Archive for February, 2015

Iris Murdoch on the insufficiency of willpower for genuine transformation:

Murdoch“Neither the inspiring ideas of freedom, sincerity and fiats of will, nor the plain wholesome concept of rational discernment of duty, seem complex enough to do justice to what we really are. What we really are seems much more like an obscure system of energy out of which choices and visible acts of will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and often dependent on the condition of the system [we inhabit socially and materially] in between the moments of choice. If this is so, one of the main problems of moral philosophy might be formulated thus: are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?…

Prayer is not properly petition, but simply attention to God, which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavor which overcomes empirical limitations of personality…Let us first take the notion of an object of attention. The religious believer, especially if his God is conceived of as a person, is in the fortunate position of being able to focus his thought upon something which is a source of energy. Such focusing, with such results, is natural to human beings. Consider being in love. Consider too the attempt to check being in love, and the need in such a case of another object to attend to. Where strong emotions of sexual love, or of hatred, resentment, or jealousy are concerned, ‘pure will’ can usually achieve little. It is small use telling oneself, ‘Stop being in love, stop feeling resentment, be just.’ What is needed is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source. Notice the metaphors of orientation and of looking. The neo-Kantian existentialist ‘will’ is a principle of pure movement. But how ill this describes what it is like for us to alter. Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing. The metaphor of orientation may indeed also cover moments when recognizable ‘efforts of will’ are made, but explicit efforts of will are only a part of the whole situation.

That God, attended to, is a powerful source of (often good) energy is a psychological fact. It is also a psychological fact, and one of importance in moral philosophy, that we can all receive help by focusing our attention upon things which are valuable: virtuous people, great art, perhaps (I will discuss this later) the idea of goodness itself. Human beings are naturally ‘attached’ and when at attachment seems painful or bad it is most readily displaced by another attachment, which an attempt at attention can encourage. There is nothing odd or mystical about this, nor about the fact that our ability to act well ‘when the time comes’ depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention. ‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there by any praise, thing on these things.'” (Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, pp. 53-55)


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Kasemann“[There is] the danger that the cross could appear as a mere transit point on the way to the exaltation, and as a station which the exalted Christ left behind and which had therefore merely historical relevance…For Paul, too, the one who is risen is the one who enters into his kingdom. But the cross does not therefore become [merely] the way to that kingdom or its price. It is rather the signature of the one who is risen. He would have no name by which he could be called were it not the name of the crucified…The one who is risen remains the one who is crucified and is as such confessed as Lord…A theology of the resurrection which takes precedence over, and is isolated from, a theology of the cross leads to a Christian variation of a religious philosophy in which the imitation of Jesus and the lordship of Christ lose all concrete meaning…It is only the one who was crucified who is risen, and the lordship of the one who is risen marches with the present service of the one who was crucified. It reaches out into the world only in so far as it realizes itself in the community which is world-wide and universally confesses him as lord…Jesus remains the one who was crucified; and it is only as the one who was crucified that he remains Jesus…Here the theology of the resurrection is a chapter in the theology of the cross, not the excelling of it.” (Ernst Kasemann, “The Saving Significance of Jesus’ Death,” in Perspectives on Paul, pp. 55-57, 59)

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Kasemann“No methodology and therefore no hermeneutics can save people from surrendering to illusion, whether this meets them in the form of a [primitive] mythology or in the ideology of a world which claims to have come of age.  Theologically speaking, the ultimate decisions are not made in the sphere of language, where they are at most expressed; they are made at the point where we fall into arrogance or despair, or where we hear the call to obedience and true humanity–at the point, that is, where we make decisions of will.” (Ernst Kasemann, “The Saving Significance of Jesus’ Death,” in Perspectives on Paul, p. 35)

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MurphyJerome Murphy-O’Connor rightly highlights “a tendency to undervalue the humanity of Jesus which had been prevalent in the Church for many centuries. The reality of this humanity was affirmed as a matter of principle, but the way in which it was presented often amounted to a de facto denial. Thus, for example, Clement of Alexandria wrote at the end of the second century: ‘Christ ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with him to entertain a different opinion of him…But he was entirely impassible, inaccessible to any movement of feeling, either pleasure or pain.’ This was intended to emphasize the perfection of Jesus’ humanity, but it only succeeds in making it so totally other that the human dimension disappears…The inevitable result [of affirming both the divinity and humanity of Jesus] is that one aspect is given prominence. The other, in consequence, recedes into the background. Ever since the time of Arius this has been the lot of the humanity of Jesus. There was never an outright denial, but his humanity was seen in the light of his divinity, and as result was accorded a perfection that took it out of the orbit of mankind as we know it.  Thus, it was claimed that the knowledge of Jesus was not subject to the limitations that we experience, and that his body felt the force of suffering but without experiencing pain…There [has recently] been an effort to restore the balance by emphasizing the humanity of Jesus. To some this has appeared as a denial of his divinity. This is in fact not the case. It is an effort to be faithful to the two aspects of the tradition of the Church concerning Jesus.” (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Becoming Human Together, pp. 39-40)

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Murphy“[Paul’s] realism comes to the fore in his recognition that the individual is powerless in the face of the forces at work in society.  Those who belong to a society are deeply conditioned by its orientation.  They may reject certain aspects, and this gives them the impression of freedom.  Paul’s radical vision had no place for such a naive illusion.  He denied the reality of free will to those who belonged to an inauthentic society.  It remained as a theoretical possibility, but his concern was with the reality of freedom.  It is only the free who can liberate the slaves.

In order to be free we must be detached from the grip of a society that molds us despite ourselves to its own image.  Fundamentally it is a question of some form of protection which inhibits the influence of pressures that distort our self-understanding.  Paul saw that such protection could be provided only by the setting up of an alternative environment in which we would be subject to inspiration supportive of our quest for authenticity.  This environment is nothing other than the local Christian community, which is not only the form of freedom and salvation, but is also the critical instrument for change in the world.

Though his vocation was to preach the Word, Paul saw clearly that words alone would never modify societal structures.  It is too easy to talk and the world is tired of listening to barren proclamations.  Neither is it sufficient to do things for people.  What is crucial is that Christians be in a special way.  The very style of their existence is the power which creates the possibility of change for others.  Yet for Christians to exist in such a way, they too must be empowered.  Hence, their mutual dependence on each other in the unity of the Body of Christ.

If the Church is, once again, to release the power that is effective of lasting change, it must recapture the basic concept of Christian community, and Paul, because of his success, has the first claim to be our guide…Community is the key element in his thought.  Once this is grasped, all that he says in his epistles falls into proper place, and becomes a radical challenge that pierces to the heart of contemporary concern.  It is only when we are convinced that community is the basic Christian reality that we can commit ourselves totally to bringing it into existence.” (Jerome Murphy-O’ConnorBecoming Human Together, pp. 13-14)

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Against Marcion (2)

Thesis 2: A Christian moral community must be grounded in the past.

Meeks“Within the church’s defining past I include both scripture and tradition. The Marcionite experiment sought to sever all ties with the past, and that proved enormously attractive to a great many people. Perhaps the fiction of an absolutely fresh start appeals perennially to all of us who are pretty much stuck in the beds we have made for ourselves. I am sure as the end of our millennium approaches [Meeks was writing in 1993] that we shall witness a new outbreak of the flying-saucer cults, this century’s rough equivalent to Marcion’s faith in the Alien God. From outer space will come the saviors, having no connection with our world or our past, who in a blinding flash that obliterates all previous logic will give to the elect the answers, unprecedented and irrefutable, and will pluck those few fortunate saints out of the stream of causation into a pure and uncontingent future. It is a pathetic fiction, as Justin and Irenaeus and Tertullian had sense enough to see. Less obviously, cutting ourselves off from the past by ignorance and neglect corrodes our sense of who we are.

The early Christians, for practical as well as principled reasons, had to have a past. Without scripture and tradition they would have had no identity. In time they expanded scripture and began a new tradition, and there are times when both seem to us more a burden than an illumination. Nevertheless, the church has defined itself in these terms, and the Marcionite temptation, which today is more likely to arise from neglect than from choice, must still be resisted. The elementary rule is that Christians must know the church’s past in order to be faithful.” (Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries, p. 214)

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Against Marcion

Meeks“It was by no means a foregone conclusion, then, that the early Christians would preserve that sense of rootedness in Israel’s history that is an indispensable ingredient in the narrative they would ultimately produce…Both [The Epistle of Barnabas and the writings of Justin Martyr] represent mainstream Christianity’s effort to commandeer the scriptures of Israel for their own.  Justin’s reading is particularly important in that it epitomizes the church’s emerging tendency to read the whole text under a single, unifying perspective…

The decisive impetus had come from Marcion, active in Rome just a few years earlier than Justin’s writing of the Dialogue, who threw his powerful mind and organizing ability against all continuity with Israel.  The God of love who appeared in Jesus Christ, Marcion taught, had nothing to do with the God of Israel, and his people was the antithesis of the people elected by that other God, who had created such an unpleasant world.  The Christian story was an absolutely new story, and Marcion revised and expurgated the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul to create a new scripture to replace the superseded writings of the ‘Old Testament.’  The battle against Marcion that rallied diverse thinkers in the emerging catholic church was a battle for a single story from creation to final judgment, a story that wedded Israel and the church inextricably, however hostile the connection might sometimes be between Christian groups and living Jews.  The battle was for one God who was the author of the one story and its principal character, as both creator and redeemer, both just and loving, both the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ.” (Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries, pp. 207-09)

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