Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Chapter 3

In this part of my series I will be discussing Chapter 3 of the Divine Names. (First entry here) Chapter 3 of the Divine Names is a bit more disappointing for anyone looking for philosophical content.  In Chapter 3 Pseudo-Dionysius spends most of his time talking and bragging about his teacher Hierotheus.  But there is some interesting reflection on prayer in this chapter that is worth talking about.  Early in the chapter Pseudo-Dionysius reflects on prayer and how to make sense of it having an effect.

He suggests that before any inquiy into the divine should be preceded by “stretch[ing] ouselves prayerfully upward.”  It is here that he gives two interesting analogies to attempt to understand the power of prayer.

The problem is that we are praying to a God that is, for P-D, radically transcendent, but also radically immovable and unchanging.  So then prayer should be thought of, for P-D, as something like the dance that moved the mountain.

Have you heard this story?  A man has a house in the valley, and decides that his house is too close to the mountain.  He goes to a sage and asks him how he can move the mountain.  The sage tells him to pack his entire house up, place it on his back, and do a special dance.  The man follows these instructions and, lo and behold, the mountain is moved far from his house.  The dance: face the mountain, and take two steps backward, the one step forward and repeat.

P-D thinks of prayer much like this special dance:

<blockquote>Picture ourselves aboard a boat.  There are hawsers joining it to soe rock.  We take hold of them and pull on them, and it is as if we were dragging the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward a rock.  And, from another point of view, when someone on the boat pushes away the rock which is on the shore he will have no effect on the rock, which stands immovable, but will make space between it and himself, and the more he pushes the greater will be the space.</blockquote>

<blockquote>That is why we must begin with a prayer before everything we do, but especially when we are about to taalk of God.  We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is both everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.</blockquote>

The idea here is that prayer is a thing that draws us nearer to the divine.  This is by God’s power and not by ours.  We don’t harm the independence and unchangeability of God by engaging in prayer.  Instead prayer is a way of pulling ourselves closer to God.

We ought to pray before engaging in reflection on the divine nature, bringing ourselves closer to the divine light which may help us understand.

The only other thing of philosophical interest here is a view of the degree of discomfort Pseud0-Dionysius has with saying anything about God.  He would almost be Wittgensteinian about the whole thing if it weren’t for the fact of his deep confidence that the scriptures are divinely revealed and say true things about God.  This is all that is keeping Dionysius on the task of talking about the divine at all.  If Pseudo-Dionysius were to live in an age without divine revelation, he would simply prefer to pass over such things in silence.  Next time we’ll break the silence with P-D and finally get into the bulk of the theological theorizing.

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Peace be with you.

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Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names: Summary of Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is probably the most difficult in the whole work (to this point at least).  Chapter 3 discusses Pseudo-Dionysius deference to Hierotheus, after which P-D discusses specific divine attributes.   But we are still at a very high level of abstraction in chapter 2.  We’re trying to make sense of sometimes, with some concepts, applying concepts to God as an undifferentiated whole while sometimes applying concepts to God in a differentiating way.  The most key example of such concepts are the trinitarian aspects of the deity.  God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but these are applied to the deity as a distinction within the Godhead.  This chapter is meant to make sense of these concepts.  The bulk of the argumentative work in this chapter is done by a series of analogies (some of which have become familiar: see this post).

An interesting analogy he uses to make sense of unity and differentiation in this radically unknown and transcendent deity we’ve established already in the work.  An analogy which we didn’t discuss earlier which P-D brings up is the analogy of lights in a house.  Lights in a house are all distinct, but together they can form a single, undifferentiated light.  This is meant to help us see that a similar thing can be true of the deity.  Of course, with the light analogy (as with his other analogies in this chapter) the possibility of unity and distinction depends on the thing in question having parts.  One way of making the analogy work would be to understand that P-D is probably thinking about light in a very different way than we think of it.  Light, for P-D, won’t be a phenomena that results from a bunch of photons gathering or moving in particular direction.  In fact, it’s probably reasonable to think that light isn’t made up of parts but is some kind of irreducible continuous reality.  If this is the analogy, we can think of it as a thought experiment.  If we can make sense of the possibility of this being the way light works, we can make sense (to some extent) of the possibility of the kind of unity and differentiation in the trinity.  There is still theoretical work that hasn’t been done (the analogy still requires the different parts of the distinct lights), but it at least gets us some distance toward the conclusion he wants, that we can (to some very limited extent) make sense of this aspect of a radically inaccessible deity.

The point of this chapter is to so make sense.  We are meant to do our due deference to the radical inaccessiblity of the deity while finding room to say true things about.  In Chapter 3 P-D will discuss his reliance on the work of Hierotheus, after which Chapter 4 will finally get into specifics about the attributes of the divine.

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Peace be with you.

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An Innocent Victim: How SES’s Response to Evangelical Exodus Caught a Good Man in the Cross-fire.

Back when I was going to protestant seminary (before my conversion to Catholicism), I had a professor named Wayne Detzler.  His honest and academic look at Christian history helped me deeply on my journey toward Catholicism.  I was excited to hear that he endorsed the book and gave a very nice quote about our conversion stories.  But then SES began giving “responses” to our book.

And I understand why one might worry about this work from SES’s perspective.  The evangelical audience who might serve as SES’s student base would be upset if they were to get the picture, from this book, that SES is a Catholicism entrance training school.  This would be very damaging for SES.  So some kind of response seems appropriate.  SES should re-affirm that they don’t teach Catholicism and that they hold to evangelical theology.  But the big groups of converts is a problem.  It may be just as damaging for people to think that students are (relatively independently) reaching Catholicism from SES teaching.  Who would send their loved ones here if this were well known and unaddressed?

There is a tempting, but deeply unethical, route to take in addressing this issue from the perspective of Southern Evangelical Seminary.  Southern Evangelical Seminary could construe the series of converts as a conspiracy by individuals that are no longer with the school who engaged in a sort of bad faith corrupting of the youth.  This is a convenient story because it not only allows the SES representative to calm the worries of prospective students, but it will also allow the SES representative to avoid coming head-on with the issues which have been involved in the conversion of many.

It’s funny but the official response from SES held to this very predictable line.  First, in his ‘review’ of the book, JT Bridges alleges that the conversion stories are falsely representing how “independent” they are.  In fact, JT Bridges informs us, nearly all of these conversions are as a result of the evil influence of Jason Reed and Douglas Beaumont.  Doug and Jason “sort of illicitly peddled their proto-Roman Catholic theology under the guise of their teaching position” (see link in Doug’s blog if you want to hear the direct quote).  The idea is that these individuals moved toward Catholicism and brought the whole gaggle with them.

But never mind the fact that many of these people converted before them, and that some of the people in the book were even instrumental in converting these two individuals.  I want to acknowledge what might be the truth behind these accusations, while calling attention to an unjust situation that my former professor Wayne Detzler has been put in.

Where the official story (it’s weird when a ridiculous conspiracy theory is the official story) goes wrong is in giving the reason Doug and Jason has something to do with some of these conversions.  It’s true that I had discussions (in confidence) with Jason and Doug over the space of my conversion, but it is categorically false that they were proto-Catholics out to peddle their proto-Catholic theology.  But follow the link to Doug’s blog above for more on this.

What Doug and Jason had in common in the evangelical exodus is that they are intellectuals, they are generous, they are honest, and they were willing to discuss these issues without starting a witch hunt.  They never held onto the deep anti-Catholic prejudice that some others had, and they were the sort of person that you could feel comfortable discussing the issues relating to these doubts you were having about evangelicalism and protestantism without having to fear being brought before a quasi-inquisition or treated like a crazy person who needs to be cured or saved from these thoughts and concerns.  Doug and Jason had some effect merely by being professionals and good friends.

But the problem with this story is that we should implicate others if we’re implicating Jason and Doug.  Wayne Detzler (categorically not a Catholic, and there is no doubt that he at no point endorsed Catholic theology in his courses at SES) is also a professional.  He is also and intellectual who was interested in hearing and talking about the interesting questions that come up (even ones involving Catholicism).  He engaged with these questions with the most refreshing academic honesty.  I cannot say enough good things about this class.  And the honest discussion in this class was probably one of the most important parts of my conversion.  The warm inviting intellectual atmosphere of his class allowed me to really ask and think about my remaining questions regarding Catholicism.

It is because of this that I feel deeply sorry for the predicament that I feel I’ve put Dr. Detzler in.  Dr. Detzler said some beautiful and nice things about the book.  But clearly the people of SES were deeply unhappy with Detzler’s positive comments with the book.  The fact that someone on the SES team thought the book was good or interesting could not be tolerated.  Obviously the comments Detzler gave needed revising.  So SES eventually put Detzler’s “revised” comments on their response page.

Here they are:


The tenor of these comments, if I were SES, would make me think twice before posting them as something that favors SES.  Detzler has remained consistent while attempting to build back the bridges that apparently were burned by the simple endorsement of a set of conversion stories.  In fact, a reasonable reading of these comments will see them as an indictment of the ridiculous paranoid anti-intellectualism of SES’s consideration of this case.

Who misconstrued Detzler’s comments?  Was it the authors of the book?  Well, they just put his endorsement on the back of the book.  No, his accusations of misconstrual fall squarely at the feet of SES.  SES panicked at the thought of one of their own endorsing this very personal work, and read the whole thing unreasonably.  If you read my chapter in the book, you will get no inkling that Detzler gave carte blanche approval of any doctrine other than evangelical.  In fact all you’ll get is that Detzler was an honest and generous teacher.  It is SES and those that, being pissed off about this book, that misconstrued the comments on Detzler’s work in the book and on Detzler’s approval of the book.  Detzler’s comments should give those at SES who reacted to his approval of the work something to think about.

SES, when accusing former professors of wrong-doing, should at long last realize that they are in fact only accusing former professors of being honest intellectuals who will give views contrary to their own an honest hearing.  In turn SES is guilty of reactionary, anti-intellectual, and unethical accusations of former professors.  I had hoped better for my alma mater.

If you want to hear the real story of some really widely different conversions, then I suggest you take a peak at the book Evangelical Exodus, to which I have contributed.  After this, I hope to put any unpleasantness behind me and go back to my regularly scheduled eclectic pop culture/Catholicism/philosophy blog.  Join me every MWF for new content!

Peace be with you.

Thoughts on Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names Part 2: Theological Analogies

So I’m working my way through Pseudo-Dionysius’ Divine Names, posting my summaries and various thoughts about the work here.  Today I will be briefly discussing some examples and analogies that Pseudo-Dionysius uses for aspects of the divine reality.

What surprised me when reading The Divine Names was the down to earth and familiar sounding nature of his examples.  If you’ve ever been given the circle analogy in explanation of how God can have different properties, that analogy is in The Divine Names.  There are other analogies that you probably haven’t heard which are deeply familiar seeming.  Let’s go over a couple and try to understand their upshot.

First, the circle analogy.  In the context it appears in the work it’s difficult to see it’s upshot.  But it goes as follows:

It is according to these gifts that the [supreme] things which are participated in, but which do not themselves participate [in anything higher], are praised  though the participations and those who participate.  Now this is unified and one and common to the whole divinity, that the entire wholeness is participated in by each of those who participate in it; none participates in only a part.  It is rather like the case of a circle.  The center point of the circle is shared by the surrounding radii.  Or take the example of a seal.  There are numerous impressions of the seal and these all have a share in the original prototype; it is the same whole seal in each of the impressions and none participates in only a part.

As best I can tell, the circle and the seal analogy are here to help explain one thing  .  Perhaps we are explaining the fact that a trinitarian deity may have each of the attributes off the divine while not being melded into one divine person.  The idea is that two different things (like a circle and the radii) can share the same numerically identical property(a center point) without being turned into one.  But his point is stronger.  He wants his examples to show that a reality can be accurately described as having certain properties despite being differentiated.  The circle remains an undifferentiated whole despite being accurately described as having a center point and accurately described as having radii which share that center point.  This is meant to help us be able to see how we might be able to accurately affirm things of a perfectly simple deity.

In the next installation I’ll summarize this second portion I’ve read.

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Peace be with you.

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Summarizing Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Divine Names: Part 1

I’ve recently started reading Pseudo-Dionysius'(PD) The Divine Names with the intent of including him in a history of philosophy syllabus.  What I have read and known regarding PD has all been either through quotes from Thomas Aquinas and from secondary source describing his views and influences.  What I found was very interesting.  PD’s work is at once insightful into the deep hiddenness of the divine while also very beautifully written in a poetic style.  It smacks of the style of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

The first portion of The Divine Names is devoted to establishing PD’s approach to philosophical theology.  PD holds a very neo-Platonic view of the deity.  The deity, for PD is wholly other and nigh completely inaccessible to human reasoning.  He expresses deep gratitude for the scriptures in giving we mere human beings something to go on in understanding the divine.  The idea is, if it hadn’t been for scripture, we wouldn’t be able to even say anything true about the deity.

So Pseudo-Dionysius sets up the problem of the work as follows:

  1. All we can (naturally) know about God is that he is beyond human conceptualization.
  2. But the scriptures say true things about God, which inform us about the divine nature.

The puzzle to be considered in the rest of the work is how to make sense of all the true statements the scriptures make about God when we are in such a state of poverty with respect to knowledge of the divine.

So how do we make sense of useful (and true) talk of a deity that is radically beyond natural human cognition?  Hopefully PD will inform us as we journey through his work.

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Peace be with you!

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Pseudo-Dionysius and Others: Academic Dishonesty?

I’m reading some Pseudo-Dionysius this summer.  Pseudo-Dionysius had a deep effect on the development of medieval philosophy.  But Pseudo-Dionysius is a fake.  He wrote his works masquerading as Dionysius the Areopagite, a Greek philosopher converted by Paul’s sermon on Mars hill in Paul’s discussion of the unknown god.  The medievals didn’t know this, and payed deep homage to Pseudo-D’s work.  Pseudo-D wrote beautiful mystical theology that was influenced deeply by neo-Platonism, a philosophical movement that emphasized the otherness and unknowability of God.

I think his work has a lot of value and should be appreciated by anyone looking to understand medieval theology and philosophy in any sort of deep way.  But this raises the question: Ought Pseudo-Dionysius to have written his works?  At first it seems like a clear case of academic dishonesty that we, in the modern world, are ultra-sensitive to.  But before the modern era such issues were less stringent.  There were all sorts of categories of work that were accepted in pre-modern times as perfectly honest works that were derivative works.  For example, there were whole genres of work that would be illegal today that were accepted as important forms of literature in the middle ages.  There were commentaries, in which you heavily quoted from another work and then gave original thoughts about the arguments (like a reaction video but in text).  There were even works where you just collected a ton of quotes on the same subject together, being a curated collection of quotes from others.  These are all fine, and I think a reasonable person would consider them ethical.

But then there are works like Pseudo-Dionysius.  If we are looking at it from the outside in terms of whether it should exist, it’s tempting to place it in the same kind of category as the other fake works from the first several centuries of the church like the various gnostic “gospels”.  It seems we instinctively see these very late gospels that falsely claim authorship as dishonest  works.

But I’m not so sure with Pseudo-Dionysius.  Pseudo-Dionysius work is very important in western history.  But can a work be both academically dishonest and deeply important to the history of western philosophy?  Next time I’ll talk about what’s good about Pseudo-Dionysius’ work, and consider this more closely

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Peace be with you.

Good Old-Fashioned Religion: Why Latin?

It seems, in the wider world, the move from Latin to the colloquial language in the Roman Catholic liturgy has been nearly universally praised by the wider world.  One of several main historical critiques of Catholicism have been based on Catholicism’s particular fondness for this particular dead language.  With the liturgy (and the bible), when under Catholicism’s charge, being entirely in Latin, Catholicism is charged with intentionally keeping the word out of the hands of the people in order to retain power over them.  This motivation,  I fear, was probably true for part of the church’s history.

But there are legitimate reasons to have a single language, not tied to any particular local area, for one’s liturgy.  This is especially so for a Catholic liturgy.  This is because the Catholic liturgy is centered on the Eucharist which, among other things, is a sacrament which is centered on both celebrating and causing a profound unity amongst Catholic participants.  Having the liturgy in a single language all over the world and cross-culturally encourages one to see the profound unity one has with the church all over the world: one in creed, code, and cult.

Also, in fairly well educated countries, there used to be little to the charge of making the liturgy difficult to understand.  Especially prior to the tragic downfall of classical language education in the west, people were largely able to understand basic Latin.  Further, many were educated in the Latin they needed to know in their religious education.

Over the history of being in Latin, the practice of the mass in Latin also became about being connected to the history of the church and its practices.

But the church isn’t just for the educated.  The church is for everyone.  So the church decided it was okay to have the mass in colloquial languages.  This way more people can understand the mass in a more profound way whether they understand Latin or not.

Nevertheless, for those that understand Latin, the Latin mass remains one of the most fulfilling kinds of experiences one can have in terms of Catholic liturgy.  Nevertheless, making the mass more accessible by allowing colloquial language in the liturgy has its cost.  The Latin mass is no longer as profound an expression of church unity.

What do you think?  Is the move to colloquial language mass last century a good move?  Is it worth the accessibility to everyone?  Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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Peace be with you

The Examination of Conscience: Anticatholic Guilt

I have been Catholic for several years now, and I’ve begun to have some guilt. This isn’t the ordinary “catholic guilt” that is highly reputed throughout popular culture.  I have anticatholic guilt.

You see, I’m a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism, but a form of Protestantism that is full of anticatholic sentiment.  You know, the kind of protestant that doubts many Catholics are saved; the kind of protestant that thinks that if any Catholics are saved it is only by being unfaithful to Catholic teaching.  So as a faithful anticatholic, I contributed my fair share to Catholics leaving the church for protestantism.

Here is an example of the behavior I engaged in.  I was in a band for much of my college life.  One of my band mates was a fallen away catholic and, around easter one year, he began expressing desire to go back to the Catholic Church during the Easter season.  I inquired as to why, hoping to lead him in a Socratic way away from this decision that I thought worse than attending no church service.  He said that he just thought he would really like to engage in the sacrament of reconciliation.  I said something dismissive, again trying to manipulate.  He then seemingly dismissed the issue.  I don’t know if my friend has ever come back to the Catholic Church.

There are a number of cases like this where I subtly tried to influence people away from a religion that I ultimately didn’t understand.

This all results in what I call anticatholic guilt.  I’m deeply troubled by the prejudicial and irrational behavior of my youth in this regard.  I have discussed this in confession, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is some deep trouble in the world for which I cannot  make reparation.  That is, I’m not sure there’s any way for me to make this up to the people I’ve wronged in this way, and this deeply troubles me.

Tune in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for more.

Peace be with you.

Good Old Fashioned Religion Part 1: Chopticks, Beer, and Liturgy

The last few months I’ve been on a huge Chinese-American food kick (you’ll be not so surprised to know it’s different from Chinese food: Check out the documentary “The Search For General Tso” for insight into the interesting history of Chinese-American food).  We even purchased an electric wok at our house so that I can stir fry all the time.  My wife and I each own our own pair of chopsticks and use them whenever we’re eating stir fry or rice based dishes.

I discovered something very interesting over the course of this time.  It all tastes better with chopsticks!  But on our ordinary understanding of perception this doesn’t seem to make sense.  How is the fact that I’m using a different implement supposed to change how the combination of noodles, protein, and vegetables effects my taste buds?  How is it possible for the same thing to taste differently with a slightly different delivery method?

There are a few possibilities.  The first, and most troubling, way to understand how chopsticks make it better is by appeal to the theory-ladenness of observation.  That is, it is often argued that our theories or views of the world change the way we see things in a very real way.  As an example of how this is supposed to work, consider how two different people might experience a series of magic tricks.  Suppose that Bobby believes sorcery is real, but Penn Jillette believes that there is no such thing as sorcery and in fact has a very sophisticated theory of how magic tricks work.  Watching the same magic trick might result in Bobby and Penn having very different experiences, but only because Bobby and Penn have different theories of what’s going on in the situation.  While Bobby might see the trick and experience a person appealing to occult powers to engage in augury, Penn might see the trick as a clever combination of slight-of-hand and and theatrics.  Penn and Bobby, in virtue of having different theories of how magic works, will have very different experiences of the magic trick they witness.  Or think of the way that your experience of accidentally touching someone’s hand is different when you think of the person as a possible romantic partner compared to when you do not so think of them.  Perhaps this is why stir fry tastes better with chopsticks.  Maybe we think about eating with chopsticks differently than we think about eating with a fork, and this makes us experience eating with chopsticks in this different and more pleasurable way.

It’s also possible that this is an ordinary case of the interaction of our different senses and other more ordinary ways in which our sensory perceptions can be altered.  Cold lemonade tastes better when you’re hot and thirsty.  Sight also seems to have a big effect on how we experience things like touch.  Think about those television shows in which people are required to reach their hands into boxes and feel things in the dark.  When a person looks about to die of fright from touching a teddy bear while blindfolded it’s reasonable to think they are having a different experience from the one you have when you touch a visible teddy bear.  This could be why stir fry tastes better when eaten with chopsticks.

Or perhaps, it could just be something subtle about the method of delivery that physically makes the flavors different when eaten with chopsticks than when eaten with a fork.  To see how this might work consider Trappist beer.  Trappist beer is a complex malty beer brewed by Catholic monks.  Now, it’s said that the best kind of glass with which to enjoy Trappist beer is a chalice.  The story goes that this type of beer was developed and the only implements that were around, historically, with which to test their beer was a chalice.  It’s further thought that it’s something about how the narrowing top of a chalice traps the scents of the beer in the chalice which effects its bouquet, but perhaps there are other facts about chalices that effected the development of trappist beer in such a way that there are all sorts of subtle aspects of chalices that effect the flavor of the beer in the correct way.

In any case we should see that it’s perfectly reasonable to think that stir fry tastes better when eaten with chopsticks.  But who cares?  What does this matter?  Well, there is an interesting fact about religion which I’d like to talk about in connection with this issue.  Now, I’m a Catholic, formerly a Baptist.  I’d like to talk about an issue in the Catholic liturgy and the issue of getting people to connect with the worship.

At around the time that 60’s and 70’s folk music was beginning to leave its indelible mark on Christian music and evangelical worship, there was push in Catholicism (this is a first-pass attempt at history, so give me a bit or a break here on details) beginning to move toward this folky kind of worship.  My reconstruction of what happened was something like this.  People looked at evangelical protestant worship and saw what I experienced when I was in the evangelical movement.  They saw people really engaging with the worship emotionally and coveted that for their catholic services, which were perceived as somehow stuffy, boring, with music that is dirge-like.

So parishes  began paring down the liturgy.  The specifically catholic aspects of the liturgy began to wane.  Now, when you pick a random Catholic parish on a Sunday, you’ll find something somewhere in between the old fashioned Catholic service of days of old and a modern evangelical service with folk music and visual and olfactory sparseness.

For example, my parish (due partially monetary constraints) consists of a large open room with a stone floor, with temporary pew seats throughout.  There are no icons.  There are no statues (apart from the one crucifix in the center of the room).  There aren’t even any kneelers.  It’s just a big open room, with a piano and a very evangelical-style worship leading team.  Compare this to another parish in my town.  This parish has intricate architecture which integrates beautiful statuary.  There are kneelers.

Now, I’m not here to judge newer parishes for failing to put out the incredible mountain of cash it would take to make every parish like some of the more beautiful parishes in our various areas.  It’s very expensive (although, I wonder if priorities are where they need be in some cases).

The point I’m trying to make is that even with roughly the same ingredients (Catholic liturgy remains largely the same from parish to parish), Catholic liturgy is better and more fulfilling when it’s done in an environment that moves the other senses as well.  The same liturgy is experienced much differently depending on the environment in which it takes place (as a side note, I have never experienced a liturgy performed in latin or ad orientem but have long dreamed of doing so for the same reason).  It’s better when it’s served in the chalice which was the vessel for tasting it over the many years it was developed.  Catholic liturgy tastes better with chopsticks.

In the coming months we’ll speak more about Catholic spirituality and how it relates to the worship of evangelicalism and the worship of other religions as part of a series of posts focusing on good old fashioned catholic liturgy and what it’s like.

Check back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for new content!

Peace be with you.