Sunday, August 28, 2022

Oliver O'Donovan on the Corruption of Academic Authority

"The only authority that a particular person or thing may derive from the truth is a didactic authority which is self-effacing and points beyond itself. ... That is why our attachments of loyalty to individual wise men or particular books of wisdom are more problematic than our loyalties to favourite works of art, men of power or cultural traditions. Of course, such attachments may be delightful and enriching, as, for example, when we retain our reverence and affection for an inspiring teacher; but when that happens other elements have entered into his claim upon us which must not be confused with the claim of truth itself. When a wise man or a tradition of thought comes to be thought beyond reach of critical question, he or it is dishonoured. The translucent didactic authority to which it could once lay claim in the service of the truth has been replaced by an authority that is immediate and opaque. This changeling may be the authority of tradition, or it may be the authority of strength .... But either way the fundamental stance of the thinker vis à vis the truth, critical and open to criticism, will be betrayed by the seduction of the wrong kind of authority." - Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 126


Saturday, August 27, 2022

On Academic Ambition: A Summer Miscellany

“My first and most persistent goal in life was to become a saint.” So writes Luke Timothy Johnson in his academic autobiography, which I have, so far, only read about. In this interview with Nijay Gupta, Johnson reflects on how this goal shaped his work as a scholar:

“First, I have always considered only one thing essential — to become (or better, to allow God to make one) a certain kind of person. Everything else I have considered as secondary and non-essential. The judgment of other humans is trivial compared to the absolute judgment of God. Such a conviction enables one to speak boldly and without fear. 
“Second, I have considered scholarship as a serious enterprise, but one without ultimate importance. It is, indeed, a game that, like all games, must be played seriously if it is to be played well. But it is played best when it is played with the freedom that authentic faith gives and is not erected into an idolatrous project.

“Third, if scholarship is non-ultimate, then an academic career is even more nugatory. The academy should be regarded as a social arrangement whose importance is measured solely by the way it serves the ends for which it was designed. Do students learn? Do teachers grow in knowledge? Is the church and society made better by these processes? To the degree that “the academy” becomes absolute and self-serving, to that degree it has lost its way.” (Read the whole interview here.)

Johnson, a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, is surely riffing off of Thomas Merton:

“There’s a wonderful moment in Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain when Merton — a new convert to Catholicism — is whining and vacillating about what he should be: a teacher, a priest, a writer, a monk, something else altogether maybe, a labor activist or a farm laborer. And his friend Robert Lax tells him that what he should want to be is a saint.” - Alan Jacobs

Academics who fail to get their ambitions straight all too easily end up with the apotheosis of scholarly vices that C.S. Lewis described as hell:

“We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” - C.S. Lewis, Preface to The Screwtape Letters (HT: Sean Davidson

I suspect C.S. Lewis’s picture of hell is part of what Willie James Jennings has in mind when he argues in After Whiteness that western theological education tends to form students into white, male plantation owners—those who seek control, possession, and mastery, and who know how to get it. “Whiteness,” Jennings says in this OnScript interview, is

“A way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world at the same time, a way of organizing, shaping, and envisioning the world. And whiteness is having the power to realize that vision. Whiteness is imagining the world from an imperial position of thinking and making. And whiteness has been presented as an aspiration for all those who have seen the possibilities of a world after the rise of colonialism—a world in which things can be changed, people can be owned, land can be owned. ... A white self-sufficient man ... embodies what I call three demonically derived virtues: control, possession and mastery. And that man has been imagined as the one who would build the world.” Willie James Jennings –– After Whiteness | OnScript

So which will it be—white male plantation owner or saint?

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Midsummer Reading: Oliver O'Donovan and Ephraim Radner

I checked out a copy of Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order 18 or so years ago on my PhD supervisor's recommendation. As I recall, I got a few dozen pages in before returning it to the library. The book was dense with lengthy excurses in fine print, and I was in my first year of teaching. Maybe also: the book was by a theologian, while I was a freshly-minted Biblical scholar. To be honest, I suspect I was not ready for it.

This summer I checked out the library's copy a second time. Even though I typically only manage a few pages every now and then before bed, I am now about halfway through and find it mesmerizing. Humbling too. It is remarkable how the thirty-one year old O'Donovan was able to range so widely and so authoritatively over such a vast theological, philosophical and biblical terrain, and to do it in such a short compass with such clarity.* 

* A note on clarity: Resurrection and Moral Order is still an academic book with occasional sentences like this one: The value of the voluntarist emphasis lay in its perception that the dialectic between reason and revelation rests not on an accidental deficiency of human reason but on the aboriginal metaphysical fact that human reason is not transcendent. Clarity, I suppose, is in the ear of the listener.

Again and again one encounters convincing explanations of the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus for Christian behaviour alongside compelling mini-exegeses of biblical passages. I keep telling myself I need to go back and add it to my course notes for several different classes. If this is what theology means, sign me up.

Ephraim Radner's Time and the Word is still beyond me. I purchased an e-copy on sale after a former colleague, who had studied under Radner, enthused about it. Critics complain that Radner's prose is needlessly dense. Time and the Word is a difficult book and, it must be said, it is not a model of clarity. But, as Paul J. Griffiths put it in his review:

“It's a real book, by which I mean that it's the written deposit of concentrated thought about a set of questions as if it were important to approach and answer them rightly. It's something more than journeyman academic work, and something more, too, than the work of someone who cares for the church and wishes to serve her. It has the unusual virtue of combining wide learning, intellectual passion, and devotion to Christ and his church. In reading it, it seemed to me that I was faced with a mind at work on something that matters.” 

Kevin Vanhoozer describes it this way:

“Time and the World is a demanding book: ambitious in scope, theological in substance, counter-cultural in spirit, at turns breath-taking and headscratching in style, yet always urgent and important in its moral and spiritual summons to acknowledge our status as creatures of God’s word.”

The first time I tried, I made it through the first chapter and put it down. I am making another attempt this summer because I really like Radner's two short blog posts (here and here) on “Reading Scripture Well”; I now assign them in my college and seminary hermeneutics classes, and I thought I should learn more about the kind of theological reading he gestures toward in these two popular-level essays. I also wanted to consider the possibility that I might be missing something important.

As a NT scholar by trade and a wanna-be historian, I am not predisposed to allegorical interpretation—what Radner calls 'figural reading'—or to a reclamation of Augustine's neoplatonic speculations about time and eternity, which is what Radner seems to be offering. Yet Radner's historical arguments about how the Bible was read through the early modern period (chap 2) make a lot of sense to this outsider, and his insistence on the present reality of God raises questions about the extent to which my fundamental hermeneutical axiom—reading the Bible historically on its own terms in its own historical and literary contexts—defaults to a human-centred approach that brackets God out of the equation. In short, three chapters in, I feel the force of Radner's attempt to dislodge history as the arbiter of meaning, but the ideas are so mind-blowingly different I'm not sure what to do with them. Still, I can get behind a reading approach that claims:

“Good reading takes us further into, not out of, of Scripture. ... The more our reading has us talking about ourselves, and the less about the Scriptures, the less good it is. ... Good reading, by contrast, leads us to put down stakes in the text. The text itself, after all, is God’s self-presentation. It is not us, not our family, our church, our politics, our situation, nor our intellectual or emotional interests. Good reading, therefore, will lead us to linger over words and phrases, to pause on and circle around events, to wonder about figures, to dwell on questions raised in the text, or on its oddities, amazements, even leaden and intolerable normalcies. ... “[R]eal life,” if Scripture is what I have suggested it is, is to be found in, not outside, of the text. If we must provide a homiletic application of a scriptural text – out of pastoral and circumstantial concern – we must rein it in proportionately. No more than one fifth of a sermon, perhaps, should be applicatory; and we should never leave it to the end, as if it were the sermon’s “point.” It isn’t, at least not if one is preaching on the Bible. Any such applicative “message” is a disappointment in the face of God’s Word! Sermons should begin, stay with, and end with Scripture itself. There’s nothing to worry about at that point: God is acting in his Word, say what we will.” - Ephraim Radner, “Reading Scripture Well (Part 1)

I may not get through either book before the fall semester closes in, but these are, so far, the reading highlights of my summer. 



Saturday, July 9, 2022

Frederick Buechner on the Gospel as Tragedy

"There are all kinds of pressures on the preacher, both from within and without, to be all kinds of other things and to speak all kinds of other words. To speak the truth with love is to run the risk always of speaking only the truths that people love to hear you speak, and the preacher's temptation, among others, is to deal with those problems only to which there is, however complex and hard to arrive at, a solution. The pressure on the preacher is to be topical and contemporary, to speak out like the prophets against injustice and unrighteousness, and it is right that he should do so, crucial even, and if he does not goad to righteous action he fails both God and man. But he must remember the ones he is speaking to who beneath all the clothes they wear are the poor, bare, forked animals who labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives let alone of the world's tragic life.

"There is the one who can't stop thinking about suicide. The one who experiences his own sexuality as a guilt of which he can never be absolved. The one whose fear of death is only a screen behind which lies his deeper fear of life. The one who is in a way crippled by her own beauty because it has meant that she has never had to be loving or human to be loved but only beautiful. And the angry one. The lonely one. For the preacher to be relevant to the staggering problems of history is to risk being irrelevant to the staggering problems of the ones who sit there listening out of their own histories. To deal with the problems to which there is a possible solution can be a way of avoiding the problems to which humanly speaking there is no solution. When Jesus was brought to the place where his friend Lazarus lay dead, for instance, he did not offer any solution. He only wept. Then the other things he said and did. But first he simply let his tears be his word. . . . Rejoice is the last word and can be spoken only after the first word. The sheltering word can be spoken only after the word that leaves us without a roof over our heads, the answering word only after the word it answers."

~ Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), 34-35.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Parched

This photograph, taken at the end of April on a hike around Nicolle Flats, represents my mental state at this time of year—dry, drained, a little deflated, and nothing to say or no energy to say it: scraps of paper holding scattered thoughts jotted down in haste with neither time nor resolve to collect them and press them into something permanent.

This time of year or this time of life. The years, in fact, run together. We have had drought in Saskatchewan. I planted grass last spring, but the rains never came and it died in the summer heat.

The last three years have been overfull, teaching short-staffed in the midst of the extra demands and challenges of a pandemic. The teaching itself—especially teaching Greek and Hebrew as living languages using a communicative approach—has been rewarding and at times exhilarating. But the combination has been draining, and compounds a sense of malaise and loss. What should I be doing with this too-short life?

Last winter we had snow, and we have had plenty of rain so far this spring. There are still massive bare patches in what I charitably call my lawn, but the grass is already greener than it ever was last year.

Jotting these thoughts down a couple weeks ago on a mountain getaway just beyond the Rockies I dared to hope for another kind of rain. Indeed, the mountains are rain, as is the prairie landscape.

So are books. I recently finished listening to the Audible recording of Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen's memoir of her years as a colonial farmer in Kenya, the land where I grew up. I hesitate to compare a classic to a recent best-seller, but—perhaps because I read them in sequence—Out of Africa reminds me of Daniel Nayeri's Everything Sad is Untrue, a novelized memoir of Nayeri's childhood first in Iran and then as a refugee in Oklahoma. Both writers take up the mantle of Scherherazade and both draw heavily on the Bible. Rainy books for rainy days.



Monday, February 21, 2022

A Man for All Seasons and a Trucking Convoy

I enjoyed the 1966 Academy Award winning A Man for All Seasons so much I read the play by Robert Bolt on which it is based. This dialogue between Sir Thomas More, his wife Alice, daughter Margaret, and future son-in-law William Roper comes to mind when I encounter "Friends" on Facebook who seem to want to overthrow our democratically-elected government: 

MARGARET: Father, that man's bad.

MORE: There is no law against that.

ROPER: There is! God's law!

MORE: Then God can arrest him.

...

ALICE: While you talk, he's gone! 

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man's laws, not God's—and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.*

YouTube to the rescue, here's the Paul Scofield version:


Sir Thomas More—at least the character in Bolt's play if not also the historical figure—is my political hero. If you haven't seen the film, do yourself a favour and watch it. 


* More's speech in the play may draw on this passage from William Roper's 1556 biography of More:

"Howbeit this one thing, son, I assure thee on my faith, that if the parties will at my hands call for justice, then all-were-it my father stood on the one side, and the devil on the other, his cause being good, the devil should have right." (HT: Robert Bork)

Friday, January 21, 2022

A 2021 Reading Retrospective

Instead of a belated tally of books completed in 2021, which would impress no one,* I mention here a few reading highlights. In most cases these are not books--which means you can read them too, for free, online.

(1) Black Lives Matter: David Blight's Open Yale History course on the American Civil War has nothing directly to do with last summer's protests, but it helped put them in historical perspective and--more than anything else I've read in the last two years--it explained why the protests matter. Sometimes the best way to learn about the present is to study the past.

(2) Covid-19: Judging from the place of privilege it occupies in my mental furniture, Alan Jacobs's musings on the problem of "scale" are among the most significant I've read on Covid-19. They are developed in detail in Alan's essay in the Hedgehog Review, though I expect I first encountered it on his blog, which I read assiduously, and you should too.

(3) On Reading: The main thrust of Alastair Fowler's fascinating essay, "C. S. Lewis: Supervisor" (available in full here and here), is to define education as reading--and remembering what you read. A few excerpts: 

"The flow of Lewis’s writing and speaking had much to do with this remarkable memory. .... It was not principally memoria ad verba but rather ad res – memory of the substance, aimed at grasp of contents through their structure. ... Lewis’s innate memorial powers were developed by education, first at school and then with his private tutor William Kirkpatrick. At Oxford they were strengthened by having to depend on the Bodleian Library rather than on his own books. .... Later ... his reading habits had become ingrained, and he continued to rely on memory. Often he used books almost in the medieval way, as memory prompts. Literary memory depends on use: it must be frequently refreshed. .... Lewis had almost total recall of words (he remembered new vocabulary after once looking it up in the dictionary), yet he had to go over texts frequently – sometimes immediately before a tutorial. Consequently his reading and re-reading were astonishingly copious. Reading habits, of course, were different in the fifties; I used then to read ten hours a day. Lewis, who read far faster, read with surer grasp, and read whenever commitments allowed – read even at mealtimes – read prodigiously."

Alan Jacobs explains why this matters:

"[A] book becomes more fully itself when we see both how it resembles and how is differs from other books; one discipline of study takes on its proper hues only when we see its relations to other disciplines that stand close to it or very far away. My repertoire of analogies is my toolbox, or my console of instruments, by which I comprehend and navigate the world. It can’t be too large; every addition helps, at least a bit."

Which reminds me, there are some books I should be reading ....

Credit: NYTimes

*Not that impressing anyone is the point. ... right?