The Incarnation and Boethius’ Hierarchy of Knowledge

The ancients and medievals were fascinated with the concept of hierarchies. In fact, for many of them, the very fabric of their worldview was essentially hierarchic. All things were seen as originating from God as their source, and being directed toward God as their final end/good; and within this framework the entire universe was held as existing in ordered, purposeful relationships. This understanding of reality as ordered/hierarchic manifested itself in nearly every aspect of life and thought: family and community structure, political systems, ecclesiastical organization, theology, philosophy, and, as we’ll see, epistemology.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote of the celestial hierarchy of angels, mirrored in the Church’s own hierarchy. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the hierarchy of existing beings, from inanimate objects, to living plants, to animals, to rational humans. Plato had explained reality as ordered from the material to the immaterial and ultimately to the Form of the Good. For all these classical thinkers, their belief in an ordered universe expressed itself through hierarchical relations.

Boethius was certainly no exception. Continue reading

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Review: Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

I am a student of philosophy. My mind thinks metaphysically more naturally than it does metaphorically. But as Holly Ordway argues in her new book, Christian apologetics must be about much more than just propositional argumentation: it must be a wholistic endeavor which engages the entirety of human nature, both in individuals and in societies broadly.

That is the central idea in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017). In it, Holly Ordway, an English professor and convert to the Faith, presents a method of practical apologetics that is not in itself new, but is nonetheless not quite so frequently recognized or implemented, at least explicitly. Contemporary apologetics has often focused almost exclusively on the purely intellectual aspects of defending the Christian faith; but Ordway argues, quite convincingly, that doing so ignores significant facets of the human experience and hence can actually be detrimental to the overall project and ultimate end of apologetics, which is bringing people to a living faith. In the present book, she focuses on the human faculty of imagination and how it can be impacted through different mediums, especially literature and the arts.

Of course, it might seem a bit unusual to think of apologetics as a project consisting of writing a fictional story or painting a landscape or even designing a building, but that is exactly what Ordway is here suggesting. We’ve come to think of apologetics as too small and narrow a thing if we do not allow it to engage more than just the intellect. Even more importantly, we’ve come to think of human beings as too small if we reduce individuals to just their capacity to reason. Seeing this, however, first requires understanding exactly what apologetics is.

Apologetics, from the Greek apologia, is on one level just a defense of any particular view or position (think of Socrates’ trial in Plato’s Apology). In this sense, almost everyone engages in “apologetics” for something; every worldview or belief system will attempt at some point to defend itself, to give justification for itself. But very early on in the history of the Church, the concept and practice of apologetics was taken up by Christians and given a distinctly Christian interpretation. Think, for instance, of St. Justin Martyr, who early in the second century wrote his two Apologies, addressed to the Roman emperor himself, as an explanation of general Christian beliefs and a call for governmental protection against persecution. Thus apologetics is an ancient tradition within the Faith, and Christians have long understood it as central to the mission of the Church. In this second sense, apologetics takes on more than just a defensive connotation and instead becomes an active undertaking aimed at explaining and establishing the truth of the Christian Faith. In its Christian context, however, the end of apologetics can never be just winning an argument or debate or even convincing someone of the propositional truth of various Christian doctrines; its end, rather, can be nothing less than the radical, salvific transformation of the entire person, and entire communities and societies. This must include, of course, the convincing of doctrinal truths; but it must also be more. Why so?

Because, as Ordway argues, the human person is more than a mere intellect. And that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of her book: she grounds it all in a proper understanding of human nature. She writes:

“Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the Faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families, and communities (goodness), and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected. Our faith is deeply rooted and fully nourished only if we have all three transcendentals in our lives: goodness, truth, and beauty. Likewise, our apologetics and our evangelization will be most attractive, compelling, and convincing if we draw on all three. Truth, for the intellect; goodness, for the moral sense and the will; beauty, for the aesthetic sense, the emotions, and the imagination. In this way, our apologetics can touch mind, heart, and will, not in isolation, but in harmony with each other” [1].

If Christian apologetics is aimed at convincing others of the truthfulness of the Faith in order ultimately to transform their whole person and being in living faith, then what role exactly does imagination play? How can imagination do any “convincing” at all? As Ordway notes, our own culture has a somewhat impoverished understanding of the human faculty of imagination. We associate imagination with “the imaginary” [2], with day dreaming or fantasies or made up things. But imagination in its classical sense has a much richer significance. Ordway explains:

“For Aristotle, and for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates ‘between sense and intellect’ by conveying ‘data to the intellect’ . . . Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought as well as all artistic, or what we would call ‘imaginative,’ exercise” [3].

In essence, the imagination provides the raw material upon which the intellect can then operate. In fact, the medievals would argue (as does Ordway), that without the imagination we could not reason at all, for we would have nothing to reason about. Ordway also provides several other vital roles that imagination plays, besides mediating between the senses and the intellect: 1) Imagination helps give meaning, and meaningful contexts, to the terms and language that we use. Without this, there can be no substantial communication whatsoever, at all. 2) Imagination is a necessary precursor and foundation to judgement. In other words, in order to judge whether a propositional statement such as “Dogs are sweet animals” is true or false, we first must grasp the meaning of the statement. The intellect/reason does the judgement, but the imagination generates the meaning [4]. 3) Imaginative mediums such as literature can embody truths and draw others into contemplation of them without forcefully or aggressively intruding upon them. 4) Imagination can work to dismantle misconceptions and distortions of meaning in order to provide a better framework in which to discuss the Faith. 5) Imagination allows us to enter into the experiences and perspectives of others to better understand them and their beliefs, enabling us to engage in better dialogue. 6) Imagination can strike at and bring to the surface natural and deeply embedded longings within us, leading us to further think about and explore the implications of such longings (such as our innate longings for meaning, purpose, beauty, etc.).

In all of this, however, Ordway is very clear that she is not in any way advocating for replacing or excluding the intellectual aspects of apologetics; indeed she recognizes these as vital. Instead, she is proposing an integrative approach, one which acknowledges the whole person of the human being with all its faculties and responds appropriately. In other words, we need both imaginative and intellectual apologetics if we want to establish the Faith as meaningful and true. And in this I entirely agree.

Overall, Ordway’s book is timely and significant, as Christians in the West continue to interact with and defend the Faith against raging secularism and increasing skeptical and non-religious sentiments. Ordway offers an approach to apologetics that I think can greatly supplement areas somewhat lacking in its contemporary project. There are several ways in which this could be done: on one level, apologists can just use imaginative material that is already there. But what I think is most significantly missing and needed, is for more people to actively be producing new imaginative material. The Church needs talented and passionate individuals to be writing literature, painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, performing, acting, writing scripts, producing movies, etc., in ways that both beautifully depict the rich depth and meaning and truth of the Christian Faith, and also engage a culture that is absolutely starving for wonder, beauty, and genuine art. In other words, we need a new C. S. Lewis. We need a new Tolkien. We need a new Dostoevsky, a new Mozart or Bach, a new Rembrandt, a new Shakespeare. And hopefully Ordway’s book can help inspire them to be such. Indeed, Ordway herself throughout the book includes some of her own imaginative material: each chapter ends with an original poem that reflects a general theme or idea from the chapter. In addition to being beautiful in themselves, these poems help demonstrate practical ways in which imaginative apologetics can be carried out.

In conclusion, Ordway’s book is extremely well written, full of depth and wisdom but presented in a concise and easily comprehensible fashion. She includes personal examples and helpful illustrations, and draws heavily from the work of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, with whom she is expertly familiar. My absolute favorite part of the book was its emphasis on the Incarnation as the center of the Faith. She includes an entire chapter entitled “The Incarnation” which is beautifully and profoundly written; and throughout the book she relates the “embodiment” of meaning in words, literature, and art to the supreme Embodiment of God Himself in the flesh in the person of Christ. All in all, it was an excellent and insightful book which I would readily recommend to anyone interested either in apologetics broadly, or in how the arts can be implemented within a Christian context.

My thanks to Steven Edwards from Emmaus Road Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book.

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Notes

[1]. Ordway, Holly. Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017. Pages 167-168.

[2]. Ibid., 15.

[3]. Ibid., 16.

[4]. Ibid., 29.

An Augustinian Defense of Hell

Of all Christian doctrines, the doctrine of Hell is seemingly the easiest to attack, hardest to defend, and most shied away from by theologians, philosophers, and apologists. It’s seen as an outdated, despicable, morally horrendous scare-tactic that is a significantly embarrassing blot on the claim to believe in a perfect, loving, good God. It’s rarely discussed in a serious philosophical setting, except in the brief work of skeptical writers presenting arguments against its moral justification. Christians may offer some general responses to the sentiment behind these arguments, but for the most part are just content to pass by and focus on other, “easier” and less taboo topics. It is now somewhat standard fare for people to assume that Hell is a settled issue; it’s often just taken for granted that Hell is indefensible and morally repugnant and hence that it’s almost not even worth critiquing or defending. Continue reading

An Existential Argument for the Resurrection from St. Athanasius

St. Athanasius, in his beautiful De Incarnatione, presents an argument for believing in the reality of Christ’s resurrection. It is, one should note, primarily an existential argument for the resurrection, rather than a purely historical one as is most often defended today; but I don’t think this makes it any less powerful. Indeed, most people probably find existential arguments more compelling than purely historical arguments, insofar as working through the latter can involve much difficulty and abstraction, whereas the former have the potential to be directly experiential in nature.

First, St. Athanasius points to the martyrs and their willingness to die for the faith as evidence that Christ has in fact “trampled death”. But then he continues Continue reading

Christmas: To the End of the Way of the Wandering Star

Behold our universe: the horizons of which we cannot perceive, the intricacies of which we cannot plumb. The entire cosmos dances to some profound, utterly divine melody; it dances and it sings along in the harmonious chorus of existence. The stars shout the glory of light and warmth. The planets circle their suns, pulled in by their radiant beauty. The very atoms and molecules, the stones from which this majestic palace of the universe was crafted, sway with the winds of an eternal breath. All beings ordered to their time and place and way, all things directed to their specific ends, all in jubilant obedience to their Maker and Sustainer.

The galaxies shout praises to the Creator in their fiery exultation. The planets sing hymns of laud to their God and King as they sweep from one end of the solar system to the next. The oceans roar, the mountains rise, the birds soar and fish dive, the creatures saunter and crawl, all to the glory of the Lord.

And yet all these beings, though the very innermost depth of their being flows directly from, and is constantly directed to, God as their Creator and Sustainer, the First Cause and Final End of all things, this is done in them without conscious knowledge, an open awareness of both their internal selves and the external world. In all of creation, this privileged position of knowledge has been granted to mankind. And with this honorable position comes immense duty.

A duty which we have squandered.

All of creation succeeds in that every being therein is itself, exists as itself, as it was meant to, and fulfills its intrinsic ends/purposes. This is the ultimate duty of all beings: to be itself, as it was so designed and intended by the Divine Craftsman. It is the duty of all stars to shine, the duty of all planets to orbit, the duty of all trees to grow and bear fruit, the duty of all bees to buzz and pollenate and produce honey, the duty of all ants to crawl and march and build and protect their queen, the duty of all mice to scurry and squeak, the duty of all birds to flap wings and fly, the duty of all waves to crash upon the shore. All these beings, down to the most minuscule of subatomic particles, all have their purpose, all have their duty, and in ordered obedience to this duty they glorify God in their very being.

And of all creation, humans alone were granted the gift of knowing their own existence, knowing their own duty and purpose, and, ultimately, thereby knowing their Creator and Sustainer. This knowledge and will are the distinctive human gifts. It is the duty of man to know God, the duty of man to will the good in obedience to God. All other beings enact their existential dramas and fulfill their duties unconsciously, automatically, without choice or awareness. Human beings were given the opportunity to do so fully consciously, freely, with knowledge. And thus human beings alone were given the opportunity of the ultimate good and happiness and joy of all existing things: the Beatific Vision, conscious experience of and union with the Divine Reality. To know God as God.

It was the duty of man to know God and to consciously glorify God to and for all creation. We, as rational animals, as immortal souls in mortal flesh, were meant to be the ambassadors between God and creation. On this very speck of death, mankind was meant to be the mouth from which all creation could pour forth the wondrous joy it held inside, the ecstatic delight of its own mystical existence.

Placed as such above all creation, to lift all creation to God, how disastrous then becomes our fall! For in thus falling, we become actually the lowest of all creatures, lower than all other beings in creation. For all other beings in the entire universe are themselves, are what they were truly meant to be; and in falling, humanity fails to be humanity. Humanity fails to be what we were meant to be. In falling, humans don’t just become something less than human–we become something less than creation itself. For creation in its very essence is good, the gift of existence flowing from Divine Source. But in our fall, mankind rebelled against this divine gift of existence. We chose to be something other than what we are, because to be what we truly are would require the one thing for which we were made: obedience to the Divine Will. How easy for a bird to fulfill the Divine Command to chirp! But what great burden for man, with his own knowledge and will, to submit that will to Another.

Evil, essentially, is disordered existence. Evil is the lack of Goodness which is humanity being as it is meant to be. Evil is humanity failing to be truly human. Evil is man being less than man.

Imagine the horror if the stars rebelled and refused to shine! Imagine the tragedy if the particles and atoms and molecules all rebelled, and refused to join in their chemical community to produce our cosmos! So how terrible, how monstrous, how dark, how absurd it is, for man to rebel and refuse to be man! The wondrous song and dance of creation suddenly was thrown out of tune into a horrid tension. The humans fought and killed each other, they were angry and sorrowful and wretched and lustful and prideful and selfish and hateful, the exact opposite of what they had been meant to be. They created societies and civilizations, driven by greed and fear, ruled by oppression and injustice. They fought wars and enslaved fellow men. They tore at the earth and at each other.

And so how infinitely, overwhelmingly profound is it, that God should save man by not refusing to be man, by Himself becoming man to teach us how to be man! Jesus Christ, the God-man, was the first truly and fully human person in the history of our race. He was the second Adam, who overcame our broken nature, to restore our ruined flesh. When we look to Christ, we see God. But equally as true: when we look to Christ, we see humanity, as it was truly meant to be. The wonder of the Incarnation is not just Divine; it is also human.

How incomprehensible that which God accomplished in Christ! Human reason cannot capture Him, and yet a manger held Him. Human hands cannot reach Him, and yet a mother swaddled Him. The human mind cannot contain Him, and yet our lowly planet enclosed Him. Death cannot touch Him, and yet nails pinned Him to a cross.

St. Irenaus wrote: “Gloria Dei est vivens homo.” The Glory of God is living man. Christ was the first and true living man, the man who fulfilled the duty of men and thus completed the purpose of all creation. The man who tasted and defeated death, so that all men can become living men.

G. K. Chesterton wrote this beautiful poem, The House of Christmas:

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home [1].

Much could be said about these words, but that line towards the end specifically stuck out: “To the end of the way of the wandering star”. It’s referring, of course, to the star of Bethlehem, which guided many to see Christ. But in another sense, I think we could say that planet earth is the wandering star, the star which went rogue, the lone star of all stars in all the heavens which abandoned its way and fell from its light and life. And Christ is thus the end of the way of the wandering star. In Christ, our wandering is over; our Home is found.

And now my own, original Christmas poem:

Lo, the dawn! The sun doth shine

Upon hills blanketed in snow,

And all creation, sprung from Divine

Rises forth, from darkness low.

Glistening horizon, wreathed in flame

Marches onward in triumphant shout;

Come to bring light and day back again

Come to water our souls so long in drought.

The snow, the leaves, all do shine!

For light of sun in infinite fullness

Cannot but share its Glory Divine

To pour out from indivisible wholeness.

Lo, the Dawn, birthed from woman!

In a manger the Sun doth lay;

For in Christ, God made man,

The night can ne’er stand up to day!

To the end of the way of the wandering star,

On this rebel planet, in Bethlehem,

Immanuel, God with us, He is not far!

All death and darkness conquered by the Lamb!

 

Notes

[1]. Chesterton poem found online here: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/GK_Chesterton_House_of_Christmas.shtml

 

 

Aquinas on Incarnation and Christmas

The ultimate mystery and meaning of Christmas, and really the entire Christian faith, is the Incarnation. It is the very heart of all Christian creeds. But it is, in its beautiful, wondrous depth, unfathomable to finite minds. What impenetrable profundity, to say that God became man, that the Divine Reality took on flesh!

Such a feat would not be really so problematic in many mythologies/theologies. Just read through the literature of many ancient myths, and you’ll see that the gods are understood really as just “glorified” (in a very ironic sense) humans–immortal, much more powerful, but in essence still all too human. These gods, in effect, differ from mankind merely by degree. They are “higher on the scale” in terms of qualities.

But nothing could be more different from the belief of Classical Theism, which holds God to be not just another being amongst all beings, with a little more power, or even a “higher” being; but rather Being Itself, Existence Itself, Pure Actuality, Goodness Itself, etc. That in whom Essence and Existence are identical, totally simple (no metaphysical composition), completely and totally unchanging and unchangeable, absolutely no passive potencies, qualitatively infinite in power and goodness and knowledge, entirely immaterial, incorporeal, impassible, not able to suffer or be affected externally. This is the God, acknowledged in the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well, but who the Christian faith alone of all traditions has declared became a human being, like us, to walk among us, live beside us, and die for us.

But how, in a metaphysical sense, is this even possible? How can something that by its very nature is Pure Act, Being Itself, immutable, impassible, immaterial, and infinite, become something finite, material and physical, changeable, a being among beings, composite of act and potency? In short, how is the Incarnation not a total contradiction in terms? Continue reading

Advent and the Silence of God

*Note: this post contains spoilers for the book/movie “Silence”.

Last week, I finished Shusaku Endo’s  highly acclaimed 1966 novel “Silence”, the long expected movie of which is being released next month (see the trailer here). The book was fantastic–beautifully written, hauntingly profound, and deeply thought provoking. I’m not going to discuss too much of the actual plot here, since I highly recommend reading/seeing it for yourself. Rather I want to consider perhaps the central thematic point of the story: the silence of God (thus the book’s title).

Throughout the novel, as the characters experience extreme hardships, difficulties, and suffering, often times as a direct result of their Christian faith, they are left to wonder: where is God? Where is the God in whom they have placed their trust and hope? Where is the God for whom they are currently offering their lives, having given up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Where is the God who all their lives they have been told is loving, who is supposed to care for His people, who has commanded prayer and promised to answer? Where is this God?

But they are met only with silence. Continue reading