Clement and Alexandria

It seems to me that Clement’s positive attitude toward philosophy, cautious but not hostile or suspicious, in other words, the attitude of one who has understood, appreciated and then evaluated his subject, is crucial for understanding the role of Alexandria in the later theological disputes. He lived in the right place, he lived at the right time, and he appears to have had the right attitude: measured and deliberate. It is common to dismiss him as an intellectual lightweight, and compared with Origen he was. Compared to Origen, however, who was not? Clement had insight enough, and he was attempting to set up a new approach, he was leading the way. What is more, Clement did it with calm and got the direction right. Anybody who has been in the situation of leading a discussion and fumbling with the unanticipated, and has in other circumstances been a participant who observes a confused discussion and has without pressure some time to reflect and then offer better insight, will understand what Clement represented, and what Origen.

For this reason I think it really is important not to study Gnosticism as a recurring phenomenon in the Church. Not because it has no parallels: no doubt it does. I do not deny Santayana’s statement that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it; can it be right, however, to assume that the study of history is merely about avoiding present errors? To do that is to get Santayana backwards. If we read the present moment into the past, we will use the past as a way to address what it never originally did. The study of history does not help us unless we first understand the nature of the errors committed in the past. The important thing, in other words, is to get what the error actually was. Men made decisions in a set of circumstances nobody any longer faces; the circumstances are never the same, though the constant of human nature and the human condition remain. Were the circumstances never to change, we would not study history. And so, though we cannot relive the Gnostic moment, we can understand it, and we can understand Clement by understanding how he responded and why he chose that way: the way of the true gnostic.

The true gnostic sought deeper understanding: he combined the church’s moral seriousness with the intellectual seriousness of the Hellenic philosopher. Moral seriousness will be accompanied by intellectual seriousness, but may not have a tradition, a set of tools and procedures, a pedagogical approach to the acquisition of these in which there is a decided advantage. This advantage obtained in Alexandria. And Clement, in Alexandria, made good arguments resulting in a positive—a critical but nevertheless appreciative—appropriation of Greek philosophy. It was a transitory moment, to risk redundancy, and it was decidedly Clement of Alexandria’s moment.

Wild Wonderfulness of the Unexamined Life

I’ve never wanted anybody to win like I’ve wanted Trump to win. That is a bit deranged, not in that I think it would feel bad to have Trump as president, I think it would feel interesting and I can back him with so much more enthusiasm than any other candidate before because he’s such an outrageous, counter-intuitive good choice, but it is deranged to become invested in the outcome of something like the presidential election of this overlarge country. Still, I will be glad for him if he wins, so I will happily give him what he’d like: my vote.

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            Clement of Alexandria has some curious things to say. He represents an interesting moment in an interesting city where all kinds of things went on; it was the NYC of its time. Clement didn’t repudiate the Gnostics the way Irenaeus did, outright. Though in his day philosophy and theology were not distinguished, and these needed to be if only so that theology could be discerned, he knew that the Gnostics needed to be corrected on philosophy as much as on Christian teaching. Of course, Irenaeus set Christianity on the road to proper theology, which is, after all, the antidote to the gnostic malaise, but it was Clement who consciously wanted to get the philosophy straight. It is as if instead of rejecting Gnosticism, he wanted to correct it; he realized that Christianity needed philosophy for theology. He called himself the true Gnostic, not even spurning the idea of secret insight. He wanted depths, you see. He wanted more. It wasn’t something occult, however, but it was recondite and difficult of attainment.

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            And then you get Origen, and then the bulk of the fathers who were the founders of that golden thousand years of Christian Platonism. Perhaps the world will once again one day know another. What if I could write a book with the melodious title, Christian Platonism in the Age of Donald Trump? I can still somewhat hope for the last part of that, and myself supply the first.

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            One of my teachers resembles rather more than one would expect Lord Voldemort. It is the most distracting thing. I mean that his head and features are like Voldemort and that he speaks in a hushed, unanticipated way, and also that he won’t let me end sentences with a preposition—which is nearing sinister. Somewhat like living in a book, isn’t it? The only thing better would be living in New York, where Trump is from.

New York

There was the traffic on Staten Island, the confusion of understanding the parking, all of that. There was standing in the line for the ferry, the violinist playing well and heartily, the open seating once onboard. I read Chesterton.

Then we were in Manhattan and we began our day of walking. New York has so many things: so many buildings, so many shops, so many people, so many places and bits to notice. I understand it becomes enervating to live in a great city like that (bah, at moments, that’s all). I was dull at the end of the day and my face felt tired, but I was not enervated. In crowded cities you can’t treat the other people as people, but as sentient objects. Curious sentient objects, mind you, but merely sentient objects for the purposes of navigating the crowds. I can see how that can be enervating, but I find it stimulating so far.

We found: a Chinese place with strong bubble tea, if not outstanding pastries; a churro place; Chelsea market (a major find) with the tacos al pastor worth going all the way to New York City just to try; we found Porto Rico coffee where they sell some good Tanzania Peaberry light roast; we saw this elevated walkway with plants which is a great way to get the tourists out of the way; the curious elevator car-parking; we had horchata which was not medicinal and tortas that were not stellar; we saw the shafts of the twin towers and the fatuous tourists who in places meant to invoke invisible realities take pictures; we saw a great, forbidding windowless skyscraper, a tower of strength and no doubt a jail. Oh, it is a teeming place, and every time I go it is with greater resolve to stay there, to understand it better, to have all hours and all occasions to observe it, that remarkable city.

Right now I’m just trying to get a feel for the scale of the place when I go. I want to understand it better, know my way around, sense how it goes. I want, in short, to live there. It is a phenomenon almost beyond a city.

Rhetoric and Distrust

Alan of Lille distinguished preaching from teaching by saying that one is public and the other private. Among other things, he wanted to deny that heretics ever preach, showing he had a higher view of preaching than of teaching, though he himself was also a teacher. Heretics carried on in private rather than in public, especially in an age that burned them at the stake. Alan, of course, did not want to cast any aspersions on the practice of burning heretics at the stake, but he raises an interesting question. What is also implied in his distinction is that the difference between preaching and teaching, in his mind, is one of situation: situation determined by quantities. Teaching involved at most a conversation, whereas preaching involved a greater audience.

And that is when rhetoric becomes obvious, isn’t it? You can’t speak conversationally in a large setting, not unless you have artificial amplification. And even that artificial amplification has its effect. I well remember the astonishing sense of watching a preacher continue in a large church after the sound system failed: he physically seemed to diminish. It suggests to me that rhetoric has a lot to do with what is fitting to the situation. It has to do with what is fitting to the situation because it is concerned with how one comes across, in other words, with the effect one has. It is about the consideration of the effect the way you approach and deliver your subject-matter will have on those who hear you.

Which is why you need rhetoric. You have to be conscious of it if you want to do it at all well, unless you naturally do it well. It requires consideration, and consideration beyond what you considering can come up with. And even if you naturally do it well, it is well to consider what is proper and improper not only in the aesthetic realm—which is important—but in the moral realm. If you don’t think about whether you ought to achieve things by one or another effect, if you don’t label certain approaches and understand clearly what you are doing, how will you confront your deceitful heart when you are proceeding by sensationalism, fearmongering, omitting crucial details and such unscrupulous means? If you can’t deal with it reasonably, if you don’t consciously think about it and humbly consult independent advice, are you likely to deal with it at all given what the human heart is?

The Therapeutic Vote

We had a conference on public theology at Westminster last weekend, and I was pleased. I was thankful to the president and administration for allowing students in at a cut-rate discount. I got a jolly decent steak out of it too. It showed some good judgment that Westminster invited Robert George, Molly Hemmingway and R. R. Reno to speak on campus. I wonder whether there will be consequences from having Hugh Hewitt spontaneously invite the archbishop of Philadelphia onto the panel, considering presence of members of the board. And I very much doubt, if the idea is to get Van Tillians to get involved in that kind of public dialogue about faith, that that part will go far.

But it was tremendous and worthwhile. The reason for gathering these speakers, one gathered from the speakers, is that the left has advanced with alarming speed and does not intend to stop with the gains achieved so far. As it advances, the goals become more bizarre, and this reveals at heart a war with reality. The more advanced the progressive agenda becomes, the more inhuman it becomes, endeavoring to destroy the reality that is, for example, human nature. I think it is not entirely unlike what C. S. Lewis pictured in That Hideous Strength; at some point it goes far enough that it becomes evident that what they are doing is diabolical. The sense of the conference is that this is what the obvious tendency at present is and that we must stand against it. The point of saying ‘they are never going to go that far’, ‘things will settle down’, ‘they are going to be satisfied’, this point has been passed.

One of the great things Robert George did was to call us to courage. It is obvious that if we don’t stand they will crush us. He made an eloquent argument even against the abandoning of the political sphere in order to protect just home and church. His argument was that if we abandon the public institution of government, the academy and such, they will come and crush us in our private institutions. The left knows who the conservatives are, and the way they deal with us is by intimidation. George is certain of this, and certain that we defeat ourselves if we do not cultivate the cardinal virtue of courage, because we cultivate instead its opposite: cowardice. He was convincing and inspiring.

Some on a panel were more interested in fearmongering: persecution, etc. Molly Hemingway certainly pointed out how unscrupulous the fight is against any conservative position. I was impressed how sensible she is, how necessary clear thinking and argumentation are, and that there are few unscrupulous lengths the left has not experimented with in the madness of achieving its ends. From her it was good to get the sense that the situation is bleak and therefore there is much to do. There is a good fight to put on, a good fight raging even now. And even if we are persecuted, it is nevertheless not something we should be anxious or fearful about. One of the great things of that conference was the courage of Robert George and the scrappy Molly Hemingway, and the sense that there are people who care about honor.

My criticism—and I did not remain to listen to celebrity evangelical Kevin DeYoung—was that the interesting conversation between Reno and Trueman we were scheduled to get was filibustered by Robert George when Hewitt called him up along with the archbishop. I think Reno is a lot less dismissible than he was in former times, and I have almost forgiven him for not being Neuhaus.

Anyway, if you think at this point that the progressive agenda is not at war with reality, has reached the stage of bizarre aims, and will somehow stop of its own accord, you must not be paying too much attention. This conference, hosted at of all places Westminster, was well attended, variously represented (we even had Orthodox clergy attired in power), and shows how aware some are of the bad situation that they are willing to come together and think seriously about these things. It is impressive that in the few years these things have been dominant (Obama against redefining marriage in his first term, now for it in his second) arguments have been marshalled. Not only that, little platoons have been forming, and not of the Evangelical celebrity variety. What we don’t need is to capture power and put good people in influence, what we need is little platoons of clear-thinking individuals fighting back and adjusting the incentives so that even bad people will do the right thing. First thing is to stop the forward momentum. And it is refreshing to be around people who are fighting not only because it is the only thing left to do (which is enough) but also because they perceive the possibility of making some gains. There is more than cold resolution, there is some eagerness. I am made a bit dubious when Robert George uses the word transformation and when the triumphalism some want to hear is heard. At the same time, I think you have to make a qualitative difference between Catholic and Evangelical transformation, don’t you? Something, however slight . . .

Which is why I’m rather mournful at the reaction to the Trump beast. We know what Hillary stands for and what she will continue. Here is a chance to vote and make sure she is shut out at all costs: which will send a message. But politicians and Christians would rather grandstand about character and conscience. God forbid they should ever do something that doesn’t feel good or express outrage whenever anybody withdraws that inalienable right.

Trump, the Gambler’s Choice

  1. Was this latest any surprise considering Trump is a vulgar womanizer? No, he is what we have known him to be since he rode down that escalator to announce his nomination. He is a genuine American monster.
  2. Somebody, however, is going through everything possible on Trump with a fine tooth-comb. Is it any surprise, therefore, that something like this should emerge? It should not be. I will say that this find is money, and I can’t help sharing the comber’s glee in a job well done. It has had quite an effect, at least so far.
  3. Because somebody, I won’t speculate—not that I think it would be speculation—wants this to have an effect. Do I want to react the way this diligent digger would like me to? As a reactionary rather than a conservative, I’m personally going to balk at that complicity.
  4. It is the tool of the left to use affected moral indignation. I feel no moral indignation and I am not sure affecting any helps anything. What is more, I do not think it is unduly jaded of me to think most of the moral indignation being expressed is hypocrisy, especially since a lot of it comes from politicians. I wonder if those who are being hypocrites are not being played by one of Hillary’s great backers: the devil.
  5. Donald Trump is the last, best hope for America, folks! Don’t you realize that when you put politics on TV you can’t expect more? Read Neil Postman and quit winging.

You can abstain from voting, you can vote your conscience (not something I am American enough to understand, I guess), but in the end we know it will be Hillary or Trump in the White House. And the conservative case, if there is still one anybody can make, is the case against ideology. Any ideology. Among the many and calamitous accusations that can be lodged against Trump, isn’t the possession of or even the ability to possess an ideology the single one that won’t stick? I think it can’t, and that is why I can’t believe the devil would be backing him too.

So take a gamble: Make America Great Again.