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.



Why Creeds? (Part 2 of 3)


This is 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, the first on creeds is here, and the last will hit Friday.




Each creed is a snapshot of a turning point and the period in which it was written. Who was involved? What did they they think? Why did they think it? And just like a snapshot, though the people in it may have tried to get themselves together and pose before the click of the camera, someone will be blinking or looking away. Furthermore, as many pictures from family functions can attest, not everyone has a good time at the reunion.

 The study of creeds is the study of a collision of social history, theology, and polity. They record the outcomes of each collision, the results of an intersection of attempts to more clearly name aspects of the Divine and the human frailties which sometimes sought to gain advantage in the process. By studying creeds we get to see how theologians have crafted language to articulate their sense of things and we are given the opportunity to see what circumstances beyond the creeds themselves may have influenced that language. We sharpen our own skills of articulation and acquire the grammar and vocabulary of our tradition in the hope that we become fluent enough to authentically appropriate that which is life-giving and employ it as best we might in our own context(s).

 As we immerse ourselves in the language and patterns of tradition we can learn to navigate our own situations, traveling down similar paths to those who crafted the creeds we can read, but in a new day and place. What's more, our day and place has been indelibly marked by that very same language and formed by those very same traditions: the creeds are our history as Christians. We study them as markers of schisms, splits, and decisions, to immerse ourselves in the nitty-gritty of belief and profession. Not as detached observers of clean, historical documents, but as the descendents in faith of those captured by the flash. 

Why Creeds? Because part of our work is to determine what we believe and how to live in light of that belief, and the creeds are part of the living tradition of which we are still a part. They are very much a historical “theological map,” and though old maps are not likely to meet our needs in the present entirely, it would be foolish to throw them all away for want of something new.

Sexism and Being a Patriot: To American Christians on July 4th, 2012


While I was at the Wild Goose Festival in NC a week or so back, Deborah Arca of Patheos' Progressive Christianity Portal asked me and a few other folks (Brian McLaren, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Roger Wolsey)  – apropos of an impending July 4th – if we would speak on video for a wee little bit about our understanding of patriotism and how it played with out Christianity. My response is above and here, and though I'm not 100% on my subject-verb agreement and my diction leaves more than a speck to be desired, I feel pretty good about what I said on the whole. By all means, please go ahead and check it out, AND make sure to read the paragraph that follows this one for the thing that gets me going.


What is bizzarre / sad / unfortunately-predictible-upon-cultural-assessment is the sheer number of objectify-ingly disrobed women that popped up when – doing my normal Google image search for some nice little graphic to plug into my blog post – I entered the search term "Patriotism."  To put this another way… when Google (which is really nothing more than an easily accessible repository for the traces of America's projections) was asked to show me patriotism, MORE THAN 1 IN 10 OF THE IMAGES PROVIDED AS AN ANSWER WERE BLATENTLY misogynistic. If you want to see in greater detail what I am talking about, turn off "safety search" (if you have it enabled) to ensure no ratings-based censorship that happens, then check this search out

Maybe it is the late time of night or the heat getting to me, but SWEET JIMMY! does this make me wonder / bothered / sad. 

Now I'm certainly no sexless prude, but here's my two cents at the moment: if you didn't already know that the Principalities and Powers where at work idolatrously conflating our political nation with our spiritual salvation, then look no further than the way we heavily employ sexism to visually conceive of the notion of patriotism.


May this too find redemption. 

Why Creeds? (Part 1 of 3)

This is 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 two more creed pieces will be coming soon. Readers interested in checking out some of the academic background and claims made in these pieces – especially as they pertain to creeds – are encouraged to pick up Jaroslav Pelikan's Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition and/or listen to his interview on the show "On Being."


While many know the creeds contemporarily as quasi-chants that you “have to” believe, their history began as part of the dangerous path into communal Christian life. At a time when living as a Christian was a subversive task, early baptismal creeds were the words by which your life was given over to God and your priorities were radically shifted. By saying “yes” to Christ you said “no” to Caesar and Mammon, a risky position indeed. The question therefore, was not “will you, or will you not, repeat these words?” but, “are you willing to stake your life to the hope and promise that prompts you to profess this as your faith?” If we approach the creeds from this perspective we can see them inviting us to answer that same question: upon what would we stake our lives?

Acknowledging then that the heart of the creeds is the theological impulse to reinterpret, rearticulate, and reinvision, we are best served by remembering that at a time before they were what some see as monotonous obligation, they were daring and transformative proclamation. In a contemporary American culture where a trend of intense suspicion of authority persists, it is a marked challenge to accept that this kind of history stands behind what many take to be a less-than-vibrant tradition of the Church. Yet it seems part of the task of the Christian leader and theologian to mine our histories – and creeds – for vibrancy and hope, something we often sorely lack.


Richard Neuhaus is a staunch critic of the culture of incessant, suspicious criticism and he pointedly addresses its repercussions when he writes that we live in “the toxic cultural air of a disenchanted world in which the mark of sophistication is to reduce wonder to banality… In academic circles, this is called 'the hermeneutics of suspicion,' meaning that things are interpreted to reveal that they are not in fact what they appear to be… They must be exposed and debunked if we are to get to 'the truth of the matter.' The false, the self-serving, the ugly and the evil, on the other hand, are permitted to stand as revealing 'the real world.'” And we could well succumb to this same “toxic cultural air” in our engagement with the creeds of the church. They are hollow documents, we might say, imperial attempts to reify the Church and exert human power and control over what is God's! And we would – in many instances – be speaking some measure of truth. But what Christians do we make if our only cries are of lament and loss? I believe that by virtue of our Baptism and as a function of our calling to faith and ministry we are called to a process of reclamation and audacious hope. In the face of the self-serving, ugly, and evil things of the work we respond that there is yet something more. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur equally believed in such a calling, articulating it most clearly in his book The Symbolism of Evil.

It is in the age when our language has become more precise, more univocal, [and] more technical… that we want to recharge our language, that we want to start again from the fullness of language… Beyond the desert of criticism we wish to be called again. (349) In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men [sic], aim at a second naïveté in and through criticism. (351)

 Our engagement with creeds provides us with ample opportunity to seek out Ricoeur's “second naïveté.”

 He isn't calling us to a “first naïveté,” a kind of childish acceptance of whatever we are told by those in positions of authority, but rather to a new kind of belief. Our task isn't to force ourselves to ignore the fact that human foibles and power struggles influence theological proclamation, but to somehow acknowledge this critically, allow it to influence our reading of texts, and then move beyond mere criticism. If we can do this, the hope is that we will come to a place “beyond the desert of criticism,” where we can acknowledge our doubts and questions, preaching – and living into – a fresher and more powerful Gospel for not trying to deny the complexities and marks of confusion that haunt and tantalize us. Beyond that desert the Living Water yet flows. 

Why Theology? (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a short piece I used as a pre-semester reading when I was co-teaching a seminary theology 101 course. Part 1 is here, and next are three pieces on creeds.


For Christians that understand God to have been enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, there exists a clarion call not only to discipleship, but to a model of God that is grounded in the spiritual and physical realities of this world. A world that is not philosophically divided into spirit and matter, but that is both in simultaneity. God's expression is – and has been – in the particulars of situations, communities, and collective sorrows and joy. And does articulating God by means of our human experience bring about its own challenges?

Absolutely. But what other choice is there? It is only through our brokenness and human sense that we experience anything. The acknowledgement that, in fact, our experience heavily influences discussions on the nature of God, opens up the possibilities of theological discourse. When this is accepted, theology moves from a scientistic discipline of proof and proposition towards a passionate exploration of how God is seen to be ever-renewing all that is, in our lives, our homes, communities, and all across this wounded world. In other words, a God out of context is not much God at all: it is a poor sort of articulation of God that is so far removed from life that it does not have bearing upon human actions and understanding. If our explication of the nature of the Divine somehow places God fully beyond human access, then God becomes available only beyond life. If, conversely, it is the case that God's presence is at least somewhat experiential, then our models and articulations of the Divine ought to provide for this to be the case.

What we know of God is contextual, personal, and ever capable of change. As we study theology we immerse ourselves in a living stream of interpretive tradition. I agree with Tripp Fuller that, "in an unfinished universe it is unreasonable to think a theology is finished." We study not a series of facts about God, but a series of interpretations and articulations developed by certain people at certain times in certain places. Human notions of God are ever-changing, even if God is not. So how then are we to understand our role as theologians? What is our task if we know that we too are grounded in our own context and can't get out of it to articulate God fully and factually complete? I have an answer that I'll offer via analogy, of all things, to chemistry.

Asked what H2O is, most people will answer water. They are correct, and there is more to the story than their response. Formed the other way around, "H2O" as an answer to the question "What is water?" is not wholly correct.

Imagine two molecules of water, each with two atoms of hydrogen associated to a larger atom of oxygen. What we have discovered is that even in a container of "pure" water, the reality is that a collection of H2O molecules do not remain simply a collection of H2Os. Instead, they begin to interact with one another, resulting in one of the two oxygen atoms taking a hydrogen atom from the other, an event which chemists notate as 2 H2O <–-> H3O+ + OH− and refer to as the "self-ionization" of water. Essentially, even though water is H2O, that is, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, water does not ever actually exist in a pure H2O form. Water is constantly in a state of resonance, transition, and relation, an oscillation in process between H3O+ and OH−. So too is God: somewhere between transcendent and immanent; personal and eternal; and any number of other seeming contradictions. By extension then, our task as theologians is not to name God as a fixed God that is and always will be, but to describe God in a such a way that captures some of the Divine nature as it is in the process of becoming something other than what we have named it.

This is not to say that God is becoming something ungodlike any more than it is to say that water is not water-like simply because we always thought it was “just H2O.” The function of our theology is to provide a sketch of how it is that God is at some middle point of becoming something more than we thought it was, but not so far afield that it is unrecognizable. Two molecules of water do not self-ionize into wombats: they stay water-related, just further from the idea of “pure” water than we first thought. There is a sense of continuity between H3O+ and OH− such that it makes sense to call a mixture of those things H2O, even though what we have discovered challenges our sense of what exactly that wet stuff is. The study of theology should do this as well: push us beyond that which we had previously contemplated, enabling us to better name God in our context for our people in our place and time.

Understanding and/or relating to some aspect of the Divine does not entail understanding and/or relating to the entirety of God. If you ask my wife if she knows me, she is sure to say yes, and you would think nothing of it. Of course she knows me. And yet there are thoughts I think, things I see, and stories I have heard that she has no knowledge of. That doesn't mean she does not know me: it means than I am more than that which she knows. I see no reason why this should not be the case with God as well. We articulate God's qualities – and thought about sin, redemption, end-times, the function of the church, etc – not to limit or ascribe finitude to that which we know is profound and immense, but as an offering and invitation to others that they might respond in kind, lending their voices to a conversation which is both the echo of ancient words and the renewal of current hope.

As we scientifically name water as H2O because that is the state in between its two poles of existence, so too can we conceive of God. It's just that while water "self-ionizes" into two distinct parts, each of which is qualitatively identifiable, quantifiable, and fixed, God seems to be formed of more parts than we can name. Yes Father, yes Son, yes Holy Spirit, and yes also Alpha and Omega; Love and Light; and Living Water and Word. Yes, yes, and infinite-becoming yes.

Why theology? Because as people of faith and Christian leaders, part of our work entails leading, and while we may have some vision of what we want to end up with, knowing how to get there – and how people have tried to get there before – certainly helps that effort. Put another way, a map isn't useful for getting you from “here” to “there” if you don't know where “here” is. Theology is the study of human reflection on God and it is our “here.” How we go forward will be up to us.

Why Theology? (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first of five posts prompted by Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity. Just today he put up a post entitled "Of Creeds and Lean-tos: thoughts on temporary shelters," and it made me remember that I'd had a bunch of posts that I wanted to put up on that topic and theology in general. These pieces were part of a short pre-semester reading I wrote for seminary students in a theology 101 course I co-taught here in Rochester. Over the next couple weeks I'll get them all up here, so… Thanks Bo!


What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights us is so great!

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too,

as do the trees, not needing names.


When we win it's with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the Angel who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestler's sinews

grew long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.


-R.M. Rilke, “The Man Watching”

God is.

End of conversation.

For many folks, those two words are sufficient, and yet, for such a short declarative statement, the sentence "God is." has quite a bit of baggage packed into it. Whose god? we might ask. The God who allowed the Crusades to happen? The Shoah? Lynchings and slavery? That god? Is that the God that is? And immediately we plunge into other issues.

As soon as we attempt to provide positive affirmation of God's existence through words alone we stretch the limits of our language. Sure, details could be ironed out: What are the qualities of God? What are the powers of God? Is God a cognizant being? Does God have infinite foreknowledge? Does God feel?, but we might never reach satisfactory answers to these questions and we would still be lacking a better, short way of saying what it is that God is all about, let alone addressing questions of sin, redemption, end times, or the purpose of the church. The challenge of it all seem so complex and unsatisfactorily answerable that many conversations are cut short and overly simplified. And while I would agree that issues of the Divine are too complex to definitively settle and explain, that does not mean there is not another way. While some might throw their hands in the air in frustration, settling for "God just is," saying that language simply cannot express the enormity of the Divine, and others would attempt to reduce God to a mere logical construction for the sake of explaining it all the way through, I think there is another, richer path to tread.

Theology is human reflection upon the Divine Event, which is still happening. We reflect on that which still transpires, living in the tension of Rilke's wrestler: struggling against a mighty obstacle, knowing that there may be a blessing in the struggle. Holding both the power of language to bring clarity in perspective and the awareness that God ever makes things new, we might strike out on a fruitful course. A course during which we may find that language helps us to clarify our faith. That in thinking more sharply about the Divine we can root out the damaging and exclusionary teachings we have inherited not from a Divine source, but from fellow fallible humans. And yet, we must cede that for all that is to be gained, we may also encounter moments when in our days of wrestling with language for the Divine our best response will be to join with the trees bent in the immense storm: silent and moved by a greater force.

Language about God resides within the tensions of a challenging dilemma. On the one hand, God's transcendent nature and ineffability makes us want to abandon any attempt to put language to the Divine, knowing we're never going to quite get it perfect. On the other, our human predilection for wanting certainty and reassurance makes us want to clarify and propositionalize God's holy mystery. Most Christians believe that the Bible is authoritative. No problem there. The issue is how to interpret this authority correctly. The Bible is rife with contradictory passages, so the question becomes by what authority will you claim resolution of their tensions? Or will you allow the tensions to remain, their very lack of resolution driving you to new questions, perspectives, and faithfulness?

The Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber wrote that our task as thinking people of faith is to walk the “narrow ridge” between speechless relativism and lifeless dogma. Step too far in either direction, he suggests, and we succumb to the temptation of an easy out and the power and promise of the tension is lost. Move into an abandonment of language and we have nothing to say to those who make use of God's name to spread hate and nothing to say to people who ask of our own faith: we leave the work of naming the function of church entirely to others. On the other hand, trying to fully articulate and explain God means we inherently accept not only the premise that human reason, logic, and language can address the entirety of God, but that our articulation is the articulation. Somewhere between these extremes is that narrow ridge which ministers and scholars of theology must seek to find.

A Critique of Fitch’s Use of Master-Signifier (kinda)



This week I spent some time over at North Eastern Seminary's event "Ministry Conference on The Radical Future of the Church: Forming Congregations for Mission with Dr. David Fitch." I'd previously reviewed Fitch's book here on TIoF and was amped up by the kind of work that he was doing, so I decided to head over and catch his lectures and learn about the Missio Alliance (which – by the way – has made me more hopeful and excited than I have been in quite some time). During a Q+A something came up between Fitch and I and this is a further fleshing out of that idea.

This video is primarily here for Dave and folks that have either read his book, The End of Evangelicalism? and/or were part of his Northeastern Seminary Seminar. If you fit into any of those categories, I'd love to hear what you think. Am I missing something? Have I misread? Misthought?

Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body


This is the next in the series of posts I'm doing about Aesthetic  and Embodied Perspectives of Theology. Here I'm talking about philosopher Mark Johnson's The Meaning of the Body. Johnson is the co-author, with linguist George Lakoff, of the the pivotal text  Metaphors We Live By, which is a foundational piece establishing some of the key ideas in conceptual metaphor

Aesthetics, Embodiment, Dualism, and a Reading List


Info about Kant's Aesthetics is here and here.


My Reading List

Berleant, Arnold. “Aesthetic Embodiment.” Online here.

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth.Theological Aesthetics: A Reader

Johnson, Mark.The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just.

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory.

Kehl, Medard.The Von Balthasar Reader.

Oliver, Kelly. Ed. Psychoanalysis, Aesthetics, and Politics in the Work of Julia Kristeva.

Crowther, Paul. Art and Embodiment: From Aesthetics to Self-Consciousness.

Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting (Quakers) Publically Affirms GLBTQ Marriage

This is their formal statement, discerned and minuted during their annual sessions, July 27-31, 2011. Short and sweet:


Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting Friends have been led by the Light of the Living Christ to understand that God's love extends with equality to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The understanding that Christ has given us as Quakers today leads us to three conclusions. We affirm the full humanity of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgenderpersons. We are committed to their equal status within the Religious Society of Friends and the wider world. We celebrate their covenant relationships, including marriages under the care of our constituent meetings, as just as sacred, just as valid, and the cause for just as much joy as those of any other persons.

Their site is here.

Wild Goose Festival Reflection

This post is part of the july synchroblog – an eclectic bunch of bloggers writing on the same topic.  This month is centered on the wild goose festival, a justice-arts-spirituality festival held the last week of june in North Carolina.  This synchroblog will include stories from the gathering as well as from those who couldn’t go, centered on what the wild goose (the celtic image of the Holy Spirit) is stirring up for us.  The links so far are at the bottom of this post, with more to come as they get posted. 



My family recently came back from the first ever Wild Goose Festival in NC and I've got some thoughts about it. Rather than type them all out, I'll deep link to each topic of my reflection. If you don't have the time or care to watch the whole thing, clicking any of the below will open up the specific point. And if you are only going to listen to one, I guess it would be number five, on gatekeeping. That, or listen to Kristina in the second one.

First Topic: Thanks to Shay, The Anarchist Reverend, for his faithful (and tough) work to call us to acknowledge the lack of holistic inclusion of trans* and Queer folk at The Festival.

Second Topic: Families, nursing moms, and babies

Third Topic: Speakers vs. Workshops; Heirarchies; and Celebrity-less, Ground-Up design.

Fourth Topic: Time for reflection, silence, contemplation, and prayer

Fifth Topic: Gatekeeping

Sixth Topic: My intense gratitude for the Festival and all who were a part, in any way, shape, or form.



Thanks goes out to Kathy Escobar, a fellow Synchro Blogger, from whom I copied this list: