Obliquities

One of the reasons for studying another language is to learn to think more clearly about what you say, and specially about how you say things. When you are at first bewildered by the various ways in which you can take a Greek genitive case, you can begin to wonder if it is the same with similar phenomena in your language, and you can start to realize that we mean different things by similar expressions. When you try to use another language on the basis of conjugations and declensions and the rules of syntax, you are more likely to become aware, I think. It helps us to see how we say things, and it helps us to be more honest about how we understand the things others say.

Not that you can’t be honest and aware if you don’t study another language, but that studying another language makes is obvious as few other things–in my experience–do. And what it does is make us more sophisticated in our ability to use language, or it should. We should realize that there are ways of taking things, that people don’t always chose the right expression, that we need to, as it were, listen with attention, because it isn’t what we say, it’s what we mean that we try to communicate with varying levels of success.

It is sounds strange to say that honesty and sophistication go together, but consider what a great ruse it is to associate sophistication with deceit. In one fell swoop the sincere are diverted from something valuable and the wicked attracted to its misuse. Still, prevailing notions of sophistication are wrong. There are things that must be taken in a sophisticated way in order to be dealt with correctly, because there are things that are more complex things in and of themselves.

One example would be a murder mystery. We might be inclined to think it dwells on murder and depravity and so it is therefore a bad thing. But if we thought this, we would not be dealing rightly with what a murder mystery is. A murder mystery is not about reveling in murder, it is about dealing with what murder does to our village, or town, or society, and about how we recover the peace of order after such a disruption occurs. If it were absolutely bad to think about those things, it would be wrong to be a policeman, and that is obviously not the case.

The mystery has to do with why the baffling deed occurred, and what resources we have to understand it and make sure it is not often repeated. You can say: it happens because men are evil and nobody can understand the heart; but we find that murder is still anomalous after we’ve said that; none of us would want to live in a society where murder was more than rare (in other words, no society but instead anarchy). We understand we can’t live in a society free of evil men. We live in societies with evil men (ourselves being one of those evil members) because society provides ways to control our evil so that we can live tolerably together, though not perfectly. We want societies that reduce evil to a minimum and study ways to achieve that, and we should. Once we think about the kind of society we want our descendants to live in, we realize we have a duty to make sure if possible that our society is a wise one, one that reduces evil to a minimum in the best way so that we can all enjoy the benefits of living together. And a murder mystery wants to know how the order of society was broken, how life together became for one of us death. It is not about enjoying the damage, but about picking up the pieces. And we don’t write manuals about appreciating murder mysteries because most of us understand that something like that is going on. When we understand they’re trying to figure out what happened, we understand it is about figuring out what happened on a larger scale – not about solving a particular mystery, but about how to deal with and if possible prevent these kinds of events in our societies.

That’s a bit far afield from learning a second language, but it illustrates what you stand to gain. Of course, there is a nearer place for us, and that is the interpretation of Scripture.

One of the rules of hermeneutics that came at me in the DR was this one, neatly translated into Spanish: si el sentido sencillo tiene sentido, no busques otro sentido (if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense). I was taught that, and I think part of the appeal to the person teaching me was that it made a neat little saying. I don’t warm to those kinds of things (like the last verse of “Praise the Savior,” I think it’s silly). But I thought for many years that it was the truth. Now I don’t, and when it came at me recently, I considered it from a new angle and found I could not agree. I found myself thinking that what it means is that the Bible is not interesting.

It is a principle of interpretation which seeks to go no deeper if the meaning is obvious to the reader. I don’t agree, and I interpret Scripture differently. It doesn’t mean that the obvious meaning on the surface of a text isn’t important, but that it isn’t where an interpreter stops. If that is where you stop, then the Bible in many places is just giving you information about the past, because it does and that is plain. But the Bible is not giving us information about the past merely; it is giving information about the past not to inform us about the past primarily but by that means to reveal God to us. I believe that because I believe that’s how the apostles handled the Bible, and I believe that they did that as examples, teaching us how we should handle Scripture. In fact, I’m pretty enthusiastic about the four levels of interpretation the church used to advocate: literal, tropological, anagogical and allegorical. And I think it is true that you will get what you go looking for, which is why I don’t agree with the saying above.

True, there are abuses. People see a plausible explanation and they think that as long as you can explain something it must be true. They get discouraged when they are faced with two explanations, because immediately it defeats their assumption. But a good explanation is the one that explains more, and the best explanation is the one that explains most. Not most arbitrarily, explaining anything at all you want to ask of the text including things the text never seeks to explain; but coherently, controlled by the literal meaning but going deeper and showing us God as he reveals himself to us, showing what he expects of us, and showing us at the deepest level who and what Christ is and does.

It is a clear book, but it is not an easy book. It is revealing sophisticated things, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the dealings of God with man. If you have the idea these things aren’t sophisticated, you either think that and don’t operate on that notion, or you operate on that notion and will be limited in what you understand of what God reveals.

And that’s why it is good to study another language. You’ll start to see what you’re missing.

The Unexamined Life in the Dominican

The DR is so warm that hot running water isn’t necessary. In all the time I was there I saw one or two windows with glass, but that isn’t really necessary either, unless you have air conditioning–which nobody where we were does. What they have is metal blinds, shutters or nothing on most openings. Where we were is just a poor rural area. People may live in the usual Latin American brick and concrete houses, but many live in brightly painted wooden shacks. The church building was made of sheet metal, and probably built by a mission team–which is a way you can avoid the law of institutional decay, I suppose.

We never had any gentle rain there, just torrential. When it rains, you get out of it and wait for it to pass. And when it rains, you might turn or shut the blinds depending on the wind. What we had right at the moment I started to teach on Wednesday evening was a renewal of the rains and a sudden invasion of insects which the saturated ground no longer harbored and to whom the lights beckoned. They arrived on one side of the church, afflicting those seated there. Then someone started playing with the lights to attract them away from the people and they ended up at the front where I was. Nobody calling a halt to the proceedings, I didn’t either, and we continued on, ignoring the insects as best we could. The Americans mentioned them later, but the Dominicans didn’t.

* * *
What did attract attention one night was that someone saw a mouse emerge. They were all playing dominoes and then someone shouted and suddenly they were all around a wall darting in to step on a mouse, using chairs and brooms to poke at it, chasing it around until it got away. A mouse is something you have to be concerned about, the clouds of insects are not.

* * *
The unpaved roads are lined with discarded mango seeds. As they walk along they notice whether any of the nearby trees have ripe fruit and when they see some they throw stones and knock it down so they can eat it on the spot. They don’t really seem concerned with whose mango tree it is. I guess there’s such an abundance nobody cares about it. It may be that it just isn’t customary for someone to run out and fight about something like that. The people who live closest have the best opportunities, and that’s enough. I also think that if you have a crop you want to protect, you will keep it out of view.

* * *
We had mashed yucca our first night in the DR. We had scrambled eggs and mashed yucca for supper. And if they eat eggs, it is for supper: we were never given eggs for breakfast. There was also a bottle of ketchup provided with the scrambled eggs and yucca, and hot sauce. So I put ketchup on the eggs and hot sauce on the yucca.

Yucca can taste good on its own. It is a stringy tuber that grows large and prodigally in tropical climates. It really is good first boiled and then fried (in Colombia Katrina would buy frozen yucca fries), and with skill can be prepared so that alone it is interesting, the way Colombians do with potatoes and rice. But the mashed yucca wasn’t.

We also had mashed plantain, and on this they put sautéed onions with vinegar. Highly palatable, sautéed onions with vinegar. I was surprised, and pleased, and even thought it was mashed plantains, I almost went back for more; then I realized they were out of the onions.

We had our bread in rolls. One night they put ham and yellow cheese in the rolls (they have two kinds of cheese, white and yellow, both mild: they don’t really age cheese there), one night they put a hot dog in the same rolls and we could add ketchup and mustard. I learned from the eggs to steer clear of the ketchup–something in the spices is different.

The best meal we had was on Sunday. Rice, stewed beef, and a good salad with beets and tomatoes. I love the soggy salads you get in those parts of the world; so much better than what Americans do. They had some fried things with a base in yucca too, that Sunday. They grind the yucca up and from that make other things. Such things were these fried, the yucca ground coarse, like cornmeal.

We had several consecutive meals without meat, but never a whole day without. We had stewed chicken, stewed beef, baked pork ribs and once goat, hamburger (on a large flour tortilla with shredded cheese, lettuce, carrots and diced tomato: no Dominican recipe). Their dietary staple is rice and beans. They eat a lot of brocoli and cauliflower, it seemed to me, perhaps because I don’t like them too much. Carrots were often present, green beans, corn–not on the cob. We had potatoes a few times, a shepherd’s pie type of thing. Yucca tended to get paired with eggs, and once most curiously with large rounds of fried sausage.

If I go back, I’m going to have to take coffee and a french press. They make coffee, but of course it is of the lowest quality and worst. I was going to take tea, but it got left behind. You end up drinking a lot of water there, of course, and I ended up wishing it could have been cool tea (no ice there, but I can’t relate when Americans say they miss ice. I’m fine if you never put ice in my cup). What surprised me is that they never drank hot chocolate once. They must export it all. And of course they’re not given to warm beverages or soup, sadly. But that’s what happens. In Colombia they exported the best coffee.

* * *
Every once in a while you got an unpleasant smell drifting through. Was the smell tropical? Was it because part of the place we were on is a goat farm? Tropical places usually have the smell of decay wafting through from time to time, and it is unpleasant. I didn’t smell a more intense version of the same when we walked through the goat farm. I never figured it out, and I didn’t remember to ask, though I have the feeling what would have resulted there would simply be a puzzled look.

Did learn that goats are in their eating habits more of a deer than a sheep. They need the higher mineral content of plants with deeper roots than what grass has. So they bring in forage for the goats. On Sunday night as I was walking over to the church to preach I was surprised by a guy driving a truck stacked up with chopped branches for the goats. He wanted me to open the gate for him. That would never have happened in Colombia: if they see you dressed up they won’t ask you to get your hands dirty. I did not mind, but I was surprised. They aren’t as solicitous in the DR as Colombians are.

* * *
It frustrates me the way we go about all this. I had, for example, an activity besides the preaching: reading a book in English. We could have gotten pretty well along in the book had we done it in Spanish, but the point was the English camp so we waded through slowly in English. Which is fine from the point of view of teaching English, but frustrating from the point of view of Christian teaching.

Because they are hungry for the teaching. One of the things I was most impressed with is their desire to know and to learn, and just the nimbleness of their minds. They have curious and restless minds, but what they don’t have is a steady discipline. It is kind of the opposite of the USA where discipline is much more dominant (and valued) than quick wits.

They keep their wits sharp by loving jokes and arguments. That’s what the domino sessions taught me. It has to be dominoes because you have to use your head to play with them – they’re not just discarding high points, they’re figuring out who’s playing what and what can be played. All of them are good at dominoes. And it is the occasion for all kinds of mock arguments which they enter into with great enthusiasm, the point being to say the most preposterously funny thing. It is lively and energetic, and they’ll bite at anything that requires them to be clever. They appreciate clever cheating and are always up to tricks, though the point is more to be caught rather than to get away with it otherwise nobody would know of their ingenious scheme.

I was impressed with how bright they are. And it makes me wish they could be taught more and better, and that’s why it frustrates me that instead of doing Bible teaching–which we are in a way there to do–we do English teaching to keep up the pretense. Our lay people could instruct them successfully in something, having better access to resources and in general a better level of education. They have the translators themselves.

I don’t know exactly why it is but it may be that we don’t think strategically. We think that somebody is involved in religious activity and that in itself is good. People come back and talk about how awesome it all was, and how happy it made them feel. And I asked the chaps there what the benefit was; they all say they were converted chiefly because of English camp. We do it because it is apparently getting results. But that could be saying that in spite of what we are doing, God is at work, kind of the way it was with Joseph’s brothers. It isn’t the way to measure.

The way to measure is to find out what they really need, and then do what we are instructed to do to meet that need. Why don’t we proceed that way? Out of politeness, perhaps. We trust them to know that. They say we need native speakers to teach English and do chapel services. We say, fine, we’ll provide them. And we are glad to do something.

They used to have a family that did the week-long camp for the lower grades, but the family grew up and now can’t come, so what happens? They don’t do the camp. Which tells me it isn’t really a need. If they needed to do it, they have people there who can handle English enough to be able to teach basic and intermediate levels. And they bring in the preacher to preach in English and be translated too. So when I go and preach in Spanish, the ruse is over. They don’t need us to go because they have preachers who could do it, and connect better because they know their audience and speak their language at more than one level.

But it is a jolly time for the people you meet. You get to know them, and that’s interesting. I sometimes wonder if we of the human race are capable of organized and intelligent work, or if the best we can hope for is from time to time to have intelligent moments. Especially Christians. There are people who do intelligent and organized work, no doubt, but probably not Christians. All the surrounding muddle of the way we go about things perhaps is the only way for us to get to that.

Dominican Dominoes

I remember going to The Mission Lodge when I first started seminary. It was a government rehab program, and we’d have Bible studies with the chaps. One time I figured out the book of Ruth and gave them study that gave them an overview of the wonderful work of God in that book, and then afterward asked them what they thought. They ripped into me about how it didn’t have anything to do with their lives of fornication and murder and drugs.

I didn’t know what to expect in the Dominican Republic of course, and we all say that because we have to plan everything, or expect ourselves to, nevertheless. One of the things you always get is the culture clash of those for whom the clock ticks and those for whom it does not. The key to efficiency, Thomas Sowell somewhere says, is to value time. Things in the Dominican Republic get done, but not with maximum efficiency.

One of the things they like to do is play dominoes. Four of them will sit propping a board on their knees and on this makeshift surface they’ll play. And they do it in the most aggressive way possible too. There is a guy here from Venezuela who works in the baseball industry–exporting free agents for MLB–and I asked him what the chief difference he found was when he first came. It was the aggression. Not that they’re bad tempered, but that they don’t speak softly–not even the women, for which they seem to prefer not the word mujer, but the word hembra, female. And they play dominoes with the same aggression: slapping the domino down, crowing about their wins, tricking and humiliating each other, boasting, cheating good-naturedly, arguing. You can know they’re at some sport when everything pauses for them to argue about something, an event which can take up to half of any game. I haven’t seen that it is ill-tempered. They enjoy it–it’s how they rear their children, how they approach life.

And this interests me, so I sat and watched them play and listened to them. They think that because I don’t speak much and don’t speak the way they do, that I don’t know Spanish well enough to understand what they’re saying. Perhaps they also think I don’t understand because I don’t censure them. But I observed, and I’m thinking that Dominicans at dominoes is one of the best ways to understand them. Not that I have much time and experience, but I did find it sufficiently illuminating.

I had a hard time with my first chapel on Monday morning for several reasons, but one of them was that I was having a hard time holding their attention. I didn’t have a good breakfast, I didn’t have enough coffee, I did have a good lesson prepared but then the shambles of the preliminary activities had me in quite the sarcastic mood simply because ironic detachment helps with one’s spiritual hygiene. But I think the main thing was that I still didn’t understand them well enough.

I do a book reading in the afternoon, and I picked Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. In his preface he mentions how the Quakers advised “speaking to the condition of the hearers.” The condition of the hearers is what the evening rounds of dominoes helped me to understand better, and I returned to my place realizing why Monday didn’t quite work like I thought it would, and wondering how Tuesday could go better. I had begun to see how they think about life, and I had gotten it all wrong before.

Of course, it took prayer and effort. I didn’t realize before undertaking to preach again, how much the steady rhythm of doing so in Bogota saved me in my schedule. I did something on Romans 14 on Sunday night and I reworked it at least 3 times before even leaving Columbus. And again here. But what I needed more than anything wasn’t so much to understand what I was saying better so much as to understand those I was speaking to better. Not that I’m that close still, but I am glad for the dominoes.

Seventh Verse

The clouds come like ill-balanced crags,
Shouldering, Down valleys smokes the gloom.
The thunder brags. In joints of sparkling jags
The lightnings leap. The day of doom!
I cry ‘O rocks and mountains make me room.’
And yet I know it would be better so,
Aye, sweet to taste beside this woe.

-Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Fragments of Pilate,’ 7

Teaching of the Unexamined Life

One thing I have learned to do better teaching a Sunday school quarter on church history has been to say only one thing. It is one thing to say you should say one thing, another to practise it. And church history is particularly hard because you have to select from a huge diversity of detail. What does it all add up to? When you teach a passage of Scripture you’re already working with someone’s main point, and so discerning the point is not as difficult. History is otherwise because it comes alive in the details and the point is not made obvious by a limited trail of crucial details. The primary sources make the stories come alive: things dropped out of a larger context, an unexpected anecdote, a custom no longer customary with a crucial influence on behavior or thought. But details aren’t enough because one can’t just present aggregated facts. Even when you use a controversy or just one person to organize your details, you have to make a point, otherwise it won’t all come together. Henry Chadwick and Christopher Dawson’s work has been really useful to me in that regard. I can’t say that I was working alongside them, especially since I’m working so far below them and so often borrowing, but seeing how they did what they did as I was working on the same material, I was able to pick up on what they were doing and proceed a little further along in my own negligible practice. I haven’t had a chance to do church history before: in the USA it never came up and in Colombia I lacked the sufficient resources to feel confident about what I was saying, even had I had the time, which I did not. But here were both, and I have finally had a chance to practice that for which I was trained, at least in a Sunday school. I’m pleased at the progress.

I should go on with the study, right into the early middle ages of the church even though I’m not slated to teach, but I can’t go on once the class is done for three reasons. The first is called a GRE, and reading a preparatory manual makes me realize this is a sui generis test that masquerades as a test of general knowledge. It is a test of how the ETS company tests people, and the better you master this esoteric and not entirely connected corner of American academia, the better your chances of being accepted into a PhD program are. The second entirely makes up for the GRE. I’ve been asked to teach Latin in the fall on a very part-time basis. If it were full-time, nobody would think of me, since at this point I have to learn Latin in order to teach it. Which I can do, but not while chugging my way through the early middle ages of church history and giving the GRE a good run. It is very lucky though. I was asking my wife why the Lord didn’t just offer me a job teaching the Saturday before the headmaster walked up to me in church to ask me if I’d be willing to teach Latin. And the second stroke of luck was that I crossed over to the strip mall beside our apartment and entered Half-Price Books to find the seventh edition of Wheelock’s Latin there for $16. But maybe once the GRE is done, and Latin beginning to settle, and applications over with around December, I’ll have time to read again, and maybe I’ll even have a chance to teach the same quarter next spring. The third is the Dominican Republic of course, on which I have to concentrate my efforts now.

The Curious Wording of Chalcedon

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The council of Nicea was not the end of the Arian controversy in the church, but the beginning of a protracted war of political maneuvering and intrigue. Instead of church discipline, imperial banishment played a big part. The Arian emperors banished many of the Nicene bishops. What turned the tide seems to have been Julian the Apostate’s decision to revoke all banishments in order to sow confusion in the church. He was diabolically ingenious in scheming the revival of paganism and the destruction of Christianity, for all that he was wrong. He revoked the banishments in order to escalate the war in the church, but the result was instead to make clear a line that had been blurred by the controversy: it was the line between the true and the false, between reason and integrity of persuasion on the one hand and on the other hand deceit, ulterior motives and unscrupulous behavior.

What I have learned in the little study I’ve done is how much unscrupulous interpretation played a part in the proceedings. Many of the Arians signed on to Nicea, but with mental reservations and with their own ideas of how to take the wording. They bowed to the emperor, and then proceeded to maneuver the imperial power over to their side. Their idea was not to proceed by correct reasoning and persuasive arguments, but by intrigue, force and maneuvering. The world did groan to find itself Arian by the middle of the fourth century, but when, to everyone’s surprise, the emperor declared himself indifferent and even hostile to Arianism, it was shown to be doomed and began its decline.

In Alexandria especially, the reaction to Arianism was strong. So much so, that the seeds of what we now call the Miaphysite position were sown in the reaction, and subsequent monophysites would continue to appeal not only to Cyril, but even to Athanasius. At the same time, the preservation of oneness that seems to have motivated Arius is obviously present in the monophysite tendency (which Dawson interestingly links to later Islam).

In the meantime, due north of Alexandria across the Mediterranean, in Laodicea, Apollinaris began to divulge his ultra-Arian error sometime in the second half of the fourth century. He believed the higher human faculties (spirit or mind and heart, or reason) were removed from the human Jesus and substituted by the divine Logos, so that the union was of a human animal endowed with divine reason itself.

The denial of the teaching of Apollinaris resulted in an affirmation of the perfect humanity of our Lord. Jesus Christ must be a complete human being: were he an incomplete human being, he would be an incomplete savior. So now two things come into clear consciousness for the church: the first is the full divinity affirmed already at Nicea. The struggle for this still continued, so that the doctrine was in the forefront of the problems the church dealt with at the same time they realize the importance of the second thing: the full humanity of our Lord. These are two very distinct and difficult things to understand simultaneously about one person, and the question now became that of the union: how to hold both things together? As an early expression of the implications of what the church was dealing with, there is a designation now used of the other human chiefly involved in the incarnation, Mary, who is described as the God-bearer, or the Mother of God, because it is clear that he who was born to her was, besides being fully human, also fully divine. In other words: if your son is God, you are the mother of God; and there is no getting around this, though some have tried.

It is at this point that Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople began to react. He was not happy with the term theotokos (God-bearer). While he does not seem to have rejected some kind of union of the two natures of Christ, he refused to speak of this union in terms of the person: he seems to have believed that our Lord had two persons and two natures, relegating the union to inexpressibility. Which is interesting; much of our theology treads on the borders of mystery, and there are inexpressible things, but it also seeks to understand what can and cannot be said about what is revealed. The error of Nestorius was to refuse to acknowledge that the union was based in personality. Because he refused that, he logically implied a refusal of union altogether. The problem with his doctrine is shown in the alternative expression he proposed: instead of theotokos, he proposed anthropotokos, which is to say: man-bearer. To say that Mary is the man-bearer is to say nothing different of her than you would of any other mother, and that is to say nothing different of her son than of any other son born to woman. In an effort to affirm the humanity, Nestorius essentially denied the wonder of the incarnation, the whole point of divinity. As a result his mystery was the mystery of confusion instead of the mystery of wonder.

Cyril of Alexandria rose up against Nestorius and wrote definitive letters to him which contain the orthodox rejection of the Nestorian confusion. And here we see the two polarities that are behind this struggle and also had to be reconciled. On the one hand was the Alexandrian school, and that which tended toward the union of natures that is later called the monophysite. It is the view that at its worst takes the union beyond personality and into nature. The monophysite position is that the two natures blend into a third new thing. It is essentially the Apollinarian position, but affirms the full humanity. The Alexandrian school has an impulse to seek the coherence of truth, but sometimes does that at the expense of the diversity of the details.

The Alexandrian position affirms wonder, but sometimes that affirmation goes beyond wonder and into the love of the strange; there is nothing more alien in all the annals of heresy than the monophysite Christ–this being is truly neither God nor man, but something else. The ultra-Cyrilline position is the monophysite, and it is the unmitigated tendency of Alexandria at its worst. But at its best, the Alexandrian view, like the corresponding mode of interpretation, affirms wonder. It seeks to go deeper, and it seeks coherence.

Think of Origen. Origen’s commentaries were not only popular, they shaped the interpretation of late antiquity like nothing else. To understand this you have to realize that the Bible was not a wondrous book to the unconverted church fathers. They viewed it as a crude collection of alien bafflegab, full of contradictions. What Clement and Origen did was to continue the work begun by Philo (add ‘of Alexandria’ to each and you’ll have his full name) of translating the Bible into the language of the conceptual universe of Greek philosophy. (An adequate if not exhaustive definition of neo-platonism, the philosophy of most thinking church fathers, is that it is Greek philosophy beginning to come to terms with Christian theology.) The search is a search for the wonder of coherence in Scripture: how to make sense of its divergent details, how to bring it all together in one.

On the other hand you have the Antiochene impulse. If Alexandria is the capital of the allegorical interpretation searching for a wonder of coherence, Antioch is the capital of literal, restrained interpretation, concerned with particular accuracy more than general coherence. If the Alexandrians are searching for Truth, the Antiochenes are searching for historical accuracy: truth, as it were. A personal reaction of mine is that the literal, restrained interpretation can sometimes err in the loss of wonder. When it does this, it becomes uninteresting, and it is wrongly so. That is not to say we don’t need restraints and discipline in our interpretation, but that it would be wrong to believe conversely that allegorical intepretation does not have restraints (or does not represent a right impulse that with proper discipline is crucial). It would be wrong to assume allegorical simply equals irresponsible; Origen was speculative, but you have to understand what he was working with and you’ll see he was not just wild. And it would be wrong to believe that the Antiochene school (from which came Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom and Nestorius, to name the big names) was altogether wrong. We need both right tendencies in each school: we need, for example, the detail of history to discipline our theories. But, on the other hand, there has to be a coherent narrative to your teaching of history, you can’t pearl-string facts under an arbitrary association. And the controversy needed the same. The church had to figure out how to bring together the best of the Alexandrian and the best of the Antiochene impulse in the controversy over the natures and person of our Lord.

Cyril’s position against Nestorius, denying that Christ is two persons, affirming that in his person there was a true union of fully human and divine was soon afterward exaggerated by a monk called Eutychius. Eutychius harks back, in a way, to Apollinaris because there is a diminishing of the humanity of Christ. But Eutychius took a different way toward the denial: he believed that the divine overwhelmed the human. It is a denial of what Christ affirms in the very first temptation the devil gives him. Jesus Christ could multiply bread and did so at least twice: for a public purpose. What he did not do was to use that ability to take care of his human needs. Why? Because for our salvation he lived a life of human obedience by faith in the promises of God. This may sound like a return to Nestorianism, and that’s exactly what Eutychius wanted to prevent; but he overcorrected. He was vindicated at a council (the ‘robber council’) but then condemned at the next council, Chalcedon. The natures could not be confused, they could not be separated, and they could not be mixed together into a new thing.

The symbol (creed) of Chalcedon can gather to itself disparaging terms among historians and even theologians today. Not because it is untrue, but, it seems to me, because it arose out of a situation so political, that few theological motives can be discerned. The circumstances leading up to it are increasingly off-putting. Cyril is no saint, let me tell you. And yet Chalcedon represents the crucial coming to terms with something difficult. It comes to terms not only with what must be affirmed, but also how it must be affirmed in order both to preserve the wonder of mystery without degenerating into the mystery of confusion. The union of the natures of Christ was in his person, a hypostatic union. Without it, we have no perfect savior, and that is crucial to our Christian faith.

Two Links

Here’s the latest poem by Oestreich. A good ending and an interesting reflection.

Here’s a new blog on how to get into an eager-beaver PhD program.

Here’s, apropos of researching programs, something I’m grateful for in all my fundamentalist education: my teachers were not people off on a career, they were not recruiting people avid about their careers, there was no mention at any point of a career at all. The world of academia is really obsessed with a career, about getting as much for yourself as possible. I’m getting turned off on all these programs and looking for places which conceive of the path of one’s life as faithfulness to a vocation. I have looked at chaps CV’s and scrolled through pages and pages of journal articles and thought: is there anything more inconsequential than a journal article?

It is enough to make me wish God had just called me to be a pastor. But he has not, and so I have to come to terms with all these academic things. If it is what one must do, one must do it. But I think of G.K. Chesterton and think about spiritual atmospheres. Are there PhD programs were vocation is more important than career? I’m going to put that question somehow on every personal statement I send out.

Over My Shoulder

I’m going to the Dominican in July. I was offered a chance to preach and I was surprised how much I wanted it. I am going because our church sends a team to help them with an ‘evangelistic’ English camp. I resisted because I’m not keen on ‘evangelistic’ English camps or ‘evangelistic’ anything (I’m not keen on evangelism as evangelicals conceive it [I am ashamed of their gospel], and we have evangelicals in the OPC), but then they said they’d pay, and my pastor told me I would just preach and do the chapels–which I find legitimate: preaching and then teaching the Bible during the week. I was still going to say no, but the desire to preach was very strong and then my calendar at work just opened up like never before and I had no reason to say no . . . other than my scruples about ‘evangelistic’ outreaches. Should I pass up the chance to be involved in real evangelism because I have scruples about the faux-evangelism afterward?

Now we are watching the evangelicalization of this camp. The preparation that could stress being good English teachers for those who are going to teach, sinking into an opportunity for ‘ministry’ in which the English teaching is being eclipsed. And they want to know more than I’m prepared to tell them about my chapels so they can work that stuff into their now perhaps ‘English’ lesson. Or should it be ‘lesson’? The point of doing church should be ministry. The point of doing English camp should be to teach English. I don’t mind having a chapel part of it, but I do mind when the whole thing is called ministry when it is not. Preaching is unique and special to God’s purposes, teaching English is not. Teaching the Bible is good any time, but why under false pretenses? And now that they feel called of God to do ‘English camp ministry’ you can see how not being serious about evangelism (in their so-called fervor; and really, the fervor of one and not the whole, thank God) they are in danger of not being serious about English or anything.

Do you know, however, that I think that’s why my pastor wants me in it. He understands the side I’m on in all this very clearly, and he thinks I should be mixed up not only in being confronted, but in confronting.

But here’s what gets to me personally: they want me to divulge what I’m going to teach about at this stage. Is it a peculiarity of mine that I don’t like people even to look at what I’m typing unless it is done? Even when I’m writing something for my blog, I don’t want anybody to see it till I get it to the point where I’m ready to share it. Am I the only one like that? I have to stop if I think somebody is peering over my shoulder. And this asking me to give out what I’m working on before it is worked on, is hard to do will good will.

A Grief ObservedA Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kind of interesting. Goodreads is one of those things: literate persons have to object to the name. A read? Calling a book a read is the kind of thing trendy and semi-literate types do (redundant of me, but satisfying). It reminds me of a teacher I had who thought it was cool to call a book a ‘piece.’ Still, the GR helps you keep track, and that can be handy. I’d never be able to figure out that little picture, and it doesn’t link to Amazon, which I like.

This is what is handy for the blog:

The Formation of ChristendomThe Formation of Christendom by Christopher Henry Dawson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s the thing about Dawson: he’s not only read everything about the period he’s talking about, he has digested it. The result is an understanding of what the people and movements mean that he’s dealing with unsurpassed. He’s dealing with 1500 years of Christian history.

Dawson is also a son of the Catholic church and takes her point of view: universality is more important in a church than holiness. As a result he looks at things on one side of that vision as rigorist and sectarian, and on the other side as dissipated and humanitarian (too taken up with merely human concerns, no more). But you have to understand the historian to understand his history with any of them. And once you do, you can figure out how to take what he says.

Dawson is setting forth a Catholic vision, complete with a section of blame for the Eastern Church. It reminds me, because of that, of Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, which does something similar to what Dawson does, only from a different perspective. Both are stimulating books.

Reading Dawson requires a lot of attention, but he rewards attention. I always know when I’m reading Dawson I’ll come away with useful insights and a better grasp of the meaning of this or that period of history. I look forward to his clear and steadfast progress through a chapter of explanation. He can be relied on to make a really good point and expand your understanding of what happened, and why.

vergit ad Septentriones

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“Omnis Gallia est divisa in tres partes,” I began to read today. And proceeded on through those regions of brisk descriptions and swift situations. I have to wonder how much Charles Williams had of it, whose language could reach lapidary brevity. He wrote about the regions of the summer stars, and there is Caesar suggesting to me another name for the North: the region of the seven stars. I’ll take it.

* * *

I have written satisfactorily this week, after all things upon me had made me for one whole week stop. I’m getting close to the end of rewriting all the Falcon Lord (it shall change names). It is wonder to me and an amazement. I rejoice in mine own work and always have enjoyed it, though it has caused me to despair a lot and often. But now, after it had lost coherence in the spring, the way to bring it all together is growing, the way to bore into the situation by using the characters is growing, and it seems to me the end is in view. I started re-writing last July and thought it would only involve the early portions. It has involved more than that. What the story was originally, received an influx of new imaginings when I read Jonathan Strange and my wife had surgery. But that material was overmuch for what contained it before, so now I’ve been rewriting everything around it in that newer vein. I think it’s working.

* * *

Speaking of the north, I never used to eat fish and chips. Now I do. Life has a way of changing you. One thing remains constant: I hope its North Atlantic cod. Do you know there is an RB church in Magherafelt NI looking for a pastor? I almost feel called to be one when I think that it’s in Northern Ireland. I wonder if they’d like to import some pulpit supply while they make a good and thorough search. Katrina says she’d be down with it.

Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk

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Not among Kirk’s very best writings, Old House of Fear is still interesting for at least two reasons:

1 – the book is an interesting story with a good end. He knows how to keep up the pace, how to describe, has a wealth of images which he works up into interesting situations. It is a gothic novel: there are desperate villains (occultist communists, interestingly enough, among them), there’s a lady in distress, and there’s a resolute chap thrust into unexpected circumstances, which he is able to overcome. There is even a great, genial idiot with a ghastly and effective sense of humor. The plot twists and turns enough to be unpredictable, at least for me, but I’m no world-weary reader who has seen it all. At times, near the end, the events almost seem to fish-tail: he jerks things around without really having a reason (as if the last of it was written in haste and ill-revised). But on the whole what happens is interesting and the story is successful. The setting is marvelous–you want to go there, to live and see it, and the characters and situations draw one in and exert the necessary fascination.

2 – he used his imagination to comment on the criminality of people who believe their ends justify their means. Against this attitude he sets decency, courage and love. The romance will bear no close scrutiny, but if the thing is understood as a symbol, and the decency and courage his real focus, then the story will hold up. What he does not have are cardboard villains, and that’s instructive. You learn that men who are not decent in their behavior are criminals in their hearts and only require the circumstances to show it, but they require different circumstances. Not all criminals are of the same sort. There are at least three different kinds of criminals our hero runs into in this book, and each one is dealt with in his own way. Kirk, like Evelyn Waugh, seems to have taken a certain interest in the criminal classes.

Anyway, it is a swift good book to read if you’re looking for an adventure with an island worth going to and the sea and peril and a red-headed heroine that isn’t just fluff and cliché.

Interests

  • Church History
  • Augustine of Hippo – knowledge as personal and participative, neoplatonic thought, monotheism and desire
  • Jonathan Edwards – religious affections, the human will and desire
  • J. Gresham Machen – orthodoxy and its boundaries, culture and religion
  • The Inklings – Barfield and epistemology, Lewis and desire, theology and wonder
  • English Mysticism – The Cloud, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich (All Christian mysticism, really)
  • Historigraphy – John Lukacs, R.G. Collingwood, Christopher Dawson and Augustine
  • Poetry – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Charles Williams, Metaphysical poetry, Beowulf
  • Creative Writing – theology and wonder, science fiction as a vehicle for theology, the quest and desire, mythopoetic writing
  • The Wind in the Willows

Apparently, you have to do a CV for some programs. The idea is things you have or could study. So I’m working on figuring all that out, as you can see. Not calculated to impress (I did leave out DUNE though), but that’s what I like. Where is the program that will take me?

Considerations

A PhD in what? That is the question. It isn’t as easy a thing to decide. It took me a long long time to figure out the only way forward was a PhD, after all. It took me seven years, from 2007 when after five years I finished a two year ThM program all the way to 2014.

But the PhD is a committment you can’t really back out of with any success. That is exactly what I have not been willing to do, and I think rightly so, commit. Let us not be impatient with those who grow up slowly. What is the great rush, after all? People are living longer now than it used to be. But that there is really no other option for a chap like me also seems clear. I don’t think I’m going to make it big as a writer (alas!) any time soon, though probably eventually I’ll achieve some success. I have found that the better I get at writing, the longer it takes to produce something worthwhile.

So what else are my interests?

I’d love to study Old Norse and Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon and such. Wouldn’t it be cool to get into the U of Iceland’s program? It certainly would. Or into anything that took me to those great vast regions of the imagination, the North Atlantic? Lewis seemed to believe that geography had an influence on a person’s imagination. He once made a remark about how Spencer wrote his great poetry while in Ireland, and when he was not there only did minor poetry. Would it be at last what one needs, along with everything else? I wonder. Why has God put such a great longing in me for the North Atlantic after all?

I’d love to study English, of course. If you always have to be in something, it ought to be something in which you can always be. Especially the study of the Inklings, which seems to be gathering steam in places. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me from my non-privileged and not entirely informed point of view that the study of Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and Barfield is gaining momentum. I don’t have what it takes to study Barfield, but I would like Williams especially. And as for Tolkien, see the paragraph above. You know, I’ve been working on Richard Rolle for years and have been at last able to read him. I could do Middle English stuff, the mystics of that time. They’re a lot of all the literature there is in some stretches, aren’t they? I do know I love them, and many for some reason do not.

I would also love to study Church History, as long as I didn’t have to focus on the Reformation. Early church or early middle ages would suit me, I reckon. Here’s perhaps where the most sensible way lies for me. I’d hafta learn Latin, but perhaps it’s time anyway.

I don’t like the idea of learning other modern languages. I’m an anglophone chap, mostly, though I can deliver in Spanish. Other languages are other modes of thought, and I’m not the kind of person (I doubt many people are) who can improve in one language without some cost to the other. No doubt in theory learning Latin will expand my English, but not in practice. Just because it worked for Milton does not mean it would have worked for Shakespeare. Didn’t work for Augustine. He didn’t know Greek or the teeny little Punic folks around him used for small talk. I dislike studying other languages because I think it makes me worse at English, and English is really all I want to do. I wish I did it better and I do not want to do it worse. I work hard at English, you know, just to be able to deliver what I can. Punctuation and stuff does not come easy to me. What I put out could be a lot worse. You know I ain’t ever really had formal education in English? Some people have the idea of wonderfully juggling many languages. That’s not my idea at all. If I learned Latin, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t learn very much and it would quickly become what my Hebrew is: something you consult about a word every once in a while. I ain’t no hand.

Now it may seem contradictory to want to learn Icelandic but not German. But Icelandic is a language made wonderful to me ever since childhood. It is the language of marvelous things, a marvelous place, of ice and fire and dried codfish. I would sacrifice all to know it. And Anglo-Saxon is not a foreign language at all–let it never be said. They do not betray my otherwise quite natural misgivings about learning new languages, you see, for reasons of the heart.

Returning to church history, I think it is sensible and it is useful. I want to teach, is what I want to do, and I want to help in the church. I didn’t realize I enjoyed it so much until I was offered the opportunity to go to the Dominican and preach. It is a bogus thing on the whole: an English summer camp. I was dead against it and made my reasons plain, but then I was offered the chance to go as the preacher: to preach in a church! I could not resist and was surprised how eager I was for it. I love the idea, have been puzzling over what I’m going to preach for a month already and I still have a month to go. I really enjoy helping people get our religion straight, encouraging them, challenging them, expanding their understanding. One thing I really like to do more than anything is to take what they might not think interesting at all and show them how it is. I’m not much of a ponderous chap the way pastoral persons often are, but I do like preaching and teaching in the church. Of course, I don’t need a PhD to do that. I can teach now (and teaching in Sunday school has been a great joy for me, and for the students I think, though they’re nice people and if I’m a bad teacher I shall never find out from them). I can exegete and exposit and even put it in reasonably good homiletical shape too, if need be. But I do think I stand a better chance of finding something where I can spend more of my time preparing lessons and helping students and reading and thinking if I do go back to school.

I could also do Theology. Just think about how many books there are not written on hamartiology. Hamartiology alone could bear more investigation, and theology can be historical and philosophical. The point of teaching is not the teacher having something to teach, it is what the students need (and I do recognize that sometimes they need you to know another languidge, but perhaps not so often are we are led to believe by fanatical monoglots of the North American continent). I enjoy explaining what these things matter, and all the other points that apply from the latter portion of the church history bit above.

Nice thing about the theological possibilities, I’m more likely to get accepted into a program than others I may talk about.

Beyond

I have been trying since 2008 to figure out what I am going to do with my life. At that point I had a job I could do, but several things happened: I got a bad boss, I switched to overnight shifts, my wife got tired of it, and my pastor confronted me oddly. So we went to Colombia. I tried teaching English; hated it. Not that I hate teaching advanced English, but I worked for a company rigid about its ideology and perverse about assigning me to elementary students. So I was glad to leave that for the offer of pastor-in-training. That was not ideal either, but life is not ideal anyway. I enjoyed the teaching and studying and struggled as I could with the limitations to study there imposed. Was not looking forward to the pastoring, did not enjoy it, and felt things like poetry and aspirations dying out of my life. In the end, that was blocked, much to my relief, and I gratefully left the third world.

I was walking with Katrina Saturday night after my stupid job, trying to enjoy the fact of the coming holiday and puzzling over this which has puzzled me for a long time. If I hate my job, why not just get another one? The problem in the past being my disinterest in business, in a career, in getting ahead. I’m not acquisitive. I don’t know that I’m of that world.

I did want to avoid thinking the way white people like to sometimes that one is special and there is a very special job out there waiting for you, to make you happy and fulfilled and in contrast with all the people living in the third world will leave you comfortable and pleased with yourself. You know what I mean? God deals in disappointments as well; they’re part of the life of faith. He takes away to show us that he is enough, and he is. But the other end of that approach is to think you don’t matter. That’s the end I was stuck on: I was asking myself who am I to resent doing customer service and being micromanaged? There are so many good things in my life, isn’t the Lord enough for me? Why can’t I be satisfied?

But God works through means. There are baffling portions to our life, but not, I think, continuously unending baffling portions. If one is unhappy with the circumstances, perhaps it isn’t because the problem is with one, perhaps, but that one is not in the right circumstances. I have been spending my time trying to figure out what I’m going to do (besides becoming an author of science fiction, which is always the long-term goal). Looking for alternative jobs, I keep running into the requirement of a PhD for what I really want to do. I’ve talked to two people in my life who have made a statement that stuck with me, thought I didn’t until now understand it. One was a seminary professor and the other is a member of our church who teaches music history. Both said the same thing: I figured out that I wanted to teach, so I got a PhD. Something like that. I remember both times–years apart–how they said it and how I found it was odd. But now I understand. It is just what you have to get if you are going to do what you are most inclined to. It isn’t about achieving some remote proud summit of learning reserved for the few, it is just the basic requirement for teaching at an advanced level.

It makes sense of my life so far too, with which I’d been struggling: the trajectory and the closed doors and everything. What I haven’t figured out is exactly what I’ll study, where to apply. And all this is before I’m even accepted. That could be the next disappointment. But it is also the next move either way.

My Table

Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato’s house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous,
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where ’twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul’s beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
Me soul’s unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven’s door
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country’s talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno’s peacock screamed.

-The poet Yeats

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