Robert Taft on liturgy and tradition

As someone has said, history is not events, but events that have become ideas — and ideas are of the present. The past does not change, but we do, which is why the work of history is always present, and never done. Liturgical history, therefore, does not deal with the past, but with tradition, which is a genetic vision of the present, a present conditioned by its understanding of its roots. And the purpose of this history is not to recover the past (which is impossible), much less to imitate it (which would be fatuous), but to understand liturgy which, because it has a history, can only be understood in motion.

-Robert Taft, S.J., ‘The Structural Analysis of Liturgical Units: An Essay in Methodology’, Worship 52:318.

How lectio divina and contemplative practices can be dangerous

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

Various Scripture-related ‘mystical’ practices that call themselves lectio divina have been growing in popularity in the world outside Roman Catholic monasteries, and, indeed, not only in the liberal mainline but even amongst evangelical Protestants. Some evangelicals are automatically, and irrationally, afraid of lectio divina because it comes from ‘Roman Catholicism’; others are concerned because some of its proponents are also into Buddhism and the like.

And, certainly, books about lectio divina are not all equal.

I won’t mount a defence of the practice here, though. Mark Moore has already done that in his post, ‘Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

Instead, I would like to highlight the fact that I think the disciplines of the contemplative life can actually be dangerous — and not ‘dangerous to your small views of God’ dangerous. Actually potentially harmful. Of course, I must get this out of the way first: Their alleged ‘Roman Catholic’ (aka Latin medieval) origins have nothing to do with their potential for harm. If Protestants rejected everything from the ‘Roman Church’, we would have no Bible, no sacraments, no doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, etc., etc. We must find the danger in the actual practices themselves.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking. As I said at the beginning, a variety of different practices currently masquerade under the name lectio divina. Some of these are actually medieval, deriving ultimately from the prayerful practices outlined around 1180 by Guigo II (d. 1188/93), prior of La Grande Chartreuse (motherhouse of the Carthusians) in The Ladder of Monks. Others are inspired by the medieval practices but are more in line with traditional Protestant discursive meditation. Others may not know what a Carthusian is but may be conversant with Buddhism.

The possibility is, in the end, that any of the forms of lectio divina currently on parade can endanger you spiritually.

One person, alone with a Bible, seeking to encounter God directly through the Word, sometimes reducing that to a single word or phrase.

Or, to move to other meditative practices, simply praying the Jesus Prayer. Or seeking to empty your mind of all thoughts. Or whatever.

Why do I think these things might be harmful? They might be harmful if they lack an important ingredient:

The community of the faithful.

Any of these practices can be salutary (yes, even ones tainted by Buddhism, let alone Roman Catholicism). They can be ways for us to focus our heart and minds on the Most Holy Trinity, upon the meaning and lesson and immediacy of Scripture as living and active. They can be ways for us to unclutter our cluttered hearts.

But they might make you go crazy. The Orthodox actually say that practising the Jesus Prayer unsupervised can be harmful. They also say that illusion is particularly dangerous for those who shut themselves off from the community of the faithful. The translators of The Philokalia are at pains in the introduction to point out that the teachings found therein, and the whole eastern Christian tradition of stillness (hesychia, hence hesychasm) is not reducible to these texts for monks and solitaries — these texts were written for people who participated in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church. They also read Scripture in the same ways you and I read Scripture.

Lectio divina, then, is not inherently harmful. I actually think it is good for us — as a way to stop trying to govern Scripture and allow it to govern us. However, any Christian discipline, when cut off from the fellowship and community of God’s people, can lead you astray and make you think that you are growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ when really you are growing up gnarled, crooked, and distorted. But don’t worry, God can straighten us out

.

The name ‘James’ in the Bible

Every once in a while, I hear someone say that ‘James’ in the Bible was put there in the 1611 version at the command of King James VI/I because he wanted to be in the Bible. After all, why else would Iacobos appear in English as James — the very name of the monarch who commissioned that translation project in 1604?

Well, this, as it turns out is false. I place this knowledge here not to promote the 1611 KJV or to argue that James VI/I was a stand-up guy, but, frankly, to get the facts straight. And, perhaps, to exonerate such outstanding scholars and diligent Christians as Lancelot Andrewes who worked on the translation project.

My first place was pre-KJV English Bibles. I accordingly checked the Geneva Bible and the Bishops Bible, which were the two most popular in the early 1600s, followed by the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims translation, and then working back in time to Tyndale and then Wycliffe. Every single one of them uses the form James in the New Testament.

Case closed.

But really, not much of a story, is it? The underlying question remains unanswered: Why do we use James for Iacobos in the New Testament?

My next stop was the open access Online Etymology Dictionary, which gave us this:

James Look up James at Dictionary.commasc. proper name, New Testament name of two of Christ’s disciples, late 12c. Middle English vernacular form of Late Latin Jacomus (source of Old French James, Spanish Jaime, Italian Giacomo), altered from Latin Jacobus (see Jacob).

I have to admit: What do they mean by ‘Late Latin’? After all, by Classicist standards, I study ‘Late Latin’ literature of the 400s, and I’ve never seen Jacomus. More extensive is the Oxford English Dictionary:

Etymology: < Old French James (Gemmes, *Jaimes) = Spanish Jaime, Provençal, Catalan Jaume, Jacme. Italian Giacomo < popular Latin *ˈJacomus, for ˈJacobus, altered from Latin Ia’cōbus, < Greek Ἰάκωβος, < Hebrew yaʿăqōb Jacob, a frequent Jewish name at all times, and thus the name of two of Christ’s disciples (St. James the Greater and St. James the Less); whence a frequent Christian name.

They do not give me a better sense of when the B turns into an M, and becomes common. But B becoming M is not as bizarre as you might think. And, frankly, French and English eliding letters is just par for the course. The OED also gave its earliest known attestations:
?c1225  (▸?a1200)    Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 144   Forþi seið seint iames. Omne gaudium [etc.].
c1386   Chaucer Shipman’s Tale 355,   I thanke yow by god and by seint Iame.
a1568   R. Ascham Scholemaster (1570) i. f. 6v,   Thies yong scholers be chosen commonlie, as yong apples be chosen by children, in a faire garden about S. Iames tyde.
Here we see the French influence on Middle English, don’t we? I wonder if the B would have stayed without that influence…

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

View all my reviews

The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.

 

Trinity and Philosophy in ancient Christianity

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

One of the great difficulties facing Christians as we seek to think properly about God’s self-revelation to us through Scripture, the Incarnation, and the ongoing life of the church at prayer and worship is how to think rationally, clearly, and intelligently about the things of God. Sometimes our attempts to provide possible solutions to problems, solutions that seem to be philosophically coherent, bring us into some trouble — thus, pitfalls such as Apollinarianism and Nestorianism; these are ways of thinking about Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate that, in some way, do violence to either the Scriptural narrative or the reasoning mind. Orthodoxy is the attempt to avoid such violence in how we think about God.

One of the great dangers facing Christians as we seek to think properly about God is to imagine that human reason is a flawless tool that cannot err. Ancient and early mediaeval Christians, Platonists though often they were, had a somewhat different relationship to reason and philosophy. We often read anti-philosophy statements, such as the famous Tertullian dictum, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The medieval monks were constantly back and forth on the subject of philosophy, as to whether it was good or bad — indeed, the same monk may take up either side of said cause at different times. But what those who stayed the course and found themselves within the bounds of orthodoxy found was that the revelation in sacred Scripture had to be upheld, as understood by both reason and tradition. This is, indeed, how the doctrine of the Trinity was put together — prayerful, reasoned reflection on Scripture in light of the worshipping tradition of the gathered Christian community.

In the fifth century, a fellow named Socrates (obvs not the pagan philosopher) wrote about a particular heretic of the second half of the 300s, Aetius, in his Ecclesiastical History as follows, saying that Aetius

began to astonish those who conversed with him by the singularity of his discourses. And this he did in dependence on the precepts of Aristotle’s Categories; there is a book of that name, the scope of which he neither himself perceived, nor had been enlightened on by intercourse with learned persons: so that he was little aware that he was framing fallacious arguments to perplex and deceive himself. For Aristotle had composed this work to exercise the ingenuity of his young disciples, and to confound by subtle arguments the sophists who affected to deride philosophy. Wherefore the Ephectic academicians, who expound the writings of Plato and Plotinus, censure the vain subtlety which Aristotle has displayed in that book: but Aëtius, who never had the advantage of an academical preceptor, adhered to the sophisms of the Categories. For this reason he was unable to comprehend how there could be generation without a beginning, and how that which was begotten can be co-eternal with him who begat. In fact, Aëtius was a man of so superficial attainments, and so little acquainted with the sacred Scriptures, and so extremely fond of caviling, a thing which any clown might do, that he had never carefully studied those ancient writers who have interpreted the Christian oracles; wholly rejecting Clemens and Africanus and Origen, men eminent for their information in every department of literature and science. But he composed epistles both to the emperor Constantius, and to some other persons, wherein he interwove tedious disputes for the purpose of displaying his sophisms. He has therefore been surnamed Atheus. But although his doctrinal statements were similar to those of the Arians, yet from the abstruse nature of his syllogisms, which they were unable to comprehend, his associates in Arianism pronounced him a heretic. Being for that reason expelled from their church, he pretended to have separated himself from their communion. Even in the present day there are to be found some who from him were formerly named Aëtians, but now Eunomians. For some time later Eunomius, who had been his amanuensis, having been instructed by his master in this heretical mode of reasoning, afterwards became the head of that sect. But of Eunomius we shall speak more fully in the proper place. (trans. NPNF2, vol. 2)

Aetius is thus said to be the teacher of Eunomius, who is accused by the famous Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa) of being a logic-chopper. Eunomius is one of the most purely logical and reason-driven of the various persons called ‘Arian’. Here we see the concern that many ancient Christians had with pure reason. Aetius’ chief problem, from the way Socrates describes him, is his dependence upon Aristotle. He has treated the Categories almost as a divine book of truth to which all ways of thinking should be subsumed.

To cherry pick simply to demonstrate the point:

Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture. -Athanasius, De Synodis, 6.

But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures . . . Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them and the table of your heart. -Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5:12.

The other ‘Arians’ or ‘Semi-Arians’ or ‘Homoians’ were themselves conservative in this respect — in the creed of Rimini, their main case against consubstantial or homoousion is that it is unscriptural (see Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 2.37). The supreme authority in the Christian faith is not, was not, shall not be, human reason. Reason alone cannot impose any belief on the Christian. And if you believe that reason has brought you to a conclusion that runs counter to Scripture and Tradition, then what you believe is not Christian. But if it is true, then perhaps Christianity is not.

As John Anthony McGuckin says in the introduction to his new volume on first-millennium church history, The Path of Christianity, Christianity itself is a strangely conservative institution, even when it is radical and disruptive. Ancient and medieval Christians were always looking back, back to Scripture and to the long line of living tradition that brought them to where they were. Or they were looking around themselves at the worship offered to the Father through the Son in the Spirit and meditating on that in light of Scripture.

People like to imagine where ‘western Christianity went wrong’ — the Orthodox imagine it one way, Protestants in others, Mormons in a new way yet again. Sometimes I wonder if the symptoms are not present already in St Anselm (whom I love). He makes clear, articulate use of Aristotle, including The Categories. However, rather than arguing that the Trinity cannot be deducted by reason, he seeks to prove with pure logic not only that there the Supreme Good is Trinity, but that it is and must be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, he does not slide into falsehood. And a great many of the Scholastics who follow him, such as Sts Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, do not fall into falsehood.

But High and Late Medieval logic-chopping gets underway, alas, leading to a rejection of analogical language for God, thus producing ideas such as ‘being’ for God is the same as ‘being’ for my chair. In some respects, this adulation of Aristotle is part of the problem that we western Christians need to shake. Anselm has it, ‘I believe in order that I may understand,’ but today many think they understand but have no faith. The life of faith will ever be a matter of tension, I think, and one of those tensions lies in accepting revelation and thinking articulately with logic.

For other musings on Eunomius, see Fr Aidan’s recent post at Eclectic Orthodoxy, ‘The Curious Trinity of Dale Tuggy’.

Christological thoughts from 2007

I thought I’d re-post this here, a long-lost piece from 11 November 2007 that I referred to in my most recent post. My thoughts have probably shifted and matured in 10 years. At least, I hope they’ve matured. They’ve definitely shifted — I would retract some things I say about Nestorius, and I definitely reject Jenson’s reading of Leo. But this fresh discovery of ancient Christianity and the excitement it brought me is worthy of remembrance…

Behold your God

… I got out a little light reading, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas C Oden and Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century edited by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall.

And so, between walking and reading, and sitting in St. Alban’s Square reading, I had my mind blown away.

My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson, whose essay “With No Qualifications: the Christological Maximalism of the Christian East”* (I told you it was light reading) delved into the depths of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.

He said nothing especially revolutionary–this is, in fact, the whole point of the book. Indeed, what he did was merely articulate what I already know to be true. What he said resonated with my spirit as well as with the universe and the revelation of Holy Scripture. Yet he articulated truths that are so rarely articulated and so rarely articulated well, and thus my brain is thinking about this and meditating and whirling and wanting to tell you–all of you!

So: Jesus is Lord.

And there is only one Lord–Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of all things, the One Who exists from everlasting to everlasting, the Holy God, the King and Ruler of ALL–who is perfectly holy and perfectly just and perfectly loving and perfectly perfect and wholly God and wholly other and beyond all and in all and through all and all of it.

Jesus is Him.

And when we say, “Jesus is God” — or, rather, “Jesus is the Son, and the Son is God,” (17), we are to say unequivocally. There is no mincing of words as with Nestorianism (that sounds awfully a lot like some of the freaky weird “esoteric” Christianity out there as found in Tom Harpur):

the Son so “inhabits” Jesus that the man Jesus is a temple wholly transparent to his presence, or that the Son is so personally “conjoined” with Jesus that from our point of view they cannot be told apart, or that they too will be in fact one person at the End, after the suffering is over. (18)

And sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters. I agree with Jenson, Pope Leo missed the boat, too [2017: I disagree with Jenson on this now]. Leo’s theology is what one of my undergrad profs described succinctly as follows: Jesus is like a marble cake. Leo says (and this is an actual quote from the Tome of Leo, which I think is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library somewhere):

Each nature is the agent of what is proper to it, working in fellowship with the other: the Word doing what is appropriate to the Word and the flesh what is appropriate to the flesh. The one shines forth in the miracles; the other submits to the injuries. (19)

To skip over a large amount of the following controversies, the truth as I believe it is to be found when one reads the Scriptures and applies his mental faculties to them, when one finally admits to the entirety of the claim that Jesus is Lord is as follows, to quote Jenson:

the man Jesus, exactly as his personhood is defined by the life story told in the Gospels, is the one called the Son, the second identity of God. Jesus is the Son, with no qualifications. (22)

Thus, finally, what sort of blew my mind away was when Jenson applied this to the reality of who God is. Whoever the Gospels reveal Jesus to be, is exactly who God is–not just in character. Thus:

Mary is the Mother of God. Unus ex Trinitate mortuus est pro nobis. [One of the Trinity died on behalf of us.] One of the Trinity is a Palestinian Jew who came eating and drinking and forgave sin and prophesied implausible glory. Jesus saves. These and more sentences are the great metaphysical truth of the gospel, without which it is all religious palaver and wish fulfillment and metaphorical projection. Jesus really is Lord because he is one of the Trinity, and that is our salvation. (22)

Like I said, nothing new–indeed, St. Maximus the Confessor was saying these things in the 600s (some of his works are available through the St. Pachomius Library), and people were believing them from the Apostolic Age, and have believed it until now–”‘Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies!” (Charles Wesley). This is the reality that causes The Bridegroom, an icon of Christ bound and crowned with thorns and stripped of all but the mocking purple robe and the stalk (hyssop?), my favourite icon, because it speaks a very profound truth about Who God Is. He suffers with us. He died for us.

In ways we cannot fully express with words, the eternal God, coeternal and consubstantial Father and Son, has human flesh as part of Him, while still maintaining His transcendence, His otherness, His holiness, His perfection, His immutability! Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is crowned and throned in Glory and Eternity, with real flesh and bone because He took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, He set aside His glory out of love in order that we could know Him and be saved from sin and death! And so the Man Jesus is the Word, the Son. He is God–wholly God, entirely God, with no ifs ands or buts–no qualifications.

But these truths are not always so starkly and boldly stated.

They do leave us Protestants with some uncomfortable phrases. Like “Mary the Mother of God.” I’ve always been a fan of, “Mary, the mother of the human fleshly part of Jesus, the mother of Jesus’ human nature.” But Jesus, God the Son, kept that flesh when He ascended. He is not some ethereal Spirit, He has, is flesh! He took that flesh born from the womb of His mother and made it part of the Divine Nature. The Word took on flesh and pitched His tent among us! In a very real way, although Jesus is pure, preexistent, eternal God from everlasting to everlasting, Mary is God’s mom. But that’s not really what blew my mind.

Merely the simple, hard, earthy fact that Jesus with dirty feet, whom I love, whom I exalt, whom I praise, adore, extol, worship, point to, is, in fact, in Heaven ruling the Universe. And His hands are still scarred, along with His feet, His side, His brow. His heart broke for us. And He took that heart to Glory.

And it also messes with our ideas of God being transcendent. God the immutable was hungry. God the perfect pooped his swaddling cloths. God the holy thirsted. God the wholly other wept at the death of a friend. God Himself got tired and slept. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. In a very real, very orthodox, and extremely unheretical way, God was human. And when He left us to carry on His mission on earth, He kept that flesh, glorifying it and perfecting it.

Some of my other light reading recently was a book called The Trivialization of God by Donald C McCullough. In this book the author discusses how the church in the West has placed God off to the side and put up some pretty nice-looking golden calves in His place. He then discusses how we are to topple the golden calves, and how God Himself topples them, and what the foundations of our thinking really ought to be.

One thing that really stood out for me was his insistence on awe and wonder as necessary for our relationship with God. We need to realise that God is bigger than everything, that God is beautiful, that God is beyond our total comprehension, and that God loves us. And since God loves us unequivocally, He bridged the divide that our wickedness created between us and Him and came as a Man. Therefore, our thinking about God begins in agnosticism — we just don’t really know, and then it always moves through Jesus, through the God-Man, to find out who God is.

And so I’ve tried praying and thinking through that paradigm: I know nothing. God is hugemongous. And Jesus, being God, is His perfect revelation.

So this essay by Jenson was absorbed by me quite willingly. I recommend it highly.

*The random numbers (in brackets) represent page numbers from the essay, which is found in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall, ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 13-22.