Archive for March, 2010

Blueprints and butterflies

Posted in Notes with tags , , on 18 March 2010 by Brendan

Today was chapter 12 in my slow plod through the Greek text of Romans, and after the lexical wilderness of chapter 11, this was land burgeoning with milk and honey. The most interesting vocabulary is in verse 2: “μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ” (do not be conformed to this age). The verb that tickled me was “suschematizo.” (I still don’t know the proper way to distinguish between long and short o’s and e’s, which in Greek are represented respectively by the omega and eta, and the omicron and epsilon.) This delightful word touches down in contemporary English diction in interesting ways: a quite literal translation might be, “do not be pressed into the schema of the world,” or even, “do not let yourself be mapped out in accordance with this age.” Aristotle uses this verb to suggest shaping something to fit within delineated boundaries: it is a shop-word, taken from the language of manufacture. This present age molds us according to its intentions and aims: the powers of the world stamp us out like so many tennis shoes or sugar cookies.

By contrast, Paul enjoins Christians: “μεταμορφοῦσθε τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός,” (be transformed in the renewal of the mind). The verb here—“metamorpho-o”—suggests the literal translation of being “re-made,” in the sense especially of being given a new face or appearance. A metamorphosis occurs among the living, and it is a unique, unrepeatable event, the literal creation of new life out of the wreckage of the old (picture butterflies). Against the sterile schematics of the Empire, Paul opposes the possibility of a catechesis that does not efface difference.

Advertisements

Chalcedon and Dramatic Unity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on 16 March 2010 by Brendan

Reading in Alister McGrath’s wonderful anthology, The Christian Theology Reader, I came upon Leo the Great’s “Tome,” written in 449 and affixed in an appendix to the “Definition of Faith” produced by the Council in Chalcedon in 451. In his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Jenson tears into this document, arguing that it dissolves the acting unity of Christ’s person. Perhaps because of the Tome’s inclusion as a hermeneutic key to Chalcedon, the Council failed to placate the drifting Oriental churches, which rejected the conciliar authority and broke with the churches of the empire.

Jenson acknowledges that Chalcedon marked a true conceptual advance for “connecting the Trinitarian and Christological discussion terminologically: as there is one divine nature in three hypostases, so in Christ there are divine and human natures in one hypostasis” (130). However, the true point of contention regarding the person of Jesus was how those natures subsisted in one person: Egyptian and Syrian (now known as the Monophysite, or “one-nature” churches) rejected Chalcedon because it seemed to dally dangerously with the Nestorian separation of the natures. As Jenson notes, Chalcedon is only unproblematic “if we don’t read it too closely”: the text carefully reaffirms Nicea’s affirmation of Jesus as “homoousion” with the Father; it reaffirm’s Ephesus’s rejection of Nestorius in designating Mary “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer.”

Nonetheless, just where it broke new theological ground, Chalcedon left things rather in a muddle: Jesus is “acknowledged in two natures, without confusion […] This distinction of natures is in no way abolished on account of this union.” That “distinction of natures” is a quote from Leo’s Tome, which elaborates the distinction further: “Each nature performs its proper function in communion with the other; the Word performs what pertains to the Word, the flesh what pertains to the flesh. The one is resplendent with miracles, the other submits to insults.”

Chalcedon is vague; Leo is indisputably problematic. Athanasius demonstrates the fundamental problem with attributing distinct agency to either of the natures, rather than to the single hypostasis. Writing of the miracles of Jesus in a letter (also included in McGrath’s anthology), he insists,

These are not events occurring without any connection, distinguished according to their quality, so that one class may be ascribed to the body, apart from the divinity, and the other to the divinity, apart from the body. They all occurred in such a way that they were joined together […] He spat in human fashion; but his spittle had divine power, for by it he restored sight to the eyes of the man blind from birth […] He cured by his mere will. Yet it was by extending his hand that he raised Peter’s mother-in-law when she had a fever (4.7).

His point is straightforward: Jesus as depicted in the Gospels is a dramatic unity; he is a single person (the traditional, though now somewhat misleading, translation of hypostasis). There is no clear-cut way in which to distinguish Jesus’ “divine” actions from his “human” actions, because some of his most dramatic demonstrations of divinity occurred in and through the most emphatically fleshly gestures, whether spitting, or breaking bread, or taking the hand of a little girl.

I’m certainly no authority on historical theology, but given what I know of Nestorianism, Leo’s argument strikes me as within a shade or two of that heresy.

Law and Obscenity

Posted in Uncategorized on 16 March 2010 by Brendan

Most nineteenth century American jurisprudence concerning what might legitimately appear in public was decided according to an English case, Regina v. Hicklin (1868), which ruled that a determination of obscenity depended upon whether “the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt the morals of those whose minds are open to such influences, and into whose hands a publication of the sort may fall.”[i] While the Hicklin Test admitted a “strict interpretation” under which it concerned only the “sexual morality” of individuals, Gurstein observes that for many decades judges assumed that it also had bearing on broader questions of decency.[ii] Perhaps the simplest rationale for this broader interpretation is the recognition that life cannot be so easily compartmentalized as the reformers often liked to believe. As David Tubbs put it in Freedom’s Orphans: “Most reflective persons would admit that the welfare of children depends greatly on the social conditions and intellectual currents within it.”[iii] A society full of fathers who regularly look at pornography, for instance, is by no means a desirable environment for safeguarding the well-being of its young children, though they might never lay eyes on the obscene material. Thus, children themselves have an important claim to the moral integrity of their parents, and so to (perhaps indirect, though necessary) measures to secure that character.

As early as 1884, however, court decisions were questioning Hicklin. For instance, People v. Muller “proposed a test of the ‘motive’ of a painting or statue to determine ‘whether it is naturally calculated to excite in a spectator impure imaginations,’ ” simply neglecting “the idea of indecency” by omission.[iv] In 1913, Judge Learned Hand propounded a striking criticism of Hicklin in United States v. Kennerley: “he questioned whether ‘our society is prepared to accept for its own limitations those which may perhaps be necessary to the weakest of its members.”[v] Both of these decisions represent the progress of what Gurstein names “the subjectivization [sic] of obscenity.”[vi] It became increasingly difficult to articulate a conception of social life as demanding shared notions of decency, propriety, discretion, tact, as what Tubbs has termed “moral reticence” overtook the legal discourse.[vii]

In New York v. Winters (1943), the Supreme Court first afforded First Amendment protection to mass culture, in the form of a series of sensational and luridly violent detective comics. Justice Reed wrote, “What is one man’s amusement is another’s doctrine.”[viii] From Winters onward, “The legal discourse could speak about aesthetic considerations apart from morals ones,” and so “would have less and less to say about how the world should look.”[ix] Thomas Nagel voiced an extreme version of this “moral reticence”: “I don’t want to see films depicting torture and mutilation, but I take it as obvious that they do something completely different for those who are sexually gratified by them.”[x] In 1957, the Supreme Court finally addressed the constitutionality of obscenity head-on in Roth v. United States. Though Justice Brennan first insisted, “Obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected freedom of speech or press,”[xi] he quickly qualified that statement nearly out of existence: “All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance…have the full protection of the guaranties.”[xii] He repudiated the Hicklin Test, offering instead a tentative model whose touchstone was an “appeal to prurient interest.”[xiii] Finally, in Miller v. California (1973), the Court offered a new test for obscenity, which maintained Roth’s “prurient interest,” though qualified by “contemporary community standards,” and qualified still further by the work’s needing to lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”[xiv]

After Miller, the Supreme Court, freed from considering society’s “most susceptible” members, used the new test to elevate individual rights to free speech over the interests of children, as in United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. (1996). In this case, the Court ruled that Playboy did not have to take measures to “scramble” their pornographic television programming in order to prevent the signal from “bleeding” into other channels, where they might be seen by children, instead allowing the corporation simply to advise viewers of the possibility of individual “blocking.”[xv] This development was in one sense just the legal recognition of a widespread cultural indifference to the unique needs of children, as evinced by the vulgar speech and knowing sexual innuendoes of perhaps most twelve year-olds today. In fact, nearly contemporaneously with Playboy, England witnessed two horrifying murders perpetrated by children against another child and a middle-aged man, each partially in imitation of popular horror films.[xvi] Setting aside the theoretical character of Gurstein’s argument, there can certainly be no doubt that “the repeal of reticence” in Western culture has coincided with the coarsening of public discourse, and a concomitant rise in indifference toward the particular needs of children.

Nonetheless, the problem of Anthony Comstock must remind Gurstein’s readers that, however appealing many aspects of her account may doubtless be, a return to Victorian reticence would be strong medicine for even sophisticated and “conservative” moderns, well-accustomed to the coarseness of Ulysses and the violence of Schindler’s List, to the scandalous plot devices of Chicago and the comically vulgar essays of David Sedaris. In fact, many devotees of the modern novel and of modern art would insist that some of these things have enriched us considerably. Further, as Marjorie Heins argued in her introduction to Not in Front of the Children, “social science has not proved any identifiable subject or medium to cause significant, predictable changes in children’s attitudes or behavior”: violent movies, she insists, do not directly produce violent children.[xvii] Given the necessary conflicts of interest involved in censorship, Heins suggests “training in media literacy, critical thinking skills, and comprehensive sex education” to prepare children to grapple with mature instantiations of modern life.[xviii] Censorship, she argues, too often unnecessarily restricts freedom of speech, and “frustrates young people’s developing sense of autonomy and self-respect.”[xix]         

Thus, there still remains the challenge of articulating a return to reticence acceptable to most conservatives. Few adults today feel culpable for having read Hedda Gabler, and still fewer could identify any real moral bond that Ibsen might share with Hugh Hefner. However, Gurstein’s insight into the real human and cultural goods fostered by a robust distinction between things public and private is indispensable. If there is to be any meaningful discourse between individuals, any possibility of distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly, or children from adults, then a return to Gurstein’s reticent sensibility, however faint-hearted it might be, is of paramount importance.


[i] qtd. in Rochelle Gurstein, The Repeal of Reticence, 74

[ii] Gurstein 191

[iii] Tubbs, David. Freedom’s Orphans. Princeton Universtiy Press: Princeton, 2007. (18)

[iv] Gurstein 185

[v] Ibid. 186

[vi] Ibid. 188

[vii] Tubbs 4

[viii] qtd. in Gurstein 239

[ix] Gurstein 201

[x] qtd. in Tubbs 39

[xi] qtd. in Gurstein 250

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Tubbs 143

[xv] Tubbs 168-172

[xvi] Tubbs 2-3

[xvii] Heins, Marjorie. Not in Front of the Children. Hill and Wang: New York, 2001. (11)

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid. 13

Theory and praxis, or language game?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 15 March 2010 by Brendan

Is theology, as Gustavo Gutierrez and the other liberationists have argued, simply “critical reflection on praxis”? Or, to play it in an Hegelian key, does the owl of Minerva really fly at dusk? This hard division between the “facts” of practical existence and critical reflection upon those facts masks a rather coarse foundationalism, which presumes to identify the fundamental, constitutive aspects of social and personal reality apart from any reflective discourse. Theology is not simply reflection upon “basic human principles.”

Now, Gutierrez is perfectly right to argue, “A privileged locus theologicus for understanding the faith will be the life, preaching, and historical commitment of the Church”: as Robert Jenson and many others have argued, a test for the soundness of any theological proposition is its ability to shed light upon the established liturgy of the Church – that is, upon the indispensable aspects of the Church’s communal practice, such as the Eucharist, baptism, the passing of peace, etc. However, Gutierrez insists that theology must “go beyond the visible boundaries of the Church”; he quotes Yves Congar: “the Church” must “deal with the real questions of the modern world.” Only this will save her from “narrowness.” Theology must reckon with the truths of the world; it must become open-minded.

This Marxist dualism of theory and praxis misses the many ways in which “critical reflection” is itself a practice, historically bound and embedded within the Church’s other social disciplines, as well as the many ways in which all praxis is itself theoretical, capable of being rendered as conversation, speech, and reasoning (if only latent and halting). As Wittgenstein wrote, “To describe a language is to describe a way of life.” We reason our way to action, and indeed we reason in and through our actions: theological reflection constitutes and bounds ecclesial practice, even as ecclesial practice in turn governs and disciplines and informs theological reflection. There is no privileged, foundational substrate of the real upon which theology might gain traction; there is only a welter of competing “language games,” each striving to narrate the world and re-narrate their competitors (though MacIntyre is right in arguing that one discourse can short-circuit its rival by offering novel formulations of seemingly insoluble problems).

Rorty’s reputation, in his own words.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 8 March 2010 by William Brafford

I found a book-length interview that Rorty did a while back. Here are some of his thoughts on the reception of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

Q: Maybe we could talk a little bit about how your audience started to widen, and reach the humanities people who wouldn’t otherwise read what was going on in philosophy departments.

Rorty: In so far as I’ve had an influence, it’s been almost entirely on people outside of philosophy. I don’t know why they read my book. I was glad they liked it.

Q: It seems that, just at the moment the deconstructive wave was crashing through American academies, you provided a homegrown post-foundationalism that you didn’t have to be in a French department to hear about.

Rorty: Yeah, if you wanted non-foundational sounding stuff, mine was as good as any.

In short, this is Rorty’s unnervingly accurate description of how I plan to use his work.

On difficult books.

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 7 March 2010 by William Brafford

We’ve let things get quiet around here, haven’t we? Ah, that burst of good intentions last December, when we decided to start this blog. Here’s the good news: I finished Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature early this morning, and that means that I’ll be able to move on to some things that are easier to write about. As I read PMN, I found that even summarizing the bulk of the book would be too hard; it was tough enough just to navigate it. But the last eighty or so pages of the book — there’s a lot there to discuss. In the last two sections, Rorty sets forth his vision for what philosophy can be after we do away with the idea of epistemology. I think it’s here that Rorty really hits the stuff that we’re interested in on this blog, and it’s definitely these sections that account for the book’s renown among non-philosophers. I’m going to try to write about some of it this week.

For today, I just want to note that it feels really good to finish a tough book and get something out of it. I may not have any idea how to judge whether Rorty gets the best of Putnam or Habermas, but I’ve got a better map of contemporary philosophy than I had before, and I’ve gotten some time looking at the world of ideas from a new perspective. For me, there’s an aesthetic pleasure in both of these things. Getting to that closing summary is like seeing the parking lot again after climbing a big mountain. Really: I can associate every stage of reading this book with part of my hike up Mount Harvard last summer. Now I’m lounging in the parking lot, waiting for you guys to catch up so we can talk about the trip.

Question for discussion: Rorty wants us to give up dualism, but wouldn’t the world be a boring place without dualists?

I’m going to finish Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the next day or so. A professor once told me that SSR was a book that everyone talked about for thirty years or so, but now no one reads it anymore. Is that because Kuhn won the argument, or is it because people just got tired of talking about him? (Or was my professor wrong?)