Heaven is Not an Atom

Manoussakis: taking theology up a notch.

Manoussakis: taking theology up a notch.

I knew there was a reason why I took my “Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)” up to 11. Somehow I just knew that I had to read the extra book I added.

Well, actually, Fr. Peter Nguyen, SJ (one of the good ones) read the book on my semi-blind recommendation about a year ago. He came away with a glowing face full of new insights. Now that I’ve started reading God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic, I know why it’s been haunting me.

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“I have not seen anything in breadth, importance, and intensity!,” says Jean-Luc Marion about God After Metaphysics. That’s praise which is beyond good.

John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a Greek Orthodox theologian, begins with a quote from Chesterton (who was the subject of yesterday’s post). God After Metaphysics is ecumenical in its engagement with all the best in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. The following epigraph from The Everlasting Man is just one example of the intellectual hospitality of God After Metaphysics and its author:

“It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had even claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had even suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years– that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word… it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.”

Manoussakis finds and deftly comments upon such gems throughout his book. It’s as if he wants you to go broke collecting a library as you read.

Now, the importance of the Greek intellectual heritage for understanding the uniqueness of Christianity is something we’ve previously addressed in a post related to the work of Jaroslav Pelikan here. Manoussakis points out how the notion of a human person as a relational reality is something that developed within the Greek literary and philosophical traditions. In fact, relation (between persons) was so crucial to the notion of a person that early Greek literary texts used the plural (prosopa) almost exclusively even when referring to individuals. What’s more, the antonym of person (prosopon) is atomon. A-tomon can be etymologically parsed as that which cannot be cut any further. The same implication is embedded within the English word individual (that which cannot be divided anymore, an atom).

“If life is an illusion it's a pretty painful one,” says the author of The Elementary Particles.

The flip side of Manoussakis: “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” says the nihilistic but compassionate author of The Elementary Particles.

All of this reminds me of Michel Houellebecq’s contemporary classic novel of social fragmentation The Elementary Particles. Even though the novel charts the free-fall of the two main characters, who are half-brothers, into different forms of deadly isolation Houllebecq leaves threads like these for his readers to hang onto, “Love binds, and it binds forever. Good binds while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit.” Hell as I’ve suggested elsewhere is the life of elementary particles. This insight seems to be true for Houllebecq the author, even though his characters never achieve it.

The novelistic dictum is at bottom in concert with the implications of the Incarnation, our fundamental relation to God, as explained by Manoussakis:

“The urgency for particularity, however, was forced upon philosophy by an event that lay entirely outside its proper scope. As a number of studies, both old and new, have shown, the thought of the classical World lacked the the notion of the uniqueness of the human person. The cruel Spartan law which demanded that every baby born with some physical or or mental defect be discarded at the outskirts of the city was consistent with the classical mentality. The classical worldview was turned upside down in the wake of the Incarnation. The Christian dogma of the ‘Word made flesh’ bestowed upon any person an infinite value–or rather, the value of the infinite.”

It is as if the relationality built into the Greek language needed the Gospel to bring out its most radical implications. And the practical implications of this passage continue to be fundamental for the most controversial contemporary debates such as abortion or euthanasia. Ultimately, the task comes down to facilitating a parallax shift from talk about individuals to talk about persons.

Theology is not a spectator sport. You might just have to change your life.

The classic film Seconds poignantly highlights this need for personal engagement in a final tragic monologue before the protagonist’s death:

“I couldn’t help it, Charlie. I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want! Things! Not people… or meaning. Just things. And California was the same. They made the decisions for me all over again and they were the same things, really. It’s going to be different from now on. A new face and a name. I’ll do the rest. I know it’s going to be different. I suppose you do too.”

[Its opening sequence is filled with some of the most hellish images of fragmentation caught on film.]

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Chesterton, Crusading, and Cairo

My facebook buddy, the blogger Brandon Vogt, recently posted the video above on Facebook. I was surprised to find out there is a video of Chesterton, best known for his The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and biographies of Aquinas and Francis. It seems like like he’s too big a personality, wellnigh mythical, to fit on film.

Apparently Chesterton’s cause for canonization is being advanced in Rome these days. It’s not surprising given how much influence he has exerted on Catholic writers, popes (including the present pope), and even atheist authors such as Slavoj Zizek whose The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity is heavily influenced by the English Catholic writer.

"Wha? Zizek?!," say Chesterton in an aside of his writings on Dickens.

“Wha? Zizek?!,” says Chesterton in an aside in his still wildly popular Orthodoxy.

Chesterton is generally known as an all-around funny guy who wrote on serious topics in a way that could get anyone interested in the adventurous minutiae of orthodoxy. It’s an effective writing strategy that can catch opponents off guard. I’ve seen his writing style compared to Kierkegaard recently. Apparently there isn’t anything new in this comparison, because specialists were making  it a long time ago.

In the video Chesterton is proclaimed “One of the foremost crusaders of modern letters.” When I first heard the video I thought he was being proclaimed a “dictator.” In hindsight his response to receiving the honor doesn’t seem funny or effective. It leaves me more uncomfortable than if he had been proclaimed dictator of letters, “I can only say that I am not much of a Crusader, but at least I am not a Mohammedan.”

You might or might not remember that the First Crusade (1096–1099) began as a pilgrimage and ended as a military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. Jerusalem was recaptured in 1099. Subsequent Crusades followed and resulted not only in more rifts between the Rome and Islam, but ultimately also between Rome and the Christian East.

The Lost History of Christianity tells the millennium long Christian tale of lands we usually consider Muslim.

The Lost History of Christianity tells the millennium long Christian tale of lands we usually consider Muslim.

One cannot help but think of how the intersections of Christian and Muslim history have always been marked by violent conflict, starting with the minor conquests of Mohammad of what used to be Jewish-Christian and pagan lands. Philip Jenkins, ever the myth-buster, has also written a book about what happened afterwards, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. We tend to track the progress of Christianity in these lands with much interest, since they are some of the biggest growth areas in the world. However, they have a long history both we and they can tap into.

Now one might say Islam started with about five hundred years of victories, only to be followed by steady and depressing slide into defeat that still continues. The decimation of non-Western Christianities seems to be more of a desperate lashing out by certain factions within Islam than anything else. It’s also a sad fact that the vast majority of Western Christians have only become aware of non-Western Christianities only as they are being destroyed. For example, in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, and more recently in the much covered events in the areas surrounding Cairo.

How should we respond to these sorts of situations? Will violent intervention by the US help the Copts? Or will it just create more resentment toward Christians in the region? Then again, will Western Christians just sit by and watch the decimation of these communities?

And so given the history of violence between Islam and Christianity in the region is there much hope for a resolution, or is it a zero-sum game? If Christ is the Prince of Peace, then is it too much to ask the people of Egypt and other places to suffer martyrdom? Then again, if we do believe the promises of the New Testament could this be the most rational thing to ask of them? Do they believe that? Do we? Should we?

From what I was able to gather from the reports: this might be a picture from one of the churches that had to cancel its liturgies.

From what I was able to gather from the reports this might be a picture from one of the churches that had to cancel its liturgies.t’s been reported that Egyptian churches interrupted 1,600 years of continuous liturgies this past Sunday due to the violence.

As we ponder these questions it’s been recently reported that Egyptian churches interrupted 1,600 years (!) of continuous liturgies this past Sunday due to the violence. Whatever the solution might be, Chesterton’s irreverent triumphalism (it had its place after centuries of anti-Medieval Enlightenment propaganda) in this video is probably not up to snuff when facing the complexities of the choices ahead, or the consequences of inaction.

This is not an attempt to take Chesterton down a notch, because he remains a highly innovative and relevant theologian. It’s just that the level of comfort he, and the Inklings who followed him, felt when it came to Christian miliatarism is something we cannot afford after World War II and Hiroshima (or, at least I like to think so).

"Radner's A Brutal Unity is at a book of startling insight, extraordinary erudition, and is replete with theological implications. His ability to help us see connections between Christian disunity and liberal political theory and practice should command the attention of Christian and non-Christian alike. A Brutal Unity is a stunning achievement." --Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

“Radner’s A Brutal Unity is at a book of startling insight, extraordinary erudition, and is replete with theological implications. His ability to help us see connections between Christian disunity and liberal political theory and practice should command the attention of Christian and non-Christian alike. A Brutal Unity is a stunning achievement.”
–Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

One possible avenue of reflection and a source of humility in such times is Ephraim Radner’s recent book, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. Matthew Levering has said the following about it:

“Massively learned and beautifully written, this book has to be the best work ever written against the holiness and unity of the Church by a Christian theologian. Not one to mince words, Radner presents Judas as the mirror of the faithless, violent, and fractured Church. For Radner, the failure of liberalism arises from and reflects the failure of the Church to repent. But he does not end here: he argues that in God’s creation of things separate from God, and in Christ’s radical giving of himself, we find God’s holiness and oneness as a gift for God’s people and as an invitation to imitate God’s asymmetrical giving. Those who disagree with Radner will thank him for pressing us to examine anew why Christians rightly confess the Church to be one and holy.”

Do you have any other guides for reflection or action?

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Update et mea culpa: I think the ignorance of Western Christians about these other traditions is best exemplified by the fact that I initially used “we” where I now use “Western Christians” in the following sentence: “It’s also a sad fact that the vast majority of Western Christians have only become aware of non-Western Christianities only as they are being destroyed.”

My thanks go out to Joseph Koczera, SJ for catching this mistake.