Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Wisdom of Wallace Stegner: America and Robert Frost

I've long had a strong admiration for Wallace Stegner. Though not a professing Christian he had an obvious wisdom that was not co-opted by the tyrannies of the left or right. With that in mind I thought it'd be pertinent to blog on his thoughts on America, given the shape of it at late... Stegner writes:

Above all, let us not forget or mislay our optimism about the possible. In all our history we have never been more than a few years without a crisis, and some of those crises, the Civil War for one, and the whole problem of slavery, have been graver and more alarming than our present one. We have never stopped criticizing the performance of our elected leaders, and we have indeed had some bad ones and have survived them. The system was developed by accident and opportunity, but it is a system of extraordinary resilience. The United States has a ramshackle government, Robert Frost told Khrushchev in a notable conversation. The more you ram us, the harder we shackle. In the midst of our anxiety we should remember that this is the oldest and stablest republic in the world. Whatever its weaknesses and failures, we show no inclination to defect. The currents of defection flow the other way.

Let us not forget who we started out to be, or be surprised that we have not yet arrived. Robert Frost can again, as so often be our spokesman, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he wrote. "Something we were withholding made us weak, until we found that it was ourselves we were withholding from our land of living." He was a complex, difficult, often malicious man, with grave faults. He was also one of our great poets, as much in the American grain as Lincoln or Thoreau. He contained within himself many of our most contradictory qualities, he never learned to subdue his selfish personal demon--and he was never a favorite of the New York critics, who thought him a country bumpkin.

But like the folk mind, he was wiser than intellectuals. No American was ever wiser. Listening to him, we can refresh ourselves with our own best image, and renew our vision of America: not as Perfection, not as Heaven on Earth, not as New Jerusalem, but as flawed glory and exhilarating task.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Brief Thoughts on the Active and Contemplative Life

I still don't see any better description of the spiritual life then organized in the categories of "active" and "contemplative." These categories don't depict spheres which are separated but rather wedded, they depend on each other. They find a parallel in Jesus' two great commandments: to love the Lord and neighbor. It is from the spring of God-love that we correctly engage in neighbor-love. It is from our life of God-contemplation that we correctly engage in God-action. This harmonizes with what I've posted on earlier about the need to establish deepened Christian identity, that it is essential to Christian mission. I may be conflating a few things, or confusing a few closely related things... however, it seems to make sense.

This has become increasingly pertinent for me as I've recently begun a position as a High School Youth Pastor. With the average time spent as a Youth Pastor being 18 months it seems incredibly important to see the active life as literally hanging on the contemplative life. This, of course, is not diminish the active life; it is just that I naturally move towards the active life already.

Here are some of Christianity's best thinkers on this subject:

Peter was eager that they should continue in the vision he was privileged to see, but that was not to be. By leaving the vision and going to serve His brethren once more, Our Lord demonstrated to him that the active life must always continue with the contemplative, that the bios theoretikos and the bios praktikos are inseparable.

Gregory the Great-
[Christ] set forth Himself patterns of both [...] the active and the contemplative united together. For the contemplative differs very much from the active. But our Redeemer by becoming Incarnate, while He gave us a pattern of both, united both Himself. For when He wrought miracles in the city, yet he continued all night in prayer on the mountain, He gave His faithful ones an example not to neglect, through love of contemplation, the care of their neighbors; nor again to abandon contemplative pursuits through being too immoderately engaged in the care of their neighbors.

I'm reminded of my professor Bruce Hindmarsh's refrain, that throughout Church history it has been those that have dug deepest in the spiritual life that have been most active in the life of mission.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Whitefield and Public Religion

I'm doing some work on George Whitefield, the eminent 18th century evangelist, known for bringing his pulpit into the fields and marketplaces in England, Scotland and America. He interests me for a few reasons, prominent among them is how much of a public figure he was; Harry Stout of Yale calls him, "Anglo-American's first modern celebrity" (Divine Dramatist). Through the mediums of print and preaching Whitefield helped facilitate the emerging public sphere, as well dominated public opinion. However, it had its costs, Stout records this in his biography of Whitefield,

Instances of mob violence against Whitefield and his Methodist
allies grew increasingly serious as the movement grew increasingly popular [...] Sometimes the mob would target the speakers; other times they would wade into the crowd and simplyassault without regard to gender or age. (176)

Stout goes on to give greater detail of the recorded happenings, which included being pissed on, guns to the face, severe beatings, and one incident where Charles Wesley was beaten while women in the crowd were stripped.

Most interesting about this uncalled for violence is exactly how uncalled for it was. Whitefield preached a simple message of conversion--and though at times railing against clergy, his railings were nothing altogether new. The only point of conflict is the actual competition Whitefield offered the marketers. While preaching he would drown out thehockers and ask for charity for the Georgia orphan house.

Reflecting on it seems that the competition was more than noise and money but was the message of the sermon itself. When listeners began to find the message of a new birth taking root in their hearts they, I'm speculating, also found their affections and desires reordered so that acquisition lost its luster and standing to hear the Word and giving to those in need became, dare I say it, attractive.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Kim Phuc on her Conversion

Kim Phuc, the subject of the photograph that came to symbolize the atrocities of the Vietnam war, (I'm not putting the picture on the post but you can find it by clicking here) was recently invited to take part in the NPR "This I Believe" program; a show which ranges across the panoply of american worldviews.

In her few minute testimonial Phuc gives us a typical evangelical conversion narrative including such themes as Jesus Christ being "her personal savior" and extending forgiveness to both the Vietnamese government--who wanted to turn her into a symbol of the state--and the soldiers who dropped the napalm.

To catch the poignancy and power of what God did in her life I recommend listening to it while looking at the picture. To listen click here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

N.T. Wright Under Fire

N.T. Wright has never been one to evade others' critical reflection. First it was some crispy and caustic reformed Christians with an endless slough of uncharitable jeremiads. Now he's taken heat, on his latest Surprised by Hope, from that wily neo-con priest Fr. Richard Neuhaus (here's the article). Part of the dilemma, I fear, is the nature of Wright's Surprised By Hope which is popular and, therefore, requires simplicfication.

Also, though more comically, Bishop Wright ended up on the Colbert Report. It's clear from the video that Wright, more use to the sermon and lecture, had trouble getting in a word edgewise with Colbert's overbearing persona (find the link here).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Commandment and Catechesis

"You shall not covet [...]" (ex 20:17, Deut 5:21)

And here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church maintains:

Envy is a capital sin. It refers to the sadness at the sight of oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grace harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin:

St. Augustine saw envy as "the diabolical sin." "From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his property. (St. Gregory the Great)

Envy represents a form of sadness and therefore a refusal of chairty; the baptized person whould struggle against it by exercising good will. Envy often comes from pride; the baptized should train himself to live in humility:

Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother's progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised. (St. John Chrysostom)

It has a lot more to say about the tenth commandment but I found the Augustinian roots of this section particularly scintillating. How challenging and refreshing to be told that inordinate desire, and/or consumption, is a form of sadness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Another Post on a Urgent yet Pedestrian Topic

So there was a post I found helpful on the topic a few posts down (should Gospel proclamation take priority in the Missio Dei?). I'd recommend a perusal. Check out this blog for the post.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

This American Life

What do Joshua Harris, Ira Glass and the Catechism of the Catholic Church have in common? The answer: last weeks This American Life. It was a show on the Ten Commandments, and it's worth listening to.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


So after much ado I'm recanting the previous post. If you haven't perused it, please do, then offer your thoughts.

Something that kept bugging me was what it would look like in practice. If the Missio Dei involves the integration of evangelism and social action, as Luke 4 seems to attest, then it seems silly--as I now believe--to methodologically privilege either evangelism or social action. It would require my theory to be different from my practice--often a troublesome sign.

However, I think I had some valid concerns firing my original argument. My main worry is that young evangelicals are beginning to throw the proverbial baby out with the evangelical bath water. In the public sphere it is much more popular to be pro-social action than it is to be evangelically pro-Christ. I'm not saying the two aren't compatible. Instead, I'm saying that you can give all you have to the oppressed while forgetting to give all of who you are to Christ. I worry that young emergent types forget the great commission and therefore concede to the subtle hegemonic un-evangelism of western secularism. The call of Christ is towards mission, evangelism and social action.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

By the Renewing of Your Minds

A while ago I had a conversation with a few friends about whether evangelism should hold the primary place in Christian mission. To my friends jeers I played the outspoken contrarian by maintaining that evangelism (Gospel proclamation) should hold a primary place in Christian mission.

My argument was that it is specifically the Gospel that transforms hearts and provides a narrative identity (worldview) for action. I was basically holding to a hierarchy within Christian mission, caring for creation, justice ministries need to be done with and alongside evangelism but we should not expect creation care and justice ministries to develop strong roots unless they are preceded by renewed hearts (Rom. 12:2). It is the Christian identity of Philemon that allows Paul to exhort him to call his former slave Onesimus a brother. Perhaps I'm a bit of a sluggard but it seems that true orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy. I realize this isn't popular especially with some aspects of liberation theology, but, alas, it seems biblical. Again, justice and creation care are inextricably bound to evangelism (Luke 4) but it seems that the biblical witness demonstrates their instability apart from the redeemed person. It was because of the Gospel that Philemon welcomed Onesimus as a brother; it was because of Gospel proclamation that Onesimus became a bishop and a martyr of the early church.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Contractuality and Marriage

I usually don't wax political here, partly because I feel like I don't have the tools to do so. However, after a few good conversations I feel a little 'tooled up.'

Many folks have noted the current 'contract' nature of contemporary married life, and how it differs from the biblical idea of covenant. Covenant, in biblical perspective, is fundamentally personal--that is it's a commitment to a person. Contract, contrastingly, is a commitment to an understood agreement, it has more to do with imagined rights--if a person does not fulfill the agreement then the other can repeal the contract. Contract cannot help but to wax utilitarian as it rests on the assumption that a husband or wife will produce results fitting certain expectations. Covenant, lives with the other--husband or wife "in sickness and in health," and remembering YHWH and Israel covenant even lasts through sin, covenant is consequentially anti-utilitarian.

For a while now the language of "partner" has been employed by all (left and right) as an apt description the married other. Partner language has, seemingly, provided an opportunity to understand marriage in more egalitarian terms, partners working together in similar tasks. Whatever the benefits of partner language, and for many it is interchangeable with husband and wife, it seems to provide more contractual language for marriages. After all one of the meanings of partner comes from the business sphere, as in "business partners" and has strong contractual roots. Another sign of the codification of contractuality can be seen in the the recent advances for same-sex couples, albeit as a byproduct. The new marriage licenses don't say "bride" and "groom" but rather "party A" and "party B."

There is of course a dialectical relationship between language and action, but these are signs that the contractuality of marriage is becoming publicly codified.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Importance of the Contemplative Life

Jesus, once arrived to a house in which two women lived, one named Mary and the other Martha. They were excited to greet him and welcomed Jesus and his disciples into their home. Once things settled down at Mary and Martha’s house Jesus began to share his wisdom and teach. Mary was riveted she couldn’t pull herself away from Jesus’ words. But Martha, loyal to custom was busy making preparations for Jesus and his disciples. This was normal. When visitors came to your home you made preparations for them. However, oddly enough, the Bible subverts this local custom and says that Martha was “distracted by all the preparations she had made.” She gets mad at Mary, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

We would expect Jesus to respond with “Oh…wow, I didn’t realize that you were doing all that work. Mary, by all means, help Martha!” But he doesn’t he challenges the busy Martha by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” The most important thing, as Jesus tells Martha, is not to become busy with plans and preparations, meetings and work but rather to be learning from and reflecting upon God.

Many notable people throughout history have known this to be case. People that are in our own cultural memory, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa were very busy people, active people—but their active life was informed by there contemplative life. They drew the strength for their activity from the great well of prayer and study.

“To see life steadily, and see it whole,” Matthew Arnold wrote, and in a way I believe that this articulates another aspect of what I’m getting at. To see life steadily we need to be immersed in the great story of God’s redemptive love, we need to see life not from our fragmented post-modern soapbox, rather from a place of loving generosity and full honesty—the place of Christ. Again, to gain such a perspective life, that is, “to see life steadily, and see it whole,” we need time to allow God to reposition us—through time in prayer to God and reflection upon God’s word.

As the semester comes to a close there are many things that could potentially send us off careening off course: finals, jobs, family pressure. It’s important to remember, perhaps more than ever before, “only one thing,” in the end, “is needed,” to come before God contemplatively and humbly.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Curiosity and Double-Knowledge: Bernard of Clairvaux as Monastic Humanist

The word wandering connotes purposelessness; if I wander I neither remember nor expect—I drift. Wandering, for Bernard of Clairvaux, became a central metaphor for what he understood to be the first and most destructive step towards pride: “curiosity” (ltn. curiositas). While in the present it is nearly valorized, in Bernard’s thought, and Augustine before him, curiosity is most often wedded to sin. To the post-modern westerner this condemnation of curiosity sounds fascist, or at very least passé. This paper proposes a pursuit towards understanding the Bernardian idea of curiosity, lest we become liable to our own condemnation.
There are other reasons, however, for this pursuit— besides escaping the fascist stamp ourselves—I believe that Bernard’s understanding of curiosity could potentially be, not only the stumbling block mentioned above, but also a balm to a lost and wandering western culture. In demonstrating this, I will define Bernard’s specific definition of curiosity, primarily as it appears in his treatise On the Steps Towards Humility and Pride (now on HP). Further, I will argue that Bernard’s low view of curiosity did not require that he also have a low view of either the mind or the human person. Indeed, I hope to demonstrate that Bernard himself is enmeshed in a medieval humanism. Lastly, I will retract the historical telescope so that we can take note of our cultural landscape, proposing that Bernard’s understanding of curiosity might provide an interesting alternative to the wandering post-modern-mind.

Images of Curiosity in Bernard’s On The Steps Towards Humility and Pride
“Wandering,” “lift[ing] up your eyes,” and “prying”—the prominent images Bernard uses to describe curiosity in HP—all connote a departure from a given station. Bernard, near the beginning of his exposition on curiosity, explains that a “Wherever [a curious monk] stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander.” The source of this curiosity is apathy with regard to “the condition he has left himself within.” Bernard, in the above passage, describes the “eyes as wandering”—evidence of curiosity—this shows the close link he sees between the senses and the person’s movement towards either virtue or vice. But the act of wandering need not be limited to the senses proper, “curiosity” itself can go about “wandering,” as he mentions a few paragraphs later. This, rather than demonstrating a different meaning, offers another shade of interpretation to Bernard’s use of wandering as an image for curiosity.
The image of wandering surfaces throughout Bernard’s writings; Bernard pleas in a letter to Pope Calixtus to order a run-away Abbot to return as Bernard fears this might allow for “anyone wanting to wander […] without danger to find the same way of life observed as he had professed at home.” Bernard also declares that this Abbot left his home monastery “Morimund […] impelled by a spirit of frivolity.” Here again wandering connotes a departure from a station, which Bernard names “home.” The parallels are evident; the monastery at Morimund offers a place of self-knowledge, where one may live under a common rule; the road to Jerusalem is novel and leads away from self-knowledge to knowledge of the world. The wandering Abbot exchanges the inward pilgrimage for the outward pilgrimage. In another letter about the same incident Bernard calls the aforementioned Abbot’s journey “vagabondage” and in yet another letter declares that the Abbot is “wandering abroad against the rule.” For Bernard, wandering as an image of curiosity, suggests a departure from something of primary importance—that being either self-knowledge proper or a station by which one might further in self-knowledge.
Bernard’s second image for curiosity is the action of “lift[ing one’s] eyes to heaven.” In this particular image Bernard alludes to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector; the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men […],” while the self-aware tax-collector “[…] not even look[ing] up to heaven […] said, God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Bernard saw the tax-collector as a type of what the devout should resemble, “lifting [the]eyes” should be avoided so that one may remember that they still bear the marks of original sin: “look at the earth and know yourself” for “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Here, like the image of “wandering,” there is a departure from self-knowledge with the “lifting [of the] eyes.”
Yet, Bernard clearly does not believe that a state of perpetual contrition is advisable. This is most evident in his third sermon on the Song of Songs where he maintains that the Christian move from earth gazing contrition, articulated in the image of kissing the Christ’s feet, to receiving the hand of the Christ so that we may kiss his hand and rise to be “joined with him in a holy kiss.” However, here it is important to remember that HP is warning of the dangers of pride, where a call to contrition and deep self-knowledge is appropriate, and in his third sermon he is seeking to provide biblical stages of spiritual growth. That aside, again Bernard argues that curiosity draws one’s self away from profitable reflection and towards that which is not within reach.
The third image—both in prominence and place—that Bernard employs to describe curiosity is the act of prying. He writes with Satan in mind, “You want to pry with your curiosity.” In the larger context Bernard has quickly described the curiosity of both Dinah and Eve, and is now articulating how Satan’s fall was also rooted in a failure to not “stand in [the] proper place,” and while “everyone else in heaven is standing. [Satan] alone affects to sit.” Again we see the fundamental root of curiosity is a departure from a given station. In this context the image of “pry[ing]” becomes more vivid as Bernard depicts Satan as departing from his station “to pry” into the glory that belongs to God alone. Curiosity is, as articulated by the image of prying, much more purposely malignant. Unlike “wandering,” which implies “frivolity” but not an all out maliciousness, and “lifting [of the] eyes,” which—more than wandering—evokes a sense of troublesome self-agnosticism; “pry[ing]” shows a willful and purposive malignancy. While the three images differ in malevolence they all—as aforementioned—connote a fundamental departure from self-knowledge; there are for Bernard “two ways, one leading to salvation by way of self-knowledge, the other to perdition by way of curiosity.”
The School and the Monastery
In a letter “To the Bishops and Cardinals in Curia” Bernard describes Abelard’s thought as “prying into things to strong for it.” Prying is employed in the same manner as it is in HP—it represents a lack of self-knowledge as the “things” are “too strong” for Abelard the prier. However, the comparison is deeper than similar usage; surrounding the description of Abelard’s prying are comments that more fully evoke the above description of curiosity. Bernard contends that the “Fathers are being derided because they held that such matters are better allowed to be tasted than solved.” This is important for when Bernard received questions coming from the potentially curious he “applied his principles in the light of Scripture and the Fathers.” The tension between Abelard and Bernard exists with regard to authority. Abelard in Sic et Non shows the Fathers as contradictory and therefore proposes himself as an authority; while Bernard upon receiving seemingly superfluous questions, such as “why the Maccabees, […] have been accorded by the Fathers […] an annual feast,” replies—apparently after a period of silence, “I did not answer […] at once as I have been hoping to find something bearing on the subject in the Fathers, which I would rather have sent […] than anything new of my own.” While Bernard strived for humilitas, living under the authorities of Scripture and the Fathers, Abelard “[sought] to understand in a spirit of Curiositas,” by prying open the bulwarks of orthodoxy.
However, to fully equate Bernard with humilitas and Abelard with curiositas is unhelpful as it ignores both the flaws in Bernard and the genius and tragedy of Abelard. Rather, it is more fruitful to see them both representing different types of learning. As is noted above, for Bernard, learning is rooted in the double knowledge of God and self. This does not mean that Bernard and his contemporaries were “anti-humanists” but were rather against “trivium as resulting from a reassessment of [their] monastic life.” To Bernard all forms of learning that fix their trajectory outside the double knowledge of God and man are “superfluous,” because “they do not make the monks weep.” In this self-imposed restriction Bernard shows the seriousness with which he regarded the monastic life, indeed—for Bernard—to move on in learning, past the double-knowledge, is to forget the sin and creatureliness of the self, and to wander past boundaries laid out by the Apostles and Fathers.
Abelard, however, worked in the context of the university where liberal learning was growing and theology was a discipline among others, though still the most favorable. In the medieval university differing disciplines held a relative independent authority. Indeed, the university had the potential for “[…] conflict, disagreement, or dispute […] within the university […] among the various faculties or between secular and mendicant masters.” This parallels Abelard’s dialectical epistemology which arrived at truth through argument and contrasted positions. Bernard, however, embraced the “schola Christi,” and submission to the Abbot and Benedict’s rule. While, it is important to not reduce the Bernard-Abelard conflict to a “clash between innovation and tradition” alone, it seems equally important to not see any other mode of explanation as primary. As we have seen Abelard, in many ways, epitomizes Bernard’s depiction of curiositas.
Bernard’s Medieval Humanism
Nevertheless, Bernard was anything but a frigid despot in the perpetual posture of condemnation. As Gilson has articulated, “[…] each and all of these hardy ascetics carried in his bosom a humanist who by no means wanted to die.” And as Bernard explained, “In itself […] the study of letters is good, for it adorns the soul, instructs the man, and makes him capable of instructing others. But it is good only on condition that two things precede it: fear of God and charity.” In this we see the tension that existed for Bernard; it was not that liberal learning was bad, rather it was the schola christi was to be privileged as it dealt with humankind’s most significant problems and therefore prepared the student for liberal learning.
This shows, therefore, that fundamental to Bernard’s humanism was, in his mind, the correct place of the human. Because humankind has both “greatness” and has “lost […] uprightness” seriousness is demanded, one which assumes the posture of double-knowledge and condemns vain curiosity. To this end, and again reflecting Bernard’s humanism, he employs imaginative exegesis to spur the soul onto love, indeed, “Bernard’s ascetism [is in relation] to his doctrine of love.” Bernard’s imaginative exegesis can be seen throughout his sermons and treatises as his rhetorical method of portraying both the “greatness” and “lost uprightness” of humankind, so that the monks might be moved to strive more deeply for this double-knowledge of God and self. It is precisely because, for Bernard, “in the very construction of the soul there is a natural drive to God and a capacity for him […]” that Bernard uses imaginative exegesis, so to win the soul’s ‘neutrality’ over to God’s love and the soul’s love for God. If we are to understand Bernard on his own terms we see that he is more affirming of humanity than the most decadently curious hedonist, it is only that for Bernard, affirmation moves through ascesis.
The Wandering Bazaar and Curiosity Bridled
The late-modern westerner most likely recoils at such seemingly dated ideas as the prevention of curiosity. Curiosity, and the progress it implies, is a battle cry that is heard resounding in newspapers and magazines. Alternately, those of a conservative vein are perhaps tempted to look out onto the cultural backdrop and only see “lonely travails across a landscape so perilous no one could traverse it unscarred.” Harper’s Magazine, while most often offering up a vision of progress, at times also expresses bleak visions, particularly in the column “Findings,” where it gives a discursive prose-poem of sorts which describes the latest discoveries in the sciences. One month’s column begins,
A team of scientists at Newcastle University created human embryos by combining the genetic material of one man and two women, […] and Brazilian scientists created egg cells from the embryonic stem cells of male mice. […] Female yellow baboons with supportive fathers were observed to reach menarche earlier, to begin having children earlier, and to have more children than female baboons whose fathers were not involved in their lives […]
The “findings” go on to include “studies,” which “calculated that harvesting grass for fuel creates 93 times more carbon emissions than are saved by the production of cleaner fuel,” and, “Mercury was observed to be shrinking and acquiring wrinkles as it ages,” the article concludes with, “Haystacks in Australia were suffering a high rate of spontaneous combustion. The world’s dirt was disappearing faster than ever before.” The tone throughout offers sardonic chuckles at the bazaar of useless “findings,” this is aptly demonstrated by the concluding line bespeaking regress, not the progress one would expect with the latest “findings.” This, as a Bernardian might argue—oddly enough in near agreement with the editors at Harper’s—is frivolity’s wandering quest for vana curiositas, the journey which most often leads away from God and the self.
Contrastingly, what is central for Bernard, and to offer a prescription for our current western cultural climate, is the discipline of biblical-theological anthropology. In such a discipline we most readily assume the posture of creature in relation to Creator. All other anthropologies set the sail off a different direction. The anthropology of the curious is an untamed romanticism with regard to the limitlessness of human ingenuity and progress—it shirks off its creatureliness and assumes to be creator. Yet the solution is not a bleak conservatism that stamps out any flame of progress, this anthropology fails to see what humanity was made for. Bernard, here seems to be a fine model, for he maintained a biblical anthropology which allowed him to see the importance of both, kissing the feet, and the lips of God.

Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. G.R. Evans, Selected Works: Classics in Western Spirituality, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987, 122,5 (“wandering”); 123 (“lift[ing] up your eyes”); 126 (“pry[ing]”). I am using “station” in a very broad sense, to include a sense of given-ness and the departure there from.
Ibid, 122.
For more on this see: Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Conversion” in Selected Works, 65-99.
Ibid, 125.
It may also suggest that Bernard is more concerned with rhetorical force than he is with rhetorical finish, as there is a minor conflation of the senses and “curiosity” (curiosity directs senses producing wandering, and curiosity itself wanders).
Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. Bruno Scott James, The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, London, England: Burns Oates, 1953, 24.
Ibid, 24, 5.
Bernard also uses “wander” in relation to Abelard’s attempt to defy faith, he writes, “[…] it is not allowed you in our faith, to suppose or oppose at your pleasure, nor to wander hither and thither amongst empty opinions […].” Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. Samuel J. Eales, The Letters of S. Bernard, London, England: Ballantyne, 1904, 273. One also is led to see Bernard’s use of wandering as alluding to the exile from Eden as his second use of wandering in HP is enveloped in a conversation on the tasting of the forbidden fruit.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Works, 124.
This observation is made in the footnotes in Bernard’s Selected Works edition. For the biblical passage see: Luke 18:11,13
Ibid, 124.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, 223.
Again an Edenic allusion seems probable, given the context. “Lifting up the eyes” seems to suggest a grasping for something out of reach, as Adam and Eve forgot their status as creatures hoping that they would “be like God” (Gen. 3:5), the monk who “lifts up the eyes” with Luke’s Pharisee hopes to see God despite his sin.
Ibid, 126.
Ibid, 125.
Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of Bernard of Clairvaux, New York, NY: Shedd & Ward, 1955, 156.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Letters, 315, 6.
The pun was at first not intended, then upon further reflection the subtleties were irresistible as “prier” and “Prior” are both homonyms and antonyms, that is, they are similar in appearance but are antithetical in reality.
Ibid, 316.
G.R. Evans, The Mind of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1983, 142.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Letters, 144.
Evans, Mind, 163.
Thomas Renna, “St. Bernard and the Pagan Classics” in The Chimera of His Age: Studies on Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. E. Rozanne Elder and John R. Sommerfeldt, Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1980, 124.
Ibid, 125.
For an helpful paper on the growth of the secular university in Medieval times see: Stephan Fernando, ‘“Quid dant artes nisi luctum?” Learning, Ambition, and Careers in the Medieval University,’ History of Education Quarterly, 28:1, 1988, 1-22.
Ibid, 5.
Gilson, Mystical Theology, 60-1.
Constant J. Mews, “The Council of Sens (1141): Abelard, Bernard, and the Fear of Social Upheaval,”
Speculum, 77.2, 2002, 343.
Gilson, Mystical Theology, 63.ll
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, 37:1-2; quoted in Gilson, Mystical Theology, 229.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, 261.
Emero Stiegman, “Humanism in Bernard of Clairvaux” in Chimera, 27. I realize that one might contend that though Bernard’s exegesis actually invokes very little ‘free-wielding’ imagination, rather it is the common ecclesial exegesis, first employed by Origen. This, however, misses Bernard’s great desire to see monks move towards a deeper love for Christ. For example there is, I think, a parallel in our culture which would help illustrate the above; evangelicals employ nearly every form of technology imaginable for purpose of evangelism. One might argue that it simply because they live in a technological age, this however—as is immediately obvious to those familiar with evangelicalism—misses the fact that evangelicals, when it comes to evangelism, have a fairly utilitarian approach to technology. Bernard, I believe, as it relates to his exegesis, is similar.
Ibid, 25.
There are other current areas to explore, however, in the following I hope to provide a brief example of how curiosity has manifested itself in post-modern western culture.
Mary Karr, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Sinner’s Welcome, San Francisco, CA: Harpers, 84.
Ed. Roger D. Hodge, “Findings,” Harper’s Magazine, April 2008, 104.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Personal Reflections: Praying the Hours

While I sat at our small kitchen table with the Celebrating Common Prayer open alongside Lancelot Andrew’s Private Prayers I did not immediately realize that I was participating in something that stretched back to traditions rooted in the Israel’s prayer practices. I’ve been taught, and discipled, to not privilege tradition but theology. I remember being stunned, at William Temple’s suggestion, that all faith and theological teaching stemmed from Christ’s historic teaching from the real tangible boats, mountain tops, and valleys. When I told an old friend he subtly chided me, “Bryan—while I agree—don’t you think that we have a more immediate connection to Christ through His Holy Spirit which is now at work within us and the church bringing us into all truth?” I agreed. He was right—the historic should never be privileged over the spiritual and theological. That, as it seems, leads to the person destroying traditionalism toted around by the Pharisees of Jesus’ own day. Still, when the historic and the spiritual kiss, or at least shake hands—there, I now confidently think, is reason for rejoicing. I don’t think my slow change of perspective has come about because of my own desire to be faddish, or to be cool amidst Regent student’s championing of things ancient and sacramental. No, my embrace of the historic—while certainly informed by my time here at Regent—is rooted in my realizing that God operates in time. As Christ’s hands bear the marks of the cross, so history bears the marks of the Holy Spirit engaging with the great mess we make, working for its redemption. History, in one way or another contains the spiritual—even now. To deny history and the traditions our fathers and mothers give us is to deny how the Holy Spirit has worked in our past—this as it seems is far from gracious.

So I read through Celebrating Common Prayer and Andrew’s Private Prayers with a growing sense that I was surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” My faith, I came to see, wasn’t my own thing. It was God’s thing and because it was God’s it was also the church’s, and because it was the church’s it was historical. And because, in the end, faith wasn’t about me—it wasn’t my thing—I came to experience relief. I didn’t have to forge ahead by my own self-will and spontaneity alone. In this way the prayers I read were like verbal grace—they were not something I did but something I participated in and received.

I read that the offices, though formally implemented with Benedict, were inspired by John Cassian, who was in turn inspired by desert monks, who in turn were inspired by the Psalms. History, I came to see, is like a great scroll that only stops unrolling at the words, “In the beginning God created […].”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gary Thomas' Beautiful Fight

"Beautiful" and "fight," they're two words you don't see together often. Yet in Gary Thomas' latest book The Beautiful Fight they are strung together most excellently. Thomas, adjunct professor at Western Seminary and award winning author, is drawing his title from the Orthodox Fathers' reading of 2nd Timothy 4:7-8. This text, more commonly translated as "the good fight," is an apt gloss for Thomas' thoughts on the spiritual life.

The Christian spiritual life is the common denominator throughout the three sections and16 chapters. Thomas does this by fusing together the genius and wisdom of biblical passages, church fathers (such as Clement of Alexandria and Athanasius), medieval mystics (Julian of Norwich), Puritan divines (John Flavel), along with contemporary voices like J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and John Piper. One thing, that's evident even at a glance, is that Thomas' thoughts on the Christian spiritual life aren't monochrome. He doesn't confine himself to the contemporary--a common error in American evangelicalism--neither does he stick to a particular theological tradition, nor one aspect of the Christian spiritual life. Instead Thomas, with a discerning ecumenism, shows that the essential witness of Christian spirituality is one of harmony. With this in mind, he writes, "Christian Spirituality is all about [...] our Creator and Lord taking ordinary people and making them potent instruments of God."

In Beautiful Fight Thomas answers the call which many Christians are longing for. That is, what does it mean to have an embodied and active faith. He does this by weaving in life-stories from his time at Regent College to his life as a husband and father. Because of his integration of life and thought the reader feels that the book is at least in part an invitation into a dialogue on, about, and over the Christian spiritual life. And it's a conversation that is of the utmost importance; every where we turn, it seems, there is another front page article on `spirituality' or another book on the `spirituality of (fill in the blank).' In a world where everyone from Oprah to your local barista is a `spirituality' expert it is refreshing to hear a voice which articulates a Holy Spirit-uality.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly's terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdson, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn't, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free fringed tangle. Freedom is the world's water and weather, the world's nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.

- Annie Dillard
Teaching a Stone to Talk

Thursday, January 31, 2008

White Whale

My man Matt Humphrey has recently revamped his blog and has put some new posts up. Check it out; it's worth a peak. Click on the link.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Anne Lamott writes in her spiritual autobiography Traveling Mercies, “Religion is for those who are afraid of Hell, spirituality is for those who’ve been through it.” I agree, in some ways. We all have seen how “religion” can be—and often is—dry bones. Formalism without meaning and spontaneity, structure without life—these are some of the phrases that have come to describe many people’s thoughts about religion. Still, religious studies classes at Harvard and other Ivy League schools—as well as UBC—are filling up. In Chapters Bookstore there are aisles of shelf space given to religious books. Still, and here Lamott’s quote takes flesh, based on church attendance Vancouver is perhaps the most ‘secular’ place in North America. People crave spiritual experience, and a vague notion of “spirituality” but are leery of ‘religion.’
There are a few characteristics of this “fad,” if it’s fair to call it that, that strike me as odd. The first is how private it is. Overhearing a conversation at Starbucks a few weeks ago I heard a person report to a friend “…Then she started asking me if I was spiritual, and kept asking questions. Now believe me, I am deeply spiritual! But it’s private—I’m not gonna tell her about my private spiritual life.” It’s quite amazing really, that is, how the spiritual side of our lives has become more private than our sex life.

Second, while we are rightly becoming more aware of third world exploitation—we’re buying fair-trade even though it cost more. We, the West, are engaging in other forms of exploitation, namely, religious exploitation. I think of the young businessman who has statues of Shiva and Buddha, and perhaps a Greek Orthodox cross in his house and upon a dinner conversation says, “I hate the west, all we care about here is getting money.” The irony, of course, being that with all his warranted distaste of Western society he really is deeply Western—his home décor proves it. He has brought together different religions for the sake of his own stylish spirituality and thus shown disregard for what the statue of Buddha ultimately means, say, to the Buddhist. Like the woman who doesn’t care about fair-trade as long as her coffee is rich and bold, he too, ultimately, doesn’t care about the deep history and meaning of Buddha, along as his spirituality is personally rewarding and savvy.

What is striking about contemporary spirituality is how self centered it is. This, I must say, saddens me. However, Lamott is still very right. Spirituality does appeal to those who have experienced hard times, or as she puts it, “hell.” The Christian message, though, is comforting as it maintains that true hope ultimately comes, not from a tradition, but a person—the person of Jesus Christ. When troubled, remember that, reach through the spiritual confusion of our present time, all the way to Christ. He is the one who offers a real hope—in a real relationship.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bavinck and Common Grace

I've been reading about Common Grace lately. It's a distinctive of reformed theology though it has other Protestant and Catholic parallels, such as Natural Theology, Natural Law, General Revelation. What the main difference is Common Grace's ability to escape a systematic definition. Some of the greatest proponents of Common Grace have maintained that they surely believe it exists, though they don't know exactly what it is. It arises naturally from experience. All around us we see people who do not live, at least confessedly, under God's special atoning grace. Yet, many of them are incredibly profound thinkers and artists. Their work and thought confesses aspects of a Christian world-view, though without the terms of the confessions and creeds. It also arises from the reformed theologians desire to maintain that everything good is God's free gift, that is, man not only did not merit it but God actively gave it. Further it avoids distinctions between nature and grace, which are common to other areas of theology. Common Grace theologians maintains it's not limited to the work of culture, but that even rain that waters crops is a common grace. Everything that prevents sin and promotes life which is not distinct to only those who live under God's Saving Grace could be called Common Grace. We find biblical support for such a theology in John 1:9 and Acts 17, as well as many other places in the Bible.

One of the greatest proponents of such a view is my man Herman Bavinck, the contemporary of Abraham Kuyper. Bavinck represents some of the best of Dutch Neo-Calvinism. Here are a couple quotes:

The three sisters, logic, physics, and ethics, are like the three wise men from the east, who came to worship Jesus in perfect wisdom


The good philosophical thoughts scattered through the pagan world receive in Christ their unity and center