Thursday, March 31, 2016

Theories of Theories of the Atonement

Many years ago, for about twelve months or so, I attended a Bible study led by a slightly eccentric and excitable associate pastor of a prominent church in our college town. One day, this pastor asked the class, “How did the atonement work? I mean, how did Jesus’ death accomplish our redemption?” Nobody else was answering what I thought was a Sunday School 101 question, so I offered up this explanation: “We deserved death because of our sin, and Jesus took on our sin and died in our place.” The pastor jabbed his finger in my direction and responded, loudly and in very rapid speech, “That’s one theory!” One theory?? It’s in the Bible. It’s in the hymns we sing every Sunday morning. What was he talking about? He mystified me even more when he went on to say that the theory came from Amselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, not from Scripture.

This experience gave me my introduction to what are known as Theories of the Atonement. That pastor characterized Anselm’s view as the Substitution Theory and then posited two more theories, which he offered as alternatives to Anselm’s: the Ransom Theory, which sees Jesus as paying Satan the price of our freedom from bondage, and the Moral Influence Theory, in which Jesus essentially acts as a great Example, dying to inspire us to give up our lives to God. I recall the pastor locating the Moral Influence Theory with Abelard in the twelfth century, though I don’t remember where in history he placed the origin of the Ransom Theory. But still, my confusion mounted. The New Testament characterizes Jesus’ death as a ransom for humans five times, and it speaks of following Jesus’ example of humility numerous times. How could a Christian pastor call these approaches “theories”? How could he pit them against one another as mutually exclusive explanations for Jesus’ saving work? How could he suggest that men proposed these theories centuries after the composition of the New Testament?

Since then, I’ve become more confident that this pastor did indeed have a distorted view of the facts. These three views are labeled in the study of theology as “theories,” but they most definitely have Biblical grounding, so we have to say that Abelard and Anselm developed or fleshed out their respective theories. They didn’t concoct them. To think so would be to think that every Scripture-reading Christian in the first thousand years after Christ could only say, “Thank God that Jesus died for me. I wish the Bible said something about it.” I’ve also learned, partly by reading the treatises of Anselm themselves, that Anselm’s theory is not properly known as a substitution theory, but rather as a satisfaction theory. And I see clearly at this point in my life that the Example Theory can’t stand on its own; unless the death of Christ actually accomplished something, it can’t stand as an example of a loving action. “Darling, I love you so much, I’m going to die before our wedding to prove it.”

Still I’d been hoping for some clear confirmation that theologians earlier than the eleventh century – perhaps far earlier – had read the same Bible I do and had seen Substitution, Ransom, and Example in its sacred words. That confirmation came to me recently in reading vol. 1 of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Church Fathers such as Cyprian, Tertullian, Hilary, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nazianzus (all from the second, third, or fourth century) spoke of all three views of the atonement and, if they argued, argued mostly over which explanation enjoyed primacy over the others, not which one was right at the expense of the others.

Pelikan’s book is more difficult to follow than I had hoped. He gives almost no chronological context, virtually no dates. And he tosses out phrases such as “Antiochene position” and “Apollonarian excess” as if I knew what he meant before he explains the terms. (I went back over what he had said previously about Apollonaris and found that his only quotations of this figure had been in defense of a position that was to become accepted as orthodox, with no apparent “excess.”)

Nevertheless, I’m learning a lot. Church Fathers that I’ve read appear now in the context of the ideas they combatted. Gregory of Nazianzus, for instance, wrote what he did about the nature of Christ in order to counter the idea that Jesus as a man and the Logos as a person of the Trinity teamed up in some dualistic way. Certain lines of the historical creeds that I recite have added significance for me now. “I believe in God the Father, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” for instance, identifies the Father spoken of by Jesus with the Creator of the Old Testament, in opposition to Marcion, who separated the two. According to Pelikan, Origen started his practice of analogical interpretation of the Scriptures partly to find value in the Hebrew Bible, which, although it looked about as foreign to him as it did to Marcion, he recognized as authoritative.

The main theme striking me is that almost all of this theological work came from interpreting the Scriptures. The debates over the status of the humanity of Christ, for instance, arose in the attempt to reconcile such Biblical statements as “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” on the one hand and “The Word became flesh” on he other. Even Arius, eventually labeled a heretic, derived his teaching that Jesus was a creature and thus less than divine from a passage in Proverbs.

I also seek to interpret the Scriptures, which is what prompted me to start going to that quirky pastor’s Bible study to begin with. I stuck with it only a little longer, though. The pastor eventually told the class that people with my theological stances are like “the kooks who stand on streetcorners with sandwich boards.” So I wrote him a nice letter and politely bowed out, and he responded very respectfully. A few years later, his slightly eccentric daughter showed up in my music-theory classes, and we got along great. But I have to say that I’ve never stood on a streetcorner with a sandwich board. I prefer to spread my kookiness on a blog.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

How I Chose the Books for the Plan – Part II

I started to write last week about how I decided the books that made their way to my list, and then I spent most of the time explaining the reason for books that didn’t make the list: a lot of books thought of as foundational to western civilization, I’d already read. On the other hand, I included many books on my list that don’t show up on any list of western Great Books. In short, the specific contents of my list shouldn’t serve as a model for anyone else trying to acquire a classical education or to read the classics.

But some of my sources could help you put together your own list. As I said last week, my first guide was the contents of the Britannica Great Books set. I wanted to complete many of the works or sets of works only touched upon in the ten-year plan that came with the set. Two other sources went a long way to filling out the picture: the curriculum of St. John’s College and the appendix of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. I don’t remember exactly what all I got from those two sources, but I know that Adler highly recommended Dedekind’s Theory of Numbers, which I’ll finally get to in just a few weeks.

But several other notions contributed heavily to the final form of my list. First, both Adler and St. John’s skimped on their attention to poetry, but how was I supposed to think I had read the classics without reading Shelley or Tennyson? Second, while Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens might — might! — find one book apiece on someone’s idea of a western canon, I love them all and wanted to read all I could. Third, wanting this project to have substantial Christian content, I included readings in the Church Fathers and in later Christian writers such as John of the Cross, Bonaventure, Calvin, Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams. Fourth, I wanted to read more about the American Civil War and the Presidents; maybe Catton and McCullough don’t write Great Books with a capital GB, but they pen lower-cased great books on great themes. Finally, I just love Patrick O’Brian and wanted to read all of his Aubrey-Maturin series.

I know I got ideas from more places; I worked on the list for years and tweaked it often. But it’s been a decade, and I just don’t remember now where I got all the ideas. I know that I’ve rarely been disappointed in the works I selected. 

Every once in a great while, a friend tells me he or she has decided to follow my lead and plan out a schedule of stimulating reading for the next few years. As it happens, one wrote to me between the time I wrote the previous post and now. She’s long been staring at a set of classics she ordered years ago, and she’s decided to get started. It hardly matters exactly what her set includes. It will get her started on a path that will naturally branch and take her in unexpected directions. "It does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry," Lewis says. "Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else. Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende." And I promise her, the first time she comes across a reference to one of the books she’s read on her new adventure and knows what to make of it, she won’t want to stop.

So why are you still reading my blog? Get started!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

How I Chose the Books for the Plan – Part I

Every day this year, I feel nostalgia and wonder and a sense of accomplishment whenever I read or even when I just check my reading schedule. Astonishingly, my plan has worked; I’ve given myself the liberal education I wanted when I was a teenager. In the car the other day, Nancy and I were reading Alistar McGrath’s The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Naturally the book referred to many works by the great Oxford don and Cambridge professor. But it also mentioned Lucretius and Milton, and I understood the comments. McGrath commented on the implicit influences of Augustine on Lewis’s thought and writing, and I could contribute examples off the top of my head. What I learned about Joyce, Lewis, modernism, and myself from McGrath’s comments about Ulysses wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t just read that classic last month.

Ten years ago, I looked forward with salivating anticipation and wondered what I would learn and what I would enjoy the most. Looking back now from the other end of the process, I wonder how I knew so well what books to read and when to schedule them. And I thought that my reflections might provide a few moments of interest or entertainment for other readers.
First, especially in light of the press that (self-styled) evangelical Christians are getting these days, I want to explain the conspicuous absence of a few items. If you look at the tab above marked “The List,” you might notice that Marx, Freud, and Darwin don’t show up. Some Christians from my generation or earlier generations write off the Unholy Trinity, judging them without first-hand evidence, but I’m not one of those Christians. I’ve read all the major works by those three, and I think Marx and Freud are brilliant, effective, and moving authors. Darwin doesn’t work for me, but it doesn’t have anything to do with any faith-motivated view I might or might not hold about the theory of evolution (and I can almost guarantee that my view is not what you think it is) and everything to do with the fact that the naturalist quite literally could not keep straight the difference between “descent” and “ascent.” In any case, Marx, Freud, and Darwin form an indispensable part of any reading list like mine; they aren’t here simply because I read them all in my first ten-year plan. I also didn’t feel the need to reread Huckleberry Finn or Jane Eyre or The Prince; their absence from my current plan says nothing about their undisputed place in the canon of classic literature. (At least I don’t dispute their place.)

But where did I get the hundreds of titles that found their way on to the list? My first source was the Britannica Great Books set. Mortimer Adler’s original ten-year plan for his Great Selection got me to every author in the set but left a lot of pages unturned. I wanted to read all the extant Greek plays, all of Plato, all of Plutarch, all of The City of God. Some authors I loved so much the first time, I wanted to enjoy them again: Herodotus, Lucretius, Montaigne, Boswell, and others. Other works, like the Iliad or Paradise Lost or Hamlet, simply need to be read over and over. I also checked contents of the expanded edition of the Britannica set, and I added Thomas Mann and others partly because of their place there.

More in the next couple of days.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rhetorically Speaking

There was just one period during my previous employment in which I had to wrestle with political and moral problems within the workplace. That single period began about one month after I started working there and ended twenty-five years later, when I retired. But in one brief episode in my arduous odyssey, I sensed that I had a viable opportunity to change things for the better. The provost of the university had asked our school to hold special meetings to make a big decision about leadership, and I began to believe that I could speak at these meetings and convince others of the right path out of our darkness. As it turned out, my first ten-year reading plan had me reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric at this time, just when I needed it.

In rereading the Rhetoric this month, I’ve been struck at how much I’ve forgotten in the intervening time, and I’ve entertained the wish that I had kept the book by my bed for a couple of years and had rehearsed parts of it over and over. Aristotle talks about genres of oratory, facts about character and human motivation, forms of argument, putting one’s own character in the best light, moving and (in some cases) taking advantage of the listeners’ emotions, and the best ways to counter an opposing argument. He dictates the appropriate level of vocabulary for various types of speech, the proper amount of metaphor to use, and the proper amount of repetition for each. He discusses sentence length, rhythm, tone of voice, and gesture. He advocates describing scenes vividly and using figures of speech that involve actions, since these practices capture the listeners’ attention and move them toward acceptance of the speaker’s position. He demonstrates twenty-eight different lines of proof. He outlines the type of premise that is better left unsaid and explains why. In short, he delivers a thorough course on speech-making as applicable now as it was 2400 years ago.

He parts from Plato in a number of ways here. Where Aristotle’s mentor spent a career writing moral dialogs in a not-entirely successful attempt to find the unifying factor in all virtue, Aristotle solves the problem in a single sentence: “Virtue is . . . a faculty of providing and preserving good things.” The younger philosopher takes seriously, though, the various kinds of good: the noble, the useful, and the pleasant, goods of the body and goods of the soul, external goods, and so on. Where Plato and his characterization of Socrates seek that which is good in itself almost exclusively, Aristotle is willing to sully his hands with mundane practicality. In the field of rhetoric, these opposing attitudes play out in significantly different ways. Plato sees rhetoric as an evil practice since it manipulates the listeners through effect rather than through Truth alone. But Aristotle sees rhetoric as a practical good; he finds value in hiding the truth and taking advantage of the human weaknesses of judges and voters. I’m sure he would say that he ultimately wants to serve Truth, Justice, and the Athenian Way by his means, but the means themselves are at times less than truthful and just.

Now I’m not very good at being less than truthful. I’m terrible at games that involve bluffing and negotiation (although I love to play them). But in that one case at work, thanks to Aristotle’s guidance, I put what I had learned into practice so effectively that a very rare outcome ensued: I got my way. We got the policy I advocated and the leader that I chose. Then that leader banished democracy from our school by first ignoring all our votes and then never holding any votes to begin with. So much for rhetorical success. Maybe I’ll just try to apply Aristotle’s advice to games from now on.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Retrogressive Progression

I usually sense something of a duty in these posts to promote the literature I read. There are a small number of notable exceptions. I lavished no praise on Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. But then that was just a bit of bookstore-shelf-browsing whimsy, not a Great Book on anyone’s list of Classic Literature. On the other hand, Charles Darwin’s books find their place on every attempt at a western canon that I’ve seen, and I haven’t had kind things to say about them, either. (See here, for instance.) Are there others? Oh, yeah! I gave Oswald Spengler a very hard time.

But I’ve written over 550 blog posts, most of them positive. My main purpose is to celebrate and share great, neglected literature. So why, I ask myself, did I write so negatively of James Joyce’s Ulysses last week? I suppose I just needed to express myself honestly, and at that moment, some 40% of the way through the book, I was very frustrated. I was frustrated with the length, with the obscurity of the language, and with finding that the musings of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom didn’t move me at all the way Joyce’s beautiful Dubliners does.

But two significant things have happened in the last seven days that have changed the situation. First, my friend Sarah I. wrote a comment on that first post that reminded me how much I believe that art doesn’t have to “move me” emotionally in order to delight or intrigue me. And second, the book suddenly got better for me the very day after I wrote the previous post. The next episode referenced Rabelais’s (I confess that I do not know the proper way to make an English possessive out of a French word ending in a silent ‘s’) Gargantua and Pantagruel, which I love. Its Gargantuan lists were often appealingly funny, and the subject of conversation – how Ireland has declined and how much of it can be blamed on the English – interests me.

But with the next episode, it suddenly seemed as if I got what was going on. The chapter begins with almost normal narrative prose describing two teen-age girls babysitting some toddlers at the beach. Their dialog essentially uses standard English, while that of the children is broken baby-talk. But then Gerty's interior monologue finds its way into the narrative, and every once in a while strange words, solecisms, elisions, and non sequiturs crop up. Once she gets consumed with showing off her legs to a stranger in church, her grammar – I think it's safe to use this phrase – breaks down. (Joyce called it “retrogressive progression.”) Then the reader finds out that the stranger is Leopold, who wants to do more than just look at the legs, and complete sentences and grammatical coherence disappear. Baby-talk has returned. Sex has degraded the human mind. Suddenly I got the idea that the fractured prose style itself made a point that the modern man is not what he could be. The next episode a mirror up to the process and traces the development of the English language (in narrating a human birth!) through forty paragraphs each representing the style of a different technique, genre, or specific author from history. I recognized many of them and definitely followed the centuries one Joyce got to Malory.

The book is still twice too long for me. Having read that Joyce said he put in enough enigmas and puzzles to keep the professors busy for a century didn’t help; I don’t think music professors were exactly the kind he had in mind. But all that just means that I’m not pausing to catch every reference, not having a spare century to spend on that project. And length per se doesn’t make a book bad in my eyes. As a matter of fact, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival tomorrow of an unabridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo, all 1296 pages of which I plan to enjoy reading this coming January.