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Augustine on the Monsters among Us

Different is dangerous. If you don’t look like me or act like me, there must be something wrong with you. You’re odd, deviant, abnormal…broken.

Maybe you’re not even human.

People have always had categories for understanding those who weren’t like them. In the ancient world, you had three standard options: (1) you’re a human like me and are part of my community; (2) you’re a human like me even though you’re a part of that weird community over there; and (3) even though you have human characteristics, you’re not actually human at all.

It’s the third category that I find fascinating. This is where ancient thinkers would often place anyone with a significant deformity. The ancient world was rife with stories of babies born with two heads, people who were neither male nor female (i.e. hermaphrodites), and one-eyed giants, among other things. Such creatures are too human to be mere animals, but not human enough to be human. They’re something else.

They’re monsters.

We’re so much more enlightened now. As modern science developed, we came to realize that these “monsters” were really just humans with physical peculiarities. There was no reason to believe that they constituted some qualitatively distinct kind of being.

So we dropped “monster” and came up with other ways of excluding people. The literature and rhetoric of “race” of the years has been filled with language implying or simply stating that other races are “subhuman” in some way. Sure they’re human, but they’re not “fully” human. Today you’ll hear similar language used to describe the severely handicapped, the unborn, and even the elderly. And for many, “alien” serves much the same function. Sure they’d never come right out and say that the illegal alien on the corner is subhuman, but they’ll certainly think and act in such a way that suggests this is what they believe deep down.

Monsters. Aliens. Subhumans. Others.

That’s the kind of thinking Augustine addresses in City of God when he talks about whether those who don’t look like us should be regarded as monsters or as humans:

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies.”…But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.

The same account which is given of monstrous births in individual cases can be given of monstrous races.  For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs….But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents?  As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course which nature generally or almost universally preserves, if they are embraced in that definition of man as rational and mortal animals, unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all.  (City of God 4.16.8)

Augustine’s answer may not be the surprising to us today, but it was remarkable for his time. No matter how different in appearance, a being that descends from humans is human. And no matter how great the deformity, in their uniqueness and peculiarity, that person contributes to “the beauty of the whole.”

That’s an important word for us today. We tell ourselves that we don’t believe in monsters, yet we often treat those different from us as though they were precisely that, failing to see in our blindness the many ways that they contribute to the beauty of the whole.

What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man….The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.

These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.

My dissertation is online, but it’s not “appropriate”

Many thanks to Nick Norelli for pointing out that my dissertation is  available online through the University of St. Andrews research database. You’d think I would have known that already, but I didn’t realize the database was open to the public. So, if you’re looking for something to fill your spare moments, feel free to check it out.

I am dealing with some emotional turmoil, however. I tried to access my dissertation a few minutes ago, but I was blocked by the seminary’s web filter because the material “is considered inappropriate”! I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s one thing to have a reviewer or professor tell you that your dissertation isn’t any good. But, when some mindless software starts taking potshots at your research, that’s pretty annoying. I bet it hasn’t even read my dissertation. Stupid software.

I did give my dissertation a pretty snappy title, though, so more people would want to read it:

Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies:  An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind-Body Debate with Special Reference to Karl Barth’s ‘Church Dogmatics’ III.2

Seriously, who could possibly stay away from a book like that? In my family, we gather around the fire and read our favorite parts to each other while eating ice cream. You should try it.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/3)

Ten years is a very short time. As I reflect on the world in 2011 compared to the world in 2001, I’m less struck by how much has changed than by how much is the same. Terror, war, new technology, economic boom and bust, surprising political triumphs followed by sudden changes of fortune—yup, sounds like the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, and 1960s to me. It’s almost axiomatic that any change big enough to shape an entire nation or society happens in long waves spanning generations, not a mere ten years.

Do these findings have any particular theological significance? It is difficult to know why this should be the case. In the Judeo-Christian tradition humankind uniquely is made “in the image of God”. The suite of capabilities that emerged during human evolution is necessary but not sufficient to do justice to this much discussed theological insight.

That’s why, despite all the technology that makes communicating easier than ever, 2010 was the Year We Stopped Talking to One Another. From texting at dinner to posting on Facebook from work or checking e-mail while on a date, the connectivity revolution is creating a lot of divided attention, not to mention social angst. Many analysts say it’s time to step back and reassess.

Kathryn Tanner and Gregory of Nyssa on the mystery of the human person

Whatever the knowable dimensions of human nature, its apophatic ones are what count here for imaging of God. An apophatically-focused anthropology forms the natural consequences of an apophatic theology. If humans are the image of God they must be, as Gregory of Nyssa affirms, an incomprehensible image of the incomprehensible: ‘If, while the archetype transcends comprehension, the nature of the image were comprehended, the contrary character of the attributes…would prove the defect of th eimage….Since the nature of our mind…evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its unkowableness the incomprehensible nature.”

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 53-54

Flotsam and jetsam (12/2)

“Glee” is conversational. The show succeeds, I think, because it examines the pressing issues of our day in a humorous, pop-song inundated way. “Glee,” like most good art, doesn’t dictate, it discusses. As Christians especially, we ought to join this discussion.

  • Here’s an interesting post on  Christian ghostwriting. I guess I’m not surprised, but I didn’t realize how common ghostwriting was in the Christian world.

I believe Christian ghostwriting is a scandal waiting to explode. If we in the Christian community don’t clean up our act soon, we’re going to face widespread loss of credibility.

It is interesting to me that there in the last couple of weeks I have happened across several different takes on what is commonly being called ‘the New Calvinism’. The range in perspectives has been interesting to observe.

  • HuffPo has an interesting post on a Buddhist view of the self and the way that memory constrains our freedom to experience the world and fully be our “true” selves.

For most people, realizing that most of what you think, do and feel is nothing but the activation of stored memory is unsettling, for it smacks the popular notion of who we think we are right in the face. This truth not only exposes that we are not as free as we like to believe, but that we are not fully present to the people and things in our life as well.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/4)

The theology that is taught in almost all theological institutions around here is an ill-fitting version of Christianity that simply does not work here. The Christianity that results is not transforming lives or churches or communities or cultures or nations. In that sense, rather than reflecting what is happening theologically, these Western theologies may actually be erecting barriers preventing people here from experiencing the transforming power of the risen Christ.

“I cannot help thinking that the incarnational analogy may be more trouble than it is worth.  Chalcedon was designed to clarify the being of Jesus Christ, not Scripture.  Please do not misunderstand: there is nothing wrong with Chalcedon, just as there was nothing wrong with the paper clip I used so cleverly in my skateboard to replace a screw.  However, that improvisation ended with a broken arm.  I wonder, then, about the wisdom of using language formulated for one truth to express another.”

Here’s our context: they are bringing the ark to the house of Obed-edom, the future site of the Temple, and they are sacrificing. The context is cultic. The modern correlation to worship (i.e., singing) is false.

  • I forgot to mention earlier, but James McGrath has posted a link to what looks like a really useful set of resources from the Wabash Center for evaluating online resources. If you’re a teacher or student, check these out.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/26)

Is Buddha really any worse than Aristotle? Why shouldn’t a theologian from Korea or Taiwan seek to use Buddha or Confucius where the language is suitable and doesn’t contradict the gospel?  In this case Moore’s criticism may be spot on. I don’t know. But I do know that we need to realize our own hybridity is as much a concern as someone else’s.

And, much if not most of the New Testament, develops its theology of Jesus within a framework of low Christology. Low versus high Christology is one of the points of genuine theological diversity in the New Testament, with the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling stories of Jesus as a specially empowered man whom they do not simultaneously depict as God incarnate.

The monsters of the undead embody our fears of death. In agrarian eras we confronted death more directly. Nowadays we have to wait for the dead to come to our door once a year at Halloween. Or we can go to zombie movies. Either way, we feel a need to use monsters to confront our bodies, their gooshy vulnerabilities, and their ultimate demise. Monsters are existential.

  • On a similar note, John Byron points out an important new scholarly work for understanding the Matthean tradition – a webcomic called Zombie Jesus. How is it that no one has written on this vital subject before?

The comic will tell the story of the 48 hours following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in which a horde of zombies attack Jerusalem in search of the messiah’s body.

Predestination, as normally taught by all the venerable reformed divines, both past and present, is unstable and unhelpful. In the past, I and everybody else that I have read got around this by employing the very useful term ‘mystery’ to cover the internal contradictions that rip the doctrine apart.

The church, or I should say, church people, must quit adding the word “but” to the end of our sentences about grace. Grace plus is no longer grace. Grace minus is no longer grace. We are afraid people will abuse grace if presented in its purest form. We need not fear that, we should assume that. Religious people crucified grace personified. Of course grace will be abused. But grace is a powerful dynamic. Grace wins out in the end. It is not our responsibility to qualify it. It is our responsibility to proclaim it and model it.

Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From

I found it ironic that the week I sign up to post my blog is the week that we deal with anthropology, a topic that means we must engage with the timeless dilemma of human free will. As far as I know I am one of the few ThM students who, with unashamed humility, will admit to being a Calvinist (although I’m sure that Brian LePort is a closet Calvinist and Andreas Lunden is one who simply refuses to admit it).  Alas, God’s sovereignty would have it no other way than for me to post during this week, although it may be to highlight continued areas of my theology that need some fine tuning, something this ThM program has a PhD in.  That being said, let me start by saying that I in no way intend to come across as the “arrogant Calvinist” I hear so many speak fondly of.  I am fully aware that engaging this particular topic is like pulling the pin on a theological grenade, rolling it into a room, and closing the door (as seen in the recent resurgence of activity on Marc’s question about “Why Non-Calvinists Hate Calvinism So Much,” a post that simply will not die.  Arminians seem to keep coming up with more reasons.)

At this point the only article I have had much time to engage with is Marc Cortez’s article on free will.  I think he does an excellent job accurately engaging with both sides of the dilemma and pointing to strengths and weaknesses (I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss either).  However, I initially disagreed with his statement that “classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from…”  One possible explanation that is gaining more support from guys such as Bruce Ware and Alvin Plantigna, is with the concept of middle-knowledge.  This is the idea that God not only knows what could be and what will be, but that he also knows what would be if certain circumstances were put in place.

The critique of many classical compatibilist towards middle-knowledge in libertarian free will is that it is incoherent because choices are made arbitrarily.  If all things are equal, and choice A is just a likely as choice B, then God could still not be sure that any set of circumstances would bring about the desired result.  There is no necessary connection between choices and circumstances so God could not know an individuals choice by simply knowing the circumstances.  Thus, God’s foreknowledge is compromised.  However, inside of classical compatibilism middle-knowledge is a viable option.   The classical compatibilist holds that choices are not made arbitrarily, but that men always choose what they desire most.  Therefore, using middle-knowledge God would know accurately what set of circumstances would produce what result.  There is a connection between choices and circumstances.  If this is indeed accurate, then classical compatibilism has an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from.   It would appear that desires and beliefs stem in some way by antecedent factors that God himself orchestrates.

However, upon further inspection, it seems that Marc foils this stance with his “Consequence Argument.”  This argument states that if men are not in control of the particular circumstances that stimulate the strongest desire, then men cannot be held responsible for the choice that is made when a certain set of circumstances is presented.  At this point, it seems that I am left to fall on the defense that this removal of other possible choices due to specific antecedent conditions does not deny moral responsibility to the agent, because the agent still acts freely based upon their greatest desire.  This seems to be the case with Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, and the King of Assyria in Isaiah 10.  Circumstances are orchestrated so that Joseph’s brothers and the Assyrian King carry out their greatest desires, which also happen to be the plan of God, yet God holds them culpable for the sin.  They exercise their freedom of inclination, and God exercises his sovereignty.  I’m not sure if this is just one of those hard truths we must accept, while scratching our heads, or if more light will be shed on this in the future.  According to the Consequence Argument I still have yet to solve the problem.  Maybe I should take Marc’s stance as a true Barthian theologian and give way to a true dialectical theological method: simply shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know”………yet.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/25)

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Some interesting links from over the weekend:

Psychologically, I think Halloween performs two important functions. First, Halloween allows us to collectively process our eventual death and mortality….Second, Halloween allows us to work through our fears of the uncanny, the things that go bump in the night.

  • Similarly, Patheos is hosting an interesting series addressing the question, Are demons real?

In this season of haunted houses and horror movies, we couldn’t imagine a better time to grapple with the subject of demons. In the Christian traditions, demons take center stage in numerous biblical stories and continue to chill us today as central characters in popular and religious culture. But do they really exist outside of our imaginations and nightmares? Are demons real, today?

  • Bryan Lilly argues in favor of a more profound materialism, offering four reasons that Christians should value the human body: (1) creation; (2) incarnation; (3) the sacraments; and (4) the resurrection.

Evangelicalism has teetered between a compete disregard for the body…, and a gnostic-inspired view that sees the material world, including our bodies, as something we would be better off without.

As Carnell wrote: “Fundamentalism is a lonely position. It has cut itself off from the general stream of culture, philosophy and ecclesiastical tradition. This accounts, in part, for its robust pride. Since it is no longer in union with the wisdom of the ages, it has no standard by which to judge its own religious pretense.”

Humanness is not an opponent in the story of attaining to God’s purposes for us, humanness is the goal of the story, and Jesus is the helper sent to take us there.