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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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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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.