About this Blog

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

On Abstraction

Recalling how intensely I studied philosophy when I was university, how it had begun to live inside me as more than ideas and more even than a whole new language, how it had become a virtual reality with new, interesting rules and alien laws – recalling this, I was bemused recently by the distance I have acquired from these ideas after just a few months of being out of school. Then I realized: the only way I was able to be so interested in these concepts (I was at one point so maddeningly intrigued by Derrida that I am sure I would have easily given up my own legs if it meant he would lose his, intellectually speaking, and stop moving about so frustratingly on the page, like some greased spider monkey) was by taking them for what they were not.

This is how it works in the university: it encysts the scholars so that they begin to believe that the thoughts immediately in front of them are all there is, or, if not quite thinking this explicitly, at least feeling this. This is the way it is, truly, with every institution, and more or less the way it ought to be. Hospitals, Bible Schools, Summer Camps, Factories, etc. operate on this principle of encysting. Being entrenched in an activity inevitably generates a sense of its importance and relevance, without which the (semi-)insulated community could not do what it does.

Thus the university, and the scholars within the university, operate on what is called alief: the phenomenon of having your attitude or behavior in tension with your consciously held beliefs (just think of the irrational fear you feel on a glass balcony or in front of a tiger at the zoo). At the university, you may believe that there are other realities, but you do not alieve this – and if you did, you could not hope to thrive. Now, by achieving some personal space from the highfalutin theorizing of Foucault, Heidegger, Kafka, Caputo, etc., that I had been absorbed with in school (where sorting through their thoughts were some of my only concerns), this theorizing has become something rather different for me. It is interesting, but more in the sense that a disgusting bug is interesting, for it has begun to feel less immediately relevant.

This is an obvious point: of course the only way to study something intensely is to have a basic feeling of its relevancy. If one does not have that, one cannot study with passion. But there is something subversive here, too, for am I not then saying that a kind of delusion is necessary? 

Only in a sophistical sense. What is really happening is most complicated than delusion, for the act of paying attention to the virtual as though it were the real makes it real. It creates a relationship where there was none before, rather like the domestication of animals, or the invention of house-plants. It loves things into being. This is one of the powers of being creatures created out of love for love: we may do this with anything. I did it with an imaginary mouse, when I was three. We do it with the characters of the TV shows we watch. Some of us do it even with such minimal connections as we have with neighborhood squirrels, neighborhood birds, the ducks by the pond. Our vehicles, our dolls, our guitars, our guns – we name them. The raw materials that make a house we learn to call a home. Why not with ideas? 

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Church History as a Spiritual Discipline

A Summary of Rowan Williams’ book Why Study the Past

In his book Why Study the Past?, Rowan Williams shows us how we can study “church history as a spiritual discipline, not only a critical or scientific one” (110). The point of this spiritual discipline? Unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ across time and space.

This unity is a full-bodied and multi-faceted unity, however, involving all the ambiguity, unknowability and familiarity of the strongest of human relationships. But the fundamental nature of this unity is that it is God-given: “Christian theology celebrates a divine stranger who creates a common world; and in so doing it establishes once and for all the possibility of a humanity that does not depend for its harmony on any transient human alliance or definitions of common interest or common purpose” (114). Rather than setting up criteria for unity to clarify our relationship with past Christians, our unity is given to us insofar as we have all been called upon originally by God. This divine initiative stands outside us and constitutes us. This is why the oneness of Christians in the body of Christ cannot be artificially constructed. To construct it with outward forms or inward assents to beliefs is exclusive both to other Christian groups (who happen to fall outside the particular criteria) and the strangeness in ourselves.

Thus the challenge of writing the history of the Church Christianly “is to trace the ways in which the Church has demonstrated its divine origin” (2). This is not just found in accuracy of doctrinal statements, moral standards, liturgical purity, etc. Christianity’s divine origin shines through in strange ways. The church historian must be prepared to be surprised by the past, then, at the same time as attempting to understand the past as part of his own history and self-identity.

This ambivalence to the past has been active within the Church as long as it has existed: thinking through the question of its connection to Judaism and the Event of Jesus Christ, the Church knew “the strange and interruptive has to be made into a unity, has to be made intelligible, yet not reduced and made so smooth that you don’t notice there is a problem” (9). Though the predominate movement in the Christian tradition – the movement that met the challenge of those we know call “heretics” – has been directed by the desire to “re-establish  vision of the universe and its history that made one story, one system” (41), it could only do so by, paradoxically, including something that was outside it. This strangeness is integral to the Christian identity.

In this way, Church history necessarily involves “the attempt to define the very subject whose history is being attempted” (23). The scope of the identity of the Church determines the scope of the history. By reiterating again and again the need for an inclusivity of strangeness, Williams seems to imply that, to some extent, the best church history is that with the widest scope, for it gives a “sense of who we now are that is subtle enough to encompass the things we don’t fully understand. Just as, in a good analysis of an individual self, we emerge with a heightened awareness of the strangeness within, so with history” (24). Church history is directly related to self-understanding, and self-understanding is directly related to our relation with Otherness. With bad history, “we have no way of understanding where and who we are because we do not allow our ways of being and thinking to be made strange to us by the serious contemplation of other ways of being and thinking” (24).

All this means that through the spiritual discipline of church history, we are made aware of a deeper unity with past Christians than we thought possible, a sense of unity that heightens our own self-awareness because (a) the past Church is the present Church: “the Christian past is unavoidably part of the Christian present” (28); and (b) the past church is a stranger to the present Church.

This then is the value of church history: dialogue and unity. “If all serious history drives us finally, as I think it does, to recognize that some sort of conversation is possible across surprisingly wide gaps in context and understanding, the same is true far more profoundly for the Christian, for whom such a conversation is the sign of belonging in one network of relations, organize around the pivotal relation with Jesus and his relation with God, into which Christians are inducted” (29). When this discipline is performed well, it will begin with the awareness that “what we are attending to is the record of encounter with God in Christ” (28).

This spiritual discipline, like all others, requires work. However, it is a labour that calls to us from within us, since we and our history are one. It is, then, “self-motivating.” Williams stresses that “God revealed [] himself in such a way as not to spare us labour; God speaks in a manner that insists we continue to grow in order to hear… So much of our debate can actually be an evasion of labour. And accepting the labour of having to live with a history that insists upon our involvement is one of the challenges of believing not only a revealed religion but in one that sees each of us indebted to all” (112). Christianity calls us to all kinds of responsibility, and one thing that William has done best in his books is articulate Christianity’s call to action that presupposes the reality of history.

What does this mean for the present? In discovering our unity with the past Church, we rediscover our identity and in it what makes us distinct from those “idolatrous claims of total power that may be made from time to time in the world” (58). To participate in the unity of Christ’s body, then, involves struggling in our own time towards an awareness of our separate identity, which is defined by “the difference that is made by the priority of what God does, the action of God in establishing his authority through the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection” (59). Our sine qua non is this difference. Here are Williams’ challenging words: “An innovation is proposed; and the question about it should not be, ‘Is this a step towards an uncontroversial modernising of faith and practice, a step towards ‘inclusion’ or ‘pluralism’?’ but, ‘Is this something without which we could not, in the long run, make sense of the commitments that makes sense of martyrdom?’ Or: an innovation is resisted; and the question should not be, ‘Is this alien to our habits of interpretation?’ but, ‘Is this going to make it impossible to make sense of the Christian claim to an independent citizenship?’” (56-57).

Monday, 9 December 2013

Christmas Shopping

Our Christmas shopping must go on,
there is no stopping it; already at dawn
its the sound of puking wallets
on the street, as purses yawn.

A gift card, a new gadget, a face lift…
Behind: those market hands, invisibly swift,
in control of their main commodity:
the definition of “gift.”

And so we shop, in hopeless imitation,
praying gifts might still be new creation:
for perhaps Grace is such, even these hands
must copy incarnation…

For it must be more than “lack of thrift,”
or shopping is useless, Christmas adrift,
our open giving the openness of wounds
without the truth that repairs the rift:

the only true Christmas shopping, done
before the world was begun,
and all our shopping but therapy
for the pain of being so outdone.

Saturday, 7 December 2013


I want to be certain. But I do not want to be certain in such a way that I could not be made uncertain. Therefore I want really to be uncertain...

If I were certain and were stuck in my certainty, my certainty would be meaningless and a trap. To be certainly certain, to ensure certainty, my certainty would have to be such that all counter-proofs are accounted for in advance. In other words, to be certain to this degree I would have to be certain, in turn, that what I was first certain about could not be disproved. This is easily taken care of by setting the conditions just so, so that all evidence is confirmative evidence and even the very act of disproving becomes a proof – as in extreme paranoia.

But, if this is the case, my certainty would exist in a vacuum and it would be up to me and me alone to rescind my certainty. And if my certainty was sustained only by my own will, myself alone, it would be meaningless, in part because it would be meaningless to others. It could not be argued for; it could only insulate itself from refutation. And, besides, it would have at its heart uncertainty, for it would be necessarily blind to what sustains its certainty of certainty, and its certainty of its certainty of certainty, etc… which is, of course, only the personal will to certainty.

Therefore, the only way to be certain is to admit the possibility of being wrong. Hence, being certain goes by the name of uncertainty.