Rabelaisian Catholicism Redux or: How to Keep the Church Impure

pelikan impure

The Cappadocians: Keeping it impure

Yesterday’s post discussed (here) how early Christian theology was fundamentally “polluted” by the Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life.   But historian Jaroslav Pelikan suggest the contagion goes down even further, right down into the marrow, into the very language used to compose the New Testament:

“It remains one of the most momentous linguistic convergences in the entire history of the human mind and spirit that the New Testament happens to have been written in Greek–not in the Hebrew of Moses and the prophets, nor in the Aramaic of Jesus and his disciples, nor yet in the Latin of the imperium Romanum; but in the Greek of Socrates and Plato, or at any rate in a reasonably accurate facsimile thereof, disguised and even disfigured though this was in the Koine by the intervening centuries of Hellenistic usage.”

He continues in Christianity and Classical Culture:

“As a result of this convergence, every attempt to translate the New Testament into andy of almost two thousand languages–including a Semitic language such as Syriac, despite all its affinities with Hebrew and Aramaic–has, on encountering any term, been obliged to consider above all its previous career in the history of the Greek language; and that was a problem of natural theology [metaphysics] no less than a problem of philology.”

god greek

Well . . . YEAH.

There’s been quite a lot of talk about divorcing God from the Greek heritage at the very least ever since Harnack (one of the great enemies of this blog . . .  The hope is to keep him continually rolling in his grave).   While trying to argue away the Greek “accretions” to some vaguely “pure” Gospel he said, “. . . Roman Catholicism has nothing to do with the Gospel, nay, is in fundamental contradiction with it.”

We’ll see about that as tomorrow we turn to the article “Farewell, Old Pagan World” by Philip Jenkins, one of our leading public commentators on religion, and modify its claims, to the advantage of impurity, with the help of Catherine Pickstock.  This being Bloomsday, listen to Joyce playing upon the theme of purity from the life of Moses here.

James Joyce sings

James Joyce sings “From the Fathers”

Meanwhile, today’s readings please our Rabelaisian sensibilities (read the manifesto here) with one of the seediest episodes from David’s life and a Gospel reading about “a sinful woman [from] the city.”

“Socrates and Other Saints” Preview!

sokrates i inni

Check out the big font on the title!

The book Socrates and Other Saints Dariusz Karłowicz, which I recently finished translating, is a mainstay of this blog here and somewhat controversially here.  Karłowicz’s book deals with the Church Fathers whose writings, problems, and practices remain highly relevant as suggested here and here.  What follows is the conclusion of the book.  It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the Polish philosopher’s groundbreaking research into how early Christian theologians adopted the tradition of philosophy as a way of life to their own purposes.  The story he tells sullies any hopes for a pure Christianity, which is something I’ve written in my most notorious post here.

We are still courting publishers in the States.  Feel free to contact me about the right for publishing this book.


Satan hasn’t stolen our world. The world wasn’t created by an evil demon. Even if it seems to be broken, Genesis demands we remember it was created “good” by God. The Christians (unlike those who succumb to Manichean temptations) cannot simply wipe out the world, which obviously does not mean the world is perfect, because, after all, a disposition toward the good and its actualization are two different things. Even if the world contains so much luster, even if it promises a compromise, we should still not forget that we are in conflict with it. The conflict is life or death. We can admire the world, learn about it, we can use it, but we should know its dangers, and that it needs to be saved. Above all: it needs to be saved!

This is what the Apologists can teach us about the world, culture, and philosophy. The pendulum steadily swings between contempt and wonder. The aim is not compromise between these stances, rather we need both the extremes of the swing simultaneously. Each extreme taken on its own is too confined for Christian teaching, and so: neither unconditional rejection, nor unconditional embrace. After all, we are on the way like Odysseus to Ithaca. We find ourselves here for a short moment, being here is like finding ourselves strangers in a strange land. As guests and passersby we must take care of what’s been entrusted to us; we should use it sensibly, but we should not make ourselves too much at home, because we ought not forget where we are heading.

If we are on the way, said Augustine many years after the Apologists in his treatise De doctrina christiana, if we are wayfarers who want to return home, then we must see the world as a means of transportation (terestibus vel marinis vehiculis) and always remember to distinguish the means and ends. The metaphor of returning home serves to demonstrate the order of goods and so the right attitude toward earthly goods. Augustine enjoyed this homely comparison greatly. It served him during his youth (when he was a Marinist) as an image of the path to happiness. In his maturity it returned as an image of the path to salvation, “So in this mortal life we are like travelers away from our Lord [2 Cor 5:6]: if we wish to return to the homeland where we can be happy we must use (utendum) this world, not enjoy (fruendum) it . . .”

The Latin “uti” and “frui” are not easily translated into Polish or other languages without losing meaning. In the hierarchical world of Augustine the formula uti-frui allows us to distinguish three categories of being. The first category is composed of what we must feast upon (frui), rejoice over, when we posses it, or rather our clinging to it (how helpless language is here!) makes us happy. This is the Truine God. The second category is composed of all those things which aid in the attainment of the goods that make us happy. The work of philosophy is surely among them. The third category is composed of beings somewhere between those of the previous categories. They are not ultimate ends, but they reward us with a happiness that is a foretaste of perfection, they are a signal that we are headed in the right direction (another human being is such a good, when we can rejoice about them in God and when they direct us toward God. We ourselves are such a good and so are the holy angels). This obviously is the proper order of love. When it reigns within man it becomes the capacity to love things in proportion to their good. This is the love which sets us free.

The metaphor of a “means of transportation” helps to reveal the absurdity of giving autonomy to particular instruments, the ineptness of exchanging means for ends. Augustine writes, “. . . but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed . . .” In relation to philosophy, the wonderfully flexible formula uti-frui confirms the teaching of the Apologists. These concepts are crucial for analyzing Greek wisdom and practice, in its capacity to help us die to the world and liken ourselves to the truth. Philosophy as a goal in itself and for itself can only lead to death.

This is an important element of the legacy left behind by the Fathers. It can be observed in their openness, which is not naive. These are people who only read the Bible on their knees. They are aware of the similarities, but they can see the differences, and they are not afraid to clearly define the boundaries of orthodoxy and the boundaries of inquiry. They are brave in entering the dispute, but, above all, they are courageous—this is difficult to define, but it is obviously noticeable upon every page written by them—they do not retreat into the catacombs. They posses the boldness and aggressiveness of people who through imitating their Lord want to transform their world. They neither want to justify it, nor do they want to condemn it—they want to save it.

The latter tradition also confirmed the distaste of the Apologists for fideism. Both the Augustinian “faith seeking understanding,” and the philosophy of Aquinas grow out of the perspective of the Fathers upon this matter. Mind you, this is not some linguistic manipulation, which confuses contemporary philosophical standards with rationality. What’s at stake is an attempt to measure up to the task laid down for philosophy by academic skepticism. It is a difficult trial, which from the start eliminates the pre-Pyrrhic dogmatic naivete as an option for Christian philosophy. The Apologists take up this task going arm in arm with the representatives of philosophical schools, and they willingly borrow their best achievements. The following are the most important fruits of these undertakings: the cosmological argument, Tertullian’s testimony of the soul, the apodeiksis of the witnesses, Justin’s doctrine of the Logos, the original understanding of pistis as the initial axiom for a systematic knowledge of God. They cannot be circumvented, no matter what we think of them. It is also impossible, without using anachronistic criteria, to place them safely within the confines of faith, or place them in opposition to the philosophical standards of the time. The stance of the Apologists on reason is one of the most important stories in the testimony they leave behind. From the beginning this testimony excluded gnostic fables from the Christian heritage and it fused the question of reason with the living tradition of the Church permanently. Christian philosophy discovered its tone in the controversies against Pyrrhonism and fideism. It did not change its principles, but, it learned its lessons. Pyrrhonism became a vaccine of humility against the dogmatic naivete of reason, while gnosticism became a warning against faith celebrating its irrationality.

The last crucial matter in the testimony of the Apologists taken over from philosophy—or more precisely, developed thanks to it—is the idea of spiritual development and the spiritual exercises. The Execrcitia spiritualia best confirm the lasting connection between Christian spirituality with ancient philosophical ascesis. There is no need to describe the further history of this connection in order to imagine how different Christian life would be if we were to deprive it of the techniques of spiritual conversion it borrowed from philosophy. Of course there are difficulties in adopting this tradition. One of them is the holiness of ordinary believers, not only of interest to Clement’s gnostic, but also for Tertullian’s artisan who has ordered his life with a severe discipline of philosophical exercises. We have already discussed the problems associated with intellectual and/or ascetic elitism. We should remind ourselves that individual spiritual work invites Pelagianism into the Church through the back door, which ends up questioning the meaning and need for the sacrifice of Christ. The teaching on grace is the cure for both ascetic elitism and for Pelagianism. We should remember how the elderly man put emphasis upon this teaching in his conversation with Justin the Platonist. This emphasis did not let up over time. It became the topic of great controversies and schisms. The balance sheet between the necessity of spiritual effort and the consciousness of how evanescent our efforts are will no doubt remain one of the most important traits of the spiritual culture of the Christian world.

Supersessionism: Two for the Price of One?

Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529.

Divide in two? Why not three?

Debates about supersessionism frequently flare up in America between evangelicals (generally pro) and mainliners (generally contra).  They look and sound like an outgrowth of the early modern law and grace controversies.  I would like to argue the real debate is elsewhere.

The following etymology is a helpful frame for what we want to talk about: “The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, ‘to sit,’ plus super, ‘upon.’ It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.”

Recent scholarship suggest that the definitive break between Christianity and Judaism is later than first supposed, much later, perhaps as late as the sixth century.  Things get even more complicated when you consider the following passage from Richard John Neuhaus:

“In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a ‘Jewish sect,’ which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.”

This means that both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity in some sense superseded Temple Judaism as rival versions of Judaism.  Therefore, you get two supersessionisms for the price of one, or, alternatively, two legitimate theological developments.

Justin Tse says all of this appears to be in line with Dabru Emet, the historic statement on Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective.

Constantine, Socrates, and Other Saints


Going up!

So far this blog has spent some time on unpopular causes by exploring recent historical research.  For example, this post took on the widespread idea of the early Church as a hippie commune, whereas this one suggests pluralism is an old hat issue for Christians.

In the latter post I quote Robert L. Wilken as saying, “Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.”  My esteemed colleague Peter Escalante responded to Wilken with the following, “Christians have long had to face the challenge of other Christians.”  This is also true (even if Calvinism is a very recent phenomenon).

Messy pluralism always flourishes within Catholic orthodoxy, whereas heresies have attempted to clean up the holy mess.  Who’s responsible for this?  Dariusz Karłowicz, a Polish scholar of the Fathers, singles out the following benefactor:

“Christianity might owe its variety of legitimate paths, or as Clement of Alexandria puts it, streams that feed the current of a river, to this very detachment from any particular philosophy. This variety would have been unthinkable had Constantine chosen to impose the Stoic, Epicurean or Platonic ways of life, and their attendant restrictions, upon his empire after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. And so it is not just a matter of what would have been the official philosophy of the empire, but also what elements of the pagan heritage would have been decisively excluded. It is possible that dialectic (cynics) would have been excluded, or poetry (Plato), while everyone, without exception, including the butcher and tailor, would haven been required to learn astronomy, geometry or music. The varieties of Christianity, incomprehensible to the Greek spirit, point toward a certain non-rigorous optimism,which gives expression to the belief that the world is essentially good and so the greatest works of humanity could not have come into being without God’s will and God’s inspiration.”

This passage is from the book Sokrates i inni święci [Socrates and Other Saints] recently translated by yours truly.  The book contains plenty of other surprising insights as it goes through the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and their strategy of presenting Christianity as a philosophical way of life.

The author and I are currently courting publishers in the States.  Please let us know if you’re interested.  I’ll post a few more passages from the book in the coming weeks and months.


Constantine was more money than you thought.

Modern Religious Pluralism is Neither Radical nor Modern


Robert Wilken: not impressed with pluralism.

Commentators on religion are always harping about how our contemporary “radically pluralist” situation is unprecedented, and more likely than not, catastrophic for the Christian tradition.

Self-styled radical theologians such as John Hick in God Has Many Names, Charles E. Winquist in Desiring Theology, plus John Shelby Spong and Raimondo Panikkar in academically less respectable volumes (whose names I shall not mention), argue that Christian theology must change or die in the face of this revolutionary situation.

Robert Louis Wilken, one of our most important scholars of early Christianity, believes nothing could be further from the truth.  In the volume Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans, 1995) he proves that we’re only replaying the debates of early (and medieval) Christians:

“Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.  For the first four hundred years of Christian history a traditional religious culture (which was not, as once thought, moribund) set the agenda for many Christian intellectuals, and its spokesmen energetically contested what seemed to be the [exclusivist] pretensions of the new religion.”

As much as I hate grading undergraduate essays that begin with “ever since the dawn of the universe / man / culture / religion / Christianity” or with “those who cannot remember the past . . .” the case of religious pluralism is an instance where one of those phrases apply.

Take a look at the arguments of Porphyry, Celsus, Cicero, and they all pretty much sound like Symmachus when he argues against the Christians:

“We gaze at the same stars, the sky belongs to all, the same universe surrounds us.  What difference does it make by whose wisdom someone seeks the truth?  We cannot attain to so great a mystery by one road.”

They also sound like today’s “radical theologians.”  Closer acquaintance with history should turn our notions who the conservatives and liberals are in the religious pluralism debates upside-down.  It makes all the difference.

As luck would have it, the book is available at a massive 60% discount from amazon.com.