Tag Archives: theology

Living well is not a gift from God (but the ability to live well is): Seneca on God & wisdom


I should start with three quick notes on Seneca’s relevance in Christian history because some background will give reasons for considering his writings as relevant to thinking about God.

First, a general assessment of Seneca’s point of view in relation to Christianity:

His [Seneca's] writings represent Stoicism at its best and have been much studied by Christian apologists for the similarities as well as the contrasts of their moral teaching with the Gospel ethic.  — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Second, John Calvin’s interest in Seneca:

In 1532 he [John Calvin] issued a Latin commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia’. — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

And third, a translator’s note on Seneca’s importance to four Christian thinkers:

While scholars and schoolmasters in the century following continued to condemn Seneca, early Christians were taking to this kindred spirit among pagan writers, so many of who ideas and attitudes they felt able to adopt and share. Anthologies were made of him and he was frequently quoted by such writers as Jerome, Lactantius and Augustine. Tertullian called him saepe noster, ‘often one of us’.  — Robin Campbell, in the introduction to his translation of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Furthermore, as Campbell also notes, Dante frequently quotes Seneca.

So, as I was recently reading Seneca’s Letter XC, I came across something that helped me think about what God does and what God doesn’t do for humans.

In a way, the following passage sounds like an overview of the biblical book of Proverbs.

From Seneca’s Letter XC, as translated by Campbell:

“Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? A corollary of this would be the certain conclusion that our debt to philosophy is greater than the debt we owe to the gods (by just so much as a good life is more of a blessing than, simply, life) had it not been for the fact that philosophy itself was something borrowed by the gods. They have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing, given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would have have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

“Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belong authority, and among human beings fellowship.”

My takeaway:

Life is a gift from God. Living well is a gift of philosophy. Philosophy is also a gift from God, and philosophy has taught us to worship “what is divine.” But living well is not a gift from God. We must engage philosophy to learn how to live well.

The Penguin Classics edition of Letters from a Stoic, selected, introduced, and translated by Robin Campbell

“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Trusting the Images


Colin Foote Burch:

More on concreteness, abstraction, and language, this time in terms of theology, imagery, and mythology.

Originally posted on While We're Paused!:

When the purport of the images — what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.[1]

C. S. Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield once wrote of him that “what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”  In the Lewis quote above, from Letters to Malcolm, we have a fine example of what Lewis thought about something that was at least secretly present, and often overtly present, in what he said about anything.

Lewis’s preference for images over abstractions, his deep satisfaction in image-rich language and distaste for image-deficient language, was something he described often in his writings.  For example, in Studies in Words Lewis discussed the word bitch at some length, noting that in his time bitch was already well along the journey from…

View original 416 more words

‘What the arts are concerned with’


English: *Works of Hugh of St-Victor *Form/tec...

“This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness.” — Hugh of St. Victor

Hugh of St. Victor is not exactly a household name. Then again, name-recognition is a gauge of only a single, narrow value. As New Advent’s article says, ‘A careful examination of his works has led to a truer appreciation of one whom Harnack (History of Dogma, tr. London, 1899, VI, 44) terms “the most influential theologian of the twelfth century”.’

Communicating truth — rationally and aesthetically


The only reason I bought the book 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology was because an Internet search for a handful of keywords produced a passage from the book’s entry on aesthetics.

The word “aesthetics” can mean one or both of two things: (1) thinking about beauty and (2) thinking about the human experience of beautiful things. Aesthetics tends to be an academic discipline within philosophy.

I want to quote a significant passage from the passage on aesthetics in the book, which was written by two faculty members at Calvin College and one at Gordon-Conwell seminary.

Some of the following terms might be a little dense, so I’ll bold-face the easier-read, core parts:

“While strands of Christian, especially Protestant, theology have adopted the more rationalistic stance of Plato, throughout history many theologians have affirmed the aesthetics as a central medium of both revelation and truth, particularly Neoplatonic theologians such as Bonaventure. The emphasis on aesthetics has received renewed interest in contemporary theology due to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jeremy Begbie. At the core of these theological aesthetics (or aesthetic theologies) is a rejection of the rationalist axiom, which assumes that truth is communicated only in cognitive propositions. Rather, there is a mode of truth telling that is unique to the aesthetic or ‘affective,’ that cannot be reduced to cognitive propositions. Appeal is often made to the liturgy itself as an example of this, particularly the rich eucharistic liturgies of Orthodox and Catholic traditions, where all of the senses are engaged in order to communicate the truth of grace.” — Kelly James Clark, Richard Lints, and James K.A. Smith (bold-face added)

Revitalizing liturgical worship: Stephen R. Holmes on history and location


“Because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is necessary to relate to the tradition.” — Stephen R. Holmes in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology

Notice the assumptions in the title of the book: Theology is somewhat abstract and intellectual, while tradition is somewhat tangible and embodied.

Also, consider what Holmes is saying, and I’ll put my own interpretative spin on it: even if you don’t believe in “sacred spaces,” you can appreciate that many people have worshipped within a certain place, and you can appreciate that all the symbolism within a place points to Christ or to the Trinity, and you can appreciate that someone, whether the craftsman or just the purchaser, cared that tangible things would be symbols for God, for Christ, and for the glory of God. After all, in Christian belief, the printed word “Jesus” is not the Incarnated God, yet the word stands as a symbol for the Incarnated God. If words can refer to God, than other symbols can, too, and a place with many symbols can be considered special without being considered idolatrous. We don’t fix a flood with a drought, as Thomas Howard said in a quotation I posted the other day.

Marcus Aurelius: Do you live in chaos or order?


“Either everything is a confused gathering and scattering of atoms, or else it is all a great unity and design. If the former, why am I so eager to go on living in such a swirling chaos? Why should I care about anything but how I will finally ‘return to the soil’? and why am I disturbed? For whatever I do, this scattering will come upon me as well. But if it is the other alternative, I am reverent, I am calm; I place my trust in that which governs all things.” — Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy updates article on ‘Foreknowledge and Free Will’


“Fatalism is the thesis that human acts occur by necessity and hence are unfree,” philosopher Linda Zagzebski writes in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Theological fatalism is the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree. If there is a being who knows the entire future infallibly, then no human act is free.”

What follows is not light reading! See the full article here.

Maybe even read it.

‘No one enters into the Kingdom of Heaven by fear’ or why I love Emil Brunner


“One scarcely hears a sermon any more about The Judgment. Perhaps in former times there was too much and too rash preaching on this subject, motivated by a desire to drive men into the Kingdom of Heaven by fear. No one enters into the Kingdom of Heaven by fear, and the man who tries to do God’s will out of fear simply does not do God’s will.” — Emil Brunner, in Our Faith 

Brunner was a Gifford Lecturer; more about that here.

Read Theopedia’s entry on Brunner here.

Why the medium must change if the message is to remain the same


Cover of "The Courage to Be"

Cover of The Courage to Be

“It is not always personal doubt that undermines and empties a system of ideas and values. It can be the fact that they are no longer understood in their original power of expressing the human situation and of answering existential human questions. (This is largely the case with the doctrinal symbols of Christianity.) Or they lose their meaning because the actual conditions of the present period are so different from those in which the spiritual contents were created that the new creations are needed. (This was largely the case with artistic expression before the industrial revolution.) In such circumstances a slow process of waste of the spiritual content occurs, unnoticeable in the beginning, realized with a shock as it progresses, producing the anxiety of meaninglessness at its end.” — Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be

I realize, of course, this could cut against everything from liturgical worship to Reformed systematics. The purpose of the cutting, however, is the central matter.

I find Tillich’s The Courage to Be to be very clear and resourceful in understanding non-rational aspects of human experience, especially anxiety and existential matters.

Searching for additional links for this post, I read something online that made me angry. I hate it when Tillich is labeled merely as “liberal theologian” by conservatives, as if that’s all there is to say about Tillich. Did John Calvin call Seneca a “hell-bound heathen”? Did Thomas Aquinas describe Aristotle as a “Yahweh-rejecting pagan”? Today’s reflexive conservative critics of “liberal theologian” Tillich eagerly mine Christ-denying, idolatrous contemporary culture for metaphors and illustrations. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Claim Christianity without our doctrinal point of view, and we’ll skewer you; but provide mass-market entertainment with a pseudo-religious redemption narrative, and we’ll gush about you in our sermons.” Wow — how do you define schizophrenia? Here’s the cure: Read Tillich. He doesn’t have to be  R I G H T  on all things to offer rich, insightful assessments of familiar human predicaments.

Related articles

The missing mode in evangelical thought


Nobel Prize-winning scientists tend to be atheists. Do orthodox Christians shrug-off their accomplishments?

This issue should be addressed from the pulpits, not just in the seminaries:

When Galileo wanted to show Jupiter’s moons to his theological opponents, they refused to look through his telescope. They believed — as Berthold Brecht put it — that “truth is not to be found in nature, but only in the interpretation of texts.” — Jurgen Moltmann, “Science and Wisdom,” in Theology Today, July 2001

Above, Moltmann (and history) provided just a small illustration of a wider problem. A mere response to this problem — like, “I believe the contradiction between Scripture and science is only apparent, and ultimately the two will be reconciled” — is inadequate. Each believer — myself included, because I’m not sure I can do this yet — ought to be able to make a critical assessment of the relationship between the old texts and scientific facts, as well as the two modes Scripture and science represent. In our time, nothing less will do.

How you got to know your self — or, Christianity’s contribution to the Western understanding of personhood


This somewhat dense passage contains a cultural, social and psychological storyline:

“It is in a theological form, and at the peak of the most abstract conceptualization, that the notions of person and personality were first explicitly offered to the human mind: namely, in the dogmatic formulas concerned with Christian faith in the divine Trinity — one Nature in three Persons — and in the Incarnation of the Word — a divine Person assuming human nature. At the same time the human mind was confronted with a new idea of man — the Gospels and St. Paul disclosed to it the prevalence of the internal man over the external man, of the inner life of the soul over legal or exterior forms — and it could contemplate in the Son of Man crowned with thorns the abysmal depth of the most living and mysterious Self.” — Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry

Books, science, & theology: Three excerpts from Matthew Miller’s Q&A with F. LeRon Shults


From Miller’s introduction:

Shults has received Ph.D.’s from Walden University (Eductaional Psychology), and Princeton Theological Seminary (Interdisciplinary Studies-theology/philosophy), and has served as a Research Fellow at Oxford University and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. He currently teaches at the University of Agder.

From Miller’s introduction:

If theology is to continue to have a voice in our academic and cultural dialogue, it must learn to engage and dialogue with other scientific disciplines. In the latter half of the 20th Century a number of theologians came to realize this reality, and began building bridges between disciplines such as Science, Sociology, Psychology, and many more. My first encounter with an interdisciplinary approach came through the work of T.F. Torrance and his engagement with Science, and later, John Milbank’s groundbreaking Theology and Social Theory.

From the Q&A:

Miller: Which five books would you identify as the most influential on you as a theologian?

Shults: Of course the “right” answer here is “the Bible!”

This is also a serious answer, because it is certainly true that the Bible has been the book that has most influenced me, although my understanding of and engagement with it has shifted significantly over the years.

Besides the Bible… It is hard to limit myself to five, but with the caveat that these are among the most influential books, I would say:

Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death,
Pannenberg’s Anthropology in Theological Perspective,
[Thomas] Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation,
[Robert] Sokolowski’s The God of Faith and Reason,
and [Gille] Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition.
 
Read the entire Q&A here.
 

Fear of the Lord — and astonishment at his creation (Jurgen Moltmann)


I found this enormously helpful:

“According to the biblical traditions, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. According to the early Greek philosophers, all knowledge is the fruit of wonder. Do we have to choose between Jerusalem and Athens? Must we decide between the church and the laboratory? Are the sciences and the humanities two different cultures, or two different windows to reality?

“When Galileo wanted to show Jupiter’s moons to his theological opponents, they refused to look through his telescope. They believed — as Berthold Brecht put it — that ‘truth is not to be found in nature, but only in the interpretation of texts.’ A classical definition of this separation of science and theology was given by Pascal: ‘If we perceive this distinction clearly, we shall lament the blindness of those who only allow the validity of tradition in physics instead of reason and experiment; we shall be horrified at the error of those who in theology put the arguments of reason in place of the tradition of Scripture and the Fathers.’ But why does astonishment over the world not lead us to the fear of the God, and the fear of God not to astonisnment over the world?”

– Jurgen Moltmann, in “Science and Wisdom,” Theology Today, July 2001

Imagination for understanding (with special reference to C.S. Lewis)


When Kendall Harmon spoke at Trinity this morning (Nov. 6), he said people need to cultivate imagination. I’ll attempt a paraphrase: Because most of what God knows remains beyond our grasp, he said, biblical language in many places relies upon imagery and pictures that capture our imagination. He seemed to suggest, in a passing comment, that the West is losing its ability to imagine, in both secular and religious quarters. I was heartened because I had posted a few thoughts about imagination earlier in the week.

Sometimes, I feel like Christian leaders either let their imaginations run wild and silly, or they prohibit imagination as a threat to easily chartable doctrine and systematic theology.

After Kendall’s talk, I returned to a book I read earlier this year, C.S. Lewis on Scripture by Michael J. Christensen. In an appendix entitled “Lewis: The Rational Romantic,” Christensen quotes the following excerpt from Lewis’s essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes”:

“I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

Certainly there are rich ways to cultivate a healthy, productive, meaningful imagination.

When New England Puritanism departed from Calvin’s view of the Church, guess what happened?


“The Puritan changes often brought the New England theology perilously close to gnostic Christianity,” writes Philip J. Lee in his book, Against the Protestant Gnostics. “Of particular concern is the Puritans’ concentration on self and their tendency to regard humanity from an elitist perspective.”

Lee goes on to evaluate a development in later New England Calvinism that gave us much of the mess we’re in today:

“Rather than God entering into covenant with His people Israel or with His redeemed Church and the individual participating in covenant insofar as he is related to Israel or Church, under this new form of Calvinism, the individual makes a covenant with God directly; it is a one-on-one relationship. The influence on North America of this theological shift has been enormous.

“Closely connected to the conflict of corporate covenant with individual covenant was the Puritan preoccupation with the elect. Again, when the founders of New England society first landed, their Calvinism was pretty well intact. Thus, though their Church required a certain number of the intellectually elite to understand and convey the rather intricate dialectics of Reformed theology, the Church itself was not elitist, either from the point of view of intellect or spirituality. Church membership implied not a full understanding of a particular doctrine but rather an appreciation of God’s good will toward his people. And most of the early Puritans in North America would have agreed with their mentor, Calvin: ‘It is not our part to separate elect from reprobate … …. we acknowledge as members of the Church all who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ.’ …

“This mood of charity prevailed in New England in the early days….

“Despite its orthodox beginnings, however, New England and, finally, most of North American Protestantism was to fall into other hands which were neither catholic nor charitable. An evangelical elite was to gain ascendency and make the question of conversion the central question of Christianity.”

– from Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery


From the introduction:

“Because of the predominately theological and devotional purposes to which Christians put the Bible, it is almost impossible not to slip into the error of looking upon the Bible as theological outline with proof texts attached. Yet the Bible is much more a book of images and motifs than of abstractions and propositions. This is obscured by the way in which preachers and theologians gravitate so naturally to the epistles. A biblical scholar has correctly said that the Bible speaks ‘largely in images’…”

-Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (IVP)

Plato and Plotinus in contemporary theology and philosophy


Nerd that I am, I recently posted a question at the University of Sheffield’s website Ask A Philosopher.

I’m a nerd, but with context. My scattered reading habits have recently included the book Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition (2005), in which Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith wrote a chapter entitled “Will the Real Plato Please Stand Up?” The chapter reflected the importance of Plato in contemporary theology and in philosophical discussions within some Christian circles. The chapter began with a pro-Plato quotation from John Calvin.

So I was curious if Plato and Plotinus (founder of neo-Platonism; two interesting quotations here) have much traction in broader swaths of academic philosophy today. What follows is the question I posted to Ask A Philosopher and David Robjant’s answer, for which I am very grateful.

Who are some of the contemporary philosophers who generally accept Plato’s metaphysics? Who are some who generally accept neoPlatonic metaphysics? Are these philosophers in the minority today?

Not that they mightn’t exist, but I can’t think of any contemporary followers of Plotinus within academic philosophy – assuming that is what you might mean by ‘neoplatonic’. I’ve a feeling – and it is no more – that I’ve heard of Plotinus’ One being taken seriously by the occasional theologian.

Plato, on the other hand has had atleast one rather illustrious minority follower who, if not contemporary, is at anyrate deeply engaged with the giants of the contemporary scene and very recent: Iris Murdoch.

I should add, however, that it is not universally agreed what ‘Plato’s Metaphysics’ amount to, and if you want to know what Murdoch agrees with, you will have to read Murdoch. You will get very little idea of what Murdoch is for by reading any of the widely cited commentaries on The Republic.

My own opinion is that Murdoch is right about Plato, so that if one understood Plato aright, one would understand him as Murdoch does, rather than as do Ryle, Popper, Vlastos, Annas, etc. As I see it, it is a tremendous help to Murdoch’s discovery of Plato’s good sense that she is actually looking for it.

We tend to distinguish Plato scholarship from mere Platon*ism*, as if distinguishing the professional from the mere amateur. My sense however is (and this is an important thought backed up in Murdoch by a great deal of influential argument concerning Mother in Laws and the Ontological Argument) that to understand someone aright it may be necessary to attend to them with love.

David Robjant

~

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James K.A. Smith: How we view the body determines political and social structures


“Contemporary scholarship in a plurality of fields demonstrates that how we think about the body has a direct impact upon our politics and our construction of social reality. In other words, dualistic understandings that devalue embodiment often give rise to totalitarian organizations of social arrangements.” — James K.A. Smith, “Will the Real Plato Please Stand Up?” in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, edited by Smith and James H. Olthuis

Today I was rereading Smith’s chapter, and it struck me that, despite how difficult the above quotation might be for some readers, working through it would be worth the struggle because it explains the root of much religious abuse, as well as the root of cult formation.