Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part One)

The mission of this website was (and is) to write about secularity as our common situation, and other topics related to it (with a few poems and other related issues thrown in). It aims at treating what is public, and common. When I include Christian historical elements –and as they are heavy in many of the roots and in the trunk of much of the West’s history, they have been prominent in many recent posts on Christianization— these elements are, or aim to be, (1) historical in character (this is the most common), or (2) they aim to clarify certain kinds of religious configurations that appear in our contemporary situation (often critically), or else (3) they aim to trace the shape of viable commitments in the modern age. Christianity is part of everyone’s heritage in the West, because of where we come from, but in nearly every Western country, there is no communal commitment to Christian identity. A heritage is not an obligation or a commitment (at least, I’m not currently so persuaded), but it is public. The manner in which, and the degree to which, Christian commitments either are or are not possible, and the shape of the options that people take within the current time, reveal something about the peculiarities of our age. That is to say, despite the depth of feeling I may bring to anything I write, my primary aim is to exposit, rather than to exhort. (There are and shall be plenty of hortatory moments here, but they are not of that sort, and I don’t expect they shall be.) I shall bring such feeling to Nietzsche and Plato alike, so my enthusiasm is not partisan. I’m not interested in selling anyone anything.

Readers who have no (or no explicit) religious practice are often uncomfortable with my (Orthodox) Christian one, and readers who are self-consciously Christian are often uncomfortable with my insistence on the ubiquity and inescapability of secularity (though these almost always radically mis-diagnose what secularity and secularism are) — indeed, some of the more zealous Christians I meet seem to expect that my writing here on Into the Clarities must be to denounce secularity and to promote Christian practice and identity. It is to these two groups that these posts are addressed.

Neither evangelism nor apologetics is my goal here –indeed, apologetics is not something that is compatible with my beliefs and outlook– and I’d like to take the opportunity to explain why.

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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

Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistle 9

The late-5th- or early-6th-century figure Pseudo-Dionysios (or simply the Latin “Dionysius” or the French equivalent “Denys”) is a cardinal figure in the history of Western thought and civilization. Given his high importance for Christian theology East and West, one would think that he would be more read, or at least better-understood by specialists. Unfortunately, he is not well-understood, not even by the most prominent name in Denys studies, Paul Rorem. Alas, the most easily-available translation of Denys’ works are marked by the massive anachronistic distortions of Rorem’s Lutheran confessional bias (a topic for another time). There are also specialist biases in play from other Athenian-Pagan-Hellenistic directions, as the scholarship of Ronald F. Hathaway shows (Hathaway I have read with much more profit than Rorem, however). Eric Perl has the best introduction to Denys. Hieromonk (now bishop?) Golitzin wrote a necessary, complementary second. John D. Jones’ translation of the Divine Names is still the best English-translation text to begin digging into Denys himself.

I’ll be posting about Denys in the future, given my love for him and his value and importance (which needs much more articulation than I can possibly give it here). In the meantime, I thought that a good place to start would be to publish a comparative list of three translations of Denys’ Epistle 9, mostly about scriptural language. The Luibheid/Rorem translation is sadly the most easily accessible, the Parker translation unfortunately forgotten or unread, and the Hathaway translation is, lamentably, mostly gathering dust on university libraries (or in professors’ shelves). Given these injustices, this columned, comparative translation seemed worth sharing. I may offer more such in the future — a chapter or two each from the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. (Denys coined the term “hierarchy”, and it does not mean for him what it means for us.)

Denys’ approach to scriptural figures for God –or any figures for God at all– is markedly unlike any modern confessional theology. Such confessional theologies are dogmatically committed to the existence of secret truths about God that are simply unknowable to us until we are told them, and which reason –any model of reason or rationality– has no capacity to verify. This is idolatry, and Denys shows us the beginnings of seeing why and how this is so. (It also leads to atrocious psychological, social and political configurations, but I shouldn’t run too far, too fast.)

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