Friday, 21 July 2017

Isaian Aesthetics

Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 film Triumph of the Will (German: Triumph des Willens) remains one of the most influential films ever made. Its stunning use of visual imagery has been studied again and again. The scene in The Force Awakens, where the soldiers of the First Order are gathered to watch the destruction of the Republic, is purloined almost directly from Triumph of the Will. That of course intimates the problem with Triumph of the Will: it is a work of Nazi propaganda. It is the work of Nazi propaganda, the most exemplary produced by that brutal regime. Nonetheless, it has made a very positive contribution to human advancement, as it reminds us vividly that just as bad men and women offer counterfeit truths (the rest of us call them lies) and counterfeit moralities (the rest of us call them evil), they also offer counterfeit beauty (the rest of us call them Alt-Right rallies).

As John Dadosky notes in his Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty: A Lonergan Approach, Lonergan does not dwell at length on the question of beauty in his work. Part of Dadosky's project in the aforementioned monograph is to develop Lonergan's thought so as to fill in this lacuna. As I think about it, there are abundant biblical resources that can aid in this enterprise of recovering beauty. In particular, it offers some insight into how to distinguish counterfeit beauty from real beauty. In the Christian biblical tradition, one particularly significant insight comes from Paul's statement in 2 Cor. 11:14, namely that Satan comes as an angel of light. One suspects that Paul is here drawing upon the imagery of Isaiah 14:12, with its reference to the light-bringer (which in Latin becomes "Lucifer"). Indeed, Paul's writings are permeated with what we might call Isaian aesthetics, particularly those found in the suffering servant material of Deutero-Isaiah: the servant who suffers is the Lord who rules. Satan comes as an angel of light; men and women follow him and are reckoned to be wise by the world but fools by God. Christ comes in the form of a humbled and crucified servant; men and women follow him and are reckoned foolish by the world but wise by God. Glory is found through the cross, an instrument of brutal execution. In the broader New Testament, the crown of thorns--intended as a sign of derision--becomes a sign of glory. That which by all ordinary accounts is reckoned as ugly and shameful is in fact sublime.

This sort of startling reversal becomes the foundations for much of Christian aesthetics. Suffering is made beautiful, and those who have never suffered strikes those of us shaped by Christian civilization as somewhat banal. (And it should also be noted that a parallel development occurred in the Jewish tradition, although framed differently. Not surprisingly, a people that has suffered as have the Jewish people have had to find at least meaning in suffering. Think how many Jewish holy days in some way commemorate events of suffering and deliverance from suffering: Passover, Purim, and Hanukkah come to mind immediately. But I'll leave it there, as my primary expertise is in the Christian rather than the Jewish tradition).

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I've been thinking a lot about the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (terms which are not quite identical, as the majority of Christians operate with an Old Testament that includes several books not found in the Hebrew Bible) lately. This is the result of two related realities. One, there has been considerably more concerted Lonerganian engagement with the New Testament than the HB/OT. Two, no NT scholar worth her or his salt can proceed in ignorance of the HB/OT. This has me wondering how a more thorough Lonerganian engagement with the HB/OT might look (clues in that direction come notably from the work of Sean McEvenue, although his more theoretical interests differ notably from my own), and also how my own Lonerganian engagements with the NT might suffer from the relative dearth of such engagement with the HB/OT.

It is with such two-fold wonder in mind that I have been working my way through Yoram Hazony's 2012 monograph, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I'm just about halfway through the book, but thought I'd share some initial thoughts here. Hazony wants to argue that the Hebrew scriptures contain an "abstract" (his word) philosophy on par with that of the great achievements of Greek philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. I am sympathetic to this project in principle, as I very much think that it is of significant value to understanding how the Hebrew scriptures (as well as the additional books of Jewish origin that are now found in the Christian Old Testament) fit into the long (and ongoing) development of human thought and consciousness. As a historian, I think this of great value in its own right, and as a historian who often engages with doctrinal and systematic theologians I recognize that this is an area of investigation wherein these disciplines can come into contact in a way that mutually enriches each another. As I ponder such matters, I find significant insights in Hazony's work. But I wonder if Hazony has fully wrestled with the reality and significance of form. He asks whether in Genesis through 2 Kings (which he treats as a single work called "The History of Israel"; we'll leave to one side the propriety of operating in this way, and rather follow his convention for heuristic purposes) there are "arguments of a general nature" (his term). He answers his own question in the affirmative, arguing that the use of doublets, triplets, etc., of similar narratives evinces a series of judgments around particular character types. Judah and Joseph, in his reading, become not simply figures within the narrative, but rather character types who relate to each other as do, for instance, Joshua and Caleb, or David and Solomon. Effectively, he argues, this makes "The History of Israel" a work of political theory. Yet, when I see the question "Does the Hebrew scriptures [with a focus upon "The History of Israel"] make arguments of a general nature?", a more basic question occurs to me: Does "The History of Israel" make arguments at all?

Hazony's particular readings of these figures and their significance might be quite on point. It might be exactly what the writers of the Hebrew scriptures intended to convey. The difficulty though is the amount of work that he has to undertake to get to these readings. By contrast, it doesn't take much to read Plato's Republic as a work of political theory. And I think that this difference is significant. It gets to what Lonergan calls the differentiation of consciousness, a process by which humanity learns to distinguish between commonsense, theory, interiority, and religiosity. In Plato, political theory seems to have clearly begun to develop a sort of autonomy apart from commonsense (defined as the things that a people take as given, without reflection). Precisely because "The History of Israel" is narrative, with little in the way of explicit theoretical reflection and argumentation, that autonomy is less evident in this work. In part, this likely to do with what Lonergan calls the level of the time. Although "The History of Israel" might have been finally brought together more or less as we recognize it around or slightly earlier than the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, much of the material therein likely goes back to the times of Homer and Hesiod. One should probably then not be surprised to find that it reflects a consciousness more at home at that earlier time than the later one. If we compared Plato and Aristotle to, say, Ecclesiastes, or to Sirach yet later, we might well find the gulf narrowed. And it is precisely this atemporal approach, that ignores the fact that literature of the 10th century B.C.E. perhaps reflects a very different world from literature of the 5th, that I find a bit off-putting in this work.

Lonergan and Bible FB

Hi, all. Towards the end of furthering public discussion of matters related to the intersection of Lonergan and biblical studies, I have created a Facebook group. All are welcome to join.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Lonergan and Space

Any reader of this blog should know that I love the word "development," which I loosely define as "continuity with change." Implicit in that definition of development is the qualifier "over time": development is continuity with change over time. The focus upon temporality has a deep pedigree in the western tradition. The Abrahamic traditions all declare that revelation--whether delivered to Moses or Isaiah or Jesus or Muhammad--occurs at definite moments in time. Things before the revelation differ from things after. While there are similar patterns in other traditions (the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree comes to mind immediately), it seems particularly prominent in the Abrahamic traditions. Yet, as Ben Meyer argued forcefully, the ancients struggled precisely to reckon with the dual reality that in these moments of differentiation there was yet continuity, and that such work of differentiation occurred not necessarily at select moments but rather throughout an ongoing temporal succession (even if particular moments might have been particularly significant in that succession). The intellectual techniques did not exist to adequately apprehend how something could continue to be itself yet be irreversibly and even radically transformed. The great breakthroughs of a Newman or a Lonergan consist not in small part of helping to bring us to terms with that continuity with change.

In this connection, it is interesting to note the extent to which the ancients associated the great moments of revelation with particular spaces. Sinai, Jerusalem, Mecca: all become metonyms for the particular moments of revelation associated with them (Jerusalem in particular becomes overburdened with such metonymy). No doubt this is related to the ancient inability to fully conceptualize continuity with change, or perhaps more precisely continuity with change was conceptualized in large part through concrete, material, spatial expressions. Sinai is always Sinai, even when its actual location is forgotten and it lives only in the imagination. Jerusalem is always Jerusalem, even when inaccessible due to exile or diaspora. Mecca is always Mecca, and the centrality of this space in the Muslim imagination helps accounts for the tradition's capacity to conceptualize itself as the grounds of an international ummah. These spaces become concrete expressions, even if only in the imagination, of continuity. They provide the site in which what Lonergan calls integrators can function, i.e. that pole of any dialectic that provides the necessary limiting factor that maintains the integrity of that which is undergoing change. At the same time, they become sites of change, as buildings and other structures are renovated and constructed to meet exigent needs, as new rituals and practices are introduced and old ones abandoned for a variety of reasons, as pilgrims undergo the transformation of their horizons that results from what they experience and discover in those spaces.

Of course, this happens not just in the great holy sites. It happens in synagogues, in churches, in mosques. These are more than just gathering spaces. We can see this reality vividly when the uniquely spatial dynamics of worship sites are denied or trivialized. The radically low church habit of thinking rented spaces to be sufficient for ecclesial purposes shows a profound dialectical distortion that denies the significance of space in the work of maintaining communal integration. It ignores the way that buildings take on a life of their own, and that this life provides remarkable anchorage for a community. (This of course differs from the communities that must rely upon rented spaces due entirely to exigency. They still cannot avail themselves of what a concrete, permanent space might provide, but in not denying the value of such they do not suffer the dialectical distortion that results from an inadequate understanding of community). There is something quite profound about going to Europe and visiting synagogues or churches or even the occasional mosque that has been in service to the community for centuries (sadly, the number of European synagogues for which that is the case has decreased significantly over the last hundred years). A community without a permanent space is always by definition a community without permanence.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Of Foundations

Writes Lonergan in Method in Theology:
[I]f one desires foundations for an ongoing, developing process, one has to move out of the static, deductivist style—which admits no conclusions that are not implicit in premisses—and into the methodical style—which aims at decreasing darkness and increasing light and keeps adding discovery to discovery.
In this single line, we can apprehend the cognitive deficiency that defines most every fundamentalism: these consist of static deductions which admit no conclusions that are not implicit in the premises. As an example of such deductions, Lonergan offers the following: "One must believe and accept whatever the bible or the true church or both believe and accept. But X is the bible or the true church or both. Therefore, one must believe and accept whatever X believes and accepts. Moreover, X believes and accepts a, b, c, d. … Therefore, one must believe and accept a, b, c, d...." The beliefs at which one arrives are implicit in the premise. Such foundations consist of really nothing but foundations. There is no actual work of building upon that foundation, but rather merely of describing the foundation in more precise detail. One never has more than a basement. Replace "bible" and "church" with "Party" or "Qu'ran," and it makes no cognitive difference. The style of thought remains unperturbed. That style is one that supposes that knowing is like looking: the truth is out there, already formed and ready to be seen; one just has to look in the right place.

By contrast, what Lonergan calls a methodical style defines the search for truth not by the sources to which it turns but rather by the manner in which it turns to the various sources of light that might be available. A methodical style consists at base of being attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible, and this means accepting for oneself the heavy burden of being the ultimate arbiter of what one holds to be true. And that burden is indeed heavy: not everyone is up to it. This is because not everyone has learned how to be consistently and authentically attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. Such learning Lonergan grounds in conversion: to a self-transforming love that obviates hate and irrational fear; to a goodness that transcends narcissistic and parochial concerns; to an intellect that can readily distinguish between reason and the mere appearance of reason. Only the loving subject who desires the best for her or his fellows and is able and willing to cling to truth rather than error is truly prepared to carry out the methodical work of fashioning for her or his self an adequate foundation by which to most genuinely apprehend reality. Subjects lacking such love, goodness, or intellect might yet make many great discoveries. They might learn many secrets in heaven and on earth. Humanity might be better for their work. But the more excellent truths will remain forever closed to such persons, because hate and fear, narcissism and parochialism, irrationality and delusion, consist insuperable barriers to apprehension.

Becoming a loving subject concerned with the collective good and the apprehension of truth takes hard work, to be carried out in fear and trembling, and the various fundamentalisms of the world are for a large part simply a way by which to justify a refusal to carry out such work. They are the shortcuts preferred by the coward who fears the dark night of the soul. Such persons advert to jingoism rather than argumentation. They substitute all-caps for reason. They prefer bellicosity to dialogue. And frankly, they're the reason for most of our problems these days.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Noah, Abraham, and the Level of the Time

There is a long-standing habit of rejecting the morality of Genesis, and through it the God of Israel. We see it already in Marcion: the God of Israel is a vengeful god and thus cannot be the God of Jesus. We see it today in your more vacuous atheist attacks on Christianity (which often seem blithely unaware that such anti-Christian rhetoric is equally anti-Jewish). Marcion can be forgiven for what is a thoroughly ahistorical approach to reading ancient writings, but the person living on this side of the great breakthroughs in historical thinking achieved by the nineteenth-century cannot, especially when that person claims to stand in a position of moral and intellectual superiority above the single most influential tradition in human history (with its influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the tradition of ancient Israel can rightfully claim to have more fully shaped humanity than any other tradition, religious or otherwise). Such an ahistorical approach fails to reckon with a basic reality, namely that Genesis operates at which Lonergan calls the level of the time.

Let's take two examples: the flood and the non-sacrifice of Isaac. Denuded of details, the flood sounds horrific. The God (who will eventually become that) of Israel wipes out all but eight persons via torrential rains and flooding. It has the taint of genocide, as the nephilim--the "giants"--are all killed in the process. But details matter. The Genesis account indicates that the God of Israel did this not out of caprice or malice, but rather out of righteous repentance for creating a humanity that turned its thoughts and actions towards evil (Gen. 6:5-6). He preserves Noah because Noah is the one righteous man among his generation. This moral dimension is highlighted when we read comparable accounts from the ancient Near East. In these accounts, Enlil sends the flood to destroy humanity because they make too much noise. They disturb his rest. The "Noah" equivalent is saved because another god, Enki, warns him, but there is little sense that "Noah" receives this warning because he is particularly righteous. The ancient Israelites seem to have taken a typical pattern of ancient Near Eastern storytelling and invested it with a profound moral reflection upon good, evil, and their respective consequences. Yes, they said, the divine realm did indeed send the flood, but not because humanity was annoying but rather because humanity had turned its collective energies to evil. It was a profound reflection--a sort of early theodicy, really--written at the level of its time, using the resources at hand.

Or take the non-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Certainly, read with a twentieth-century sensibility, the God of Israel comes off as a bit of schmuck. He commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeys, which doesn't necessarily make him come off as a particularly caring father, and then at the last minute the God of Israel intervenes by sending a ram to sacrifice in Isaac's place. This seems all quite cruel from our vantage point. But the story was not written from or to our vantage point. It was written from and to that of several millennia ago. And we know that at the very least the ancient Israelites understood that their neighbours engaged in the act of sacrificing their children to their gods. The extent to which such a practice existed in actuality is an open question, but it certainly existed in the Israelite imagination. This story responds to that reality by saying that Israel's God is not a God that requires one to sacrifice one's child. Restricted almost entirely to the device of storytelling to make that statement, the originators of this account must provide narrative action. Indeed, Genesis gives little indication that the persons responsible for its creation were even aware of the device of explication, whereby one relays a story and then says "And this story means X." Narrative action is almost entirely the medium of expression. It would not have been much of a story if the God of Israel just showed up and said "Hey, Abraham, just so you know, I don't expect you sacrifice Isaac." It would have been even less of a story if the God of Israel hadn't said or done anything at all. In fact, when one thinks about the task--convey through a story that the God of Israel does not demand human sacrifice--it is difficult to imagine something far off from what we find in Genesis 22.

The level of the time both enables and limits. The level of the time was such that the ancient Israelites had developed a morality capable of reflecting upon the question of divine goodness. This was a significant breakthrough. In humanist terms, this can be understood as the product ultimately of evolution, which led to the advent of an animal capable of such reflection, and of historical processes that led to ever-deepening reflections upon morality. In theological terms such a humanist understanding can be affirmed, but also understood as the work of divine grace. But the level of the time was limited almost entirely to storytelling as a means by which to conceive and articulate those reflections. Looking back, millennia later, as the inheritors of the moral and intellectual tradition to which they were contributing, these early efforts seem virtually barbaric. Such a judgment however seems quite ungrateful. We might call these early efforts "primitive," in the etymologically precise sense of coming first (or at least early) in a sequence, but that does not obviate the remarkable breakthroughs that are evident in these works. We, the heirs of such breakthroughs, might have moved well past them, but we can only do so because of the advances made by the ancients at the level of their times.