Three Dialogues on Pulpit Eloquence by Francois De Salignac Fenelon

Three Dialogues on Pulpit Eloquence

These dialogues are truly Platonic: misunderstandings are tackled head-on, persuasion is by incremental agreements that make the whole argument evident to careful reason, and there is a social, a humane approach to understanding things. There are things that could be added to this book, but these are mostly expansions and clarifications. On the whole this is the best book on preaching I’ve ever read.

Fenelon rejects on the one hand, the cult of ugliness and plainness in speaking, where the only consideration is for true substance to the point of artificial arrangement and preaching is about saying true things according to a fixed pattern. He rejects, on the other hand, the frivolous ornamentation in which style triumphs over substance. His proposal is for a rigorous humanism, or a humane seriousness when it comes to eloquence in preaching. He understands there needs to be truth and beauty at the same time for persuasion to work correctly.

One of the weaknesses of the book as it stands is his use of the word Nature, by which I took him to mean creation displaying the good, the true and the beautiful as consubstantial, perichoretically interpenetrating ideals. That is what needs to be elaborated–if I am right, or explained if I am not. But if you read it with that idea in mind the book will make sense. It is splendid.


I think the best thing about Fred Sanders’ review of the fake book on the Trinity is that his target exhibits what Gnosticism was. Gnosticism is still known to be bad, and so people like to use it to brand something by way of a warning. Robert George does that in the December issue of First Things. There is a popular understanding of Gnosticism as a heresy that viewed the body as evil, and this is true enough. But I think what Sanders exposes is closer to what the danger of Gnosticism represented in the Early Church: an attitude, one which was countered by robust theology. Gnosticism threatened Christianity with a howling incoherence of creative irresponsibility, and that’s what Sanders exposes.

I’m not sure it is how Gnosticism is generally understood, and it raises a few problems. For example, we use Gnosticism to react against asceticism. I do not say it because I’m an ascetic, but because there is no way you can read about those defending the Church against Gnosticism and come away thinking that these are people who were against rigor to the point of asceticism. Tertullian? Clement? Origen? Irenaeus? Extreme discipline, or discipline that to us would seem extreme characterized them, and I think they would be uncomfortable with what we sometimes do with Gnosticism. Gnosticism was not on the whole about an excess of discipline, it was resisted by discipline and if anything, that excess probably lay with the Church (John Chrysostom, in a later age after the Gnostic threat, ruined his digestive system by his self-denial). We are not living in an age in which the Church is characterized by an excess of rigor and discipline. Quite the contrary, I think. My sense is that R.R. Reno’s indictment of the therapeutic religion of non-judgementalism reaches deep into conservative churches.

Another thing is that we like to associate Gnosticism with Platonism, as if Gnosticism were the logical outcome of mixing Christianity with Greek philosophy. I react a bit more personally here as a Christian Platonist. But I think I have good grounds because I am a Christian Platonist. Origen and Irenaeus were Platonists, and these were the champions to which the Church in that age looked to debate and deal with Gnosticism. So was Clement for that matter, though he was also somewhat of a Stoic, of which Tertullian was more than somewhat. Nevertheless, they do not represent Gnosticism. Quite the contrary; it was thanks to the repudiation these men made that the threat was overcome. Gnosticism appropriated Platonism as it did Christianity, we might say. In both cases, it did that so badly it offended the real adherents of both. Plotinus, whose Platonist credentials are impeccable, repudiated Gnosticism in a scathing treatise, much as Christianity did. One of the things we Christians frequently get wrong is our real contempt of genuine philosophy. The price of turning against careful thinking, however, is to harbor careless thinking. Theology needs good philosophy, but if we turn against all philosophy we are unlikely to be able to evaluate or employ philosophy correctly at all, and our theology will exhibit what American theology at present does. For that you can consult James Dolezal and Stefan Linblad.

We are so flaccid in our day that much of what passes for Christianity is vulnerable to the teaching Sanders so easily dismisses. I say that in connection to the debate on the Trinity because we all know a review like Sanders’ could not be made of someone securely lodged within the Gospel Coalition, and the very suggestion would be outrageous. That is still a strength: is anybody of the TGC tribe going to decry Fred Sanders for his tone and the fact that he did not publish his review in an academic journal? I actually think his tone is exactly right, and I also think his tone is probably what saved his review from being doomed to obscurity in a theological journal. Congratulations to him and to them.

What else, however, is the attitude toward doctrinal formulation that Ware and Grudem exhibit, and what shall we say of their enablers? Is the difference more than a difference of degree? Distractions and prevarications to gloss over the chaos of private interpretation and maladaptive, innovative appropriations of Christian teaching strike me as the wrong approach and of the same substance as what Sanders exposes. So are we dealing with Christian leadership or Gnostic? At least this time Plato is not being desecrated, though as a Christian Platonist I can honestly say that I’d rather it were Plato than Christian Theology. Richard Weaver observed that “all metaphysical community depends on the ability of men to understand one another.” Overcoming Gnosticism of old preserved and strengthened a vulnerable metaphysical community by overcoming equivocation in theological discourse.

A Triumph!

Denny Burk has achieved an epiphany: “It turns out that the Nicene Fathers knew Greek really well—probably better than any of us reading the New Testament today.” Isn’t that great? Who would have thought it? How humble of an evangelical scholar to acknowledge that. And he went to a lot of trouble to prove it from Scripture, which is why studying Scripture is so much better than studying, for example, history.

I’m so glad we have evangelical scholarship to make sure we understand the reliability of what the Church has believed. Otherwise it would just be up to historians telling us things, such as, pointing out that nobody has recanted Eternal Functional Subordination yet and that so far the parties concerned have only achieved a more convoluted theology than formerly.

No worries, keep doing that until everybody is exhausted, then you win.

* * *

I had not seen this, in which a Daughter of the Reformation shows that she knows more about the Westminster Confession than Ligon Duncan, and rather exposes more political than substantial turns of phrase.

Don’t you think it is sinister?

New York of the Unexamined Life

A good time was had by two in New York City. When you haven’t got money to travel and can drive there and take the ferry over for free, and, moreover, you like walking around in a city all day, which we do, you can do it. There is no end to doing that. I do not know when I will be done with Manhattan and get on to Brooklyn. I do not know when I’ll get at last to Staten Island, though we’re figuring our way around there driving—which is not much, but something. And there is the public transportation to figure out, if walking is ever exhausted.

One of the things that becomes good when you’re doing this is a restaurant where you get free water and which has good restrooms. Let me recommend to you the Washington Square Diner where the waiters hustle, the food comes out fast, and you can even get an espresso, besides the water. Genuine: no silly tourist ethnic stuff to that place. After being outside in the cooler weather all day, it was also good to sit down to a latte made correctly and served in a ceramic cup. Nothing is less conducive to the glory of coffee that this paper cup with plastic lid. Nothing is more conducive than a day of grasping a bit of the enormity of New York with a cold wind and your face all burning. Best latte I have had. Also, note to those interested, if you find an upscale tea shop you can get a free cup of strong, hot tea as a sample. Nice in the cooler months. I may also say I really like the service I get in New York: very solicitous, very competent, never this Midwestern gushing friendliness. I have not had a bad experience in New York. I feel that they do things the way I do.

I do not go to New York to do the tourist thing. That is suitable if you are a person of inferior intelligence or incomplete understanding. I do not want to stand in line with other tourists, I do not want to be told what New Yorkers do not know, I do not want to go in places thronged with tourism, except to appreciate that this also is New York. I do not want to get my picture at some place, or gawk gormlessly without comprehension. I go to New York because it is a phenomenon, a location which draws me with its manifold interestingness. I go to New York and would happily eat at Burger King just to be served by New Yorkers, to sit among New Yorkers, to look out on New York through the windows, to get a sense of the enormity of the place. I want to watch the steam rise from the manholes and the sun slide between the buildings. I walk up and down all of its streets trying to get a sense for how each section is different, what happens there, how the people look and react, everything. I care not one fig for the statue of Liberty except that it is located in New York, that great metropolitan wonder. Were I to live there I would spend hours every day prowling through it, exploring it, making myself the master of it, knowing every throughway and alley and train and tunnel. And I want to see, in so far as I can, the lines of a greater city of which it is such a splendid manifestation, squalor and all.

Evangelical Doctors & The Trinity

Successful Christian author Denny Burk went to the ETS and is glad to report that the whole Trinity thing has successfully been put to rest. Yes, it is beyond question over and done. Established and respected evangelical professors of theology Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, harshly and unexpectedly accused of embracing views of the Trinity not compatible with the Nicene formulation, declared themselves both believers, now, in the eternal generation of the Son. As we can see, the ETS got to the bottom of it, and in that way the ETS is not unlike the Gospel Coalition, another very good outfit.

This historic formulation of an essential component of Trinitarian orthodoxy for over sixteen centuries was at last explained in such a way to these eminent evangelical theologians that they were able to sense that exegesis supported it rather than simply quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus credituni est. So that red line was crossed by them, much to the joy of Denny Burk who got a perfect angle on the story from it. Apparently there is an academic paper delivered in utter obscurity some while back which offered incontrovertible evidence even these eminent evangelical theologians could understand (and also proved that on the whole evangelical scholarship is accomplishing something). It was found to be exactly the lamp to bring light to this bewildering situation, oddly enough, and as a result the whole thing is completely behind us. Who knows, the paper may even be published, it is that good.

So the controversy is behind us. Behind everybody, that is, who is polite. [Persons are probably urged to go ahead and not obtain more information from places without tone.] One can understand why Denny Burk feels it is a moment for great rejoicing. The embarrassing interlude so rudely and rashly begun by the loose cannons of Philadelphia, creedalist prelates with—as everybody has so rightly protested—a most dubious tone has been debated to the bottom in high places. Eternal generation was mentioned, affirmed, the Trinity stands, of course, its basic, duh, nobody denies it and never has, that’s what other people do, we do exegesis, scholarly academic papers, Biblical hermeneutics, inerrancy, complementarianism, Gospel, evangelism, conferences and programs you can trust, and books, because we are, after all, the good guys here. The knock-down drag-out final outcome of it all is that internet bystanders ought to move on: there is no heresy to see, folks, and there never was and never of course shall be world without end. The blog of intellectual fundamentalism even linked to Denny Burk, that’s how solid this achievement is.

In fact, those designated to prosecute the accused in the proper academic forum exhibited contradictory opinions (Oh ho!), and one old stalwart, Millard Erickson, never accused of anything apparently, has never even himself come so far in affirming eternal generation as have the distinguished, patient, and tractable Grudem and Ware. So they’re even better than when it all started. Well, at least as far as the intelligible and perspicacious Dr. Ware is concerned. As far as Wayne Grudem goes, and I urge this with the utmost respect and all desired tone, should not Denny Burk perhaps wait a few months before perpetrating narratives of absolution?

Is there a problem?

My Target, where I recently cranked out a stupendous amount of writing, and where I can go when I really need for something to happen, is not giving me good coffee. It’s Starbucks, so it isn’t exceeding special, but it is peculiarly worse now, two times running. What could it be? I’ve switched from Dark to Pike, and its coming out all the same.

I could be drinking too much coffee. I do that. But then, that’s nothing new.

What is new is that I’ve been switching providers. I have a good source but I find it goes better if I keep that steady source and then supplement it with others. So I got a pound in NYC (where coffee is cheaper) and then my regular place. Then 8 oz in Princeton (where coffee and everything is more expensive in that upscale, precious little place) and then my regular. Then I got some in Lancaster at the market, while also alternating with the regular. This has increased the quality of enjoyment. Has it therefore brought me to new heights such that Starbucks no longer serves?

It is a quandary. Once upon a time I could be grateful for coffee anywhere. Regardless how bad it was, I added milk and possibly sugar and thus drank it. But those days have not been with me in ages. I dropped additives so long ago that the only reason I even thought of them now was this exploring of my peculiar situation. Perhaps the solution is to engage in additives. When I consider this, however, I find that the heart seems to have reasons of which my reason is not aware.

It could be they’re not cleaning things the way they should. Target’s café is never of the cleanest. There is no one tasked with regularly cleaning the space, it seems, since the employees running the food are the ones with the least leisure in the whole place. I’m sure they’re expected to do it when things are slack, but I do not find they have such moments. The backs of chairs, especially, are touched with popcorn and pizza fingers and attract flies, and from time to time the plague grows strong, then someone notices, then it diminishes. I have been in Targets regularly where the tables are never regularly wiped off except by customers with napkins. I do not mind this. If you grow up in the third world you aren’t too fastidious, knowing you’ve survived far worse. I would like the things they cook and brew with cleaned and serviced with more regularity. But they probably are.

It may be my cold. It’s been a week, exactly the times I come back. It may be what is causing the disturbance in my peace. I get more respiratory stuff here in Philadelphia. I wonder if it is part of settling in to a new place, or a new development of advanced age.

Oh well. There will be times when I enjoy it more and times when I enjoy it less. The great thing is to get some work done, which admittedly this is not.

Late Autumn, with a Cold Wind Rushing

Last warm day. The leaves are coming down in copious showers. Next week will be the ideal decade in temperature: the forties. I have long thought this is a good temperature to be at. When one walks at such temperature, much thinking tends to occur.

I’ve been reading Orwell’s diaries. He was quite the gardener, making all kinds of observations about weeding, sowing, planting, transplanting and also how many eggs he got from the hens. He did not write in his diaries about what he thought, usually, though he did note curious observations. After a while, you start skipping over the litany of horticulture. He also had diaries about the war, and those are a bit less restricted. In the days leading up to the election I wanted to prepare by reading Animal Farm and 1984, and despite the outcome I do not feel reading them has been in vain. These are books worth re-reading, if not often re-reading. There’s some real thought-provoking pathos in Animal Farm. Not, of course, the happy endings that mark a book for more frequent re-reading.

I’ve been working on the book of the Revelation a little. I note that it has a happy ending. I know it is usually a cause for concern whenever someone gets very interested in the Revelation, but I have a friend in Colombia who was one of those former dispensationalists who had to figure it out. So he then became a preterist, which is not unlike a futurist except that a preterist thinks the book of Revelation is all about the past, not all about the future. Of all the positions there are, it strikes me as the most unlikely because why go to the trouble of disguising everything altogether in symbolism? Who ever wrote about the past that way?

What is difficult, I find, is disentangling people from really complicated interpretations that have caught their fancy. The more complex, the more implausible because connecting so many things in Scripture to the precise nailing down of each little detail, the harder to get them out of it. There is a certain chaotic maximum of detail and connections that create the interpretive tangle, but to the one who has spun it, or gone to the trouble of understanding the web, it is precious. It is hard to tell anybody, including myself, that you really can’t presuppose the correct detailed interpretation of everything in all the foregoing books in order to get the last one right.

I have obviously not been one of those former dispensationalists who had to figure it out. But Revelation is a legitimate book, and the more I understand, the more I see its Biblical Platonism, and that is definitely worth re-reading.

Hard Periods of History

Nevertheless it is not the “easy” periods of history that are the most worth studying. One of the great merits of history is that it takes us out of ourselves–away from obvious and accepted facts–and discovers a reality that would otherwise be unknown to us. There is a real value in steeping our minds in an age entirely different to that which we know: a world different, but no less real–indeed, more real, for what we call “the mordern world” is the world of a generation, while a culture like that of the Byzantine or the Carolingean world has a life of centuries.

-Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe


I love how everybody is pointing out the non-Trump factors that led to his win. Trump won because the Democrats this and that, and Comey, and what have you. I would like to point out that Trump also won because he is Trump.

How is Trump, Trumpish? let me count the ways:

  1. He hates to be scripted and talks the way he wants. I personally find Ted Cruz implausible just because of how he talks: the nasal, fake-folksy lecture. I also thought Kasich was off-puttingly anecdotal and too much into accomplishment-listing, never mind the manic chopping. You can’t bore people into voting for you in an age of entertainment; it is like not trying. And this makes it seem as if without trying, Trump succeeded.
  2. He is an awesome creature of the swamp. I had to laugh at the look on Jeb Bush’s face when he was simply bewildered to be up against something as bizarre as Trump. He had no idea how to respond other than flummoxed irritation. And what Trump did to Marco Rubio in that infamous moment shows that he wrestles like Antaeus, stronger when he is in touch with the mud. Trump was unconventional and highly successful at it, and it was the doom of the groomed and prepared, coffers of cash notwithstanding. He was the little guy in the sense that he didn’t wield their sophisticated knives, and yet he outdid them.
  3. He is loathed. For me, the greatest thing about Trump is how much he is loathed by the celebrities of America. I think they know he is beating them at their own game. They stand for fake things, they are fake, and here is Trump the popular culture icon of a fake businessman who outfakes the lot. He appears to know how things work here and now, and has showed that many people who thought they were working things were just faking.
  4. He seems a pretty tame person, all said. Maybe he’s good at concealing. That after the intense search for dirt on him all they came up with was some offensive remarks strikes me as relatively mild. Maybe there’s more to come, but if the Clinton machine had nothing worse on him than what appears to be a conversation you can hear any day working at McDonald’s, then he is rather a tame billionaire. It is interesting to see how little the average citizen believes the press demonization. There is some credit to be given the press for so heinously overstating the case against Trump as to cause disbelief to set in, but Trump deserves credit. He is a billionaire who can get up to whatever this world affords. No doubt he has gotten up to many things, but a bunch of comments, however vulgar, hardly seems that damning (though to spare my own sensibilities, I never endeavored to watch or listen to the video).
  5. Elites refuse to get him, and it just seems condescending. I love Roger Scruton. Scruton lives in a bubble of intelligence and culture few of us can aspire to, but which I am glad he enjoys. He is eminently suited to be there, and I will always listen to him on most things with joy and admiration. For him, Trump is nothing more than irremediably uncivilized, and compared to Roger Scruton . . . well, who isn’t? Anybody who can afford (in various senses of affording) to possess something better seems to struggle with Trump. This has an effect, you know. It has an effect on those who struggle with other things than other’s or one’s own lack of refinement because they must daily deal with exactly that. Trump’s character (or at least his ethos, in the Aristotelian sense) is that of a lower income white guy, for all that he has billions. What, after all, would a lower income white guy do if he got billions? He’d live in his own bling tower in NYC, he’d upgrade his wife from time to time, he’d become a legitimate authority on stuff by going on TV, he would not take advice on his hair, would tweet erratically, and he would run for president of the Yoonited States. The difference is: Trump actually pulled it off. Listen to elites saying in as many ways as possible that he does not belong where he is. Do they not understand human nature? We can take it from Roger Scruton, but probably only from Roger Scruton.

I can’t help cheering, whatever the long-term consequences. I could go on, but you don’t want me to, I know. Remember though, Trump is the guy who pulled it off and he deserves the credit for having accomplished it.


It does look as if life promises to be interesting from here on out. May it hold; may we live in interesting times. This was a week of observing the consequences of things that people do, though that won’t last long. Already the Clinton accusation that it was all Comey’s fault (that it was the second letter, in fact, which strikes me as not-too-shrewd an accusation) is being taken up in newspapers across the world. There was a rare moment in which the pollution of lies almost cleared for a few seconds as many of the liars were stunned into an unexpected lull. It seemed as if there was going to be some kind of consensus that the problem was letting Hillary be the candidate. But that moment has obviously passed. Nevertheless, the whole thing does make one interested in politics, at least for a while.

Robert George’s Argument

Robert George makes the argument that conservatives ought to stay in American institutions to fight back. To do so will require, he says, the cardinal virtues, but why should conservatives shrink from those or the opportunity to exercise them and so strengthen them? He doesn’t believe we should necessarily start alternative institutions, rather we should fight in and for those that remain, which is why he is at Princeton. Which is not to condemn other efforts but to encourage that as a good option.

I begin to understand what he’s saying when I attend classes at Princeton Seminary. On the one hand, there is the religion of nonjudgmentalism that Reno illuminates in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. I went to the seminary chapel and had a warm, therapeutic bath in the stuff. Nonjudgmentalism is real and it is there. But on the other hand there is the ghost of judgment still haunting the classroom, at least the one I’m in. I have found it is more demanding than anything yet at Westminster because the teacher is so attentive—he doesn’t have the class load, perhaps. He stays on target, he has points to make, he wants to steer and influence at a personal level. The students there (we are five altogether) are prepared, keep engaged and are scrupulously respectful, and are not burdened with a sense—at least that I can detect—of needing to conform to a desired outcome. It is the scholarly habit of suspending judgment which, because no virtue can exist in isolation—transforms the nonjudgmental religion when the rigor of discipline attends. Suspending judgment till a proper evaluation can be made, you understand.

It takes a lot of energy to concentrate and pay attention, and I find those hours at Princeton extremely demanding. I work at it more, and do better too, just because there is a seriousness about it all. I admire the way my teacher conducts himself because he has a real interest in learning through his seminars. At Princeton they can do it because of the size of the endowment they have, what they are able to provide their students, how they are able to select those who enter, and what those selected provide in what is probably the ideal situation. There is a tangible benefit.

I don’t mean to say there aren’t tangible benefits to having to be resourceful about your time, about your money and sources for research, about learning even when your teacher is uninterested or lazy. There are benefits to that as well. But it is the same principle there too: there are things worth struggling for, and one of them is the kind of situation in which the best students have the best opportunities under the best teachers simply because learning is valued.

I’m not talking about orthodox Christianity infiltrating a place like Princeton Seminary. Nor am I talking about being eminent or prestigious—those are not places from which conservatism tends to emanate. I am observing, however, that there are American institutions which have something worth struggling for: the University, for example, if not the Seminary, just to keep certain ghosts available however hard the struggle.

Isn’t that after all the point of being a conservative? Perhaps Princeton will make one out of me yet. I am at least willing to cheer Robert George and his students on.

President Trump

I’m very glad for Trump. I’m glad for him because he was used despicably by the press and other outlets of ignorance. I am glad for him because he has been hated by all the people I would find it honorable to be hated by, including the sanctimonious. Perhaps especially the sanctimonious. I admire that he has good thick skin and I am not sorry for him that he has undergone what he has, but I do rejoice that he won through. He has overcome quite a few things worth overcoming. To the victor the spoils.

Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R.R. Reno

Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
“Our ambition is not to become the next establishment but to influence, directly and indirectly, the moral and spiritual outlook of the current one, turning it in directions that promote wellbeing for everyone.” –Reno

It is a sensible goal. It is an interesting book, if not brilliant. It is engaging and thought-provoking. Reno is a good thinker, though he is not Richard John Neuhaus. While I have not yet forgiven him for not being Richard John Neuhaus, I have forgiven him for being R. R. Reno. His insight is penetrating, if not his wit.

A Longing to Write

I’m still in the reading phase of the semester, but I’m getting a good longing to write, and not the papers but other stuff instead.

Part of it is Orwell, though I’m in the tedious part of 1984 (which I’m reading in case we get President Snow). He has some good observations, such as the man who writes in the small, neat handwriting of the illiterate. I listened to a lecture series on him in general, and that made me want to re-read him and to write fiction.

Another part of it is that I’m doing poetry, and that always brings the mood upon one. I was reading Dymer, which is not without its merits. If you’ve read the Diaries you’ll have an idea of the circumstances and aspirations Lewis had when he wrote Dymer, and the edition I have has a long foreword in which Lewis explains the rest.

The other part is that I need to be busy with other things, so it makes me want to dodge out from under the other things and write stories. The least productive thing I can do, besides this blog, is to read the ones I have and not work on them or anything new. I believe I have some good stories I ought to get back to. I quit to do a lot of work on my big novel in 2014 and have not really returned in earnest. Perhaps I will.

The Glory of October

I don’t know how many book on Tolkien there are in your library, but in the Upper Dublin Public Library they have attained to a whole entire shelf, not to mention the rest of the library system. I have no doubt it has something to do with the movies, but whatever it is, I welcome it. I’ve read a few books on Tolkien over the years and haven’t gotten a dud yet. It does make me think, I haven’t heard that beyond Humphrey Carpenter’s old biography any better has emerged. Surely that is more than a little strange. Is it the family holding a lid on things? Anyway, I’ve got John Garth’s contribution, a bit of concentrated biography.

* * *

I’m on to that having just finished Ivanhoe again. There is a lot of humor in Ivanhoe, and the right sort. I think nowadays we need to remember it. Think of the use of the term ‘racist’ and how alarmingly it is chucked around not only without a really suitably precise definition, but with righteous indignation, as if the sin committed were the one we think we are absolutely incapable of. Ivanhoe has many things coming together, along with sense and humor.

* * *

I’ve read Periphyseon, John Scotus Eriugena’s great work, with some effort. It is a dialogue between a master and pupil about the five divisions of nature in five books. Because he lived in the ninth century, being associated with the court of Charles the Bald, and because he was the last man for 600 years to know Greek in the west, and because he translated Pseudo-Dionysius and then went researching in Maximus and Gregory of Nyssa for understanding of Dionysius, what you get is a Neoplatonic view of God, creation, metaphysics, physics, and specially anthropology. My Platonism grew.

* * *

Bernardus Silvestris has just been translated by the Dumbarton Oaks outfit. I found it in the new books at Westminster. I’m going to do a bit of him. I have November to explore a bit more of the Middle Ages, the 9th and the 12th centuries in particular. Dumbarton Oaks is putting are nice bilingual editions of all kinds of medieval texts.

* * *

And in our Spanish chats we have gotten to Origen. The great thing about Princeton is they buy Spanish patristic resources. At Princeton they also still stamp the date due in the back of the book, and most of the books I’m getting need to have the paper to stamp on added. It means, I think, I’m the first person to have checked them out. Perhaps the librarians are wondering why I can’t just scan my books like everybody else does. They have quite a few resources in bilingual editions (Greek-Spanish or Latin-Spanish). It is exactly what I need for what I’m doing.

* * *

This week we have reached the 7th commandment in 3-4th grade Sunday school. It is a challenge of another sort, but it is a challenge. I can only think of misleading things to say, and I wonder if that is what one is supposed to do.

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.