Observations of the Unexamined Life

I’ve never read Sydney Ahlstrom’s book. Didn’t much know about it. It is aparently the gold standard on American church history in general, has been around since 1974, and I don’t remember once ever encountering it. How did I manage that?

It is huge, and it looks engaging, which is more than I can say about some of the English church history I’ve been doing. All my life I’ve lived with this ridiculous fear that I’d reach the end of all the good books there are and be condemned only to read bad ones. There is a tide to this feeling, and right now it is decidedly at an ebb.

I’ve read through most of the stuff I need to for comprehensive exams on the Reformation, barring primary sources. Now I am reading into Modern church. After that I only have Systematic Theology and Apologetics to read for. After that I can study for the exams. I can see this taking two whole years easily, three. Necessity is going to force me to discover the value of pragmatic approaches to this dilemma.


Perfect, no comment necessary

“Chocolate Jesus”

Don’t go to church on Sunday
Don’t get on my knees to pray
Don’t memorize the books of the Bible
I got my own special way
But I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more

I fall on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee’s candy store

Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

Well I don’t want no Abba Zaba
Don’t want no Almond Joy
There ain’t nothing better
Suitable for this boy
Well it’s the only thing
That can pick me up
Better than a cup of gold
See only a chocolate Jesus
Can satisfy my soul

When the weather gets rough
And it’s whiskey in the shade
It’s best to wrap your savior
Up in cellophane
He flows like the big muddy
But that’s ok
Pour him over ice cream
For a nice parfait

Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me

Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper

Martin Luther: Renegade and ProphetThis biography of Martin Luther is unlike most. Study of Luther usually endeavors to understand his doctrine and its development; this biography is not uninformed about doctrine, but does not center on this important aspect of Luther’s life. As a result, it provides valuable information we do not usually get. Reading almost like a novel, Roper’s book displays a wider picture, including, specially, relations and psychology.

We get, for example, more about Karlstadt’s sartorial peculiarities, which are clues to his character. We also get a better sense of how the conflicts which shaped Luther’s thinking were perceived at the time, through detail found in correspondence. Roper has soaked in the records. The Leipzig debate brought insights and a breakthrough in Luther’s thinking, but she shows it ended with a sense of defeat at the time. We get a better understanding of Luther’s personality, specially a better view of his ego. The man did heroic things, and was not unaware of this. When the moment for his heroic deeds was past, he was also not unaware that he was being eclipsed. This is not flattering, but it is persuasive: it helps account for some of the things he did at the end of his life.

What is the value of knowing what is not flattering? Reflect on one of her conclusions: “Adulating Luther, the movement also saddled itself with a model of preacherly authority that encouraged each local pastor to counter anything he considered a deviation in doctrine as though it would open the door to the Devil—a recipe for acerbic, public argument.” (399) Mistakes are only valuable if we put them to use by learning from them.

Of all the insights Roper has, to me the best was her explanation of Luther’s attitude toward the human body. He was very earnest in his monastic career about the macerations, vigils, and the penance required of him. She argues that this contributed to his unusually positive attitude toward the body and physical pleasure when he realized that none of these privations really availed against his sin. He did not confuse, as many in the Church through the ages had, Paul’s ‘flesh’ with his body. Not only does this help us understand his unusually positive attitude toward eating, drinking, and even overindulgence in matrimony, but also his irrational insistence on the physical presence of Christ in the sacrament. I cannot condense Roper’s carefully marshalled persuasions, which run through the book in many threads and strands, without going to more trouble than it is worth here, but if you seek them, you shall find them.

Roper is decidedly an above-average historian (regius professor of history at Oxford!), and her 416 page biography is documented with another nearly 100 pages of notes. Above all, she is a good writer, without the awkward prose, the clichés and jargon that too often make reading history tedious. Roper reminds me of Perry Miller, though without as much of the glee. She is deft in using detail and circumstance to explore what for historians is often unacknowledged: temperament, feeling, failings, and attitudes. There are also explanations sympathetic to Luther that one does not expect. One is reminded of what John Lukacs says, not only when he dismisses objectivity and subjectivity as illusions, but when he positively affirms that our knowledge is personal and participatory. Here is a view of Luther in which can be so characterized.

Natural Theologian Xenophanes

One of the problems I have with denying natural theology is that there appear to be theological gains not only for Christians to make, but already accomplished by pagan philosophers. One argument to counter this, offered by Augustine, was to have Plato run into Jeremiah in Egypt, and so have proper Greek theological conclusions (assumed by the church for doctrinal purposes in late antiquity) derive from special revelation. Another argument would be to say that we are reading the conclusions we achieved afterward into these earlier times.

Natural law and natural revelation are part of the present debate about classic theism, and an authoritative role for natural theology is a question coming down the pike. Personally, I’m not sure Romans 1:18 denies natural theology—as in, natural man going beyond what is simply natural revelation. This is not to affirm natural soteriology, now. I wonder if some of the (what I perceive as) confusion has to do with failing to distinguish a theological insight from a usefully soteriological conclusion. It occurs to me that another line of argument against natural theology is by making careful distinctions between philosophy and theology, but I don’t personally see exactly how that would proceed. In fact, it is very late in time before we can usefully distinguish them, and so it seems difficult though not impossible to insert a distinction where it is not yet perceived.

But let me put it another way. What if you believe something true and are unaware of how it might condemn you? Would you still suppress it? What if you believe something true and are aware how it might condemn somebody else, though not yourself—hypocrisy being quite a natural failing of mankind? Wouldn’t you be inclined to accept it with some enthusiasm?

Anyway, here’s a good podcast on philosophy in general, and this one is about the pre-Socratic Xenophanes.

Why a god of becoming would be an evil

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lays it out in enumerating an argument in the Timaeus:

The metaphysical being-becoming distinction and its epistemological correlate are put to work in an argument that establishes the framework for the cosmology to follow. The conclusion of that argument is that the universe is a work of craft, produced by a supremely good Craftsman in imitation of an eternal model. The reasoning may be represented as follows:

  1. Some things always are, without ever becoming (27d6).
  2. Some things become, without ever being (27d6–28a1).
  3. If and only if a thing always is, then it is grasped by understanding, involving a rational account (28a1–2).
  4. If and only if a thing becomes, then it is grasped by opinion, involving unreasoning sense perception (28a2–3).[12]
  5. The universe is a thing that has become (28b7; from 5a–c, and 4).
    1. The universe is visible, tangible and possesses a body (28b7–8).
    2. If a thing is visible, tangible and possesses a body, then it is perceptible (28b8).
    3. If a thing is perceptible, then it has become (28c1–2; also entailed by 4).
  6. Anything that becomes is caused to become by something (28a4–6, c2–3).
  7. The universe has been caused to become by something (from 5 and 6).
  8. The cause of the universe is a Craftsman, who fashioned the universe after a model (28a6 ff., c3 ff.; apparently from 7, but see below).
  9. The model of the universe is something that always is (29a4–5; from 9a–9e).
    1. Either the model of the universe is something that always is or something that has become (28a5–29a2, also implied at 28a6–b2).
    2. If the universe is beautiful and the Craftsman is good, then the model of the universe is something that always is (29a2–3).
    3. If the universe is not beautiful or the Craftsman is not good, then the model of the universe is something that has become (29a3–5).
    4. The universe is supremely beautiful (29a5).
    5. The Craftsman is supremely good (29a6).
  10. The universe is a work of craft, fashioned after an eternal model (29a6–b1; from 8 and 9).