Showing posts with label Peter Leithart. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Peter Leithart. Show all posts

Friday, August 7, 2015

Rules in a real world

Below is an intriguing excerpt about ethics from Peter Leithart's latest book, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience:

   We apply rules differently from situation to situation, and we don’t really know how a rule works or which rule to use unless we know the variations. You don’t even know which rule to use unless you have examined the facts. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said. To apply that, we need to identify our enemies. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said, quoting Leviticus. And the lawyer’s response was a reasonable one: “Who is my neighbor?” “Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife or his house or his cattle,” Yahweh thundered from Sinai, but you need to see a marriage certificate and a bill of sale to know what woman, house, and cattle are off-limits. You can’t even use a rule unless you know something about the situation, since rules always have to be applied to a real world that is always in the form of a particular situation. 
   Rules cannot be followed without attention to situations, and the effort to sidestep situations is ultimately unethical. It’s another version of the attempt to escape time and change that we’ve seen before. 
   On the other hand, you can’t abandon rules and reduce ethics to situations either. Situational ethics is incoherent.
Master: Always conform to the situation
Disciple: Is that an absolute command?
Master: How 'bout those Seahawks? 
   Worse, a purely situational ethics is ultimately unethical. Are we faithful only when situations demand faithfulness, or is faithfulness a trans-situational virtue? Asked whether rape might be legitimate under certain circumstances, no one will seriously answer, “Yes, of course. There are times when rape is the ethical course.” If anyone does say that, you can be morally certain he is a philosophy professor, that he lives a highly protected life in the academy, and that he would have a very different reaction if the rape victim were his daughter or his wife. 
   Right dispositions are just as necessary. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is wrong because goals and motives determine what kind of action an action is. Taking care of an old lady out of greed for her inheritance is not an act of kindness, or even an act of kindness with a patina of disquieting immorality. It’s a different sort of act entirely, an act of avarice. Conforming to the prescriptions of a religious ritual without real devotion to God is not worship but hypocrisy, a vice condemned by ancient Jews like Isaiah and Jesus, by Christians like Aquinas and Calvin, by the Buddha, Muhammad, and Hindu sages through the ages. Evil dispositions make an act evil, but good dispositions don’t by themselves make an act ethical. We might pity the whore with the heart of gold, but the category of “well-meaning rapist” doesn’t make any ethical sense. 
   So, the only way to be ethical or think ethically about ethics is to juggle all of these factors, to keep all the balls in the air all the time. And here we glimpse again the pattern we’ve encountered throughout this essay, the pattern of mutual indwelling, operating at the level of theory: ethical concepts and ethical authorities have to indwell each other to be truly ethical. If we extract rules from the intricacies of situations and the motivating power of dispositions, the rules are useless. If we siphon off situations from rules and dispositions, we will find ourselves justifying horrors. If we reduce ethics to dispositions, we can defend any action, so long as one’s heart is in the right place. 
   Each has to be defined by the other. Rules apply to situations, and we conform to rules only when our motives and goals are right. Situations need to be seen in the light of ethical rules, since rules are part of the situation we’re in. We can make sense of our ethical dispositions only when they attend to rules and remain attentive to situations. These three are one, because each is a home for the others; each makes its home in each. Unless each dwells in each, we don’t have ethics at all. Ethics is constituted by the mutual indwelling of rules, real-life situations, and virtuous dispositions. When we inquire into the “ontology” of ethics, in other words, we find at a conceptual level the same pattern we found when exploring the world outside our heads. We discover the contours of mutual habitation. Since we’re talking ethics, though, the “is” becomes a “must”: ethics is a study of dispositions, rules, and situations. Ethics also must be such, or it ceases to be ethical.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Trinitarian Hospitality

    Some philosophers, like Jacques Derrida, say that hospitality must be absolute. We are to welcome all, and welcome them as they are. That is not the sort of ethic I propose here. Rather, it is an ethic of hospitality that welcomes in order to change. We don’t welcome the naked so they can be naked in our presence; we don’t show hospitality to the hungry so they can watch us eat. We welcome the naked and hungry to change their circumstances. We make room for them so we can clothe and feed them.
    So too with moral hunger and personal shame. We don’t welcome addicts so they can continue in their addiction. We make room for them, and take up residence in their lives, in order to be agents of ethical transformation. We don’t receive the prostitute to help her get more tricks. We open our lives to the prostitute so we can deliver her from her slavery— to the pimp, perhaps to drugs, to poverty, to a destructive life. Hospitality is not universal approval. It is universal welcome for the sake of renewal. We make room not to tolerate but to transform. We’ve made some advances in our turn from ontology to ethics, more than we might have noticed. From this point in our climb, we can begin to see the peak and begin to have something more than suspicions about what’s up there.
    The nature of the universe as I’ve described it encourages an ethic of self-giving love; if we are going to live in accord with the shape of things, we need to adopt a stance of availability, of openness to others and willingness to enter when others open to us. And that suggests a way to reason back from ethics to ontology. If the ethics of mutual penetration is an ethics of love, then the ontology of mutual indwelling is an ontology of love. The world is open to me and I to the world. Persons are capable of being open to other persons, and times to other times. Words make room for other words, and chords have room for all the clustered notes that contribute to their sound. At every terrace, it seems, even when we were only looking through a glass darkly or hoping for some insight into the way things are, we were glimpsing traces of love, love wired into the world, love as the operating system of creation. And as we look up to the peak, we might begin to see the outlines of a love that moves the sun and all the other stars.1

1.  Peter J. Leithart, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience [Brazos Press, 2015]

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Immature, Proud, Impatient Reader

   …learning the contours of a fictional world or the intricacies of an author's methods always takes time. Robert Penn Warren commented that the most "intuitive and immediate" reading of a poem will likely not come at the first reading, but rather at the tenth or even the fiftieth reading. To grasp the whole, one must, he speculated, be able not only to remember the beginning of the poem, but remember its ends; one must be able to "remember forward." Patience, in short, is an essential quality of a good reader, and this too is an act of humility. 
   Readers may fail to listen carefully to catch the author's tone of voice, rushing to judgment without asking whether the author means to be deathly serious, sentimental, satirical, or whatever. A recent example is so absurd that it parodies itself. Near the beginning of the 2000 school year, black parents at a Catholic school in Louisiana complained about the "racist" language and stories of Georgia writer Flannery O'Connor. It would be a mistake to charge these parents with a pathetic misreading of O'Connor. It would be a mistake because the parents had not read the stories at all. Their opposition was apparently based on a few titles and passages. Too frequently, Christians are guilty of equal absurdities. 
   Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling has been quoted all over the Internet as saying that she is happy that her books have produced a surge in children's involvement in Satanism. This quotation has been used as evidence that the Potter books are infernal propaganda. The original source of the quotation, however, was a story from a satirical electronic magazine. For anyone who took a moment to check the original source, and took another moment to ask about the tone of the article, it was clear that the author was mocking hysterical responses to Rowling's books. It must be a delicious irony to the article's author that the satire has become fuel for even more hysteria.
   Though they may be harsh opponents of postmodernism, readers who took the Rowling quote at face value are as domineering and prideful in their reading practices as any deconstructionist. But how was one to know that the Rowling quotation was a fake? The text did not come with a label "Satire." The author expected the readers to recognize the clues and read in submission to them. Quick and ignorant judgments such as these are not only an embarrassment that often makes Christians, quite rightly, objects of ridicule. Far worse, these misreadings signal an appalling lack of Christian character. Patience before the text is not merely a readerly virtue. It is a fruit of the Spirit. 
   Patience is necessary not only to learn the contours of a particular work, but also to learn how literature works. Flannery O'Connor noted in one of her essays that some works of fiction should be commended only to mature readers. She acknowledges that works should be judged according their "total effect," not by isolated passages. A book may have sexual content, for example, and not be pornographic or immoral. O'Connor wisely goes on to say that an immature reader lacks the tools and literary maturity to feel the "total effect." Immature readers will not be able to integrate passages that arouse passion into the total experience of reading a book. They may return again and again to the sexy passages to reexperience the original titillation, without ever realizing that the sexy passages are in a book that challenges cheap sex. Only long exposure to literature develops the skills necessary to recognize what a particular book or author is up to. O'Connor ended the essay by protesting that high school reading should not be selected by what the students wish to read: "Their tastes should not be consulted; they are being formed."1

1.  Peter J. Leithart, "Authors, Authority, and the Humble Reader"; excerpt from Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination [Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2002], pp. 212-214

Monday, March 31, 2014

Gratitude: Never simply intrahuman

Old Testament benefactors are indignant when their favors are met with ingratitude. David later operates by similar principles in his dealings with the fool Nabal. While on the run from Saul, David and his men mingle with the shepherds who care for Nabal's flocks. His men do not interfere with or harass the shepherds. On the contrary, they provide protection. David naturally expects Nabal to be grateful for his service, and to express that gratitude concretely by supplying provisions for his men. When Nabal dismisses David, David's anger at the ingratitude is so intense that he marches toward Nabal's house with the intention of carrying out a war of utter destruction against him. He is arrested only by a gift from Nabal's beautiful, shrewd wife, Abigail. She brings a "blessing" (berekah) that pacifies David's rage. The conclusion to the story illustrates the flip side of Yahweh's promise to reward the generous. When David decides not to carry out "negative reciprocity" against Nabal, Yahweh steps in to repay Nabal for his ingratitude. Nabal's heart stops as he is relieving his bladder after a night of drinking. This suggests that for the Hebrew imagination, the circulations of gifts and gratefulnesses are never simply intrahuman. God is always involved, not only in exchanges between rich and poor but also in those among the wealthy. Yahweh takes the side of the recipient of gifts to reward the generous; Yahweh also takes the side of the insulted to pay back the ingrate.1

 1.  Peter J. Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press; 2014], p. 63

Sunday, January 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Christology, Ancient and Modern, by Oliver D. Crisp

Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Proceedings of the Los Angeles Theology Conference)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is fascinating; definitely worth reading. The only disappointment I experienced was entirely my own fault: apparently I'm not up to speed with contemporary discussions about Christology, especially as it regards trinitarian "tensions," and so a number of fundamental distinctions within the articles from Scott Swain, Michael Allen, and Jason McMartin were a bit over my head. It didn't ruin the experience. It just complicated it.

My favorite articles were:
1) Jeremy R. Treat, "Exaltation In And Through Humiliation: Rethinking the States of Christ"
2) Peter J. Leithart, "We Saw His Glory: Implications of the Sanctuary Christology in John's Gospel"
3) Telford C. Work, "Jesus' New Relationship With The Holy Spirit, And Ours: How Biblical Spirit-Christology Helps Resolve A Chalcedonian Dilemma"

Monday, November 4, 2013

Jesus vs. Goliath (John 19:17-30)

John 19:17-30 parallels 18:13-27 in various ways, as seen also in John's neat chiastic arrangement (here). In 19:17-30 Jesus is taken from the Gentile "world" of Pilate's headquarters and back into the "land" near the city to be sacrificed on a cross, and eventually buried in a garden-tomb. Earlier in 18:13-27 Jesus was taken from the garden and sentenced to "die for the people" in that same land (v. 14). There in the land, Jesus declared that he had "spoken openly to the world" (v. 20), and in 19:17-30 Pilate writes an inscription above Jesus' cross for all to see, and he writes it in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, the three dominant languages of the world. Last of all, John the author is present in the background of both scenes, labeled as "the disciple" (18:15 & 19:26-27). In chapter 18, John is the disciple "known to the high priest" and allowed to enter his house (v. 15), whereas in chapter 19 John is known by Jesus, the true High Priest of God, and adopted into the "temple-house of Jesus' Father."

The literary structure of 19:17-30 carries some interesting parallels as well. 

A)  Jesus carries his own cross (19:17)
   B)  The soldiers crucify Jesus, dividing two others, one man crucified on each side of him (19:18)
      C)  Pilate writes: "Jesus the Nazarene,2 the King of the Jews" (19:19)
         D)  Many Jews read the inscription; the inscription was in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek (19:21)
      C')  Chief Priests of the Jews correct what Pilate wrote: "This man said, I am King of the Jews" (19:21-22)
   B')  When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided his garments, one for each soldier (19:23-24)
A')  Jesus dies on the cross He carried (19:25-30)

In verse 17 (section A) Jesus is taken by soldiers, carrying his own cross to a place called Golgotha, which in Greek means "Place of the Skull." One Hebrew variant of Golgotha is gulgolet (גלגלת), which also means "skull," and is used throughout the old testament to describe "heads" of Israelites taken into the inventory of God's people. There are, however, a handful of other intriguing uses of gulgolet in the old testament which illuminate the significance of this name and place. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains lists three occurrences especially worth noting: Judges 9:53; II Kings 9:35; and I Chron. 10:10. 

In Judges 9:53, a woman crushes Abimelech's gulgolet with a millstone, both echoing and foreshadowing the seed of the woman (Christ) promised to crush the "skull" of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). In II Kings 9:35, Jehu storms into the courtyard of Jezreel to fulfill the word of Yahweh's curse against Jezebel, the king's daughter. In Hebew, Jezreel means "that which God planted." There, where Yahweh had planted a wicked queen over Israel to chasten His people, Jehu would come to uproot both the fruit and the root of Israel's idolatry. Where the house of Ahab sowed seeds of wickedness, Israel's Queen would be trampled down by Jehu, leaving behind only her gulgolet, feet, and hands. By coming to crush the skull of Jezebel, Jehu foreshadows one aspect of Christ's work, by crushing a type of seductive harlot-bride, the King's daughter and persecutor of Yahweh's covenant people, as unveiled by Jesus to John (Rev. 2:18-29). 

Finally, in I Chronicles 10:10 we find the Philistines taking the gulgolet of King Saul and bringing it to their central city of worship and into the temple of Dagon. That event echoed King David's triumph over the Philistine giant, Goliath of Gath, whose gulgolet was cut off and taken near the city of Jerusalem (I Sam. 17:51-54). There, where the skull of Goliath of Gath was placed, is where Jesus was crucified: Gol-Gath-a. In the place where King David brought the crushed skull of the giant, there Jesus, the son of David, King of Israel, crushed the skull of the serpent. But John tells the story of skull-crushing a bit different than one might expect. In first Samuel, David carries his victory trophy while Yahweh scatters his enemies. In John's gospel, this section (19:17-30) begins with Jesus carrying his own cross to Golgotha, the "Place of the Skull," and he ends with Jesus on the cross he carried. Like David, Jesus also carries his victory trophy as the Father scatters his enemies, but unlike David, Jesus becomes the trophy lifted up for all the world to see.  His cross is the means of becoming lifted up, drawing all nations unto himself. As Jesus told Nicodemus at night, the Son of man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14). Even during the day, within the temple, Jesus proclaimed the same message, saying "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me" (8:28). And in case John wasn't clear enough in that passage, describing the necessity of being lifted up on a cross, it was before Jesus' arrest in the garden that He cried out one last time: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." But then John adds, "He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die" (12:32-33). 

In John 19:17-30, Jesus is hung on a tree, cursed of God, crushed for our iniquities. But in dying, the sins of the world are crushed with Him.  When both the "Head" and "Body" are crushed, the Spirit of God raises up a new body, a glorified Body, and they --being one with Him-- crush the head of the serpent. It is through the work of the cross that Satan's head is crushed and Jesus achieves victory, as promised in Genesis 3:15. It is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with His resurrected life that new creation begins, light overcomes darkness, and the powers of evil are destroyed.

1.  Peter J. Leithart, "We Saw His Glory" Implications of the Sanctuary Christology in John's Gospel, (published in Christology Ancient & Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics; Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, Editors) p. 128
2.  Peter Leithart makes this interesting remark about the inscription of Pilate: "Pilate's inscription on the cross identifies Jesus not as a but the Nazarene (John 19:19). In John, Nazareth is barely mentioned (cf. 1:45-46), and in John's view Pilate's titlon likely alludes not to Jesus' hometown but to Isaiah 11's prediction of a Messianic Branch (neser) from the stump of Jesse. Pilate's declaration means: "Jesus the Branch, King of the Jews." Qumran texts link Isaiah's Branch to the temple-building Branch (semah) of Zechariah 6:12: "Behold the man whose name is the Branch." Neser and semah are synonymous titles for the Messianic King who will build the eschatological temple. With his famous Ecce homo, Pilate quotes the first half of Zechariah 6:12 as he presents Jesus to the Jews, and then by putting "Nazarene" in the titlon he finishes the sentence and names Jesus as the Messianic temple-builder, a new Solomon." Ibid., p. 127. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

He saved us from alongside us

In The Person of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998; p. 180), Donald Macleod provides a fascinating description of divine personage concerning the Son of God:

For the Son of God, the incarnation meant a whole new set of relationships: with his father and mother; with his brothers and sisters; with his disciples; with the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees; with the Roman soldiers and with lepers and prostitutes. It was within these relationships that he lived his incarnate life, experiencing pain, poverty, and temptation; witnessing squalor and brutality; hearing obscenities and profanities and the hopeless cry of the oppressed. He lived not in sublime detachment or in ascetic isolation, but 'with us,' as 'the fellow-man of all men,' crowded, busy, harassed, stressed and molested. No large estate gave him space, no financial capital guaranteed his daily bread, no personal staff protected him from interruptions and no power or influence protected him from injustice. He saved us from alongside us.1

1.  Cited in a lecture contributed by Peter J. Leithart in the 2013 Lost Angeles Theology Conference, titled "WE SAW HIS GLORY: Implications of the Sanctuary Christology in John's Gospel," recently published in Oliver D. Crisp & Fred Sanders, Christology Ancient & Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013] p. 132 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Speaking Bible

While discussing some of the ecclesiastical problems associated with the widespread use of extra-biblical language, particularly the language used throughout protestant traditions and textbooks, Peter Leithart commented:

The Bible is a common inheritance among all Christians. If we all learned to speak Bible, we would be speaking the same language. But we deliberately invest terms with a great deal of theological content to distinguish ourselves from other believers. We fill terms with all kinds of theological content in order to makes sure that nobody confuses us with Lutherans, because Lutherans say 'this' and we say 'this'. And I just don't see that as consistent with Jesus' desires for the Church. Jesus' desire is that the Church be one, and that we not erect those kinds of barriers. If we go back and wrestle with the Bible to speak Bible fluently then I think [with] that particular ecclesiological problem ...we are more apt to achieve what Jesus wants us to achieve, which is the unity of His body.1

1.  IN MEDIAS RES PODCAST, March 30th, 2007