An Augustinian Spring

I’m leading a directed study this spring on St Augustine for a few eager students, and it’s been delightful diving into material I haven’t read in some time. Always good to go back to crucial primary texts and see them differently, to perceive in them things missed the first time, or first few times, around.

So that’s one reason I agreed to do the directed study: to get myself back into Augustine, into some texts of significance and substance after all the administration and teaching I’ve done this year. But I also think Augustine is simply indispensable as a resource for Christian faith (I know, that’s like saying God is smart); and, given his shaping of the Western tradition, someone every educated person should be familiar with–at least Confessions and City of God. Indeed, I think it something of a scandal how little college/university grads are required to know about intellectual history. That’s the longstanding American anti-intellectual, pragmatic perspective at work, though. America began by taking supersonic flight away from history, and never had a real proper romantic reaction against that. In any event…

We’re reading Serge Lancel’s biography of Augustine. Intense, well-written, and theological, it’s quite a bit to digest but well worth the effort:

Then we’ve been reading the Confessions, in the New City Press edition:

City of God is up next, in the Penguin edition. We’re essentially skimming much of part one but reading most of part two. I had wanted us all to read CD straight through, but it’s a lot in our time frame.

Finally, Teaching Christianity (the New City Press edition of De doctrina christiana):

I’m not having the students read it, but for my own preparation, I’m using Levering’s new Theology of Augustine as a resource:

Cheating Mother Nature

Well, if you’ve been watching the weather, you know most of the country’s midsection is experiencing a deluge. Here in Bismarck we ducked the brunt of it, but still got (and continue to get) some good rain.

But last night I thought I was smart. South of Mandan at a place called Graner Bottoms on the Missouri River, it looked like it was going to be clear enough until roughly 9:00pm, and I’ve found the websites I check overforecast: If they say 40% chance of rain, it usually doesn’t rain at all, and if one checks the hourly forecast as the day progresses the forecast for a given hour gets ever better.

So grabbed a friend, two of his sons, and hit the water about 6:30. Clouds, thunder, rain, and some lightning north and east, but just partly cloudy where we were. Drove the boat to one of our three not-so-secret spots, and started fishing. Not much happening. Then three hits within five minutes, landed (boated? netted?) two.

And then: A cold, cold wind came up, and the storm east of us seems suddenly above us, dark, heavy, deep purple sky. Sprinted some minutes back to the dock, dodging sand bars (the Missouri River at most places has a channel 6-30 feet deep, and either side of it can be a foot or two at best, so you have to know where the channel is lest you beach in the middle of the river many meters from either shore), watching rain and lightning here and there with a cautious eye.

Got to the dock just as the heavens opened. (Could have sworn the Ark floated by, Noah and a random giraffe giving us a quizzical look of the incredulous, Jackie-Chan-facepalm variety.) Got the boys in the truck while my friend and I loaded the boat on the trailer and secured everything. Drenched, we hit Pizza Ranch in Mandan for a hot greasy meal, a way of saving the evening for the boys.

Two small walleyes, but I think it was worth it. I feel like we cheated Mother Nature. Her son Zeus may throw some lightning bolts at us, but we escaped with the fish.

Update: Here’s my recipe for walleye tacos, one of the best things to do with the smaller river ‘eyes.

Søren Kierkegaard on Biblical Scholarship

As a New Testament scholar, I feel this acutely, with some caveats. On one hand, interpretation is inevitable (even reading a grocery list is an exercise in interpretation), and so the question is not whether we’ll interpret but whether we’ll be good interpreters. Take for instance what he says below about the rich young man who was told to sell all he had and follow Jesus. Is it a command intended for all Christians? What do you do with the several passages in Luke-Acts which (ironically, given how Luke is supposedly the “social Gospel”) seem to present and tacitly affirm a modicum of wealth and a more or less bourgeois existence? I’m not sure if Kierkegaard gets the intricacies involved or appreciates the necessity of interpretation, but if not, I certainly know why; he’s living in an age in which scholarship excelled in reading between and behind the lines of the text to find almost the exact opposite of what the text said.

On the other hand, scholarship often functions to justify conclusions already reached on other grounds, here thinking of things today like queer theology or (to use the most obvious and nefarious example) Nazi theology. It sometimes seems, as John Locke said, that Scripture has a nose of wax.

It’s for these reasons that I think the Catholic approach to Scripture is helpful, and, indeed, necessary; you have tradition and Tradition guiding you as an interpreter, keeping you honest and faithful, but it’s a living tradition, evolving, developing in continuity, allowing new interpretive insights.

In any event, here’s the Great Dane himself on “Christian scholarship,” “the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible,” with words we all need to hear, lest we end up domesticating our faith:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

(Stolen quite shamelessly from @AyJay’s Tumblog)

World Organ Day 2013

Today is World Organ Day, celebrating what Pope Benedict called “the king of musical instruments”, and to which the Second Vatican Council gave pride of place for the Latin/Roman liturgy (the one almost all Catholics in the west attend, usually Ordinary Form).

The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation…and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God. (Pope Benedict XVI, Blessing of the new organ of Alte Kapelle, Regensburg, Germany, Wednesday, 13 September 2006)

In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 120)

The quick lesson here learned is that music in liturgy, here instrumentation, is not a mere matter of taste, nor a matter of using whatever the culture of the moment approves. Rather, there are principles for thinking about music and instrumentation, principles which we ought consider and to which we must defer, for the cultus of the Latin/Roman rite has created and continues to create its own culture.

Pope’s Prayer Intentions for May

The Pope’s general prayer intention for May is: “That administrators of justice may act always with integrity and right conscience.”

His mission intention is: “That seminaries, especially those of mission Churches, may form pastors after the Heart of Christ, fully dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel.”

River Adventures

Saturday morning, for the first time in ages, I took a few hours to fish. Either I’ve had a speaking engagement or some other obligation or extremely bad weather since early March. It was also the first time I took out my new-to-me but very old and used boat, an old 17-ft Crestliner Angler with a 90hp and 15hp kicker motor, typical ND/MN walleye rig.

Turns out taking the boat out for the first time each season is an adventure, or so I’m told, especially as motors haven’t been run all winter. Even with a tuneup…

Was good pulling out of the driveway; unlike a prior excursion, I managed not to run into the side of the garage with the boat. And that’s not nothing, as my wife would tell you. Got onto the water OK as well. But then, adventure.

The 90hp motor worked, but it was temperamental. Wouldn’t run at speed, and then would rev real high, as if it popped out of gear. Got over to our first fishing spot opposite the dock, and got stuck in 1ft of water. So my eager companion (we’ll call him Chris Hanson, for that is his name) jumps out of the boat to push. Which is great, until he finds himself in about four feet of water, the riverbed having dropped off towards the deep channel. But he lived, even if he was drenched.

Drove a couple miles south to what’s called the rifle range, MacLean Bottoms. Big hole there where the walleye usually play. Anchored, fished, caught nothing. Guys next to us got a couple small walleye and for sturgeon, of all things. They tried to leave, but neither of their anchors would come up, so they ended up cutting the ropes after an hour of struggling. Then a second boat did likewise. We couldn’t get our anchor up either, so I revved the motor and hit it hard.

News flash: Shouldn’t do that, because you risk putting the boat under water if the anchor doesn’t come loose. (Simple physics, really.) Having not pitched Chris into the river a second time, we thought severing a rope the better part of valor and lost the anchor.

Fished some more, caught nothing. Nobody else did either, really. But a great day to be out on the water, in spite of a few moments of adventure.

James Poulos on the “Pink Police State”

Res ipsa loquitur:

Q. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about my favorite phrase you’ve coined — “The Pink Police State.” To what are you referring? And why should it worry us?
The Pink Police State is a more extreme version of a regime I use to taunt my libertarian friends in my essay on ‘The Sex Vote’ that’s just been published in Doublethink. I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I’m aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it’s run by people with ‘enlightened’ attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot. I’ve actually had one good libertarian friend argue straight-faced that the solution to the drug problem is a monopoly partnership between Washington and Walmart. Well, with solutions like that, who needs problems? And of course you get that kind of institutionalized approach from fans of legal prostitution. It’s almost as if libertarians are willing to let the state regulate everything so long as everything’s decriminalized.
On top of this, we all know how intimately sex — or at least images of sex and talk about sex, alas — has become a part of everyday life. What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship. You can guess what I think about ‘liberaltarianism’.
That’s the background brief on the Pink Police State, a vision which came to me courtesy of one of the most visionary videos of the 1990s. I’m talking about Marilyn Manson’s “The Dope Show,” off 1998’s Mechanical Animals. I know it’s a bit odd for a conservative cultural critic to praise Manson as a brilliant genius, but before the Columbine aftermath unfairly derailed his career and life Manson was firing on all cylinders, and Dope Shows’ incredible ‘live performance’ sequence [2:15-3:00], in which an all-male body of riot police wearing head-to-toe pink uniforms are inspired to make out, was deeply prophetic, in an as-yet symbolic way, about the manner in which our manufactured contradictions and desires are apt to show forth in contemporary life.
“Cops and queers,” Manson sings on that track, “make good-looking models.” We should all ruminate on that lyric to better understand the uncannily dovetailing fantasy of administrative omni-competence in official life and sexual omni-competence in unofficial life. I’ll simply link to my related invectives against Dov Charney and Sasha Grey — blase, barbarian avatars of the banality of evil who are as much the heirs of de Sade as Bill Kristol is the heir of Winston Churchill.
So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people. This tradeoff has a creepy economic component. Already, in places like Russia, China, the Gulf states, and Singapore, we see the machinations of a new ‘laboratory of autocracy’, as oppressive regimes grant wealthy residents de facto privileges to all the sin money can buy. As I’ve asked in our own context, however, how many hipsters are too poor to party? Next to the al Qaeda neanderthals, the harbingers of the Pink Police State pose a far more frightening and serious challenge to the Western model of social order. Nobody frets, like many of our intellectuals did over Stalinism, that maybe Osama got it right. There’s more to worry about when we see China’s youth consent en masse to equality in servitude in the shadow of Macau, Earth’s biggest gambling mecca. Of course the freaky environs of Dubai are a stone’s throw from the real Mecca. The secret depths of perversity and abuse at the ‘frontiers of the West’ — pent-up porn, sex slavery, the whole network reaching from the Baltics through the Balkans, down into the Gulf, and out to Indochina — really needs to be told. But our rapt attention is held instead by Bruno.

Hans Rejects French Theory

So I took Hans to his swimming lessons today. And in the locker room there’s one of those big curved mirrors allowing to see everything, to see around corners and down the locker rows, etc. Why? I don’t know. And so of course Hans asked what it was for, and I had no idea.

And when I have no idea, my thoughts turn to French theory. I thought of Michel Foucault’s examination of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in the former’s justly famous Discipline and Punish. A panopticon is a prison design wherein the warden and his staff can see all prisoners at all times (pan=all, optics=seeing), and Foucault sees in this modernity shifting its attention in criminal punishment from the body to the soul, congratulating itself on its enlightened attitude to corrections when in reality its attitude is far worse than the bodily brutality one finds inflicted as punishment in the late medieval and early modern periods.

So anyway. I say to Hans, “I don’t know why they have that mirror in here, but someday when you’re a bit older I’ll teach you about the panopticon when we read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.”

Hans, my almost-five-year-old, replies:


Hopefully Hans will be some sort of Thomist and reject theory for the right reasons, and this firm rejection isn’t simply a knee-jerk dismissal.

Stellman on Solo & Sola Scriptura

Jason Stellman is an acquaintance. He was a serious Calvinist minister who recently converted to Catholicism. He now blogs at CreedCodeCult.

In a recent posting he recounts some Late Unpleasantness regarding a heresy trial he took part in within the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), a conservative denomination (the PCUSA would be the mainline Presbyterian church in the US). In a nutshell, Peter Leithart held a theological position (“federal vision“) that seemed to run afoul of the Westminster Standards, which are definitive for the PCA. A PCA court ruled Leithart was not in fact heretical in holding this opinion, disappointing many in the PCA who feel that the “federal vision” is so obviously contrary to Westminster and Scripture.

Stellman points out this sets the PCA as a body against Scripture in their minds:

…church authority within Protestantism, even if spoken of with humbly submissive rhetoric, is a mirage. My suspicion that I raised a few weeks ago has been confirmed (as I knew it would): the side that won in this dispute is saying, “The church has spoken, we are orthodox,” while the side that lost says, “Yes, but in this instance the church got it wrong, so you’re still heretical.”

Stellman believes the Leithart episode illustrates a real difficulty with Protestants who try to hold to some sort of ecclesial authority (“sola scriptura”) over and against those who don’t (“solo scriptura”):

…the Reformed [=Calvinist here] distinguish themselves from evangelicals on the issue of the relationship between Scripture and the church by highlighting the all-importance of a single vowel. “We are not like those Bible-only, no-creed-but-Christ evangelicals,” we hear. “On the contrary, we believe in the genuine authority of the church — but that authority is derivative and penultimate, always secondary to our only infallible source of revelation, namely Scripture.” In other words, the difference between the evangelical and Reformed position comes down to the difference between Solo and Sola Scriptura: the former disregards ecclesiastical authority while the latter greatly respects it.
The objection that the Catholic raises at this point goes like this: “Sure, the Reformed position claims to respect church authority, but the minute those so-called authorities say something that departs from your interpretation of the Bible, you reject it. Therefore your eccleiastical authority is only a farce, a thin veneer of submission masking the exact same individualism you fault the evangelicals for.”

Stellman sees this happening precisely in the Leithart case. And indeed he sees it as a fundamental problem with Protestantism. Indeed, this is why many of us convert: We find it theologically and existentially intolerable that Protestants all share the same Bible and yet evince such radical diversity on questions that would seem to matter, whether that be something as fundamentally crucial as baptism (do we baptize infants or not) or ministry (should women be ordained?), to say nothing of the raging issues of the day concerning sexual politics.

Some think the early Protestants were very much naive about the difficulties involved in interpreting the Bible, thinking that they could simply substitute written Scripture for the voice of the Pope, the printing press having made such a mindset possible. I don’t think that’s quite the case. The Reformers were generally deeply trained in the rhetorical arts and would have known all the ways words can be used and how words can be used rightly and wrongly. They also knew deeply the theological divisions that existed within the pre-Reformation Church: Dominicans and Franciscans did not get along, and Augustinians looked at the world a certain way not always shared by non-Augustinians, and that is again to say nothing of the already longstanding schism between east and west.

That said, often the first-generation Protestant Reformers did speak as if it was a matter of letting the clear voice of Scripture speak through the corrupt voices of the papacy and clergy of their day, evincing a high degree of confidence in the plain sense of Scripture.

That’s the theory. In practice, it wasn’t so simple, even in Luther’s own day. Famously, he and Zwingli could come to no agreement on the nature of the Lord’s Supper at the Marburg Colloquy, even though both were brilliant, faithful men reading the exact same Scriptures. And early Protestant Bibles included prefaces and notes to interpret the text, such as Luther’s Bible of 1534 or the Geneva Bible of 1560. It is as if Protestant magisteria replaced the Roman Magisterium.

In any event, whence this confidence in the plain sense, even if betrayed by Protestant practice? It’s not a Protestant novum, but a longstanding claim of the Christian tradition, especially the Western, going back as all things do to St. Augustine. The doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is found, well, clearly in Augustine, especially in De doctrina Christiana. In short, Scripture is clear because God speaks clearly. Deeply influenced by Augustine, the Reformers run with this idea. Having done away with the contemporary, living authority of a longstanding tradition, they can do no other.

But in Augustine, Scriptural clarity functions hand-in-hand with good rules of interpretation including reliance on the rule of faith and the tradition of the Church. Indeed, Augustine’s vision is one in which all of reality holds together, and Scripture, Christ, and Church are fixed relationally therein. More simply, Augustine’s vision doesn’t work piecemeal; it won’t do to take from him the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture without also assuming his ontology, semiology, Christology, and ecclesiology. While Scripture is clear, our vision often is not, and so we need the tradition before us and the community contemporary with us as well as authority serving us if we are to read Scripture rightly. In short, like Newman centuries later, Augustine would say that authoritative revelation necessitates an authoritative interpreter.

On the Feast of St. Anselm

A rousing of the mind to the contemplation of God

“Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a little in him.

Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for him and having locked the door seek him out. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek your countenance, O Lord, your countenance I seek.’

Come then, Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you.

Lord, if you are not present here, where, since you are absent, shall I look for you ? On the other hand, if you are everywhere why then, since you are present, do I not see you ? But surely you dwell in light inaccessible. And where is this inaccessible light, or how can I approach the inaccessible light ? Or who shall lead me and take me into it that I may see you in it ? Again, by what signs, under what aspect, shall I seek you ? Never have I seen you, Lord my God, I do not know your face.

What shall he do, most high Lord, what shall this exile do, far away from you as he is ? What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and yet cast off far from your face ? He yearns to see you and your countenance is too far away from him. He desires to come close to you, and your dwelling place is inaccessible; he longs to find you and does not know where you are; he is eager to seek you out and he does not know your countenance.

Lord, you are my God and my Lord, and never have I seen you. You have created me and recreated me and you have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know you. In fine, I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet accomplished what I was made for.

And you, O Lord, how long ? How long, Lord, will you be unmindful of us ? How long will you turn your countenance from us ? When will you look upon us and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes and show your countenance to us ? When will you give yourself again to us?

Look upon us, Lord; hear us, enlighten us, show yourself to us. Give yourself to us that it may be well with us, for without you it goes so ill for us. Have pity upon our efforts and our strivings towards you, for we can avail nothing without you.

Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.”

St. Anselm of Canterbury, Bishop: Proslogion, 1.


O God, You inspired St. Anselm with an ardent desire to find You in prayer and contemplation among the bustle of everyday occupations, help us to take time in the feverish rhythm of our days, among the worries and cares of modern life, for conversation with You, our only hope and salvation! We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.