Can anyone help me understand Ephraim Radner?

While I’m on the twofold subject of (a) reading outside my speciality and (b) asking for help, I want to say something about the theologian Ephraim Radner. Several people I know and admire very much have encouraged me to read Radner, whom they in turn admire very much, and for a good many years now I have tried, repeatedly. But there’s a problem. The problem is that I simply cannot understand what he is saying. I do not know that I’ve ever come across a writer — not even Jacques Lacan — who has defeated me as thoroughly as Radner has. And this genuinely worries me, because while most of these people will acknowledge that Radner is not the most elegant writer, none of them seem to have any trouble making sense of his writing, and seem befuddled by my befuddlement.

Let me take some illustrative examples from Radner’s recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Here is what he describes as his “central argument”:

To have a body and deploy it is bound up with the fact that we are born and we die within a short span of years. And this being born and dying is itself — in all its biology of connection, memory, and hope — a mirror of and vehicle for the truth of God’s life as our creator.

The first sentence there seems clear enough: we know our bodies only as dying bodies. That doesn’t seem like a controversial point, but assuming I have read it correctly, I move on to the next sentence — and immediately run aground. “Being born and dying” has, or is accompanied by, a “biology of connection,” but I have absolutely no idea what might be meant by “biology of connection.” I am not even able to hazard a serious guess: maybe something like, we are biologically wired to be connected to … each other? Or maybe to the rest of the created order, in that we eat other living things? And all this confusion comes before we get to the idea of a biology of memory and hope, which I find even more inscrutable.

But then it gets even tougher. Because this being born and dying, with its accompanying biologies, is a “mirror” of … it would be difficult enough if the rest of the sentence were “God’s life as our creator,” but the phrase “the truth of” comes first, so I am once more wholly at sea. Let’s try to unpack this. God has a life “as our creator,” which I assume must mean something like the life God experiences in relation to Creation, as opposed to the internal life of the Trinitarian godhead. The “truth of” this life is distinguished, I suppose, from false ideas about it? It is, then, the character of that life truly perceived? So that if we perceive the life of God-as-creator truly we will then see that it is a mirror of our lives? — but if so, is it a mirror in the sense of being its opposite, its reversal? And then the brevity of our lives is the “vehicle” by which we perceive the eternal life of our God as creator? Probably not, because God is eternal in himself, not just as our creator … but I’m out of guesses. I cannot make any sense out of this passage, or indeed out of Radner’s writing as a whole.

One might say that all this becomes clearer if you read the whole book. But I have read the whole book — my eyes have passed over every word, I have scribbled thoughts and queries in the margins — and I am no better off.

At the end of the book Radner comments that “the argument of this book has been that thinking about who we are as created human beings comes down to numbering our days,” and while the phrases “numbering our days” and “day-numbering” occur frequently in the book, I’m afraid I don’t know what they mean either. It sometimes seems to me that the whole book does not say anything more or other than what a priest whispers to me each Ash Wednesday, as he inscribes an ashy cross on my forehead: Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. But there must be more to this book than that. Can anyone help me understand?

restocking the toolbox

Maybe the coolest thing about my current project is that I get to read — I am obliged to read — theology, the history of technology, and science fiction, in a sort of rotation. These very different genres rub against one another in fascinating ways.

But I am finding that the theology I’m reading isn’t helping me much, at least not so far, and I’m somewhat troubled by that. In this post I’m going to try to explain my frustrations. I’ll be recording impressions more than formulating firm judgments, as a means, I hope, of clarifying those impressions. But because I don’t want to be unfair I won’t be naming names of authors or books. This may make the post less useful to others; if so, my apologies.

Here’s my first impression: professional theologians have acquired in the course of their training a conceptual toolbox which they believe to contain the tools necessary to evaluate and critique cultural developments. Now, that conceptual toolbox was developed and acquired in an era previous to the emergence of our current technopoly, of what I’m calling the Anthropocene — see my first post on the subject for a definition. Yet the structures and practices of the Anthropocene are precisely what require theological interpretation. So in my judgment the existing toolbox is inadequate; but it does not appear that way to the theologians.

Imagine a complex locking mechanism — the kind of thing one might see in Myst — you know, like this:


The theologians’ toolbox contains instruments that enable them to manipulate the mechanism — click this and turn that — which is enough to make them believe that they are making real progress. What they don’t notice is that the locks aren’t opening.

Is that a useful metaphor? Hmmm, I’m not sure. Let’s try a different one: they’re typing the instructions they know into a command-line shell and are pleased that they’re getting responses in return. What they don’t realize is that those responses are error messages. They don’t know the right commands to get their requests executed; they may not even, probably don’t, know the language in which the program was written or to which it will respond.


I’m groping for metaphors here — but that’s telling, because whenever we’re trying to understand some new phenomenon we do so by employing metaphors as bridges between the known and the unknown. Our transition to the Anthropocene era is therefore popping with metaphors: to take just one common example, increasing attention to research on the workings of the human brain has ben accompanied by increasing reliance on the notion than the brain is a kind of computer. It isn’t, and the more dominant that metaphor is the less we are likely to understand our brains; but that just makes the repeated invocation of that metaphor all the more telling and all the more worthy of exploration.

The tools in the theologians’ toolbox don’t work very well with metaphors. They are, rather, almost all designed to work on explicit concepts and propositions, which may then be juxtaposed to the explicit concepts and propositions of theology. Metaphors contain or allude to concepts and propositions but also embody desires, orientations of the will, impulses, attractions and repulsions, bodily practices….

I would like to see, and not just in theology but in all the other humanistic disciplines, a renewed attention to metaphor and myth – matters so thoroughly and relentlessly explored in the 1950s and 1960s sixties that scholars and artists alike became exhausted with those topics and turned to other matters: first the linguistic turn of deconstruction and allied movements and then the material turn of the New Historicism, cultural studies, eco-criticism, body criticism, and the like.

Meanwhile the powerful cultural work of metaphor and myth continues unnoticed by scholars and rarely even acknowledged by writers and artists. It is not that scholars today are unaware of metaphor, or wholly inattentive to it, but they are chiefly interested in the extent to which it is reflective of ideology. For instance, in one of the better-known passages of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By we see the various ways in which argument is conceptualized as war — which is a useful point (I draw on it in my forthcoming How to Think) but this kind of analysis, which draws a straight line between a particular metaphor and some common element from elsewhere in our cultural lives, ideally one with a clearly political character, marks only one of the ways that metaphor works. It’s interpretatively limited because it’s unaware of the ways that metaphors do affective and aspirational work that is not reducible to, or even identifiable with, any particular spot on our ideological maps.

In Walkaway, about which I posted recently, it’s interesting to see how Cory Doctorow places almost all his hopes for the future in the development of 3D printing, without, I think, realizing that the 3D printer has taken on for him a radiating metaphorical significance that places it somewhere along a continuum between Vaucanson’s defecating duck and a deus ex machina. There’s an interpretation of this ready-to-hand: the 3D printers in this novel are a synecdoche for capitalism, which fulfills our desires while hiding from our sight the preconditions and the raw materials from which our wish-fulfillments are concocted. And that’s true, but there is far more going on here, including, I think, another example of the power of universal machines, which, as I commented the other day, makes the idolorum fabricam into the idol itself. The smartphone and the 3D printer are the two smiling faces of the god of this world.

This is the kind of ongoing metaphorical meaning-making that theologians need to understand but that they don’t have the tools to explore. I think we desperately need now is a recovery of interest in metaphor and myth – not a simple return to the days of Northrop Frye and Mircea Eliade and Suzanne Langer, but a redirecting of attention to those fields of inquiry in light of what we have learned since that half-century ago heyday of mythology and mythopoesis.

Moreover, Christian approaches to contemporary culture needs to get more creative in the making of metaphors, not just the interpreting of them. And if that seems too risky to people than they might remember that one of the ways to do this is by recovering the lost imaginative worlds of our predecessors in the faith. In this light we might take as our models the leaders of the mid–20th century nouvelle theologie, whose theology was nouvelle because it was based in ressourcement, in the recovery of ideas and metaphors that had been forgotten in the development of scholastic theology and the intellectual war with Protestantism.

I’ll end today’s incoherent rambling with a passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s early book The Presence of Myth, a passage that I think hints provocatively at the Powers that I’m trying to bring together in this project:

Metaphysical questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs, namely, that aspect that refers intentionally to nonempirical unconditioned reality. The presence of this intention does not guarantee the existence of the referents. It is only evidence of a need, alive in culture, that that to which the intention refers should be present. But this presence cannot in principle be the object of proof, because the proof-making ability is itself a power of the analytical mind, technologically oriented, which does not extend beyond its tasks. The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical.

the giant in the library

The technological history of modernity, as I conceive of it, is a story to be told in light of a theological anthropology. As what we now call modernity was emerging, in the sixteenth century, this connection was widely understood. Consider for instance the great letter that Rabelais’ giant Gargantua writes to his son Pantagruel when the latter is studying at the University of Paris. Gargantua first wants to impress upon his son how quickly and dramatically the human world, especially the world of learning, has changed:

And even though Grandgousier, my late father of grateful memory, devoted all his zeal towards having me progress towards every perfection and polite learning, and even though my toil and study did correspond very closely to his desire – indeed surpassed them – nevertheless, as you can well understand, those times were neither so opportune nor convenient for learning as they now are, and I never had an abundance of such tutors as you have. The times were still dark, redolent of the disaster and calamity of the Goths, who had brought all sound learning to destruction; but, by the goodness of God, light and dignity have been restored to literature during my lifetime: and I can see such an improvement that I would hardly be classed nowadays among the first form of little grammar-schoolboys, I who (not wrongly) was reputed the most learned of my century as a young man.

(I’m using the Penguin translation by M. A. Screech, not the old one I linked to above.) And this change is the product, in large part, of technology:

Now all disciplines have been brought back; languages have been restored: Greek – without which it is a disgrace that any man should call himself a scholar – Hebrew, Chaldaean, Latin; elegant and accurate books are now in use, printing having been invented in my lifetime through divine inspiration just as artillery, on the contrary, was invented through the prompting of the devil. The whole world is now full of erudite persons, full of very learned teachers and of the most ample libraries, such indeed that I hold that it was not as easy to study in the days of Plato, Cicero nor Papinian as it is now.

Note that technologies come to human beings as gifts (from God) and curses (from the Devil); it requires considerable discernment to tell the one from the other. The result is that human beings have had their powers augmented and extended in unprecedented ways, which is why, I think, Rabelais makes his characters giants: enormously powerful beings who lack full control over their powers and therefore stumble and trample through the world, with comical but also sometimes worrisome consequences.

But note how Gargantua draws his letter to a conclusion:

But since, according to Solomon, ‘Wisdom will not enter a soul which [deviseth] evil,’ and since ‘Science without conscience is but the ruination of the soul,’ you should serve, love and fear God, fixing all your thoughts and hopes in Him, and, by faith informed with charity, live conjoined to Him in such a way as never to be cut off from Him by sin. Beware of this world’s deceits. Give not your mind unto vanity, for this is a transitory life, but the word of God endureth for ever. Be of service to your neighbours and love them as yourself. Venerate your teachers. Flee the company of those whom you do not wish to resemble; and the gifts of grace which God has bestowed upon you receive you not in vain. Then once you know that you have acquired all there is to learn over there, come back to me so that I may see you and give you my blessing before I die.

The “science without conscience” line is probably a Latin adage playing on scientia and conscientia: as Peter Harrison explains, in the late medieval world Rabelais was educated in, scientia is primarily an intellectual virtue, the disciplined pursuit of systematic knowledge. The point of the adage, then, is that even that intellectual virtue can serve vice and “ruin the soul” if it is not governed by the greater virtues of faith, hope, and love. (Note also how the story of Prospero in The Tempest fits this template. The whole complex Renaissance discourse, and practice, of magic is all about these very matters.)

So I want to note three intersecting notions here: first, the dramatic augmentation, in the early-modern period, of human power by technology; second, the necessity of understanding the full potential of those new technologies both for good and for evil within the framework of a sound theological anthropology, an anthropology that parses the various interactions of intellect and will; and third, the unique ability of narrative art to embody and illustrate the coming together of technology and theological anthropology. These are the three key elements of the technological history of modernity, as I conceive it and hope (eventually) to narrate it.

The ways that narrative art pursues the interrelation of technology and the human is a pretty major theme of mine: see, for instance, here and here and here. (Note how that last piece connects to Rabelais.) It will be an even bigger theme in the future. Stay tuned for further developments — though probably not right away. I have books to finish….


In yesterday’s post on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy I quoted Adam Roberts commenting on the “niceness” of KSR’s characters, and it might be worth noting that in his own fiction Adam rarely gives us nice characters. Sometimes they’re decent enough people, though in exceptionally challenging circumstances, the kinds of circumstances that make decent people do some less-than-decent things. In other cases Adam’s characters are rather nasty, or seriously messed-up in one way or another — perverted, one might say, sometimes in the commonplace sense but always in the etymological sense: torqued from the true, twisted towards eccentric paths.

You know what else is kinda perverted? A writer dedicating a work to a friend who had read it in draft and had some reservations about it. A few months ago I read a draft of a novella Adam had written and gave him some feedback, and now I see he has published it as an e-book. I bought it, eager to see what he had done with it, and … well, more on what he has done with it in a moment, but I got to the end and saw this:

Bethany is dedicated to my friend Alan Jacobs, who read and disliked an earlier draft of it. I have taken out some of the things to which he, rightly, I think, objected; but much of what he disliked, I fear, remains.

Now isn’t that kind of … perverted? I ask you.

Speaking of perversion, the protagonist of Bethany is a deeply disfigured person, and one of the things the story encourages us to do is to think about why that is —how people get that way — and that of course is a question that leads to many others. Bethany is a theological fable: like Voltaire’s Candide with the jokes removed and with no answers given, at the end or anywhere else, to its questions. (Adam is often a really funny writer but this isn’t a funny book.)

Adam says that his story is a kind of dialogue with Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, a book I haven’t read, so I’m probably missing a good deal. But my own thoughts about Bethany start with one of its epigraphs, taken from a writer Nabokov quotes in that novel, except that Nabokov or one of his characters made up the writer, so I guess the epigraph was written by Nabokov. Anyway, here it is:

Human philosophers ponder what they call theodicy, which is to say, this question: “if God is love how can He be so cruel to us”? But this is quite the wrong way about—quite the wrong way to think of the matter. What we need, and most pressingly, is an anthrodicy. After all, it was men who tortured God to death on the cross, not the reverse. God joys in the life of men. It was a man who gloated God is dead. How may we descend into the chasm of the why of all this?

One might begin by saying that Jesus Christ is himself anthrodicy: he justifies the ways of Man to God, he who “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world”. But then, since “it is he who has made us, and not we ourselves”, every anthrodicy circles back to a theodicy, does it not?

Suppose someone were to think along these lines:

The idea took root in Todd’s mind: to hunt turkeys was less of an achievement than hunting boar, which was less than hunting bears, which was less than hunting lions, which was less than hunting cunning and armed men. The logic had a kind of inescapability to it. The greatest hunt would be to hunt the greatest creature, the most dangerous prey, to face the biggest risk and survive it. To hunt animals was one thing; and to hunt human beings another; but to hunt and kill God was the grandest destiny of any individual. Todd took another swig of beer, and the idea set, as crystals sometimes solidify out of solution in one magnificent and swift transition. That was why God had established the universe the way He had—he had looked at himself and been displeased with his invulnerability, and so he had incarnated himself as a creature that could be killed. No, more than that: as a creature that had to be killed in order for the world to be saved. Why had he done this? Because God understood the deep nature of man, that man is defined by his nature as a hunter. And so God had set the hunt.

Is a person thinking along these lines distinctively depraved? Or is he, by contrast, connecting in some meaningful way to the notorious obscurity of God’s purposes and the means by which those purposes are realized? What happens when you try to join, as Todd does, paleoneurology and the doctrine of God? “What a death were it then to see God die?” asked John Donne —but what kind of death (or life) would it be to kill God, the God who made us hunters and then ranged himself among our prey?

You’d have to be some kind of pervert to ask questions like that.

some things about The Thing Itself

I had a really wonderful time in Cambridge the other night talking with Adam Roberts, Francis Spufford, and Rowan Williams about Adam’s novel The Thing Itself and related matters. But it turns out that there are a great many related matters, so since we parted I can’t stop thinking about all the issues I wish we had had time to explore. So I’m going to list a few thoughts here, in no particular order, and in undeveloped form. There may be fodder here for later reflections.

  • We all embarrassed Adam by praising his book, but after having re-read it in preparation for this event I am all the more convinced that it is a superb achievement and worthy of winning any book prize that it is eligible for (including the Campbell Award, for which it has just been nominated).
  • But even having just re-read it, and despite being (if I do say so myself) a relatively acute reader, I missed a lot. Adam explained the other night a few of the ways the novel’s structure corresponds to the twelve books of the Aeneid, which as it happens he and I have just been talking about, and now that I’ve been alerted to the possible parallels I see several others. And they’re genuinely fascinating.
  • Suppose scientists were to build a computer that, in their view, achieved genuine intelligence, and intelligence that by any measure we have is beyond ours, and that computer said, “There is something beyond space and time that conditions space and time. Not something within what we call being but the very Ground of Being itself. One might call it God.” What would happen then? Would our scientists say, “Hmmm. Maybe we had better rethink this whole atheism business”? Or would they say, “All programs have bugs, of course, and we’ll fix this one in the next iteration”?
  • Suppose that scientists came to believe that the AI is at the very least trustworthy, if not necessarily infallible, and that its announcement should be taken seriously. Suppose that the AI went on to say, “This Ground of Being is neither inert nor passive: it is comprehensively active throughout the known universe(es), and the mode of that activity is best described as Love.” What would we do with that news? Would there be some way to tease out from the AI what it thinks Love is? Might we ever be confident that a machine’s understanding of that concept, even if the machine were programmed by human beings, is congruent with our own?
  • Suppose the machine were then to say, “It might be possible for you to have some kind of encounter with this Ground of Being, not unmediated because no encounter, no perception, can ever be unmediated, but more direct than you are used to. However, such an encounter, by exceeding the tolerances within which your perceptual and cognitive apparatus operates, would certainly be profoundly disorienting, would probably be overwhelmingly painful, would possibly cause permanent damage to some elements of your operating system, and might even kill you.” How many people would say, “I’ll take the risk”? And what would their reasons be?
  • Suppose that people who think about these things came generally to agree that the AI is right, that Das Ding an Sich really exists (though “exists” is an imprecise and misleadingly weak word) and that the mode of its infinitely disseminated activity is indeed best described as Love — how might that affect how people think about Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed (or, if you prefer, is said by the Christian church to claim), a unique identification with the Father, that is to say, God, that is to say, the Ground of Being, The Thing Itself?

synopsis of Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture

  • Augustus, by uniting virtue and fortune in himself (viii, 174), established “the final triumph of creative politics,” solving “the problem of the classical commonwealth” (32).
  • For a Christian with Tertullian’s view of things, the “deification of imperial virtue” that accompanied this “triumph” was sheer idolatry: Therefore Regnum Caesaris, Regnum Diaboli (124, 234). 
  • “The crisis of the third century … marked … an eclipse of the strictly classical ideal of virtue or excellence” (166), and left people wondering what to do if the Augustan solution were not a solution after all. What if there is “no intelligible relationship” between virtue and fortune (171)?
  • Christians had remained largely detached during the crisis of the third century, neither wanting Rome to collapse nor prone to being surprised if it did, since its eventual fall was inevitable anyway (195).
  • Then Constantine came along and “both professed and practiced a religion of success” (235), according to which Christianity was a “talisman” that ensured the renewal of Romanitas (236).
  • After some time and several reversals (most notably in the reign of Julian the Apostate) and occasional recoveries (for instance in the reign of Theodosius) it became clear that both the Constantinian project and the larger, encompassing project of Romanitas had failed (391).
  • Obviously this was in many ways a disaster, but there was some compensation: the profound impetus these vast cultural crises gave to Christian thought, whose best representatives (above all Augustine) understood that neither the simple denunciations of the social world of Tertullian nor Constantine’s easy blending of divergent projects were politically, philosophically, or theologically adequate.
  • Thus the great edifice of the City of God, Cochrane’s treatment of which concludes with a detailed analysis of the philosophy of history that emerges from Augustine’s new account of human personality: see 502, 502, 536, 542, 567-69.
Just in case it’s useful to someone. Those page numbers are from the Liberty Fund edition, which I ended up using for reasons I’ll discuss in another post. 

first thoughts on Laudato Si’

1) The encyclical is noteworthy for its dialogical character. The word “dialogue” appears repeatedly, and Francis begins by situating his thoughts in conversation with (a) recent popes, (b) Patriarch Bartholomew, and (c) St. Francis of Assisi. Throughout the encyclical he cites several national conferences of bishops.

2) A key passage comes early (pp. 16-17): “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” (My emphasis.) That there is such a mysterious network of relations is central to Franciscan spirituality, and this concept points to a wholly different understanding of “network” than our technocracy offers.

3) “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” It is therefore simply immoral to act in such a way as to generate changes in the climate that affect others — especially those who because of poverty cannot adjust or adapt. “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited” (p. 20).

4) There are few italicized phrases in the encyclical, but these are the ones I noticed — and they seem to me key to grasping the whole argument:

  • access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (p. 23)
  • they [the poor] are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (p. 24)
  • “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (p. 35)
  • “We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities” (p. 38)
  • Quoting John Paul II: ““God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone” (p. 69)
  • “The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (p. 79)
  • “I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (p. 103)
  • “the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture” (p. 109)
  • “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (p. 122)
  • St. Bonaventure “teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile” (p. 174)

5) Most of the early sections of the encyclical are not theological in their rhetoric or their orientation to the problems they address. In those sections, even when Francis is making points that seem to cry out for theological elaboration, he declines to do so. For example:

At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen. (p.43)

Christians have some distinctive and detailed explanations for why human beings act this way, but Francis saves reflection on those explanations for later. I understand why he does this: he is trying to establish grounds for dialogue. But I fear that these passages will be quoted and used without reference to the theological context provided later in the encyclical.

6) This is an especially beautiful and powerful passage, in which Francis tries to steer between the Scylla of “anthropocentrism” and the Charybdis of “biocentrism”:

This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued. (p. 88)

7) For those of us who hold to the “seamless garment” or “consistent life ethic,” it’s interesting to see an early quotation from Patriarch Bartholomew: “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”. Though the phrase “seamless garment” does not appear again, the concept governs much of the encyclical. For instance:

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”. (pp. 89-90, quoting Benedict XVI)

The phrase “throwaway culture” appears five times in the encyclical, and Francis clearly means to indicate by that our habit of discarding anything — including other human beings — that does not seem to contribute to our happiness-of-the-moment.

8) The notion of “integral ecology” pays tribute to Jacques Maritain’s notion of “integral humanism”. For Maritain, any true humanism must incorporate the “vertical dimension” of our relationship with God; Francis is clearly saying, with a similar logic, that any valid (any whole and healthy) ecology or model of “creation care” must incorporate our relationships with one another and with God. Thus one cannot think of what’s good for the environment without also thinking of what’s good for human culture. Integral ecology is cultural as well as natural:

It is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense. More specifically, it calls for greater attention to local cultures when studying environmental problems, favouring a dialogue between scientific-technical language and the language of the people. Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment.

9) A book frequently quoted in this encyclical is Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Pope Francis has long been interested in and influenced by Guardini, who was also a major influence on Benedict XVI. If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

Mark Greif and Mrs. Turpin

I’ve written a review of Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man for Books and Culture, but it won’t appear for a few months. I think Greif has written a very important, deeply researched, extremely intelligent, and greatly flawed book. I want to take a few minutes here to expand on something I say in the review about its flaws but could not develop fully there.

There I write, “Greif’s belief that religion is on its way out leads him to be less than scrupulous in his research on Christian thinkers and writers, so in dealing with Christian intellectuals, he is never on firm ground — his knowledge is spotty and skimpy, and his readings of Flannery O’Connor are quite uninformed by the necessary theological context. But unlike many academics of our time, he understands that Christian writers matter to the discourse of man, and for this he deserves commendation.”

The culmination of Greif’s chapter on O’Connor is a reading of what may be her greatest story, “Revelation.” I am going to seriously spoil that story here, so if you haven’t read it, please do so before proceeding with this blog post.

Okay? All set?

The story narrates a series of revelations to one Mrs. Ruby Turpin, but here is the culminating one:

At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

About this passage Greif writes,

Now, one can read this as the usual O’Connor moment of grace or action of mercy. Even the just will have “their virtues … burned away” in the last judgment. I think, rather, the change here is that there are just people, unillusioned, dignified to the end. And even up to the last, order is maintained. “[A]ccountable as they had always been for good order” is simply not ironic; where other inversions obtain (“white-trash … clean,” “black niggers in white robes”), the ordinary righteous whites are straightforward and “on key.” 

From the option to turn readers away from the worry about man, O’Connor’s last major work turns back to a vision of social order that matters more in the climax of the story than the moment in which human vanity is burned away.

There’s no gentle way to put this: Greif has misunderstood this story about as badly as it is possible to misunderstand a story. And he misunderstands it because he simply doesn’t know the biblical and theological context.

Let’s start with Greif’s belief that Mrs. Turpin and people like here are “just” — that is, righteous — people. This is to accept her at her self-valuation, and the entire point of the story is to undermine, to destroy, that self-valuation. “Revelation” is straightforwardly and openly a midrash on, nearly a retelling of, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Just as the Pharisee cries out, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican,” so Mrs. Turpin cries out,

“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud. 

The book struck her directly over her left eye.

(In a stroke of comical over-explicitness, the book is thrown by a young woman named Mary Grace. Get it? Mary? Grace?) Like the Pharisee, Mrs. Turpin is utterly pleased with herself, satisfied in every respect, but justifies her self-satisfaction by casting it as gratitude towards God. Her constant mental theme, as she sits in the doctor’s waiting room, is her superiority to the “white-trash woman” who shares the waiting room with her. So one of the most laugh-out-loud funny but also morally incisive moments in the whole story comes when Mary Grace has been restrained and is being taken away to a hospital: “‘I thank Gawd,’ the white-trash woman said fervently, ‘I ain’t a lunatic.’”

In the sections on hope in the Summa — Flannery O’Connor’s standard nighttime reading, as Greif knows — Thomas Aquinas sees the Pharisaical attitude as an embrace of the status comprehensor, a belief that one has spiritually arrived. The proud person therefore shares with the despairing person the trait of motionlessness. (“In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.”) The properly hopeful person, on the other hand, is the homo viator, the wayfarer, the one who is still on the road, the one who knows that she has not arrived, the one who sustains herself with the simple prayer of the tax-collector: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

This is why the final vision Mrs. Turpin receives is not, as Greif declares, one of the Last Judgment but rather one of souls on pilgrimage: the pilgrimage that begins in this world and in Catholic teaching continues, for the redeemed, into Purgatory. (Mrs. Turpin can be said to receive a vision of the Last Judgment only in Kafka’s sense of the term: “It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of summary court in perpetual session.”) It is noteworthy that Greif slips up and speaks of the “moment in which human vanity is burned away,” when O’Connor says it is the virtues of Mrs. Turpin and her kind that must be burnt — or what they think of as their virtues — what they would appeal to as justifying them in the eyes of men and the eyes of God: “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” What they must learn, and what they will learn, eventually, is that good order and common sense and respectable behavior and singing on key count for nothing in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven — in fact, less than nothing.

Greif speaks of people like Mrs. Turpin as “unillusioned,” but this gets it backwards: they are under one of the most powerful illusions of all — that God cares about respectability and will credit the respectable with righteousness. (This is the same illusion that Kierkegaard raged against for most of his career.) Note that Mrs. Turpin is not wrong to think that she is respectable and does stand for “good order”: in that sense Greif is correct to see that the description is not ironic. Her error is to believe that to God any of that matters. It is precisely because this illusion is so pernicious that Mrs. Turpin and those like her bring up the rear of the pilgrimage — far behind the “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” who understand that to sing on key in this situation is to miss the point rather spectacularly — and make it into the Kingdom by the skin of their teeth; it is precisely because this illusion is so powerful that they persist in it even as their virtues are being burned away.

You don’t have to know Aquinas to understand all this; but you probably do have to know the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. As our cultural elites lose even the most elementary biblical literacy, this is going to happen more and more often: reading the Bible-saturated literature of the past and missing, not secondary and trivial illusions, but the entire point of stories and novels and plays and poems, and for that matter paintings and sculptures and musical compositions. The artistic past of the West will become incomprehensible, but — and this is the scary thing — no one will know that they’re misreading. Gross errors will be passed down from teacher to student, from scholar to reader, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances arising in which they can be corrected.

Peter Enns and the problem of boundaries

I just came across this 2013 post by Peter Enns:

I’ve had far too many conversations over the last few years with trained, experienced, and practicing biblical scholars, young, middle aged, and near retirement, working in Evangelical institutions, trying to follow Jesus and use their brains and training to help students navigate the challenging world of biblical interpretation.

And they are dying inside.  

Just two weeks ago I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.  

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

I’m getting tired of hearing the same old story again and again. This is madness.

Enns is right that this kind of story is all too common, and all too sad. I’ve known, and talked to, and counseled, and prayed with, a number of such people over the years, and they’re not all in Biblical Studies either. But here’s the thing: I have also talked to an equal or greater number of equally distressed Christian scholars whose problem is that they teach in secular institutions where they cannot express their religious convictions — in the classroom or in their scholarship — without being turned down for tenure or promotion, or (if they are contingent faculty or pre-tenure) simply being dismissed. Odd that Enns shows no awareness of this situation.

I think he doesn’t because he wants to present as a pathology of evangelicalism what is more generally and seriously a pathology of the academic job market: people feeling intimidated or utterly silenced because if they lose their professorial position they know they stand almost no chance of getting another one. Moreover, this isn’t a strictly academic issue either: people all over the world and in all walks of life feel this way about their jobs, afraid of losing them but troubled by their consciences about some aspect of their workplace. But I think these feelings are especially intense among American academics because of the number of people who can’t imagine themselves doing anything other than being a professor — and also because of the peculiar forms of closure in the most “open” academic environments.

As Stanley Fish wrote some years ago in an essay called “Vicki Frost Objects”,

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.

So if we’re going to have compassion for academics feeling trapped in institutions that are uncongenial to their beliefs, let’s be ecumenical about it.

Moreover, I can’t tell from his post exactly what Enns thinks should be done about the situation, even within the evangelical context. If he thinks that all that Christian colleges and seminaries have to do is to relax their theological statements — well, that would be grossly naïve. No matter how tightly or loosely a religious institution defines itself, there will always be people on the boundaries, edge cases who will feel uncomfortable at best or coerced into submission at worst. And if, like the modern university, an institution insists that it has no such limitations on membership at all, then that will simply mean, as Fish makes clear, that the boundaries are there but unstated and invisible — until you cross them.