Archive for January, 2010

The comforts of Euclid.

Posted in Books with tags , on 26 January 2010 by William Brafford

Without saying too much, some issues out in what we call “the real world” have sapped my creativity and left the well from which I draw inspiration for blogging rather dry. There are at least four posts I would try to write for this blog if I had the energy. But it’s gotten hard for me to focus Rorty or even on theology.

Who can I turn to? Euclid. The Elements.

The clean lines, the blank slate, the straightedge and the compass, the accrual of complexity, proof upon proof, the subtle structure, rhythm, and direction. Escapism that makes you feel smarter.

Euclid is even better if you know how later mathematicians grappled with his work. You can see where modern algebraic notation lets us express his proofs more cleanly — but you can also see how his proofs work without negative numbers. You can see why it took two thousand years and modern mathematics to figure out how to make a heptadecagon. In the first book alone, it’s neat to see how far Euclid goes without invoking the famous Fifth Postulate. (The Fifth Postulate, if you’re wondering, is the one that you can change in order to get non-Euclidean geometry.)

Really, I would love to get a small group of people to work through some part of the Elements as a discussion group. Not likely, I know, given the ham-handed presentation of geometry that everyone gets in high school. But it’s incredibly rare to come across a book in any genre that balances depth and accessibility as well as the Elements.


Robert Jenson on the Trinity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 25 January 2010 by Brendan

Aside from brief flings with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, Vol. I: The Triune God has been my first sustained encounter with Lutheran theology, and the experience has been altogether enjoyable. Jenson begins with some wonderfully ecumenical reflections on the task of theology (which “is the church’s enterprise of thought” when “the only church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary church of the creeds” (vii)) within a divided church, which must always on his view be sustained by an active faith in a God who “breaks down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2). For Jenson, “Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?” (14) 

At its heart, Jenson’s whole project is animated by his devotion to a single thesis: the only God worthy of worship is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Jenson puts it, “Any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God ‘himself’ from this person, from his death or his career or his birth or his family or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place in the church” (103). Jesus is “very God from very God”: in him, all the fullness of the deity is manifest. To speak of God the Son is to speak of this man, and no other. 

In Jenson’s view, the Nicene theology (particularly as articulated by the Cappadocian fathers) overcame the twin temptations perennially facing Christian theology: modalism, which buffered God from time by positing a monadic identity beyond his manifestations in time, and subordinationism, which protected God from time by erecting a gulf between the true Deity and the created Son. However, argues Jenson, even after Nicea, the Church has continually failed rigorously to think out the logic of the temporality of God, a failure particularly evident in Augustine’s inability to grasp the distinction between the Cappodocian use of hypostasis and ousia to describe the being of God: hypostases are the identities or persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, each of which fully constitutes the ousia (being) of God within a set of “subsistent relations” (as Jenson observes, and as my own attempt to formulate this paragraph attests, the challenge of Trinitarian theology is largely the task of choosing the right prepositions). Jenson writes, 

The Augustinian supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative (111).

In aim and outline, Jenson thus far seems entirely orthodox; nonetheless, he is perhaps too genial in his rejection of the traditional perfections of God, particularly impassibility: most Christian thinkers have regarded God as transcendent of any potential for change, indeed of any interval that could constitute a lack or deficit in the boundlessness of his love. Jenson, however, regards this claim as a vestige of “Greek theology,” which “defined deity by immunity to time, by ‘impassibility’; offensively to this definition, the gospel identifies its God by temporal events of Exodus and Resurrection” (16).

However, God for Jenson is not merely identified by temporal events, but in some sense constituted by the whole temporal drama of creation, fall, and redemption:

Something like Barth’s teaching must be true: the goal of God’s path is just what does in fact do appear in Christ’s victory over them […]So also a mystery of suffering, of an interplay between created regularities and evil, must belong to the plot of God’s history with us” (73). 

A thorough argument against such a theological course is set out in David Hart’s excellent essay on Jenson, “The Lively God of Robert Jenson,” which has become something of a paradigm for me of the combination of warmth and critical distance appropriate to a book review. Hart’s essential argument (this time from The Beauty of the Infinite) is that if “God depends on creation to be God, and [so] creation exists by necessity,” then “God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its gratuity” (157). 

Admittedly, there is no simple, clear-cut way to speak of God’s transcendence without immediate qualification, for if it was on the Cross that God suffered as the decisive confrontation with the powers of the world for our rescue from sin, then, as Cyril of Alexandria put it in his First Letter to Nestorius, “the Word suffered impassibly.” And that is a mystery which no amount of reflection might exhaust.

Why the IDF reads Deleuze

Posted in Notes with tags , , , , , , , on 19 January 2010 by Brendan

(h/t to Joe Carter at First Thoughts)

In 2006, Eyal Weizman, Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, authored “Lethal Theory,” an article discussing the self-conscious appropriation of poststructuralist theories of language and society by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in articulating a new array of tactics for urban warfare: in an assault on the Palestinian city of Nablus in 2002, the IDF “used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city,” but rather “moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors,” literally carving out a maze of interior tunnels pervading private residences so as to bypass the sniper-ridden and bomb-laden thoroughfares of the city. The soldiers swarmed through the city in small, independent units, improvising an overall strategy in response to new developments.

Though the tactic is innovative (probably not so innovative as Weizman suggests), still more remarkable is the army’s own interpretation of it. Weizman interviewed the commander of the attack on Nablus, Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi, who described the strategy:

The space that you look at in this room is nothing but your interpretation of it […] The question is, how do you interpret the alley? […] A weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the door. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey his interpretation and fall into his traps […] From now on, we all walk through walls!

 Weizman writes that many IDF officers are university trained (Kokhavi has a degree in philosophy), and that “the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Deleuze, Guattari, and Debord).” The influence of postmodern thought on Israeli military strategy is largely due, Weizman suggests, to Shimon Naveh, who “directs the Operational Theory Research Institute,” and who explained the importance of Deleuze and Guattari to his work:

Several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaus became instrumental for us…Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth” and “striated” space…In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders…We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. 

Now, I’m certainly no military historian (and Weizman does acknowledge that “many of the procedures and processes described above have been part and parcel of urban operations throughout history”), but, the postmodern jargon aside, the tactics set out in this article—the reinterpretation of space, the decentralization of forces—is surely familiar to anyone moderately well versed in children’s science fiction: in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s wonderful novel about an orbiting school for military cadets engaged in an interstellar war, the action revolves around the students’ mock wars in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity playing field in which opposing armies seek to disable one another with laser guns and tactical formations. A crucial insight that allows Ender to become the most successful commander in Battle School is that the orientation one ascribes to the gravity-less Battle Room is simply arbitrary. Rather than approach the enemy across the room, leaving his body exposed, Ender chooses to fall towards the opponent: “The enemy’s gate is down.”

The most striking aspect of Weizman’s article is his suggestion that the IDF is misappropriating critical theory “as an instrument in the power struggle against the Palestinians,” turning it to ends that surely would have been repugnant to the authors themselves (the classic example here being Derrida’s insistence that “justice” is the “undeconstructible” element on whose behalf all deconstruction is undertaken). Naveh insists, “The disruptive capacity in theory [elsewhere Naveh uses the term nihilist] is the aspect of theory that we like and use … This theory is not married to its socialist ideals.” As Weizman relates, the concepts deployed by the IDF were originally conceived as “part of a general strategy to challenge the built hierarchy o the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public”: “The ‘micropolitics’ of the time represented in many ways an attempt to constitute a mental and affective guerrilla fighter at the intimate levels of the body, sexuality, and intersubjectivity” (68). For such practices to be appropriated by the very institutions they were meant to subvert is an irony of history at best. 

However, I think such a development more than ironic, but to some extent fated: John Milbank and David Hart have each persuasively argued that postmodern writers share an “ontology of violence,” which results in their conceiving social relations as inevitably productive of strife. In such conditions, the best that can be hoped for is that violence can be marshaled to the aid of the “marginalized” by transgression, subversion, disruption, or deconstruction: the protection of the helpless justifies violence of a new sort, and policing in new areas; “Intolerance will not be tolerated.”

It’s redundant at best, but if all modes of speech conceal the will to power, then by definition, every act of political or military or social discourse conceals the will power: Nietzsche at least was honest enough to realize that historical self-consciousness is not a Get Out of Jail Free card from the prison of nihilism.

Science fiction break.

Posted in Books with tags , , , on 18 January 2010 by William Brafford

I finished John Dos Passos‘s thousand-page USA trilogy in late December. It wasn’t the easiest read, and I still need to write something about it. But I’m a firm believer that, as Robertson Davies said, an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia, so I then made my way through three or four works of science fiction or fantasy in quick succession. Only two are really worth mentioning here.

Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods had been sitting on my shelf for several years before I finally decided to take the plunge. Pratchett is the author of the immensely successful Discworld series, which uses a fantasy setting to satirize modern life. Small Gods is Discworld’s take on organized religion. There’s nothing special about the ultimate anti-institutional conclusion, which seems to be something along the lines of “being a decent person is more important than following rules.” But Pratchett has a lively style that occasionally approaches a Chestertonian level of wit, as well as a rather surprising ability to weave what at first appears to be scattershot satire into a fine story. In other words, Pratchett’s popularity is deserved.

On Alan Jacobs’s recommendation, I read Iain M. Banks’s Look to Windward. It blew me away. Look to Windward is one of Banks’s Culture novels. The Culture is an ultimate projection of an democratic individualist society: one where technology makes it possible for people to have near-total freedom of choice and self-definition. The Culture’s worlds are run by godlike artificial intelligences called Minds, which are powerful enough to avoid the problems of knowledge and power that plague our own attempts at technocracy. There are no necessitous men on Culture worlds.

The Culture is not alone in the galaxy, though, and Look to Windward is told from the perspectives of observers. One is a journalist who sends weekly articles back to his own society, another is a diplomat from a caste society on a mission to convince an exile of his own species to leave the Culture and return home. Both observe the Culture citizens’ attitudes toward mortality. The journalist, for example, muses on how in a society without written laws everything becomes a matter of trends:

“They had fashions in so many things, from the most trivial to the most momentous. … A few of their more famous people announced they would live once and die forever, and billions did likewise; then a new trend would start among opinion-formers for people to back up and have their bodies wholly renewed or new ones regrown… Was that the sort of behavior one ought to expect from a mature society? Mortality as a life-style choice?”

In normal circumstances, in the Culture, no one need suffer or die unless they choose to do so. Many choose to put themselves in danger — reflections of our society’s mountain climbers and extreme sportsmen — and thereby bring pain and death upon themselves. The narrators, from their positions as outsiders, don’t really see this as suffering at all. The diplomat from the caste society is a war veteran who carries with him a terrible loss, and this loss is the canyon across which he views the utopia in which he finds himself.

These heady matters are embedded in a complicated story — questions of pluralism appear when the Culture comes into political conflict with societies that don’t share their values — and Banks gives wonderful life to the geographically fantastic settings. What’s more, there’s some real humor in secondary and tertiary characters. I’d recommend Look to Windward even to people who don’t normally read science fiction. See Alan Jacobs’s “The Ambiguous Utopia of Iain M. Banks” for more on political philosophy and the Culture, if you’re interested.

A question of interest.

Posted in Links with tags , , on 11 January 2010 by William Brafford

Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has a partial summary of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? which ends with an interesting question:

Certainly, the eschatological dimension of MacIntyre’s arche is appealing in many ways. However, at times MacIntyre seems to be developing a teleological justification which contains elements similar to the Platonic noble lie. The arche is useful and, yes, it is extremely unlikely that any culture will ever self-consistently achieve its telos (80). But one wonders whether any completely non-transcendent arche will satisfy a community – unless, that is, the powerful tell a magnificent fiction in order to keep the tradition integrated, alive, and well.

What do we say? Does the always-on-the-road nature of moral enquiry mean that we’ll have to accept our conceptions of justice as we accept founding myths?

Also from Theopolitical: Jeffrey Stout on citizenship and anti-liberalism.

Jeffery Stout wants democrats and believers to discover civic unity

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on 7 January 2010 by John

In his book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffery Stout tries to play peacemaker between contemporary proponents of liberalism and what Stout dubs the “new traditionalists.” I became interested in this book because I’m rather of fond of the new traditionalists. The three thinkers Stout chooses to dialogue with (Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre) are three of the most interesting writers I’ve read. Furthermore, Stout’s tone is constructive. From what I’ve read so far, you could disagree with Stout on every point and take something away from the book.

The goal of Stout’s project is to forge a basis for civic unity in a democratic society. Stout is sympathetic to the new traditionalists’ claim that contemporary American civic religion is “incoherent and alienating”, but doesn’t think it’s wise to base civic unity on religion (1). However, instead of viewing democracy as an empty and corrupting force, Stout views it as a broken in American society today. Stout wants to argue for a non-Rawlsian conception of democracy. He identifies two premises of modern liberal thinkers that the new traditionalists have criticized: 1) that a nation-state can be ideally neutral with respect to conceptions of the good 2) that political discourse can occur on the basis of “free public reason” (2). What Stout wants to do is argue that a true democratic philosophy need not adopt these two premises: “Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece” (3).

Stout wants to argue that, instead of being the antithesis of tradition, “democracy…is a tradition” (3). The character of this democratic tradition is not forged from a Rawlsian agreement on the conception of justice, but rather is “more a matter of enduring attitudes, concerns, dispositions, and patterns” (3). To Stout, democracy is more than a system of government. Rather, it is an attitude and cultural phenomenon. The public deliberation required by political democracy makes it more than mere politics. The goal of political philosophy, therefore, is to cultivate this democratic project: “It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, ti articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to critical scrutiny” (5).  Stout invites his readers to take the position of citizen while reading the book.

Stout envisions true democracy as able to break through the polarization of American politics today. The opposing positions adopted by new traditionalists and liberal secularists result in the “Manichean rhetoric of cultural warfare”  and since “there are many important issues that cannot be resolved solely on the basis of commonly held principles,” we need some sort of mechanism to mediate these disputes (10). The democracy method Stout proposes is “conversation.” Conversation for Stout means a willingness to try to understand another person’s perspective and premises and freely subjecting your own views to criticism.

To try to generate this democratic conversation, Stout selects Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre as his interlocutors. He does so because “they represent the tradition to which most American citizens are committed” (11). Hauerwas has often said that Stout overestimates the influence of his work and I can see why with a quote like this. If Stout’s project is truly a pragmatic political endeavor, the selection of these three thinkers is puzzling to me because I don’t think any of them (especially Milbank, who is British) are particularly influential on the practice of American Christianity. Actually, these thinkers are critical of American Christianity. All this to say – I don’t think Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre represent the “tradition to which most American citizens are committed.” While I welcome Stout’s ecumenical efforts, I don’t think by dialoguing with Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre he’ll have any particular effect on the practice of American Christianity. Stout’s insistence on a pragmatic project is problematic here.

I also think Stout underestimates the problem that secularization poses for people with religious convictions.  Stout thinks the fears of the new traditionalists are unfounded because “modern democratic reasoning is secularized, but not in a sense that rules out the expression of religious premises or the entitlement of individuals to accept religious assumptions” (11). However, Stout thinks Neuhaus’ “naked public square” is either “unacceptable or unrealistic” (11). Such a proposal requires the church to rely on coercion (unacceptable) or persuasion (unrealistic). The only place for Christian convictions in the public square is in the form of individual expression. I find such a view theologically problematic for many of the same reasons that the new traditionalists do, I suspect.

The best cake.

Posted in Miscellaneous on 4 January 2010 by William Brafford

A cake that looks like books.

This is a book blog, not a food blog, but I think this photograph of a cake may legitimately be posted. Especially since sometime after this picture was taken, someone mistook the cake for a stack of books and marred the icing.

A hearty congratulations to Brendan on his marriage, and a heartier congratulations to Alissa for landing such a cool dude.

(Photo pulled from facebook.)