An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Πειρασμός, Historical Drift, and Reappropriating a Mutation as the Original

In an earlier post, we looked at the Greek word “χάρις“, namely, the way that the historical sense of this word is bound up in a very stratified social setting, and how translating it almost always ends up becoming a proxy war for different confessional agendas (I should add that it is difficult it is to think past these agendas, because they are rooted in a history of interpretation generated by reflection on the original word through various cultural contexts and historical epochs).

Perhaps I should also add: ignoring this history-of-interpretation ignores some of the latter fallout of this word, ignores at least part of the history of its effects, and so neglects to treat properly the word itself.

Here we shall look at another Greek word: “πειρασμός”, nearly ubiquitously mistranslated as “temptation”. Continue reading

Excerpt #2 — Larry Shiner on Friedrich Gogarten on Secularism

Here is the beginning of Larry Shiner’s book on Friedrich Gogarten, a German Lutheran friedrich gogartenwho wrote during the beginning of the 20th century. I found Gogarten through a footnote in a book by another German Lutheran, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and looking at this, it is difficult to hear that Gogarten differs from Pannenberg on this topic, whether due to the historical record or to the influence Gogarten had on Pannenberg (whose take on secularity and secularization shall eventually appear here).

Gogarten’s general thesis strongly resembles elements of the disenchantment of the modern world that Charles Taylor describes. Although disenchantment is not quite the same thing as the de-divinized world that the early Christians or their successors lived in, the two are related, and the latter certainly offered part of the foundation for the former. Also similar to the above-linked post on disenchantment is the model of meaning found in Gogarten, who argues, according to Shiner, that man

universally experiences responsibility for his own destiny as the task set by his relation to the world. However feebly we may live up to it, Gogarten sees in this responsibility the Law before which we must justify ourselves today, the ultimate “ought” written into the fabric of existence.

Although the pre-Christian world can fairly be described as presenting “a mythically understood cosmos determining and securing human life by its spiritual powers”, I am uncertain as to whether the pre-Christian engagement with the world neglected to think of the world as over-against humanity. Certainly the divinity of each and all things in The Iliad militates against this? –but then this could be taken to signal that the world is not other than the subject.

If the reader discerns me to have serious reservations about this excerpt, in whole and in part, he or she would be correct. It has value insofar as it presents one take –one take– on secularization as the actualization of Christian principles. (There are other interpretations that see modernity as such an actualization, and still other takes that see the secular modern period as something autonomous, and legitimate in itself.) Enough: here is Shiner on Gogarten. Continue reading

Peter Brown on Christianization, Part III: “Tempora Christiana”

The previous post covered another essay by Peter Brown on the modern narrative of the Christianization of the fourth and fifth centuries that we have inherited. There, Brown was replying to Ramsay MacMullen. In our modern narrative, MacMullen writes, any alleged process of Christianization ought to show “Christians not just talking but doing; and it must show them in some opposition to evidently accepted standards” [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 324]. That is, there must be widespread socio-moral (and legal) change, or there is no manifest Christianization.

In the first essay of Authority and the Sacred that we earlier summarized, Brown notes three areas in which the Roman world did begin to change under the influence of Christianity, though “with the slowness of a glacier” [Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 9]. The third of the three areas of Christianization concerned the heritage of the past as the inheritance of pagan habits to be overcome by Christian habits.

This is what concerns us here, the idea that history and a heritage can be divided into chronological epochs with their own moral worlds. I mentioned in a somewhat-recent post about how people began to divide time based on the birth of Jesus in the sixth century. There are roots in the fourth century for dividing history this way. After the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, pagans began to speak disapprovingly of the times in which they lived as “Tempora Christiana“, “Christian Times”, by which

they meant, not the stability of the Constantinian order, but a new age, overshadowed by a crisis of authority which led to renewed barbarian raids throughout the Roman provinces of the West. [Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2013), 86]

Christians in the late fourth century thought that the times had changed. The Apostolic period had passed. This was a new era. The empire was now conceived of as an instrument of divine providence, as part of sacred history that would advance the purposes of God in the world, and this lead to a sense that, in this era, things were both permissible and prescribed that were not before. Christianization had ushered in a new age in sacred history. What is the trajectory that enables this to be possible, and which made this a problem for those who lived through this period of alleged Christianization? (We will look more closely at this in the coming weeks, as we cover R.A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, but what does Brown give us as a background in chapters two and three of The Rise of Western Christendom?)

Continue reading

Dating Conventions

There is a restaurant down the street from where I live, in the next town over, called “Zaftigs”. On the sign for this restaurant, so small beneath the “a” that one might not see it, there is noted the year in which it was established: “5757”.


Sorry, Sci-Fi fans: Zaftigs was not established 3,741 years in the future.

This is not a joke. Zaftigs is in Brookline, which boasts a large Jewish population (there are three synagogues within a minute’s drive of it; it will thus come as no surprise that “Zaftig” is apparently Yiddish for “juicy”). “5757” is a dating convention using the Jewish calendar, which takes its beginnings not from an event within history, but from the alleged date for the creation of the world (“A.M.” or “Anno Mundi” is the Latin name for this calendar, meaning “Year of the World”). “5757” could be either 1996 or 1997 on the American public calendar, because the Jewish calendar does not begin on January 1st — even we in the English-speaking world only settled on January 1st relatively recently, transitioning the year’s beginning from the more traditional March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary).

So what is our public calendar? Continue reading

Unification in the Gospel According to Mark

Across cultures and traditions, across temporal and national epochs, people express a desire for perfect unity, simplicity, and integration. Not everyone, of course — and yet the desire cannot be brushed off as peculiar to a tradition or a time period. The expression is colored by a number of cultural features, and so the metaphors used for this unification and simplification vary from mostly natural imagery (Daoism) to mostly political imagery (Christianity). The predominant metaphors are important, and weight a tradition in a certain way. Traditions can overlap, of course, and the boundaries between them are not always quite as neat as either cultural taxidermists or identity politickers would like; and yet, the desire for unification remains. Nor is it simply a desire: in (neo-)Platonism, Daoism and Christianity (to offer three examples), the ethical drive for unification is connected with both cosmological speculation about the characteristic features of the world as a whole and ontological reflection on the nature of being itself. Specifically within the Christian tradition, the desire for unity, and the accomplishment of unity, is tightly connected to Christology.

The imagery of God as a king at war against the agents of injustice, chaos, and death surrounds all Christology. Because of this, there is an inescapable political element to Christian models of the unification of the person; a sloppy reading of this can lead to some very unethical social, religious and political positions. Here I will trace the twin themes of integration and unification in Mark, which signal the health that is found in redemption (itself a loaded economic, political and military term for liberated captives), and a return from an unnatural slavery under dark powers. I will occasionally ask about the consequences of this political language, sometimes with regard to the pursuit of unification in non-Christian traditions. Does the non-frustrated pursuit of integration in non-Christian traditions indicate that Christology is superfluous to this project? What does Christology assume about the good, about the world, and about reality? Continue reading