge that at times it frustrates and confuses us.

Second, it is one of the type of acknowledged limitation as might be encountered when reflecting upon a much-loved and much-used tool box full of the finest tools when the problem at hand is a broken heart. There are many fine metaphors and truths that the scriptures contain, and they are pertain absolutely to our lives, but they will not in and of themselves mend broken people. That task is God’s alone to do. Too often I find that the Bible is treated like an added fourth person of the Trinity, or worse, as a substitute for the Spirit. That is not something I find useful or spiritually beneficial.

Furthermore, while education may assist in helping the minister to more fully understand the scriptures and help them bear fruit in the church, I do not believe that it is necessary. Again, I find powerful resonance with my tradition: “All that someone can interpret from the scriptures though industry, learning, and knowledge of languages is nothing without the Spirit… Whereas, by the Spirit, a poor, illiterate person can say when she hears the scriptures read “This is true.” And by the same Spirit she can understand “open,” and interpret it, if necessary. When her “condition” answers the condition and experience of the faithful of old, she knows and possesses the truths that are expressed there, because they are sealed and witnessed in her own heart by the same Spirit” (Barclay 49).

That is, as with the calling and nature of ministry I believe that the origins of service and action rest firmly with the Holy Spirit, even when that action is the right reading and interpretation of scripture. This is said in no uncertain terms again in Barclay’s Apology.

Because the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself, they are not to be considered the principal foundation of all truth and knowledge. They are not even to be considered as the adequate primary rule of all faith and practice… We truly know them only by the inward testimony of the Spirit or, as the scriptures themselves say, “the Spirit is the guide by which the faithful are led into all Truth” ( John 16:13). Therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the f irst and principal leader (Rom 8:14). Because we are receptive to the scriptures, as the product of the Spirit, it is for that very reason that the Spirit is the primary and principal rule of faith” (Barclay 46).

On the Minister, who Stewards the Gift of Ministry

While it is the case that the Minister’s service is primarily as a function of conduit to God’s Grace and Love via the Spirit, it is nonetheless the case that the minister remains clay-footed and human. While the Spirit moves as it will and manifests as it does without apparent particular concern for human desire, the minister has significantly more limitations. Rather than consider this a negative thing however, I believe that it is a beautiful reminder of our finitude and our reliance on God. Were ministers suddenly transformed into superheros then our capacity to serve would be impeded in two immediate ways.

First, we would find it all the more challenging to act in humility and service, and second, others would look to us and not find connection, thinking that perhaps only “special” people can follow God’s vision. Instead, we are called in our brokenness to witness to the world that even through it God can redeem and uplift. I am regularly encouraged by the words of George Fox written in an epistle to traveling Friends ministers in1656:

This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples, in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savor, and a blessing.

As such I feel as if the minister’s life ought to be one of increasing integrity in all places: home, store, service, work, and play. If our “carriage and life” is to preach, if our very walking upon the ground is to be a pattern and example, then our health must be tended to, our family must be given space, time, and love, and we must remember that God’s work is for God and those of us who serve can only help but where we can.


Works Cited

Barclay, R. Barclay’s Apology. Dean Freiday (ed.)
Newberg, OR: The Barclay Press. 1991.
Drayton, B. On Living with a Concern for the Gospel Ministry.
Philadelphia, PA: Quaker Press. 2006.
Wilson, L. Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.
Philadelphia, PA: Quaker Press. 1996.

Placetailor

PT This is a mixed post: part pride and part relevant.

My brother, Declan Keefe, is the director of a environmentally-focused Architecture firm in (Placetailor) Boston. His firm was recently featured in what I am told is The Architecture magazine in the U.S. and I wanted to both give him some press (seriously, folks who read this blog will also likely be people interested in Placetailor) and reflect on the fact that his vision for architecture is almost exactly parallel to mine in regards to theology.  

from architectmagazine.com

…Placetailor was started in 2008 by Simon Hare, Assoc. AIA, a designer and builder passionate about developing new models of design and construction that challenge industry standards. Placetailor’s first project was the Hare family’s home, Pratt House, which garnered attention for its energy-efficient renovation and small physical and environmental footprint. Hare recruited a team of young designers and builders turned off by design-firm hierarchies and an industry they see as pitting architects against contractors. The company has had an evolving cast of characters, united by the conviction that designing and building should be joined together as a cooperative enterprise.

Declan Keefe, who has been with Placetailor from the beginning, took over as director when Hare went back to Israel….

“Design needs to include input from the entire community,” Keefe says, “rather than being imposed by architects from above.”

Whenever a profession or field of study becomes too distanced from those for whom it is supposed to work… well… things get wonky. At best.

I'm excited whenever there is a vision in which education isn't held up as a tool for elitism but rather as a means by which to more fully connect and serve.  That my brother shares this vision is sweet. 

Good stuff.

 

Check out Placetailor (they've got a great site) and there's a copy of the article from Architect Magazine below:

Me and the Fishes

Discovery

Yesterday I got an email from someone who had particular questions related to some of my views about theology and God as mentioned in the video below.

They were interesting to me and so I'm replying publicly here for you all as well.

How do these answers sit with you? Are they things you'd say of yourself as well? Am I a loon?


I think that your imagery of us being fish and God being the water we are in lines up with what Paul spoke about on Mars Hill. "In Him we live and move and have our being." The analogy of the fish not being able to see the water (or itself) clearly in the mirror also lines up with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. "For now we see through a mirror, dimly." Does that work for you?
Exactly. In fact, in an earlier iteration of explanation I had included Paul's Mars Hill note as well as Meister Eckhardt's “I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” 

It seems you think Theology is man made. True?
Yup. Though the truths that they refer/point towards are simply the way things are ordered under God, our models for that ordering are only that, models, and those models are indeed made by humanity. Inspired at times, sure, but crafted by limited by human minds. 

It seems that you think that in our current state of existence we are incapable of "really" knowing God. True?
Yeesh… A lot hangs on "really" doesn't it? Hmmmm… I think I would say that it is not possible to know God in God's fullness. I'm thinking here of things like Isa 55:6-9, especially, the balance between "… he may be found; call on him while he is near…" and  "'my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." That is, of course there is a nearness and a knowledge of God. Praises! 

In there very least we have scripture by which God's work is recorded, and I believe that we still have the gift of the Spirit which Jesus said he would send from the Father.  And/but…  I believe we commit a sin of hubris when we claim to know God or God's will in its complete fullness. That is, God's Goodness, Beauty, Love, Being etc. is so profound that our words will never be sufficient to capture the essence or the nature of our reliance upon that Holy power.

It seems that you think that God does not "reach out" to communicate with the "fish" living inside of Him. True?
Disagree entirely. It's just that sometime we don't get the message well, or don't slow down enough to listen.

You seem to come from a "liberal", "man-centered" approach to Christianity and theology. True?
Since you seem to be a fair-minded person, and this question (to me) seems very much the same as the first one, I'll assume that there is something to it other than that which I already hit on. I think that "Liberal" as a categorical term is fitting regarding my approach to Biblical Scholarship, yes. Here what I'm thinking of (via the handy-dandy wikipedia) is something like:
 
"Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings. Liberal Christianity does not claim to be a belief structure, and as such is not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, it has no unified set of propositional beliefs."

In terms of being "man-centered"… well, that bears some thinking… 

I do tend to think that there is something particular about humanity that is different that the rest of Creation, so I tend to be humano-centric in the sense that I don't think we are just the same as rocks or water, but I doubt that was what you were suggesting… Perhaps you can explain more what you mean about that and I can better answer you.
 

Interview with Daniel Meeter, author of “Why be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)?

So the basic gist is that Mike Morrell of Speakeasy book blogging sent me a copy of Daniel Meeters' Why Be Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)? from Shook Foil Press and below I interview the author about the book. Neato.

 

Reviews of the Book

The Christian Humanist

Thought. from Wes

Andrew Perriman

 

Note: Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. 

The Future of Quakerism: A Credo

 


This winter I was asked to consider writing a piece "Envisioning the Future within our Quaker faith." The article was to be published in SPARK, the newsletter of New York Yearly Meeting (composed of 90ish congregations), and would have gone out in the spring. Well, it came at a great time for me as I was considering lots of things related, and so I wrote a piece in response. Turns out though, that folks did not publish it for one reason or another, only referencing it in the newsletter and putting it up online. Anywho, I felt like there was some power in it, and continue to feel this way, and so I've reposted it here in hopes that Friends find some use of it. Please re-post, reference, and comment as you please.

 


 

Where Are We Now?

 

I have been been sitting for weeks with the question posed to me in the request to write for this issue: How do I envision the future of the faith of the Religious Society of Friends?  Over and over, in trying to sit with the future I have been driven back towards the present. How are we to get there – wherever “there” might be – if we don't know where here is?  What is our tradition about? What is at its core? Why do we worship? I found myself scarcely able to imagine the future given that I had a hard time even grasping the present. 

It is not that I haven't considered these questions. Far from it. It is that I am unclear that my responses to them would be anywhere near to normative. And that is when it Opened: the way forward is not in there being some “normative” response to those questions, but in having some response. In our Meetings and homes we ought to be really asking these questions and expecting responses. Why do we come to Worship? Do we really believe in Discernment? Do we even believe in God? What do we even mean by “God”? Can we unite with our Faith and Practice? If not, then what? We are all doing each other a great diservice by not having these conversations out in the open. 

Contemporarily, we Liberal Friends tend to resist articulating our beliefs. “All are welcome,” we say, and “none are turned away.” With this I unite. But what happens when someone comes through our door because she wants to know what we believe? What happens when someone believes something and isn't sure they are welcome to believe it for lack of conversation? My hope for the future of our tradition is not one in which all agree, but one in which we are impelled into the transformation of inner and outer lives, concieved, nurtured, and pruned in discerning worship, the result of which ripens into Justice and the fruits of the Spirit. My hope for the future of our tradition is that we might then be empowered and encouraged to speak – regularly and profoundly – of our experiences of the Divine. Towards that broader vision I offer my perspective in hopes that you will offer yours. This is how Truth prospers with me.

I am agree with Friend Patrick Nugent as he writes that “whenever goodness radiates and transforms the heart, whenever the conscience rises up and stands in the revealing and liberating light of goodness, there, whether named or not, is the Bread of Life which never fades away, the redeeming presence of the risen and living Christ.” I stand with him and our forebears in the belief that practice of a full and authentic Christianity is grounded in experiences of Real Presence, mediated via the gift of the Holy Spirit and actually discernible in worship. My faith's power is not in a mere ethic of compassion, an eternity of heavenly compensation at some later time, or the warm glow of community life in the present. My work is to practice coming into that Light, Life, and Power which takes away the occasion of all war, that Presence of God in which we are perfected – if only for a moment – and in which we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The path is to live lives that more and more readily resemble those moments revealed in prophetic ministry: to realize that we need not “build up” the Kingdom because it is already here among us, if only we would enter it.

I believe that much of contemporary progressive Christianity – including our own Religious Society – has become too close a bedfellow to generic liberal social concern and has turned too often to rationalism and modernity for its identity, becoming habituated to a pattern of accepting a series of “second bests” instead of waiting on the liberating power of God which insists upon justice in the present. I know that much of the history and narrative of the Christian tradition is dubious and – to be frank – hard to swallow. I know this and yet I know that there is no nourishment in the desert of doubt. I believe Paul Ricoeur was correct when he wrote that we are called beyond the desert of criticism to a Second Naïveté. Yes, there are times when it is best we not eat, for there is sickness to be purged, but we must acknowledge that hunger cannot be fed with starvation: eventually there comes a time when we are to take up the knowledge and precision gained through the wielding of our hermeneutic of suspicion and step with it out beyond doub'ts edge back into a place of surrendering belief. Not as naïve children, but as people of faith working on the basis of the substance of things hoped for but as yet unseen, trusting that in our faithfulness we will be led towards justice, granted compassion, and met with community.  By virtue of our baptism in the Spirit we are called to this: belief.

And so… I believe in the resurrection of the Body: as people of God we are called into a new life, into a new way of living on earth, while still in the flesh and with our feet yet made of clay.  I believe that the story and hope of this new birth were with Jesus in his life and death and I believe that in his refusal to submit to the Powers and Principalities he offered even them the opportunity for redemption. We are called to do no less. I believe these things because they are what seem most right in the moments when I have been held under the Holy Power of God's Spirit poured out.  And yet, even as I am held in this power I feel called to resist the temptation to allow my sense of certainty to reign above my hospitality; to resist placing my sense of the truth over and above others. I feel called to proclaim my testimony as exactly that: a concrete witness to the experience of God's transforming capacity my life and flesh and not some idealized and absolute external theology or creed. 

I believe that the Living Water is yet live and that we are each invited to drink at that place of nourishment there beyond the desert, wherein we might also partake of the Bread and enter the Kingdom, for it is already here among us. If only we would enter. Enter and share the story of the land beyond.

We gain so much from hearing one another speak from hallowed places. Let your life speak. 

Von Balthasar and the Body AKA Theological Aesthetics is not Aesthetic Theology

So as part of my mid-sized project to more seriously think about aesthetics, embodiment and theology [Side Note: if you're going to SBL or AAR and these topics are of interest you might want to check this out] I've been reading from Scary, Johnson, the Frankfurt School, and now… Hans Urs von Balthasar. For those who don't know that name, the basic gist is that he was a Swiss Catholic priest (nominated for Cardinal-ship) who lived until 1988 and while he did an ENOURMOUS amount (see his wikipedia entry), the reason I found my way to him was because if you read about Aesthetics and Theology pretty much anywhere you end up seeing his name.  Sooo…

My task was to cut through to the heart of his content about aesthetics and start there. Results in video below.

Things referenced in the video:

The von Balthasar Reader

Elaine Scary's On Beauty and Being Just

Kevin Mongrain's "Von Balthasar's Way from Doxology to Theology"

Von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form

 

 

 

Seedbed and 5 Ways to (Mis)use the Arts and Artists

 

This is just a brief directing post in case some folks read the site, but don't follow the twitter feed. I recently wrote a guest piece over at Seedbed,  and it is here, so I figured I'd share it.

Oh, and please forgive the self-indulgent weirdness of me wearing my conference-friendly "The Image of Fish" shirt to record a TIoF video. I forgot I had it on and how meta it would get.

 

 

 

Pete, his Problem, and the “Lack” of Emergent Leadership

 

Once again, Bo Sanders from Homebrewed Christianity has got me going… This time it came in the form of his post "The Problem: with Peter Rollins," particularly the following bit:

So when I was listening to Pete the other night make some astoundingly insightful points about televangelist and revival preachers I realized the importance of the medium and the message. Here was one guy, standing up front, we were all facing him and listening to him – and he was a little bit smarter/further ahead than we were. It’s still the problem of the one person at the front of the room with all the ideas/answers.

Now, that is not Pete’s fault. He is utilizing the medium to get out the message. But it did convict me that the architecture, furniture, and facilitation need to be different so that the medium matches the message if what I am concerned about is community and authenticity.

From there I went off on a wild ride, hitting on McLuhan, my Made as Makers film project, and some thoughts I have about leadership in the Emergent Church (Movement). As usual, the vid is below. In it I mention the following:

Oh, and please forgive me on two counts in this vid: 

(a) my hyperbolic categorization of "didactic lectureship"  as a tool for oppression and patriarchy. I mean, come on… that's over the top. 

(b) the self-indulgent weirdness of me wearing my conference-friendly "The Image of Fish" shirt to record a TIoF video. I forgot I had it on and how meta it would get.

 

 

 

Interview with “The Church Creative” Author John O’Keefe

 

 

Author John C. O'Keefe (no direct relation) releases his new book, The Church Creative on July, 31, 2012, and as he got ready for the launch we talked a bit about the text and his hopes for it. My Google+ video wasn't working though, so I'll have to get that taken care of before I do any more of these interviews I have planned for the fall…

Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just”

As part of my reading project to get more acquainted with the field of aesthetics, I read this weird little number from Elaine ScarryOn Beauty and Being Just.

Cribbing from wikipedia, I know that Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, which means at least some other people think she knows a thing or three about aesthetics. For my purposes though – that is, thinking more seriously about the body and its experience(s) as the primary site of theological thought –  this book was elusive. Wild, weird, and a bit fun, yes. But still elusive.

 

From Pages 111-113

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to Simone Weil, requires us "to give up our imaginary position as the center…  A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions." Weil speaks matter-of-factly, often without illustration, implicitly requiring readers to test the truth of her assertion against their own experience. Her account is always deeply somatic: what happens, happens to our bodies. When we come upon beautiful things—the tiny mauve-orange-blue moth on the brick, Augustine's cake, a sentence about innocence in Hampshire—they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space; or they form "ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world,” or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else's sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

The radical decentering we undergo in the presence of the beautiful is also described by Iris Murdoch in a 1967 lecture called "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts." As this title indicates, her subject is goodness, not beauty. "Ethics," Murdoch writes, "should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct, it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved." How we make choices, how we act, is deeply connected to states of consciousness, and so "anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.” Murdoch then specifies the single best or most “obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for 'unselfing' and that is what is popularly called beauty.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Creeds? (Part 3 of 3)

This is the last part of a short piece I used as a pre-semester reading when I was co-teaching a seminary theology 101 course. The sections on theology are here and here, and the first two on creeds are here and here. this last one makes more sense in the context of what came before, but how you spend your time on the interwebs is up to you.

 


 

I once had a professor of contemporary American poetry that made clear the distinction between opinion and justification. To the topic of poetic interpretation he remarked – day one of the semester – something to the following effect:

I do not ever want to hear the phrase “I can't explain it, but that's just how I see it.” You are, of course, utterly entitled to your opinion about what a poem “means.” However, if your position cannot be articulated, justified, or supported, you should be clear that you are doing yourself no favors. Are you still entitled to maintain that opinion? Certainly, but know that you are divorcing yourself from any broader discourse and dialogue by clinging to the “wordless specialness” of your isolated sense of things. Will you make mistakes and oversimplifications in your analysis if you do try? Without a doubt. But if you do not at least attempt to flesh out your position, you should be under no illusion that others will give ear to your interpretation. In terms of this class, I am interested in hearing your opinion only in as much as it is paired with a justification that others can try on for themselves. Let people in to your way of seeing. Practice trying to get it worded right. Practice letting people in. That is what we will be doing here.

 Indeed.