Monday 1/11/16

  1. Two-edged sword
  2. Memento Mori
  3. Smug?
  4. Who split from whom?
  5. Un-learning


Broadly written religious exemption bills are solutions looking for problems, can have serious unintended consequences ….

(Florida state Rep. Holly Raschein to Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart) Perhaps it will surprise you that I agree, or at least agree that they sometimes are solutions looking for problems. But the specter of problems, and the consequent fear of religious people that they’re beset by deliberate harassment, is real.

But how does that differ from solutions looking for discrimination problems, and the fear of LGBT people that they’re beset by deliberate harassment? Where is the evidence of current economically significant discrimination against gays and lesbians? Or of such within the past, say, forty years?

Yes, there were anti-sodomy criminal laws. I don’t know from experience or study why they were passed. It would probably be hard today to find a straight (pardon the expression) answer, as the topic has become so politicized. But in some states, including Indiana if my memory serves me well, they applied to heterosexual sodomy, too. So much for any simplistic theory of mere hatred of gays or gay sex being the cause. And my strong impression is that they were enforced only sporadically and often by the kinds of entrapment that led me to support abolition of such laws. Most importantly, where’s the evidence that gays and lesbians were earning and prospering less as a result of such laws or “discrimination” more generally?

Broadly written anti-discrimination laws, too, sometimes are solutions looking for problems, and do have serious unintended consequences — by empowering the kinds of provocations that land florists, bakers and photographers in legal trouble — despite the ready availability of other willing artists to step in and fill the void created by some artisan drawing a line on what commissions not to accept. If we don’t write jillions of overbroad laws, we won’t need to argue about supposedly overbroad exemptions.


Thursday, I travelled some distance to the “visitation” of a colleague who quite unexpectedly had dropped dead Monday. His voice is the voice you hear as I write when you call my general office phone number and get voicemail after hours. It’s kind of weird, and we’ll fix it soon.

I thought of that as I was using Hootsuite to pre-schedule some Facebook posts.

Note to self: “Preschedule only edifying stuff. Postmortem snarky stuff would be way too weird, and not something for which you’d care to be remembered.”



In a typical presidential campaign, the most successful candidates lay claim to leadership with their high-mindedness. They reach for poetry. They focus on lifting people up, not tearing them down. They beseech voters to be their biggest, best selves.

Not the two front-runners in this freaky Republican primary. They’re unreservedly smug. They’re unabashedly mean.

If you’re not with them, you’re a loser (Donald Trump’s declaration) or you’re godless (Ted Cruz’s decree, more or less). They market name-calling as truth-telling, pettiness as boldness, vanity as conviction …

Cruz mentions [religion] so often and so operatically that he might as well be waging a holy war instead of a political campaign.

“Strap on the full armor of God,” he reportedly exhorted campaign volunteers during a New Year’s Eve conference call, readying them for attacks from his rivals. At a Christian conference in Iowa in November, he told the audience: “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country.”

(Frank Bruni, Obnoxiousness is the New Charisma) I wouldn’t say Bruni doesn’t have a point, but “begin[ning] every day on his knees” is kinda the opposite of “smug,” isn’t it? And if Bruni knew his Bible, he’s know that that “full armor of God” is not for waging war but defense against the wiles of the devil.


…Orthodox churches. That’s the branch of Christianity that split with Rome about 1,000 years ago …

(Fr. John, More African Americans Turning to Orthodoxy)

Meaning no disrespect, Fr. John, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “that’s the Church from which Rome split about 1,000 years ago”?

I mean, gosh, one Patriarch changed, four Patriarchs held steady. By what logic did the four split from the one?


Moody Bible Institute long has had a school for Missionary Aviation. It at least used to be that they were at best indifferent to a student’s aviation experience because they’d need to un-teach you everything you knew based on runways and air traffic controllers and such if you were to be able to fly in all the varying and often rugged missionary conditions.

I sometimes think Orthodoxy could stand to have an un-teaching program for converts from Western Christian traditions. We have baggage, some of which we’re not even aware of. Some of it, it turns out, predates the Reformation, and is almost universal in the West thereafter.

Ironically, a very thoughtful Evangelical has helped be un-learn some of that in the past few days.

Hans Boersma is the kind of guy who (like Daniel Clendenin) leaves Orthodox shaking their heads and musing “why isn’t he Orthodox yet?” He specialises in patristics, sacramental theology (yay!), and Nouvelle Théologie (yawn!) at Regent College. And he wrote a wonderful book I’m finally reading, under a soft deadline, because he’ll be a speaker at a Symposium I’m going to very soon.

He finally helped me to understand the theological ramifications of philosophical nominalism, throwing in univocity and voluntarism along the way:

James K. A. Smith points out that Radical Orthodoxy discerns something of a paradigm shift in Western culture that gave birth to remarkably new, quite unparalleled accounts of the world and social relationships. These philosophical and theological shifts gave birth to new social arrangements, new political ideals, new economic models, and new accounts of human nature, all of which were slowly globalized through the exportation of liberal democracy and capitalist economics …
[U]nivocity and nominalism, by cutting the sacramental connection between creation (sacramentum) and the eternal Logos (res), have given birth to social configurations that, as a matter of principle, do not take into account the teleological purpose of creation’s return to the divine source of its life in God. This modern perspective has led to the enjoyment of its being (as well as truth, goodness, and beauty) for its own sake – an obvious offense against the Augustinian dictum that only God is to be enjoyed for his own sake …
By drawing us away from heavenly contemplation, modern secularism has placed on us the burden of constructing our own truth, goodness, and beauty. If the experience of postmodern vacuity teaches us anything, it is that such a burden is too much to carry.

I’m afraid that’s pretty inadequate standing alone, but Boersma built up to it by describing in earlier chapters the philosophical and theological power of the Platonist-Christian synthesis, which univocity, voluntarism and (especially) nominalism supplanted — and supplanted well before the Protestant Reformation (which inherited the problems instead of creating them).

So, too, did Thomism, which I think may be a (partial?) corrective for these errors in the West, but may introduce some problems of its own.

Notably, this all took place after the Great Schism. In theory, then, the Orthodox should still hold the Great Tradition including the Platonist-Christian synthesis. But aware that Orthodoxy has not been unscathed by its immersion in the West, I thought back to my catechesis and reading in the following years.

I’m pleased to report that, without naming it by name, my Orthodox teaching has been unequivocally against univocity. I’ve clearly been taught that our existence as humans is so different from God’s existence that if it can be said unequivocally that we exist, then it could (and should) be said that God does not “exist” (i.e., in the same sense). That’s exactly what Duns Scotus denied. “Existence is existence” would have been his mantra today.

That Orthodoxy rejects univocity should have taken care of voluntarism and nominalism, and I’ve bravely professed my adherence to realism with a sense that nominalism is wrong (though I didn’t understand why all that well).

Yet, the confluence of univocity, voluntarism and nominalism, none of which was a consciously impious theory, lies almost at the heart of the Calvinism I read my way into and professed for nearly 20 years of my life:

The voluntarism of the Scotist school had a deep impact on both late medieval theology and the direction of Western culture. Louis Dupre succinctly summarizes the impact: If creation depends on the inscrutable decision of a God who totally surpasses the law of human reason, nature loses its intrinsic intelligibility. Grace also becomes a blind result of a divine decree, randomly dispensed to an unprepared human nature. The emphasis upon a divine omnipotence unrestricted by rationality results in a “supernatural order” separated from nature’s immanent rationality.

“Inscrutable decision” of a “God who totally surpasses the law of human reason,” issuing divine decrees to unprepared human nature. That sounds like the hard-core Calvinism to me.  I’m not sure all my reading has quite destroyed all traces of that, and I suspect that some converts haven’t even begun.

It really does seem to me that this would be part of catechesis in the modern West, as it undergirds so much that follows.

Bottom line: if you came to Orthodoxy after most of your life in Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, get Boersma’s book, get off your computer, and do some sustained reading.

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.