Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Body’s Grace Critique #3: God’s Self-Revelation

This is the final post in my critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has (nearly) always found it wise to include the book of Ecclesiastes in their canon, but there's a certain irony in its presence. Ecclesiastes is located in a Book which claims to be the very word of God; and the community which helped Ecclesiastes into the canon did so on the premise that Ecclesiastes was itself a divine word. But Ecclesiastes starts from the perspective that God does not speak to men. "God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few," is a typical observation. Missing from Ecclesiastes is any understanding of revelation, covenant, or divine action within history: in other words, nearly the whole of the rest of Scripture. You can argue about the wisdom of including such an irreligious writing in such a religious Book, but whether you think that was a good idea or bad, you can't dispute the fact that Ecclesiastes' perspective is unique within the canon. With very few exceptions, the rest of the Bible proceeds from the idea that God has uniquely revealed Himself to humanity, starting with an obscure desert tribe descended from "a wandering Aramean". The Bible tells the story of how God extended His revelation through the writings of that tribe as it became a nation, and finally, uniquely, fully, how God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, "the image of the invisible God." Furthermore, the Bible witnesses to a series of covenants that God made, on His own initiative, with the people of our world. This revelation, and these covenants, were not universal, abstract and philosophical, but specific, concrete and historical.

The most serious critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace is that it privileges Ecclesiastes over the rest of the canon, and over the rest of the Christian tradition. I don't mean that he references Ecclesiastes extensively (or at all), but rather, that his perspective in this essay reflects the Preacher's emphasis on experience and the same exclusion of revelation. Williams' defense of homosexuality and extramarital sex makes some sense if you don't believe that God has spoken in any specific or significant way through Scripture. He says repeatedly that we must deal with "the realities of our experience" and must "[recognize] the facts of a lot of people's experience", and it would be hard to deny this. But as Christians, we must also reflect on what Christians of all ages have called the Word of God: certainly we have no choice but to understand Scripture in light of our experience, but we must also take care to interpret our experience in light of Scripture. If Williams claims to speak as a representative of the Church, it's disturbing to see the carelessness with which he treats the very revelation of God on which the Church claims to be founded.

Here's an example of what I mean. This essay, which is well-crafted and clearly comes from Williams' heart, contains the reflections on human sexuality of an Archbishop, reputed to be one of today's premier theologians. This is an issue which is controversial to the world at large, and is threatening to rend his own flock in two. And in this essay, Williams discusses a play by Shakespeare at some length, a series of novels by Paul Scott at some greater length, and the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel quite extensively; but only very briefly, at the tail-end of his essay, does he engage with Scripture, and then only with a few exceedingly general passages that, after some substantial wrangling, could vaguely support his point. He ignores the numerous, specific, and embarrassingly unambiguous passages which point in exactly the opposite direction. It's almost as if Williams doesn't believe that Scripture is of any particular relevance to a Christian's thinking on this very personal, intimate and complex issue.

Now, I'll grant that it's not always clear how to use Scripture. Indeed, it's become increasingly clear to me that the primary challenge facing the Church today is to arrive at a common understanding of how Biblical authority functions in a contemporary context. The Reformation consensus on the nature and use of Scripture has been largely discarded (and perhaps discredited), at least in academic circles and mainline denominations, and no similar consensus has arisen to take its place.  Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, by and large, are still trying to use the older models, but it's difficult to maintain both inerrancy and engagement with the larger culture when there's so much academic and cultural pressure against inerrancy (not to mention good arguments).  But once you discard inerrancy, it's difficult to stick with sola scriptura.  In my experience, folks tend to end up influenced more by the culture than by Scripture and tradition, or they're forced into a sort of Roman Catholic / Orthodox understanding of Scriptural authority, heavily supplemented by tradition.  This is a widely acknowledged problem, and there are a variety of creative proposals being made these days. Of course, these proposals all start with the necessity of engaging the text in some fashion, and Williams' essay makes only a feeble attempt at doing so.

I'm reluctantly led to the conclusion that Williams believes the substantial guidance Scripture gives us on our sexuality is of little accuracy and less relevance. God's revelation figures into his theology of sexuality primarily as a gloss, and it does not fundamentally touch any point in his argument.

In my first post on Williams' essay, I said that my primary reaction was sadness, and this realization is why. I confess that this is the only piece by Rowan Williams that I've read, and it may not be indicative of the thrust of his work more generally. I understand from other folks that he's actually a competent and influential theologian, so hopefully this essay is inconsistent with the rest of what he's up to theologically. But to the extent this essay reflects his larger methodology, I worry that Williams is removing himself from any real connection to the great traditions of Christianity. That would be a sad thing for the Anglican communion, as well as for the Church universal. Ecclesiastes is a great book and a tremendous work of art. There was a time it kept me a Christian when nothing else would. Maybe it even makes sense to start your theology there. But it would be a barren and incomplete theology that went no further.

The Body’s Grace Critique #2: Covenant Faithfulness

This is a continuation of my critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace.

It's clearly a stretch for our current culture to understand why Christian thinkers have (until recently) held that certain pleasurable acts between consenting adults are nevertheless wrong. Western society has grown intensely individualistic in theory even as technology has rendered us intensely communitarian in practice. A contemporary secular understanding of sexuality will therefore be big on individualism, and any individualistic account of sexuality in the age of birth control will necessarily be weak on "sin". Sex outside of marriage no longer automatically implies pregnancy, danger, expense, shame and poverty. (I should note, though, that even when birth control is involved the risk of unplanned pregnancy is hardly negligible: it's about the same as your chances of dying when climbing Mt. Everest. The impact isn't quite the same, but as anyone can tell you who has ever raised a baby, or had an abortion, or placed a child for adoption, it's substantial.)

Perhaps the fact that sex is less objectively risky these days should change how we view it; but perhaps not. Even under a purely secular thesis of evolutionary psychology, we're wired to think of sex as producing children, i.e., whether we realize it or not, having sex with someone reserves a place for them in our brain that says, "This person is important: I may be seeing their genes in my children each day for the next 18 years."

But of course, in Rowan Williams' essay "The Body's Grace", he's trying to speak, not as an unencumbered, post-modern, secular self, but as a Christian, indeed, an Archbishop, and from within a long Christian tradition of reflection on marriage and sexuality. It's therefore odd that Williams' account of marriage is entirely individualistic, and in fact seems to owe more to Locke's idea of a "social contract" (with a few psychological glosses) than to any Biblical framework. Williams does think that long-term commitment is important, but his explanation as to why this is so ends where one partner's body connects to the other. At least in this essay, for Williams the only parties concerned in a given marriage are the two individuals. This is the only explanation he gives for why two partners should remain faithful to each other:

I can only fully discover the body's grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures. There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

It's somewhat strange that Williams neglects the communal dimension of marriage. A stable family (and therefore marriage, and therefore sex) is a community affair, and marriage is thus an institution in which society has a quite legitimate and vested interest. But more to my point, I think it's especially odd that his essay neglects "covenant faithfulness", a Biblical theme which features prominently in Christian accounts of marriage throughout history.

God's people have consistently understood their relationship to God through the lens of "covenant". This tradition goes back to the story of Noah, reaches through Abraham, Sinai, and finally to the "new covenant in my blood". This "new covenant" was predicted by Jeremiah, instituted at the Last Supper and on the cross, and is formally re-enacted each Sunday through the Eucharist in churches around the world.

In addition, this covenant between God and his people is understood through the lens of marriage, the covenant between a man and his wife. There are many passages where this image comes to the fore, but nowhere is it more profoundly expressed than in the book of Hosea:

When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD." (Hosea 1:2)

In the New Testament, the relationship is reversed: not only is light shed on the divine covenant through the human covenant of marriage, but new light is shed on the nature of marriage by observing God's covenant with us.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)

Covenant seems to be an example of the analogia entis, of the enlightening similarities which exist between God and His creation. We begin to understand the faithfulness which exists in God's own nature as we observe His faithfulness to His people through history, but also as we experience the faithfulness of one spouse to another in marriage.

Christian thinkers have universally understood marriage in this way, as a human covenant of divine origin, which is thus a suitable image of the covenantal relationship between God and His people. They have differed as to whether it is a sacrament or merely a divine institution, but none have sought to disagree with Paul's assessment that it is a mystery and a symbol of Christ's love for the Church.

If the husband die, with whom a true marriage was made, a true marriage is now possible by a connection which would before have been adultery. Thus between the conjugal pair, as long as they live, the nuptial bond has a permanent obligation, and can be cancelled neither by separation nor by union with another. But this permanence avails, in such cases, only for injury from the sin, not for a bond of the covenant. In like manner the soul of an apostate, which renounces as it were its marriage union with Christ, does not, even though it has cast its faith away, lose the sacrament of its faith, which it received in the laver of regeneration. (Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence)

Matrimony is instituted both as an office of nature and as a sacrament of the Church. As an office of nature it is directed by two things, like every other virtuous act. One of these is required on the part of the agent and is the intention of the due end, and thus the "offspring" is accounted a good of matrimony; the other is required on the part of the act, which is good generically through being about a due matter; and thus we have "faith," whereby a man has intercourse with his wife and with no other woman. Besides this it has a certain goodness as a sacrament, and this is signified by the very word "sacrament." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica)

The third incomparable grace of faith is this, that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband; by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage—nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages—is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as his. (Luther, First Principles of the Reformation)

But in order to press the matter more on the priests, he calls their attention to the fact that God is the founder of marriage. Testified has Jehovah, he says, between thee and thy wife. He intimates in these words, that when a marriage takes place between a man and a woman, God presides and requires a mutual pledge from both. Hence Solomon, in Proverbs 2:17, calls marriage the covenant of God, for it is superior to all human contracts. (Calvin, Commentary on Malachi)

It is the divine intention that persons entering the marriage covenant become inseparably united, thus allowing for no dissolution save that caused by the death of either husband or wife. (Westminster Confession of Faith)

In this covenant of grace, we may see the cream of God's love, and the working of his bowels to sinners. This is a marriage covenant. "I am married to you, saith the Lord." (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity)

In addition to marriage, the Bible also provides various resources for thinking more specifically about sex. Its approach is surprisingly multifaceted, much more so than many modern thinkers. Sex is for procreation (Genesis 2:28), for pleasure (1 Corinthians 7:5, the entire Song of Solomon), and for comfort (Genesis 24:67; 2 Samuel 12:24). But primarily, sex is explained as the sign and seal of the marriage covenant, and in this way, sexual fidelity is a symbol or image of God's covenantal faithfulness to us.

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
(Revelation 20:6-8)

No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah,
and your land Beulah;
for the LORD will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
As a young man marries a maiden,
so will your sons marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you.
(Isaiah 62:4-5)

For this reason, sex outside of marriage, especially adultery, is identified directly as faithlessness to God.

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, "Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. (Jeremiah 3:6)

The adultery of which Jeremiah speaks is both literal and figurative: the inhabitants of Israel and Judah were having sex with sacred prostitutes and thus were unfaithful to their spouses, and because they were doing this in disobedience to God's command, and were worshiping other gods, the same act showed their unfaithfulness to God. The same identification of faithlessness to divine and human spouses is made in Ezekiel:

The LORD said to me: "Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Then confront them with their detestable practices, for they have committed adultery and blood is on their hands. They committed adultery with their idols; they even sacrificed their children, whom they bore to me, as food for them. They have also done this to me: At that same time they defiled my sanctuary and desecrated my Sabbaths. On the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered my sanctuary and desecrated it. That is what they did in my house. (Ezekiel 23:36-39)

Or as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

The understanding which lies under all these passages is that sex is the sign and seal of the covenant of marriage, and that sex with anyone besides your spouse is a violation not only of your spouse's trust, but of God's. As the writer of Hebrews says:

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. (Hebrews 13:4)

Paul is very clear on this in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8:

It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

The key is to note that sexual immorality is a wrong against one's brother, because it takes advantage of him (or her). Presumably part of the reason is because of the risk of unwanted pregnancy, but also because it's a violation of the marriage covenant (even if you're not yet married, it wrongs your future spouse); and in so violating the covenant with our partner, we violate our covenant with our God.

Anyone who thinks of marriage as a covenant can understand sex as the sign and seal of the marriage covenant, though of course, only Christians can understand it as a symbol or sacrament of the divine love of Christ for His Church. However, it seems that anyone who is a Christian should give pretty serious consideration to this particular understanding of sexuality. Certainly the New Testament teaches us that "sexual immorality" (typically πορνεια in Greek) is a serious sin, and the understanding of sexual fidelity as a symbol of divine fidelity helps to explain why its writers are so insistent on this point.

In other words, it's disappointing that Rowan Williams ignores this lengthy and venerable line of Christian thought on the relationship of sex to marriage and, indeed, to God. I wish I had a better explanation for this neglect than that if he had done otherwise, it would have shown the main point of his essay in rather a dubious light.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Body’s Grace Critique #1: Sin and Judgment

This is a continuation of my critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace.

In general, Williams appears to be operating with an extremely weak doctrine of sin, and an even weaker doctrine of judgment. It is perhaps symptomatic of Williams' approach that the word "sin" appears only once in his essay, in the context of denying that the term should be applied to uncommitted sexual partnerships. He prefers the word "tragic", which he occasionally juxtaposes with "comic": "Nothing will stop sex being tragic and comic." "Paul Scott's Raj Quartet is full of poignant and very deep analyses of the tragedies of sexuality." "What seems to be the prophet's own discovery of a kind of sexual tragedy enables a startling and poignant reimagining of what it means for God to be united, not with a land alone, but with a people, themselves vulnerable and changeable."

Williams is aware that our sexuality is ambiguous, and is not an unmixed force for good. We may encounter "difficulties", he admits, if we pursue sexuality outside of traditional moral frameworks, but he seems to see these difficulties as ultimately positive. If we follow "conventional (heterosexual) morality", he writes, "the question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body's grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other." If we refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Williams seems to be saying, we shall never partake of that godlike knowledge of the consequences that follow. He very nearly says, "Let us sin so that grace may increase."

Missing entirely from Rowan Williams' account is a sense that in our sexuality we might ever be doing something wrong, worthy of guilt, something that grieves God and which should grieve us, something of which we must surely repent. The Christian account of life in the Spirit is a three-fold dialect of sin, repentance and restoration. Williams' essay very nearly ignores the first two elements of this dialectic, or minimizes them to an astonishing degree. I'm not entirely sure why this is missing from Williams, but it should be clear to anyone who has any inkling of Jesus' message that this is not missing there. The opening words of Jesus' ministry in the Gospel of Matthew are, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." In the famous story of the woman taken in adultery (which I accept as canonical, whatever textual issues remain), Jesus' words to her are, "Go and sin no more." Jesus' first words to the paralyzed man in Matthew 9 are not "Rise and walk," but rather, "Be comforted, child, your sins are forgiven." And frankly, the full strength of all three elements is not missing from anybody who has ever committed a sexual sin and has found the grace to repent and receive forgiveness.

Williams' neglect of the moral dimension of sexuality might be understandable if he is attempting to speak from within a purely contemporary framework, but it makes less sense if he is trying to speak from within (or to) the larger Christian community. The Christian message is frankly incomprehensible without a strong doctrine of sin, without a profound and troubling awareness of the frequency and the degree to which each of us transgresses against the divine will. I agree that sin and judgment can be overplayed (a famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards comes to mind), but this is hardly a pressing problem in Western culture today. Certainly the Bible uses these categories incessantly, and not just in the Old Testament; and it uses them frequently with reference to human sexuality. I could list the passages in question, but I have to imagine that anybody who's bothered to read this far knows them already. And of course, virtually the whole of the Christian tradition, in line with nearly every culture that has ever existed until the 20th century, has held the same perspective.

Now, of course human sexuality is not inherently sinful, and sexual sins are not worse than other kinds of sins. In fact, Christian reflection going back at least to the Middle Ages (and perhaps earlier – I'm no Patristic scholar) has generally insisted that sexual sins are the least of all sins. There's a reason why Dante put the sexually immoral on the outer ring of Hell, reserving the inner circles and correspondingly creative punishments for, say, the sins of popes and kings. But the opinion that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful has been "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ad omnibus" within the Church: it has been believed in all places, at all times, and by all. To the extent that this understanding of sin is missing from Williams' account, whatever his title and job description might be, he shouldn't be understood as speaking from within or for the Church.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Body’s Grace

I ran across an essay today by Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican and Episcopalian communion, entitled The Body's Grace (2002). It's full of well-written and witty reflections on human sexuality, and I won't deny that there's some real wisdom in it. But on the whole, Williams' essay saddened me. In this and subsequent posts, I'll explore why.
In The Body's Grace, Williams argues for an ethic of mutual pleasure, risk, tragedy and comedy in sexual relationships. Although he doesn't quite come out and say it, it's clearly on his radar to provide a sort of theological framework for the Church's acceptance of sexual practices that have hitherto been frowned upon, i.e., premarital sex and homosexuality.

He acknowledges that nearly all sexuality is tinged with tragedy, but he argues that even in the midst of tragedy, we may find grace in unusual or surprising ways. With our sexuality, we discover that our bodies can be the cause of happiness to ourselves and to others. "Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted." This "body's grace" can only be found in the mutuality of risk and relationship.

My desire, if it is going to be sustained and developed, must itself be perceived; and, if it is to develop as it naturally tends to, it must be perceived as desirable by the other - that is my arousal and desire must become the cause of someone else's desire. . . So for my desire to persist and have some hope of fulfilment, it must be exposed to the risks of being seen by its object.

Although the overriding purpose of sexuality is mutual pleasure and desire, Williams believes that mutual risk and exposure are fundamental aspects of any appropriate sexual practice, even if they are pleasurable. Following the philosopher Thomas Nagel, Williams is willing to retain the idea of "sexual perversion" in connection to such practices as rape, pedophilia or bestiality, not because they transgress a creational norm, but because they are asymmetrical rather than mutual. "They leave one agent in effective control of the situation - one agent, that is, who doesn't have to wait upon the desire of the other." He very nearly draws the conclusion that conjugal sexuality without pleasure may deserve the same appellation: "If this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a 'perversion' - well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion…" Similarly, masturbation, because it takes place in solitude, is less than ideal: "Solitary sexual activity works at the level of release of tension and a particular localised physical pleasure; but insofar as it has nothing much to do with being perceived from beyond myself in a way that changes my self-awareness, it isn't of much interest for a discussion of sexuality as process and relation, and says little about grace."

Williams' account of mutual faithfulness is similarly based on this idea of mutual risk and pleasure:

It should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body's grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

In other words, to be truly open to the other, you must be open to a process of discovery that takes place over time, presumably, over the course of a lifetime. Marriage, a public commitment and a public blessing, gives a special life to this process, and enlarges the space and time in which a couple can explore the meaning of their relationship.

But conventional heterosexual marriage, Williams insists, is not the only way to find "the body's grace". "The realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly." "The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to 'legalise' it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions." "People do discover . . . a grace in encounters fraught with transitoriness and without much 'promising' (in any sense)." Furthermore, marriage itself need not be permanent if the partners have grown apart. "If this blessing becomes a curse or an empty formality, it is both wicked and useless to hold up the sexuality of the canonically married heterosexual as absolute, exclusive and ideal."

Apart from any awareness of revelation or of the Christian tradition generally, I have to say, I find Williams' account compelling. There is a great deal to be said for a sexual ethic based on mutual openness and risk, which is aware of the inevitably tragic dimension of human sexuality, and which acknowledges that true openness and risk can only take place within a long-term, committed relationship. This ethic has many points of contact with our culture, though it also offers at least a gentle element of critique. In this sense, Williams' essay reminds me of Ecclesiastes, which speaks from within a Wisdom tradition where God is in heaven and we are on earth, where God exists but does not speak. If we are bound to see our way forward on our own, bound by neither covenant nor revelation, we could do worse than to realize that "it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything."

It would be wrong to imply that Williams' essay is entirely secular. He doesn't precisely ground human sexuality in the divine life, but he certainly draws the connection. Human sexuality, he says, is a picture of God's desire for us:

The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ's body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.
The purpose of the Church, similarly, is so that we may be caught up into that element of the divine life:
The life of the Christian community has as its rationale - if not invariably its practical reality - the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.
And if we are members of the Church, learning about God's love for us and practicing love for each other, we are well positioned to experience everything that sexuality has to teach us about ourselves and our partner.
To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God's love for God through incorporation into the community of God's Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God's child.
So Williams takes God into account, or at least, certain aspects of the divine economy. However, like Ecclesiastes itself, Williams neglects several critical aspects of our shared tradition, and this neglect, in my opinion, undermines his attempt to narrate a specifically Christian ethic of sexuality. Specifically, three different themes which figure prominently both in the Bible and in the long history of Christian ethical reflection are virtually missing from his account: (1) sin and judgment; (2) covenant faithfulness; (3) God's self-revelation in Scripture. I'll cover these with separate posts over the next several days.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Opening Thoughts on Exclusion and Embrace

Having gratefully put Ellul aside, at least for the moment, I've picked up Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace. Although the book was written not long after Work in the Spirit, and at first blush seems to follow a similar method, it feels very different to me. I'm only just getting started, but it already seems to situate its topic (how to think about reconciliation with your enemy) within a larger framework of theological reflection than Work in the Spirit. Among other things, it felt to me like Work in the Spirit didn't deal enough with the cross: Volf spent a great deal of time commenting on what work should be like, but didn't give much guidance on what to do when it wasn't that way. But in Exclusion and Embrace, Volf quite appropriately places the cross first and foremost as he works out what it means for a Christian to belong to a specific human culture.

In addition, the book is an admirable demonstration of how a well-informed, subtle and creative theological mind works with Scripture in the context of contemporary social and philosophical problems. I'm only just getting started, but I'm already learning from his placement of Paul's "body of Christ" metaphor within recent debates on the nature of community and self. It's an enlightening and refreshing reprieve after Ellul's dour prognostications.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ellul Critique #3: The Information Age Changes the Impact of Technique

This is a continuation of my series reflecting on Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society. I promised to write up what I felt to be some of the weaknesses of his method; this is the third.

Ellul was writing before the information age: he consistently thinks of the requirements of Technique in a manner analogous to technology and corporations as they existed in the 1950's. That's not exactly his fault, of course: mistakes which to us are obviously or even ludicrously wrongheaded may be quite understandable, though of course, they remain mistakes. His emphasis that Technique requires centralization (pp. 193ff) is one example of this. Nobody who lived through the PC revolution of the 1980's and the resulting death of the mainframe would ever assert with Ellul's certainty that "the idea of effecting decentralization while maintaining technical progress is purely utopian" (p. 194). The way you get computers to do what you want is dramatically different from how you get a drill press or a filling machine to do what you want. You still use Technique, of course, but you use it in very different ways, and it has dramatically different ramifications for those who use it. Many of the conclusions that Ellul draws, not to mention the arguments that he makes or the reasons that he adduces, are simply inapplicable to the economics of information or to the techniques of information management.

To take just one example, one of the great creations of the Information Age has been the job of computer programmer. As I put it in a previous posting:

"I sometimes marvel at how certain gifted engineers are able to work with computers, and the artistry they exhibit as they create beautiful and elegant solutions to the difficult problems I bring them. It makes me wonder if a silent, hidden capacity has existed throughout time inside at least some human beings, an aptitude which lay dormant through millennia of evolution and social change, until the day when Univac was unveiled, and the potential became actuality. To this small class of people, to live in an age prior to computers must have been something like living in a remote tribe which had lost all ability to speak; and turning on their first computer would have had all the glory and the wonder of Adam naming the animals."

If you aren't a computer programmer yourself, it's easy to miss the fact that programmers are first and foremost aesthetes. A great deal has been made about programming as an expression of the will to power, and there's certainly something to that claim. But from my own experience, programming and working with programmers for the better part of two decades, I think the primary motivation is something closer to beauty. Remember that, virtually by definition, a programmer who is writing code is trying to solve a problem that nobody else has ever solved before. If the problem has been solved before, the economics of computing mean that the cheapest, most efficient way to solve it is generally to use that person's code: writing code is hard. So if you're forced to write code to deal with a particular problem, it generally means that nobody has ever solved that problem before. For this reason, the act of programming is akin to meditation, an active response of Thought to the problems presented by an external world. When a programmer has completed (at least for the moment) a module or program, and has done it well, the resulting satisfaction goes beyond any simplistic sense of "a job well done"; it's closer to how an architect would feel contemplating one of his creations, or indeed, the way that an author feels when reading a particularly well-crafted sentence. It is true that Technique these days penetrates into even the heart of beauty and art, but it's equally true that art and beauty have penetrated into the very heart of Technique.

To be clear, I think the Information Age changes Technique both for better and for worse. For all the information Google puts at my finger-tips, it encourages me to think superficially about issues, to treat knowledge lightly, as a commodity, rather than with the respect that it's due. In addition, it introduces an entirely new problem, a vastly expanded "commons" whereby the "tragedy of the commons" can play out, with our attention as the commons, and advertising by fair means or foul as the Technique by which it is exploited.

Ellul Critique #2: Technique Doesn’t Work for Wicked Problems

This is a continuation of my series reflecting on Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society. I promised to write up what I felt to be some of the weaknesses of his method; this is the second.

"Wicked problems" are variously defined, but in effect, they're problems that you can understand completely only after you've solved them. You can get the idea by pondering what it would take to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to create a genuine artificial intelligence. There are two key things to note about wicked problems: (1) they're everywhere, and (2) pretty much by definition, Technique doesn't work for them. This necessarily limits the power and scope of Technique, and carves out a realm where other phenomena can still function with some degree of autonomy. You can see how this works if you look at a classic wicked problem, how to write the best tax code. On p. 269, Ellul claims that "there is an optimum tax structure which can be completely determined," and that Technique will invariably force us to find and implement this structure. Yet 50 some years later, politicians in the US are still arguing about taxes – and any tax structure which might conceivably be viable in the US is dramatically different than what you would find in Europe. Indeed, due to the wildly differing philosophical presuppositions which underlie the debate, this is an area where there is very little agreement at all.

Similarly, Ellul describes (pp. 341ff) with great confidence the growing ability of psychology to accurately predict human behavior and, more disturbingly, allow technicians to control it. However, my experience with ad campaigns and, specifically, with the use of multivariate testing algorithms to select the best landing pages, leads me to believe that both Ellul's confidence and his worries are excessive. Determining the landing page that will give you the most conversions is a fairly simple and very well-defined problem, even if it has certain "wicked" elements to it. The most sophisticated approach involves assessing the attractiveness of different options within different page elements, using complex, multivariate statistics to overcome the astronomic number of combinations involved and predict the best combination of elements. At Zango, over the years, we tried this approach with at least three different companies, with precisely zero success. People simply didn't behave the way that the statistical models told us they'd behave; and even when they did, for a given page, it was nearly impossible to translate those learnings to the hundreds of other landing pages we needed to optimize. And this was for a very simple, very localized, very well-defined problem, with millions of data points available for analysis. Certainly advertisers, television executives, and movie producers have found a myriad of ways to manipulate us, and they're reasonably good at it. But it's still more art than science, more gut than technique. Who could have predicted the success of Nike's Just do it slogan? Or Apple's astonishingly simple "Hi I'm a Mac" ads? There's Technique there, sure, but there's a whole lot more creativity than Technique.

Here's another example. When an Internet company wants to maximize lifetime revenue from their audience, the standard technique is to split the audience up into "sample groups", and treat each of those sample groups differently (say, by showing them a different page when they visit your site). You then measure the "lifetime revenue per user" from each of those groups, and when you determine which of the sample groups has the highest lifetime revenue, you begin treating all your users the same way you treated those users. Google and Microsoft, those ancient adversaries, use this technique all the time. Back around 2000, when Google was just beginning its rise to power, both MSN and Google were trying to figure out how best to monetize their users. An insider from MS told me that the folks over at MSN decided to test showing ads on the MSN search page, and they tested it by dividing up the users into sample groups, and showing each sample group a different number of ads. Well, it turns out that the sample groups showed almost no difference in user lifetime, but the sample group which had the most ads had the best lifetime revenue. So MSN started showing a whole bunch of ads on their home page. And of course, why not? But the interesting thing is that Google ran the same tests, with the same sample groups, and they came up with the same results. But Google recognized that a sample group couldn't test everything: for instance, it couldn't test whether a user ended up referring friends to the site because it was so cool. So Google made the choice – against every advice that Technique could give them – not to show ads on their home page. In other words, unlike Microsoft, Google recognized that user retention was a "wicked problem", with counter-intuitive solutions. Of course, there are many reasons why Google has beaten Microsoft at search, but this recognition that not everything can be solved with Technique is a very big part of it.

Ellul reviews the various options which may stand in the way of Technique (morality, popular opinion, social structure and the state), and concludes that nothing in contemporary society is likely to stand in its way (pp. 301-318). But he ignores the entire class of problems that Technique simply can't address, and that calls his fundamental thesis into question. If Technique, by definition, has nothing to say to huge areas of human experience, it seems less of a threat than Ellul makes it out to be.

I suspect that it's only been in the last few decades – well after Ellul wrote – that we've come to recognize the nature and existence of wicked problems. The many futile attempts to create a general-purpose artificial intelligence have been highly enlightening in this regard. (See Hubert Dreyfus' What Computers Still Can't Do.) So it's perhaps understandable that Ellul could have repeated this claim:

"Jungk even claims that in the United States, on very advanced technical levels, unchallengeable decisions have already been made by 'electronic brains' in the service of the National Bureau of Standards; for example, by the EAC, surnamed the 'Washington Oracle'. The EAC is said to have been the machine which made the decision to recall General MacArthur after it had solved equations containing all the strategic and economic variables of his plan. This example, which must be given with all possible reservations, is confirmed by the fact that the American government has submitted to such computing devices a large number of economic problems that border on the political." (p. 259)

In the 1950's and 1960's, there was a fairly widespread assumption that the problems of artificial intelligence would be quickly solved, as evidenced by the tendency to call them 'electronic brains'. Still, this perspective seems absurdly naïve, and even though Ellul repeats it with "all possible reservations", the fact that he thought it worthy of repetition in any form shows just how badly he misunderstood the limitations of Technique. Certain problems are just not susceptible to technical solutions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ellul Critique #1: Technique is a Sociological Phenomenon

This is a continuation of my series reflecting on Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society. I promised to write up what I felt to be some of the weaknesses of his method; this is the first.

Ellul treats the idea of Technique as a sort of abstract concept, as a mechanism which operates nearly independent of human desires, which can be elaborated precisely, and whose characteristics can be defined absolutely. I think it comes much closer to reality, however, if we think of Technique as a sociological phenomenon which obeys only the complex and arbitrary rules of human society. (Indeed, it may be a mistake to use "rules" in reference to human society at all.) In other words, Ellul oversimplifies the nature of human existence in community. For all his critique of the straightforward, unchanging, unblinking automatic progress of Technique, his own thinking seems to follows those same channels. He doesn't take into account that nearly every human system is self-limiting in some fashion. You can push it only so far before some internal logic takes over, or the trend in question strengthens some opposing phenomenon, and the phenomenon is forced into equilibrium or even retreat.

As one example: I suspect that the anti-technology mindset which marked the counter-culture of the 1960's was at least partly a result of Ellul's work. Part of the reason why Technique is not omnipotent (as Ellul seems to claim) is because people like Ellul have warned us about it. Yes, Technique tends to expand its sphere, but other contradictory phenomena also struggle to expand theirs. The really interesting thing is to note what happens when they meet. The result is invariably more subtle, creative and unpredictable than Ellul would have us believe.

Moreover, contrary to Ellul's repeated assertions, I'm simply not convinced that Technique is all of one piece. To the extent that it is as universal as he claims, it is not as bad; and to the extent that it is as bad as he claims, it's not as universal. It is true that Technique can be very bad – but not all Technique is that bad. And it's true that we encounter Technique nearly everywhere these days – but we find it in very different guises, used for different purposes, employed in different ways, and with widely divergent results. I don't deny that these differing manifestations may share a certain inner logic, but it's excessively simplistic to treat them as if they all behaved the same way and had a common impact on all who use them.

Another way of putting it is to say that Technique is not absolute, i.e., it does not only obey the laws of Technique. Ellul insists on this in a number of places:

"Everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as it is available, without distinction of good or evil" (p. 99).

"If there is a competition between this intrinsic finality and an extrinsic end proposed by man, it is always the intrinsic finality which carries the day" (p. 141).

"The technical problem can be simply stated: given a certain machine, how can it be used most efficiently?" (p. 276).

"Everyone's function, once it has become technical, finds in technique its meaning and validity; its proper results and destiny are of little importance" (p. 300).

In other words, Ellul says that efficiency – the "one best way" – is the only judge of a given technique. However, contrary to Ellul's assertions, in my own experience, Technique is always used in the service of some sort of end, and that end is quite generally independent of the specific technique in question. At times, Ellul's position approaches the absurd:

"In reality, it is not the 'wishes' of the 'producers' which control, but the technical necessity of production which forces itself on the consumers. Anything and everything which technique is able to produce is produced and accepted by the consumer." (p. 93)

I've spent most of the last decade participating directly in the process Ellul describes in that sentence, and I can assure you that it doesn't work that way. We used what Ellul would call Technique to produce a very large number of things, and refrained from producing a much, much greater number that were technically possible. The reason we produced the things we did was for a reason independent of Technique, i.e., we wanted to make money; and the reason we decided not to produce the things we could have produced was for the converse reason, i.e., we were convinced it wouldn't make us money. And although consumers did want some of the things we produced, much of it was not in fact wanted: this is normal in the business world, and like other businesses, there was little to nothing we could do to force consumers to change their minds. In short, anybody who ever sat through a brainstorming session with Product Management would have difficulty taking this part of Ellul's analysis seriously.

The Technological Society

"But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge." – Daniel 12:4

Over the last couple weeks, I've been making my way through Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society. I'll confess that it hasn't been an enjoyable experience, for a variety of reasons. Apart from a few moving paragraphs, Ellul isn't much of a writer (though John Wilkinson's translation is more clear and idiomatic than most), and he belabors points ad nauseum. A good editor could easily have trimmed a quarter of the book's 400 page length. In addition, the topic is an uncomfortable one for someone like myself who is as fascinated by technology as Ellul is repulsed by it: when I disagree, it's annoying; when I'm reluctantly convinced, it's disturbing.

For those unfamiliar with Ellul's work, he starts by defining Technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given state of development) in every field of human activity." That's fairly dense, but basically, he means something in-between "reason" and "technology". It's close to what we would call "processes and procedures" in business: it's the "one best way" to get something done.

From this starting point, Ellul's basic point is that Technique has taken over society to an unprecedented degree, and that this ongoing assimilation operates according to an internal logic which makes it unlikely to be halted or even mitigated. He claims to offer no opinion about whether this is a good thing or bad, but this claim is disingenuous: he clearly believes that this is a Very Bad Thing. C. S. Lewis frequently makes reference in his work to the "myth of progress", the idea that things will continuously and necessarily improve over time. Ellul believes more deeply in this myth than any other thinker I've encountered – except that the progress he believes will occur he also believes to be profoundly wrong.

There's no doubt that Ellul makes an impressive and sometimes a very disturbing case. He lays out an argument based partly on his understanding of the internal logic of Technique, and partly based on the facts, examples and analyses that were available to him as he was writing in the 1950's. Given that La Technique (its French title) is more than half a century old, and that he was explicitly trying to predict the future, it's disturbing how often he was right. The 24x7 police surveillance that he predicted is pretty much present reality in the UK, and nearly so in the US. The increasing damage to our environment he predicted industry would bring is proceeding apace, and in the case of global warming, is perhaps even more worrisome than he could have imagined. He predicted a globalized economy (pp. 78, 206) long before it existed in reality. He quite accurately describes a world which long ago moved past being infatuated with technology, and today veritably worships it. The shelves of many Apple and AT&T stores, currently bare of the 3G iPod, and the long lines at the rest, speak eloquently to this truth.

"All myths directly or indirectly go back to the myth of Paradise; and the technical productivity man is witnessing seems to have spurred a proliferation of myths. . . . [Technical] progress restores to man the supernatural world from which he had been severed, an incomprehensible world but one which he himself has made, a world full of promises that he knows can be realized and of which he is potentially the master. He is seized by sacred delirium when he sees the shining track of a supersonic jet or visualizes the vast granaries stocked for him. He projects this delirium into the myth through which he can control, explain, direct, and justify his actions." (p. 192)

That's as profound a description of our modern obsession with technology as I've seen.

Still, amongst all these impressive predictions, there are some howlers. His analysis of the various strengths and weaknesses of planned, market and mixed economies (pp. 149-218) has the singular disadvantage of having been proven badly wrong by actual events. He quotes with approval (pp. 81, 201) a fundamental Marxist critique of capitalism, that it inhibits technological development. For those who live in the age of Google and Moore's Law, this claim is nearly incomprehensible. Equally puzzling is the assertion (p. 175) that a planned economy is inherently more efficient than a market economy: our generation saw the Berlin Wall come down, and watched the shabby, threadbare East German economy limp, blinking, into the daylight. (Ellul eventually acknowledges, inconsistently, that private techniques are more efficient than those of the state [p. 248].) At one point, Ellul says, "The average man becomes the norm in the most liberal system in the world because only the products necessary to the average man are offered on the market." This may have been true in the 1950's, but hardly so in a New Economy dominated by eBay, Amazon and the Long Tail.

These mistakes don't necessarily disprove Ellul's central thesis (he seems to believe Marxist society will be worse because it will be more technologically advanced), but it does highlight limitations in his method. If his analysis of free-market economics was so misguided, it makes you think harder about his other claims.

Ellul is enlightening on certain issues, and downright prescient on others. At the moment, though, I'm more interested in figuring out where the weaknesses are in his book, and what accounts for them. I don't know that I can put my finger on them, but over the next couple days, I'll try to elaborate on them in a series of separate posts.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


I love xkcd: I have the uncomfortable feeling that theology might tend towards the "literary criticism" end of the spectrum.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I've been working my way through The Technological Society lately, but Ellul's dour grey prose didn't seem to be the right sort of reading for a warm, blue Seattle Sunday. In addition, I was on active parent duty today, and Ellul's not the sort of author you can read very profitably if you have to put him down every few minutes to chase Caedmon away from, respectively, my dirty socks, the cat, a staircase, my laptop, a lamp and its associated electrical cord, and the toilet I accidentally left open. (I can remember, many months ago, looking forward to Caedmon's mobility.)

So I picked up Frederick Buechner's Godric instead. I've read it with pleasure and profit some three or four times previously, but it's been many years, and it seemed time to join Buechner's salty saint in damp Wear once more.

In general, Buechner runs hot and cold for me. I've never been able to make it through any of his sermon collections, and even some of his novels leave me scratching my head. Bebb is a mess, Brendan was a pale shadow of Godric, and The Storm was only, well, interesting. But periodically Buechner hits high notes that leave Italian sopranos gasping with envy. Son of Laughter ranks up with Von Rad and Alter as one of the best Genesis commentaries I've ever read, especially when you consider that it's a novel. And Godric is astonishing and delightful in every way.

I read at least one part of the novel differently this time. When Godric arrives at Jaffa, I was able to picture what the port would have looked like: I don't believe that it has much changed since Godric's time.


And his description of Jerusalem, for all its wrought emotion, nevertheless rings true:

"A friar with a cross led me and other palmers to the sites where thou didst cruelly suffer here on earth. At each we stopped and knelt. And every time we did, I felt thy presence near as breath. Oh wert thou near in truth, or was it only that I wished it so? The friar took us to the court where Pilate had thee flogged and showed us traces of thy blood and fingerprints upon the stone. Then didst thou hear me as I called thy name? Didst mark the tears that trickled down my beard? Oh dost thou hear and mark me now, sweet King? Old Godric has to hope that hope or else his heart, which by thy grace has thumped these hundred years, must crack at last. Amen."

I can't speak for every pilgrim, but Jerusalem evoked nearly these same emotions for me. The very air of the city was thick, uncomfortable, holy. It felt like the summit of Rainier: beautiful and majestic, oppressive and dangerous, and at home in an atmosphere that left me gasping for breath.

"When thou camest riding in upon an ass and the folk all welcomed thee with shouts of praise and palms, thou saidst if they were still, the very stones would cry aloud instead. And so they do. The streets. The walls. The earth itself. All cries. Rome and her glory were of all things dead. Jerusalem is still alive with thee."

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Soul of a New Machine

I just finished The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning account of the creation of Data General's "Eagle" 32-bit mini-computer. The account was fascinating partly because it showed how much technology has changed in the intervening quarter-century. For instance, note this description of Tom West's office, the senior engineer spear-heading the project:

"It was tiny and windowless. A thick, jacketed pipe and a steel girder descended through it, down the face of a cinder-block wall. There were some gray metal chairs, a gray metal bookcase, a couple of small gray metal tables and a gray metal desk, the top of which was absolutely clean save for a single stack of papers with their edges perfectly squared. A Magic Marker board, at the moment displaying some incomprehensible diagram, hung on one wall. For adornments there were an old clock in a beautiful oak case, and on the wall behind West's back, a picture of a square-rigged sailing ship. On the wall beside him hung several photographs of computers."

It wasn't until the last sentence of that paragraph that I realized what was missing. The senior engineer, the man responsible for building Data General's next generation of 32-bit computers, didn't have a computer in his office. Computers were still something else at the time: they were for calculating, for bookkeeping, for computing, very occasionally for playing text games. But they weren't for communication. Sun Microsystems' recognition that "the network is the computer" was still more than a decade away.

But even more fascinating was how little has changed. Engineers remain engineers: in 1980 they worked long hours on incomprehensible projects because they loved the work; in 2008 they continue to work long hours on incomprehensible projects because they love the work. Of course engineers are motivated by money, but then, as now, they're even more motivated by the possibility of working on something new, interesting and challenging. They remain ambivalent about the long hours, the challenges and especially the politics, but few seem willing to give it up, and almost all claim to love it.

In 1981, as now, engineers and business people spoke very different languages. Nothing in the book was more sad than watching engineers who had worked thousands of hours of unpaid overtime turn their machine over to the folks from marketing and sales. The last paragraphs of the book close on an ironic, almost tragic note:

"At the end of the presentation for the sales personnel in New York, the regional sales manager got up and gave his troops a pep talk.

"'What motivates people?' he asked.

"He answered his own question, saying, 'Ego and the money to buy things that they and their families want.'

"It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine no longer belonged to its makers."

I sometimes marvel at how certain gifted engineers are able to work with computers, and the artistry they exhibit as they create beautiful and elegant solutions to the difficult problems I bring them. It makes me wonder if a silent, hidden capacity has existed throughout time inside at least some human beings, an aptitude which lay dormant through millennia of evolution and social change, until the day when Univac was unveiled, and the potential became actuality. To this small class of people, to live in an age prior to computers must have been something like living in a remote tribe which had lost all ability to speak; and turning on their first computer would have had all the glory and the wonder of Adam naming the animals.

Why Theologians Should Study Lewis and Chesterton

In yesterday's blog post, I addressed some reasons why theologians don't typically study Lewis and Chesterton. But I think there's also a more positive case to be made about why they should. A way of getting at what I mean is to ask the question, "Should an existentialist philosopher study the works of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus?" These writers aren't folk philosophers, and their contributions to the disciplines of philosophy are in no sense ancillary. It would be better to say that they are the culmination of (a particular strand of) philosophy. Sartre's Being and Nothingness can tell us what an existentialist believes, but only L'Etranger can tell us what it feels like to believe it.

In the same way, I think it's difficult to dismiss – or hail – Lewis and Chesterton as simply "folk theologians". A better adjective would be "classical." They aren't specialists, but neither are their writings "dumbed down", or apart from a few specific books, even particularly simplified. They refused to accept as irremediable the hyper-specialization that afflicts modern critical theology. They're what theology looks like in motion: they show us how a thinking Christian should think, how a sensible Christian should feel, what the world looks like through thoroughly converted eyes. If a thing is meant to do something – as Christianity most certainly was – how else can you understand it except to see it in action? What they did was not systematic theology, for it was not terribly systematic, but neither was it apologetics as commonly understood. It's closer to Irenaeus' ανακεφαλαιωσις, "anakephalaiosis", a summing up, a gathering of all the world under the headship of Christ. For what both Chesterton and Lewis did, in their own ways, was to bring theology into living contact with the entire Western cultural tradition.

To take the lesser known of the two, Chesterton's fundamental insight is well expressed in Orthodoxy: "Our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism." This perspective is as far from the thin and brittle optimism of 19th century liberal theology as it is from the grand and noble worldly pessimism of 20th century neo-orthodoxy, and it represents as distinct a set of theological alternatives as either. And in no other writer since Aquinas has such a distinctive theology informed such a vast and intimidating array of work. I know of no author besides Chesterton who could have written authoritatively on St. Francis, Aquinas, Chaucer, Blake, Browning, Dickens and Shaw – while producing fiction and poetry that rivaled theirs. Who else could have written a convincing and distinctly Christian overview of the whole of history? Or written the last of the great English epic poems? Or edited his own newspaper for 20 years? Or started his own political party? (A party whose direct descendants were rioting in downtown Seattle a few years ago, I might add.) In short, Chesterton brought a convincing (and entertaining) Christian perspective to such diverse matters as ethics, philosophy, politics, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, detective stories, war and economics. Were not each of the individual works so tremendously thought-provoking and original, it would be easy to dismiss him as a dabbler; but many of his diverse writings are classics in their field. (Etienne Gilson thought Chesterton's biography of Aquinas was the best introduction to the Angelic Doctor ever written; numerous other Thomists have agreed.) The astonishing profusion of Chesterton's work is a fairly clear indication that he did not primarily conceive of himself as a theologian. Yet his highly individual and highly orthodox take on Christianity was the foundation and the touchstone for everything he did. In bringing the light of Christian doctrine to liberal studies, he managed to shine at least as much light back on Christianity itself, for in his writings it becomes clear what Christianity is capable of. If this isn't a "significant contribution" to the disciplines of theology, it must surely instead be those disciplines' summa.

Lewis was, of course, by far the more academic of the two. (Chesterton dropped out of art school in his youth, and was afterwards entirely self-educated.) Lewis' works can be roughly divided into his professional literary studies, theology and apologetics, and fantastic fiction, with a smattering of surprisingly good poetry here and there. His most important insight – he had many – is probably best expressed in The Abolition of Man:

"The regenerate science I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the inly known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life."

Explicitly in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength and a few other essays, and implicitly in nearly everything he wrote, Lewis makes the case for a humane, liberal and deeply Christian project to understand the world around us. Like Chesterton, he saw the world through thoroughly converted eyes, and Christian theology was the touchstone for everything he wrote. This "Christian humanism", as he termed it, was a substantial and intentional effort to understand science, culture and philosophy from a Christian perspective.

It's this specifically Christian perspective on such a broad range of topics that makes Lewis and Chesterton worthwhile reading for theologians. And not just reading, of course: theologians should do all the things that they normally do with important figures in Christian history. They should interact with their works, quote them in papers and books, assess their historical significance, argue about where they're wrong, and suggest where their thoughts and writings could be improved.

And if mainstream, professional theologians begin to do this, I think their work will be improved in a variety of ways. To pick a few examples at random:

  1. It will improve theologians' writing. Time spent with Lewis and Chesterton will absolutely improve your ability to craft sentences and to express yourself clearly, without a lot of jargon.
  2. It will help connect theology to the Church. Much theology that gets written these days gets read only by professional theologians (even most pastors don't read it), and it rarely makes its way into the pew. Theology that engages with Lewis and Chesterton, and better yet, which learns from them with regard to both style and content, will be much more accessible to intelligent laypeople, and much more interesting to them as well.
  3. It will provide a model for connecting theology to other disciplines. Lewis' technical works (The Allegory of Love, An Experiment in Criticism, A Preface to Paradise Lost, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Medieval and Renaissance Literature, etc.) show how a specifically Christian mind can interact with a purely secular discipline, to the immense profit of both.
  4. It will teach them a thing or two. Precisely because Lewis and Chesterton weren't a part of the mainstream of academic theology, but were nevertheless possessed of immense intellects and great learning, their take on basic questions in theology and philosophy is likely to be highly enlightening for those who have focused their studies on what Barth said about Bultmann, and what Moltmann said about Barth.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Why Theologians Ignore Lewis and Chesterton

I've been an avid reader of C. S. Lewis' non-fiction since my high school days; and although I didn't discover G. K. Chesterton until after seminary, I've consumed thousands of pages of his writings in the years since. (And still have thousands left to go: Chesterton was astonishingly prolific.) My faith has been profoundly influenced by both thinkers, and I've read and reread their major works many times. Although they have very different writing styles, didn't know each other personally, and belonged to different theological traditions (Lewis was an Anglican, Chesterton a Roman Catholic), I tend to think of them together, and they were in fact similar in many ways. Lewis was influenced to a great degree by Chesterton, their most influential works were written for a "popular" rather than an academic audience, and both of them produced a wide range of writings, including philosophy, history, literary criticism, apologetics, and fantasy.

Periodically, I've run into the claim that Lewis and Chesterton are "folk theologians", with the implication that they're not writers "real theologians" need to study. This has always bothered me, especially when I see them simply ignored. Hendrikus Berkhof's Two Hundred Years of Theology has not one reference to either Lewis or Chesterton. In The Story of Christian Theology, Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson spend some four hundred pages on 20th century theology, again, without a single reference. To pick a more specialized example, Miroslav Volf's Work in the Spirit quotes from some 276 authors (by my count) in his theological critique of the debate between Adam Smith and Karl Marx, without once mentioning Chesterton's innovative (and deeply Christian) "distributivist" alternative. Of course, a cottage industry has recently grown up around Lewis and Chesterton, with new books on Lewis especially being introduced on a regular basis. But these studies are somewhat specialized and, in my limited experience, continue to be ignored by the mainstream of academic theology.

I think there are several reasons why Lewis and Chesterton are so often ignored by professional theologians.

The first reason is that neither made the sort of substantial and substantially new contributions to the Church's self-understanding that are a part of the heritage of, say, Augustine, Aquinas or Luther. No church body has ever modified their creed because of Chesterton's careful analysis of the doctrine of the Trinity. Nobody ever founded a new denomination because of Lewis' shattering insights into divine grace. That said, neither Moltmann nor Pannenberg (to pick two influential 20th century academic theologians) could pass the "have you started a new denomination or launched a new creed" test either. And I certainly wouldn't claim that Lewis and Chesterton are at the level of Augustine or Luther: I think they're important, but they're not that important.

A second and perhaps more germane reason is that most of Chesterton and Lewis' original contributions are outside the traditional loci of theology: what they have to say doesn't fit well into a textbook on systematic theology. Although Chesterton and Lewis do touch on traditional theological topics, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or ecclesiology, when they do so, they make it clear that they are representing and defending the tradition, and not so much trying to contribute to it. Even so, I do believe that they make substantial contributions to Christian thought, broadly understood. I don't have time to go into a detailed defense of this position right here, but suffice to say that Chesterton's "military loyalty to the world" and Lewis' insistence that "to see through everything is the same as not to see" are largely original, compelling and deeply Christian.

A third reason I've heard to explain this neglect is that neither Lewis nor Chesterton interacts extensively with other theologians: they don't contribute to the conversation. This is partly true, if you limit yourself to purely academic theologians. But it's simply not true that Lewis and Chesterton don't interact extensively with a wide and impressive array of thinkers. Their books can easily be read as an extended dialogue with the whole of the Western philosophical, theological and literary tradition. Chesterton's work on Aquinas ("The Dumb Ox") and St. Francis are true classics, not to mention his literary biographies of Chaucer, Blake, Dickens and others, or his treatment of world history in The Everlasting Man. Lewis' explanation of the Trinity in Mere Christianity owes a great deal to Athanasius' On the Incarnation. The Pilgrim's Regress is an entertaining and enlightening Christian critique of late 19th and early 20th century British and continental philosophy. Anything more than a casual reading of either author will show that they are in conversation with hundreds of philosophers, theologians, historians, poets and novelists, and that their contribution to these conversations is extensive and substantial. Of course, these contributions are not always specifically theological, but if the old view of theology as the queen of the sciences has any validity whatsoever, that should hardly be held against them.

A fourth reason reveals a bit more cynicism on my part; take it for what it's worth. Lewis and Chesterton don't talk the language of modern, professional, academic theologians. You know the language I'm talking about:

"Toulmin is not guilty, as Scheibe is, of failing to recognize the possibility that a new theory in science may not be reconcilable with its predecessor in such a way that the latter is included in or interpreted by the former."


"Bonhoeffer's customary second thesis, Act and Being (1931/1962), took issue with current idealist philosophy, arguing that neither in its neo-Kantian or its neo-Hegelian forms could philosophy come to terms in the notion of a God truly transcendent; such a conception must wait upon theology, upon revelation."

Nor do their writings have the studied ambiguity of the other dominant linguistic paradigm available to philosophers and theologians, that of being pithy, epigrammatic, and not-quite-comprehensible. You can see this in Kierkegaard:

"The first question in the earliest and most compendious instruction the child receives is, as everyone knows, this: What will the child have? The answer is: da-da. And with such reflections life begins, and yet men deny original sin. And to whom does the child owe its first drubbings, whom other than the parents?" (Either/Or, p. 1)

Or Wittgenstein:

"Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object. – And you really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word 'this' innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday." (Philosophical Investigations, par. 38)

Both Lewis, an Oxford don and Cambridge professor, and Chesterton, an accomplished literary critic, clearly knew how to talk the language of academia. But in nearly all of their writings, even in their more technical book-length treatments on academic topics, they decline to do so. Lewis gives his own reasons in the brief essay, "Before We Can Communicate":

"[If you try to speak in plain language, you will discover] just how much you yourself have, up to that moment, been understanding the language which you are now trying to translate. Again and again I have been most usefully humiliated in this way. One holds, or thinks one holds, a particular view, say, of the Atonement or Orders or Inspiration. And you can go on for years discussing and defending it to others of your own sort. New refinements can be introduced to meet its critics; brilliant metaphors can seem to illuminate its obscurities; comparisons with other views, 'placings' of it, are somehow felt to establish its position in a sort of aristocracy of ideas. For the others are all talking the same language and all move in the same world of discourse. All seems well. Then turn and try to expound this same view to an intelligent mechanic or a sincerely inquisitive, but superficially quite irreverent, schoolboy. Some question of shattering crudity (it would never be asked in learned circles) will be shot at you. You are like a skilled swordsman transfixed by an opponent who wins just because he knows none of the first principles. The crude question turns out to be fatal. You have never, it now appears, really understood what you have so long maintained. You haven't really thought it out; not to the end; not to 'the absolute ruddy end'.

"You must either give it up, or else begin it all over again. If, given patience and ordinary skill, you cannot explain a thing to any sensible person whatever (provided he will listen), then you don't really understand it yourself."

This is one of the many reasons why Chesterton and Lewis have been so popular: precisely because they write so well, they don't sound like academics. You have to pay close attention to realize the extent of the learning which sits behind nearly every paragraph.

But precisely this clarity, I believe, works against them in the academic world. For one thing, it's admittedly not very precise: it leaves you to fill in many of the gaps yourself, and you have to go hunting around in Augustine or Athanasius or even Freud to find a passage Lewis refers to obliquely (perhaps even leaving out the name of the theologian with whom he is discoursing). But another is that, to an academic, it just doesn't sound right. This may be hard for non-academics to believe, but I'm convinced that academics like the sound of academic writing. It gives them a sense of security, confidence, even superiority. It's very similar, I believe, to why I carried around a brief case when I was in high school: I thought it made me look intelligent and serious.

How else could you explain the production of so much writing that sounds like this?

"More specifically, Winch seeks to deal with the problem of the universal and the particular in regard to the study of alien societies in a manner that is quite different from one of the traditional ways in which this has been approached. A pervasive framework for dealing with the universal and the particular has been to think we must first specify what is universal or generic (for example, the supposedly universal 'categories' of rationality) and then treat the specific differentia that distinguish particular societies."

(And that's from a book I liked.)

To summarize, there are a variety of reasons why Lewis and Chesterton are ignored by mainstream academic theology, and some of them are legitimate. But I don't think they're ultimately persuasive; and I believe that they're outweighed by the numerous benefits which would accrue to theologians who spent more time reading Lewis and Chesterton. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Gabriel’s Revelation

There was a fascinating article a couple days ago in the International Herald Tribune, about a text, potentially associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, that has been termed "Gabriel's Revelation"; Time also has an interesting (and surprisingly reasonable) take on it. "Gabriel's Revelation" is apparently a stone on which are written a series of some 87 lines in Hebrew, believed to date to the first century BC. One of the various interesting things about this text is that it may refer to an otherwise unattested Jewish belief in a suffering Messiah who would die and then rise again in three days. A "best guess" at the text (in Hebrew) can be found on page 4 of the PDF here.

This would be a pretty interesting artifact if (a) the text is authenticated (apparently its provenance is somewhat obscure), and (b) the reading which supports the claim receives more widespread support. But there's the catch: apparently the text is exceedingly hard to read at exactly this point.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, [Knohl] says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet - "In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice" - and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

To make his case about the importance of the stone, Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words "L'shloshet yamin," meaning "in three days." The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Yardeni and Elitzur, but Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is "hayeh," or "live" in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.

Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads, "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you."

In other words, to put it generously, the assertion that the text refers to a belief in a Messiah who will suffer and rise after three days is unproven at this point. That it might refer to such a belief is about as close as we can come.

I should add that at least one assertion made by Knohl certainly isn't true, or at least, doesn't have the shattering implications that he claims:

"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he is a senior fellow and the Yehezkel Kaufman professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University. "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

This would "shake our basic view of Christianity" only if we're scholars with very specific axes to grind about the nature of first century Messianic expectations. (That particular set contains a very few, highly inbred members, for what it's worth.) If we're just regular Christians, I can't think of any way that this stone would have a substantial impact on us at all, other than as an interesting artifact. Jesus himself held to the belief that the Messiah would die and be raised after three days, and in a famous passage (Luke 24:25-27) showed to his supporters in some detail how this belief was supported by the Old Testament. Many Christians have also believed that the story of the Messiah was prefigured in such diverse pagan sources as the myth of Osiris, or even the Eclogues of Virgil:

Now is come the last age of the Cumaean prophecy: the great cycle of periods is born anew. Now returns the Virgin, returns the reign of Saturn: now from high heaven a new generation comes down. Yet do thou at that boy's birth, in whom the iron race shall begin to cease, and the golden to arise over all the world, holy Lucina, be gracious; now thine own Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate, in thine, O Pollio, shall this glorious age enter, and the great months begin their march: under thy rule what traces of our guilt yet remain, vanishing shall free earth for ever from alarm. He shall grow in the life of gods, and shall see gods and heroes mingled, and himself be seen by them, and shall rule the world that his fathers' virtues have set at peace.

Or Plato's Republic:

And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. . . The just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound --will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled.

In other words, once the scholars arrive at a consensus (a process that might take decades), Gabriel's Revelation will probably shed some light on otherwise obscure elements of first century Judaism, and maybe even hint at Jewish sources for certain Christian beliefs. But it's hardly a challenge to Christianity that one particular aspect of the Christian story might have been accidentally hit upon, guessed at, understood, or even revealed, prior to the advent of Christ Himself.