Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A dresser of vines

No one could have been more surprised than I when when the grapevine we planted a few years back began producing bunches of grapes.  There is hardly anything more simple and gratifying than having fruit ripe for the taking growing around one's back patio.

I should have known, of course, that nature is rarely so benign.  A warning was given a few weeks earlier--the bag of peanuts for the mountain jays having been regularly vandalized in the pantry, I was sure the dogs were the culprits.  But one Sunday afternoon the burglar's daring undid him.  The dogs cornered a squirrel under a living room work table, cheeks stuffed with peanuts who, after a merry chase with broom and hounds, made his way out unscathed.  A larcenist from the wild was in our midst.  This being late summer, our screenless open windows left us defenseless.

I would have probably been unaware of the little critter's presence that Sunday afternoon had it not been for his distinctive distress cry, something very like a smoke alarm whose battery is reaching the end of its life, an abrupt, high-pitched squeal sounding about every four seconds.  A few days later I heard that same sound eminating from an old decrepit gas grill in the back.  Sure enough, Oliver had cornered the little squirrel behind the rusing propane tank.  Around the little thief were, not peanuts, but grapes.  He had found the grapevine, and has been dining on it ever since.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Los teologos

In his short story of the same name, Jorge Luis Borges lampoons the sort of theological niceness for which I have praised St. Gregory in the previous post. The particular controversy out of which his story develops is the fortuitous survival of a page from the City of God:

"...pero en el corazón de la hoguera, entre la ceniza, perduró casi intacto el libro duodécimo de la Civitas Dei, que narra que Platón enseñó en Atenas que, al cabo de los siglos, todas las cosas recuperarán su estado anterior, y él, en Atenas, ante el mismo auditorio, de nuevo enseñará esa doctrina."

Now I have owned a copy of this story, and The City of God, in some form, since the late 1970's. I have also read enough that I should have doubted any assertion, especially on the part of St. Augustine, that Plato taught the eternal recurrence of all things. But, oddly enough, it didn't occur to me until recently to look up the reference. When I did I found in the twelfth book was this:

"Absit autem a recta fide, ut his Salomonis uerbis illos circuitus significatos esse credamus, quibus illi putant sic eadem temporum temporaliumque rerum uolumina repeti, ut uerbi gratia, sicut isto saeculo Plato philosophus in urbe Atheniensi et in ea schola, quae Academia dicta est, discipulos docuit, ita per innumerabilia retro saecula multum quidem prolixis interuallis, sed tamen certis, et idem Plato et eadem ciuitas et eadem schola idemque discipuli repetiti et per innumerabilia deinde saecula repetendi sint. Absit, inquam, ut nos ista credamus."

The words of Solomon are the familiar assertion of nothing new under the sun. And, on examination, there is, in fact, no assertion that Plato taught an eternal recurrence, but merely that some so taught, giving Plato's continual eternal return to Athens as a rather dramatic picture of that doctrine.

So what is Borges up to here? It could be a simple mistake, or a little poetic license; his assertion is indisputably more colorful that Augustine's mere example, and Borges is a master of dramatizing the esoteric. Or it could, perhaps, be in line with the resolution of his plot. The rivalry between the two theologians, Aureliano of Aquilea and Juan of Panonia, leads to the latter's death, insofar as he fails to see that his refutation of eternal recurrence as insufficiently distanced from the heresy du jour, the the assertion of a mirror-opposition of things heavenly to things earthly. A little muddiness, Borges suggests, is not necessarily a bad thing, even if it impermissably "insinuaría una confusión de la mente divina."

It is a derivative kind of fiction, depending for its effect upon the passage and increasing incomprehensibility of the form being imitated. But there are lines and passages that have a great beauty, apart, even from their literal coherence: "En Rusaddir predicó el anacrónico sermón Luz de las luces encendida en la carne de un réprobo."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Theologian

In the West we honor him as St. Gregory Nazianzus.  In the East that name is reserved to his father (a bishop), and the son is known as St. Gregory the Theologian--a title customarily shared only with St. John the Evangelist.

Out of St. Gregory's many works I have just completed the five which are conventionally designated the Theological Orations.  I had some years ago read excerpts from them in the Library of Christian Classics volume entitled "Christology of the Later Fathers," and could not get through them.  It's hard to say why, other than finding them stilted and dull--surprising because Gregory's reputation encompasses not only his theological acumen, but his style.  The Theological Orations are considered models of the rhetor's art.

So, over a number of months, I read these five relatively short orations in Greek, helped mightily by a parallel German translation in the Fontes Christiani series.  And though I no longer found them stilted and dull, I fear that it was more from the great effort in creeping through the Greek than from an appreciation of their literary merit. 

The Byzantines were different.  We seem in past decades to have accorded them a somewhat more dignity than in the past, when, following Gibbon, they epitomized the sordid, the stagnant and the treacherous.  John Julius Norwich's history a few years back brought them back, for a time, to a general readership (I thoroughly enjoyed his three volumes about five years ago).  And yet, what is more characteristic of their age than these kinds of Trinitarian gymnastics?  And what does our age value less than such disputations over subtle dogmatic details?

Most can agree, I would hope, that from the point of view of the Church, there was some value in "settling" the Trinity.  There is still hardly unanimity among those who call themselves Christians, but there is at least a consensus which (with the exception of the Double Procession) unites Catholics, magisterial Protestants, and Orthodox, a consensus which was largely the work of the fourth and fifth centuries.  But that process was so polemical, so alienating, so fruitful of factions and schisms--some of which persist to the present day--that we have difficulty attributing sanctity to such efforts.  St. Cyril of Alexandria comes to mind as one who, since at least the time of Kingsley, has been more remembered for others' crime against Hypatia than his own controversies with Nestorius.

What can one say about this frame of mind which is neither practical nor freely philosophical?  Which deals with essenses, persons, hypostases, natures, divinity, humanity, spirit, incarnation, divinization, begetting, processing?  It is far from the language of Plato.  It is farther from the language of Paul and Jesus.  But, it seems to me that it was necessary, if only because it was needed to answer the questions that were put to the faith. 

It is open to the Chruch to answer questions with a "sit down and shut up."  That has rarely been done, because, over time, it would be a death knell.  Those told to sit down and shut up typically stand up and walk out.  Theology is answering those questions which are actually asked, whether the basis for those question is the relationship of the persons addressed in worship, the speculatinos of Gnostics, or the cosmology of neo-Platonists, or the philosophy of Aristotle, or the paradoxes of free will, or the dualism of Descartes, or the science of Newton, or the biology of Darwin, or the ontology of Heidegger.     

Theology addresses the present world, and Gregory addressed an ecclesiastical world increasingly dominated by Arians, of the variety dominated by Eunomius.  The present irrelevance of his rhetoric only proves his success.  I admittedly remain a little boggled by the Trinitarian and Christological categories of those decisive centuries.  But that makes me more appreciative of the settlement that did eventually come about, and must confess, not only to an intellectual enjoyment of the working out of these matters, but a devotional one, as the harmony of persons, essences and energies is related back to the simpler, earthier tales and discourses of the scriptures.  As with the best of Tradition, it does not displace, but illuminates, and sends one back. 

It is perhaps surprising that Gregory, in the fifth Theological Oration, is one of the first to unambiguously proclaim the Holy Spirity to be God, in the same sense as the Father and the Son.  Those before him were more circumspect, advocating the substance, but economizing when on the threshold of making explicit what was only implicit.  It is Gregory who says that the Old Testament asserts the Father and intimates the Son, the New Testament asserting the Son and intimating the Holy Spirit, and who rather boldly insists that this latter intimation be made explicit. 

It was perhaps for this decisive step that Gregory is remembered with St. John the Evangelist, whose "The Word was God" constitutes the decisive proclamation of the position of the Son.  As an apostle, an evangelist, a missionary, a witness, an exile for the Faith, St. John indiputably takes precedence.  But St. Gregory deserves our remembrance, in his distant, but decisive, proclamation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Initio stultitiae

I am no longer just thinking about Erasmus, which is to say that I have just completed (or re-completed, depending how you look at it) the Moriae Encomium, sive Laus Stultitiae, the little trifle that now sounds so imposing in its combined Greek/Latin title.

I read it first in college, and have read it numerous times since, in various English translations.  It is not easy to come by, I have found, in Latin, but I did finally come across a Latin text in a used version, volume II of a larger set, with a parallel German translation, that I have been eking my way through for a few months now.

And there is a dilemma in this.  I have only more recently appreciated the extent to which a polished Latinity was important to Erasmus.  But in a work such as this, a work intended to be light, to make one laugh (and occasionally feel somewhat ashamed), a work which Erasmus himself was rather horrified to learn was becoming his best-known and best-loved piece--how does one like me, whose Latin is such that I can only plod and slog, slowly and with maximum concentration, read this praise of stupidity without feeling myself a butte of the joke?

And I think "stupidity" is a good rendering of "stultitia."  "Folly" is an English word with a great deal of dignity.  I am proud to acknowledge "follies;"  I am pretty much humiliated when shown to be stupid. 

But stupidity is very much a consequence of our limitedness.  I like to say that everyone, however learned, however expert, however polished, however erudite, is stupid about something. 

But Erasmus goes further,delighting to show the questionable advantage of our learning when stupidity makes us so much happier.  I don't of couse buy it; Erasmus obviously doesn't.  He's an ironist--but irony's bite come in the nagging suspicion that what one asserts ironically may well be to some extent true literally.   

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bicentennial Kierkegaard

The two words go together awkwardly.  Who after all seems less suited to the hoopla and hype of a bicentennial celebration?  And yet I feel I should somehow commemorate the two hundredth anniverary of Soren Kierkegaard's birth.

I have read him, on and off, since high school.  Who can really understand him?  I was first interested in him because he was widely credited as the father of existentialism--whatever that was.  What he himself would have thought of being the founder of any "-ism" doesn't take much imagination.

His difficult, idiosyncratic wrestling with faith and despair, anxiety and original sin, subjectivity and judgment, will keep him always "in print"--but never popular.  If I could, I would address him this way, following his own address to Abraham in Fear and Trembling:

 Venerable Father Kierkegaard!  You paid tribute to Abraham proclaiming how, through faith, he gave up Isaac to God, and never lost him.  You yourself gave up your Regina, and lost her for good, and yet your faith, though you disclaimed it, and reduced it to infinite resignation, kept you on a path that most of us could only hope to follow.  We who still vainly imagine we can go beyond faith see your life and work, and shudder, but are built up as well, aspiring, with you, to be worthy of the name of Christian.