Great Thinkers and Produce Theft

I won’t pretend that I knew who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was before this past week.  Makes sense.  Enlightenment-era philosophy and Christian theology tend not to have much in common.  He’s probably best known as the guy with that memorable quote, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.”  I’ve started digging into his stuff after running across him in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (a brilliant attempt to trace the history of thought that led the modern Western mind).  Apparently this Rousseau guy went toe-to-toe with Augustine!  Not only did he write his own Confessions, but he even included a section about stealing produce and what it meant for his soul!

For those that aren’t aware, Augustine (father of Western Christian orthodoxy) has a really famous moment in his Confessions where he steals some pears.  He’s with a bunch of his rowdy teenage friends when they see this big, beautiful tree of pears.  They steal as many as they can, and then they throw them to the pigs.  The act is pure sin.  There’s nothing to be gained.  There’s nothing logical about it.  Augustine even has better pears at home!  The point isn’t to gain something; the point is to destroy something:

It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.

Augustine; Henry Chadwick. The Confessions p. 29

It’s a vivid illustration of man’s innate drive towards sinfulness.  Who among us hasn’t done something stupid in their youth?  Something that was destructive for the sake of being destructive?  For me, I think about the cafeteria at undergrad.  When you were done eating, the popular thing to do in my friend group was to grab an extra apple or banana on your way out and just throw it as far across campus as you could.  And why?  Because destroying was fun!  Cleaning staff be darned!  Let the fruit smash commence!  Augustine is saying, “let’s not let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that we wrought as teens.  We did it for a reason: humanity innately longs to sin.  Don’t let the fact that you were younger and more overt prevent you from seeing your fundamental nature in those stupid acts of destruction.”

Meanwhile, in HIS confessions, Rousseau ALSO tells the story of stealing produce!  This time, it’s asparagus.  His boss, Verrat, has a mother that’s been growing a little garden, and he’s decided that young Rousseau is the perfect man to steal asparagus from it and sell them on his behalf.  Rousseau steals asparagus for relatively benign reasons at first: “seeking only to please my employer,” he claims.  But what began as a little way to help his boss get some extra luxuries starts to warp him.  He starts skimming a little off the top.  After all, he’s the one that is taking on the risk, and nobody would believe him if he said that his boss put him up to it!  So to make things fair, he takes a little.  Then he starts stealing other little things that he finds: apples, tools, trinkets he finds laying around the house.  More than that, he feels utterly justified in doing all that he does:

A continual repetition of ill treatment rendered me callous; it seemed a kind of composition for my crimes, which authorized me to continue them, and, instead of looking back at the punishment, I looked forward to revenge. Being beat like a slave, I judged I had a right to all the vices of one.

Rousseau, Confessions, Bk 1, Gutenberg Edition

Note the change in culprit!  Augustine saw his crimes as proof of a deep-seated inclination to sin within his soul.  Rousseau looks outward to find the culprit.  Verrat convinced him to start stealing to feed his need for luxury.  The sin was reinforced by unjust risk, the beatings that he suffered, and the way he was treated after his crimes.  If Augustine’s pear-thieving was proof of an inward problem, Rousseau’s asparagus theft is a testament to the power that society has to warp an individual towards evil.

This brings us to one of Rousseau’s major ideas: society is the primary force responsible for corrupting the average human. If left alone, people are basically good!  They don’t know how to lie, deceive, compare themselves to someone else, or take advantage of people.  They’re unique, gifted, and ready to live in a way that suits them.  But when they’re introduced to society… well… they learn to lie:

As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins… they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.

Rousseau, Second Discourse, Gutenberg Edition

People’s lies help them get along with others.  They help them accumulate wealth and power.  They help them appear better than they are.   All of humanity ends up living a lie and drawing each new person they meet deeper into that lie.  The people who are best at lying benefit tremendously, regardless of who is actually moral:

While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them. Civilized people, cultivate them. Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any. 

Rousseau, First Discourse, Gutenberg Edition

Trueman suggests that philosophers like Rousseau set the stage for modern thinking about morality.  There’s a presiding sense in the West that the greatest thing humanity can do is stop oppressing one another and redesign our systems of governance to minimize societal injustice.  Political debates are increasingly built around terminology like social justice, systemic oppression, and intolerance.  Rousseau would be proud of our willingness to tackle society head-on! But what have Christians lost by adopting so much of his thinking? We’re taking on the thought processes of someone who directly contradicted one of our greatest thinkers! We have to stop and ask, what will we be left with when we strip away all the chains we’ve heaped on one another?  Will the final product be capable of glorifying God?  Or was Augustine right? Is there a force beyond societal injustice that causes us to stray? Is sin much more embedded in the human soul than we’d like to imagine?

Theology Battle: Luther vs Erasmus

I get weirdly excited whenever I read about two theology legends having a showdown.  I probably shouldn’t.  It almost never ends well for one of them (see anyone who debated anything against Augustine), but seeing these legendary ideasmiths meet on the field of battle feels like a larger-than-life moment.  I guess it’s the theology geek’s equivalent of having an action movie with a showdown between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson; you know someone has to lose the exchange, but you’re gonna buy that ticket.

Recently, I’ve been poking around in Luther’s history and it turns out he had a showdown with the humananist scholar, Erasmus!  Today, Erasmus isn’t seen as in the same league as Luther, but in his time, he was a huge deal.  He was one of the most published authors in Europe, an international theological scholar, and a strong advocate for reform in the church.  Little did he know, Luther would experience a meteoric rise and end up eclipsing him in each of those categories.  Luther would be the author that legitimized the printing press, the scholar that would give a massive theological school it’s foundational logic, and the reformer that would kick off Protestantism.

Erasmus first heard about Luther when a mutual friend passed on a critique.  George Spelatin told him that an Augustinian monk friend of his was concerned about the way that he framed works and original sin in his translation of the New Testament.  At the time, Erasmus didn’t think much of it. And reasonably so! Imagine a young professor at the rinky-dinkiest community college sending a Harvard professor their critiques.  That’s the modern day equivalent.  But as time went on, Luther’s star rose and Erasmus’s waned.  Before too long, Erasmus wrote a book attacking Luther’s understanding of free will (De Libero Arbitrio) and Luther was the one to ignore the critique.  He said it was “an unlearned book from such a learned man,”(Brand Luther, p. 233) and didn’t bother to respond for five years.  When he finally did respond with his own book, Erasmus churned out another response as quickly as he could, but Luther just ignored him.  The once-mighty Erasmus was old news.

What happened? Why couldn’t these two fans of church reform get on the same page? And how did Luther crush him so easily?

Fans of both men paint their inability to cooperate as a matter of temperament.  Luther was a bombastic, larger-than-life fighter.  He was happy to verbally obliterate the church hierarchy when they were wrong, and he would fight until the end for what he thought was right.  He was also always finding ways to reach out to the everyman.  His bestselling pamphlets boiled down complicated theological ideas into little papers that anyone could read.  He was a parish priest as well as an academic.  To detractors, he was a populist demagogue, and to fans, he was a fiery prophet of the people. Either way, he was an unrelenting fighter, willing to give everything for what he loved.  To him, Erasmus was a naïve coward, hiding in an ivory tower:

[Erasmus is] not concerned for the cross but for peace thinks that everything should be discussed and handled in a civil manner and with a certain benevolent kindliness.
(Letter from Luther to Spalatin, Sept 9, 1921, as quoted in Brand Luther, 231)

Erasmus, on the other hand, was more moderate, patient, and renowned for his cleverness.  He wrote big books for people that were educated enough to read them.  His legendary wit was his best tool for reform.  He railed against the corrupt priesthood in veiled satire, and he wrote in Latin or Greek (the languages of the educated).  Even though he agreed with Luther on some points, he never entertained splitting from the Catholic Church.  This was his home.  He wouldn’t break from tradition and the path that the Fathers had passed down (even if things had gotten a bit muddled).  To him, Luther was a tradition-killer who was willing to warp all of Christianity to his will:

You stipulate that we should not ask for or accept anything but Holy Scripture, but you do it in such a way as to require that we permit you to be its sole interpreter, renouncing all others. Thus the victory will be yours if we allow you to be not the steward but the lord of Holy Scripture. (Hyperaspistes, Book I, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76, pp. 204–05.)

Naturally, two men as different as this would come to different conclusions about the right course of action in the face of religious corruption.

There are lots of other differences between these two that could be key as well.  One emphasized the power of God, the other focused on the capacity of men.  One signaled an emerging nationalist sentiment, the other was an international figure.  One divided the church over doctrine, while the other longed for internal reform. 

In modern conversation, I’ve noticed that this showdown is heavily politicized.  Liberal readers associate Erasmus with some kind of proto-secularism that emphasized behavior over religious doctrine, while they see Luther as a small-minded populist.  More conservative readers see Luther as a man of integrity, standing for religious liberty, and Erasmus as a sniveling puppet of the bureaucracy, happy to speak in safe, smart circles about how he’d like change, but too cowardly to do anything that put him at risk.  Frankly, both views reek of more interest in modern politics than the Christian past.  Like him or not, Erasmus legitimized Luther and paved the way for the Reformation with his cries about corruption and demands for reform.  Even if he never jumped ship, he was crucial. You lose a key player in the religious landscape of the time if you cut him out. And a 15th century medieval priest like Erasmus said and did things that would make a modern secular humanist cringe.  A lot of his complaints were also echoed and escalated by Luther. These people are from their own times, not ours.  Modern caricatures equating these two to modern political stances are almost always inaccurate and lazy.

But I suppose we all have to understand their story on terms that make sense to us.  I’m still wrestling with their little scuffle myself!  Strangely, I feel closer to Luther, but I imagine I’d probably get along better with Erasmus.  Part of that is probably Protestant pride.  Sola scriptura and all that, right?  Luther’s reputation certainly hasn’t hurt him either.  He’s a hero! There’s something admirable about risking your life for what you believe.  Luther putting his blood on the line makes Erasmus’s scathing quill look kinda wimpy in comparison.  On the other hand, it’s hard to not lament over the divisions in Christianity, and Luther decisively struck the blow that would shatter the establishment.  Was it worth it?  Was Rome so irredeemably corrupt that division was the only solution with any integrity? Or was Erasmus an unheard prophet for unity that the reformers desperately needed to hear?

I’m not sure where I fall in the end. I love so many of the gifts that Protestantism has brought, but I lament the divisions that came with it.  Both men are heroes in their own right, even if only one made it to popular history books. Luther definitively won the day and brought so many wonderful things, but maybe Erasmus’s cry for tradition and unity needs to be heard today by the thousands of denominations that represent the children of the Reformation.

If you want to know more about these two, check out Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther or Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord.

Becoming God: Gregory Of Nazianzus and Theosis

Gregory’s poetry is inseparable from theosis.  If you can’t quite remember what that is, or don’t know, theosis is the Eastern Christian doctrine that the ultimate goal of humanity is to become God.  If your heresy alarm is going off, don’t worry.  Nobody is becoming a lightning-bolt flinging god in and of themselves.  It’s more nuanced than that.

A lot of the nuance comes down to understanding essence and energy.  Humanity is supposed to become a part of God’s energy (his action in the world), but is incapable of becoming a part of his essence (his core being). Consider the classic example of the sun.  Can you see the sun?  No, actually.  You can’t see it at all. You can see the sun’s rays.  The sun is that burning ball of gas that sends off the rays of light that we see.  All the same, when we look up at the sky, we don’t say that we see the sun’s rays of light.  We say that we see the sun!  The essence of the sun would be that burning ball of gas, while the rays would be the energy of the sun.  Both are considered “the sun,” but one is the sun proper, while the other is actually the product of the sun’s action that is tied to it’s identity.

Consider God to be like the sun.  God’s essence is that is so holy and beyond our understanding that we can’t look at him directly (Exodus 33:20).  We can’t be this all-powerful, all-holy, pure being! That is for God and God alone. But sometimes we might say, “I saw God today in that person’s actions!”  We didn’t see the burning, mind-blowing essence of God; we saw his energy, or the action of God throughout the world.  Through theosis we become God, but we don’t become his essence.  As creations, we participate in God’s energy, and thus become him since his action in the world is a part of who he is.

As cheesy as it is, we are not the Son.  We are the Son’s rays of light (which are a part of the Son).

It’s a very participatory understanding of God, and one that’s thoroughly ancient.  For example, Athanasius (the guy who usually gets credit for establishing that Jesus is actually God) coined the popular phrase: “God became man so that man might become God.” (54:3, On the Incarnation). 

Gregory’s writing is absolutely soaked in the same logic.  For example, who could read this line from On the Son without hearing the logic of Athanasius?

through Christ’s sufferings, you may become God hereafter (48-49, On the Son)

Similarly, his poetry on the Father and the Holy Spirit both include references to humanity’s ultimate theosis:

Oh Spirit of God, may you waken my mind and tongue
As a loud-shouting clarion of truth, so that all
may rejoice who are united to the entire Godhead. (23-25, On the Father)

God’s gift [is] his own divinity. (On the Holy Spirit, 54)

To properly understand the Triune God, he expects people to understand how they’re being asked to become a part of it. You can’t know God without knowing how he’s inviting you to join the divine life.

The theme of theosis isn’t limited to those God-centric poems either. In considering the world and humanity’s ultimate journey towards heaven, he writes:

Of these worlds, the first-born was that other heaven,
The region of those who bear the divine, perceptible to minds only,
All-luminous; To it the man of God wends his way from here
Later, once he’s perfected as god, purified in mind and flesh. (95-96, Concerning the World)

Again and again, waves of theosis crash over the reader.  We are expected to become one with God. 

Why is it so hard to imagine someone saying this in a Western church today?

I’ve seen a few writers attempt to answer that question by blaming the way Westerners think about knowledge.  Western knowledge is often understood to be knowledge about something.  This type of knowledge is a dispassionate, supposedly objective, factual sort of understanding. Science textbooks are full of this kind of knowledge.  For example, if I look up knowledge about an apple, I might learn where it best grows, what it’s Latin name is, and how many of them were sold commercially last year.  All of this is technically true, but removed from the more intimate knowledge that comes from a genuine, firsthand experience with an apple. People who have knowledge of an apple know what it tastes like, they know the tension of an apple’s skin beneath their teeth, and they remember the shine that reflects off an apple as it’s held up to a light.  You can’t find that on Wikipedia!  That’s a different kind of knowledge; knowledge that is usually relegated to poets and artists. It might even sound more like feelings than art, but both are valid ways of gaining knowledge about something. Westerners just favor knowledge about over knowledge of.

If the apple feels to far removed from relational knowledge that you need to consider in Christianity for a being such as God, just think about how you could know a friend in the same ways: “my friend has brown hair,” (knowledge about) or “my friend is delightful,” (knowledge of).

In any case, the claim that has been made that Westerners are so concerned with knowledge about (represented by scholastic theology) that they have little interest in direct knowledge of God (as reflected by mystics and monks). Since theosis is an experiential, intimate knowledge of God, it wouldn’t really appeal to the Western mind as a worthwhile, valid source of theology.

I think that claim is completely wrong. I would even go a step further and claim that it’s biased enough that it was probably written by an Easterner that was explaining the importance of their traditions without full knowledge of vibrant Western Christian traditions.  We have no shortage of influential mystics (Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, etc.) and I’ve met people that passionately seek God without any scholastic bent.  There are whole traditions that (sadly) actively deride an academic approach to faith!  And even if there were some hint of truth to the claim, I do believe that knowledge about God in the scholastic sense is important.  We need both types of knowledge to really thrive as Christians. Pitting one against the other isn’t helpful. To use the example of an apple again, if I only had personal knowledge about apples, I probably wouldn’t be able to grow apple trees.  I wouldn’t know the proper climate, anything about how they’re fertilized, or the best variety to grow for my region.  If I’m really desperately passionate about apples, both kinds of knowledge are crucially important.  The same is true with knowledge about people.  I know what it’s like to spend an evening with my wife.  If, however, I forget her birthday because I don’t value knowledge about her, then I’m going to guess our relationship will suffer for it.

No, the “Westerners don’t appreciate personal knowledge” explanation both derides some very good sources of knowledge and doesn’t speak to the vibrant Western sources of spirituality that actively exist.

My guess is that a large amount of it comes down to language and culture.  The essence/energy distinction sounds very platonic (something derived from the works of the Greek philosopher Plato) and understandings about theosis flourished in places that had close contact and influence from Greek culture and writings (Russia, Greece, etc.). Could it be that an idea with roots in Greek thought made more sense to places influenced accordingly?

The West wrote and spoke in Latin.  The essence/energy distinction was not only unexplored; mindsets shaped by Greek words and philosophies were less common.  Things simply were what they were!  God was God, and not-God was not-God.  Essence defined identity; energy translated as something like “action,” and it was not linked with identity.  The creature-creator distinction ended up being considerably sharper as a result.

Of course, the energy-essence distinction wasn’t officially given as a teaching until the 12th century, but words usually bubble up out of pre-existing logics that require definitive explanations.  And here we see Gregory talking about theosis readily, and he’s all the way back in the fourth century! The Greek language and mindset made theosis reasonable.  The Latin language and mindset made it sound heretical.

In any case, it’s a teaching that inspires me.  It’s intimate.  It’s close beyond close.  To imagine that I might not just achieve a certain level of goodness, but might reflect the actions of God so well that he and I are inseparable?  It captures the idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit so perfectly. The fact that the guy who helped establish Jesus’s divinity (Athanasius) and one of the fighters for the Godhood of the Holy Spirit (our dear Gregory) are both onboard makes it seem like a crucial truth that we’ve forgotten. Were we made to become divine?

What would it take to make full use of the doctrine of theosis in Western churches?  And is that something we should be aiming for?  It’s a doctrine that is complicated for the Western mind, but one that illustrates the closeness of God and the importance of our transformation so well.  At minimum, I love that Gregory’s forcing me to consider a divine destiny for humanity, and, even with my little explanation, I keep pondering why it’s so hard for us to imagine.

The Patristic Poet: Gregory of Nazianzus

It feels a little odd to kick things off with Gregory of Nazianzus.  He doesn’t have the star power of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, or the other big-name denominational theologians.  My theology nerd friends haven’t really read him, and truth be told, I only ended up reading his poetry by mistake.  I confused him with Gregory of Nyssa when I was ordering books (strangely enough, the two Gregory of N’s were dear friends in life, so I wasn’t far off).  I’m glad I made that mistake!  Gregory is the poet theologian that I didn’t know I needed.  Here’s why:

1. He’s succinct.

There are plenty of massive theology tomes out there that will take you months to properly understand (if not years).  And most people don’t read them for a simple reason: who has the time for all that? Gregory’s poems are something you do have time for. In his explanatory poem On His Own Verses, he writes”

By working for others, I wished
to subdue my own unmeasuredness;
indeed, though I write, I don’t write much
when toiling on meter. (35-37)

“Measuredness” was something of a theme in Gregory’s life.  As the archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory was used to talking a lot.  He railed against heresies! He pontificated about good theology!  He led the Church where it needed to be! But after he retired, his life took a different, quieter tone.  Starting in 375, he spent 3 years among monks.  During Lent of the year 382, he took a vow of silence, only communicating through sign language.  His poetry is one more post-retirement attempt to tame his tongue. Consequently, you don’t need years to get read them them.  You can knock out a couple during your lunch break.

2. He has a ridiculous amount of personality.

Gregory’s poetry is just fun. Even though he’s this serious, saintly theologian, his writing is always delightfully human. For example, when he addressed people that thought his poetry was bad, I assumed he would tell them something generically saintly.  Something like, “If you don’t like these poems, then I beg your forgiveness.  My words are a poor tool to represent a being as great as God.  You may doubt my eloquence, but don’t doubt him.”  Nope:

If these things are petty, do grander ones yourself
You revile meter?  No wonder, when you’re meterless,
An iamb-manufacturer, scribbling abortions.  (On His Own Verses
, 67-70)

Or how about when he’s addressing Christians that refuse to acknowledge the equality of the Father and the Son:

if, rendering offerings to the great Father’s Godhead
worthlessly, and gravening in your heart a hollow fear
you’d deny this thing, and would hurl Christ out amongst creatures,
you insult, O nitwit, the divinity of them both!
(On the Son, 40-44)

Not a dull moment here!

It’s not all hotheadedness either.  For a significant portion of his poetry, Gregory is wrestling with a profound sadness.  There’s no better example than the poem that he wrote when his best friend died: Epitaph to St. Basil:

I had thought that a body could as well
Live without a soul
As me without you.
Basil, beloved servant of Christ;
But you’re gone and I remain.
What’ll become of us?
Will you not set me, when I arise,
There with you in the choir of the blessed?
No, don’t leave me: I swear by my grave

I won’t leave yours, not willingly.
You have Gregory’s word.

It brings tears to my eyes each time.  I’m not saying every poem is going to do that, but I can promise that Gregory never holds back.  This isn’t dry, dusty theological poetry. It’s vibrant and human! Which leads to a third reason I love his poetry:

3. His beliefs are beautiful.

They really are. Not everyone sees that at first. There aren’t exactly a ton of Amazon reviews on Gregory’s poetry (the copy I’m using, anyway), but a handful of those few complain that Gregory’s poems are too didactic.  They say that they’re tools to express his theology, not genuine pieces of art.  I think they’re dead wrong.

Admittedly, they don’t rhyme, and their meter isn’t consistent, but these are ancient translated poems.  Can we hold them to the same standards as Shakespeare?  Besides, there’s plenty of poems out there that don’t rhyme or have consistent meter.  If anything, those tend to be seen as more avant garde.  We have to look for the beauty of these ancient poems on their own terms.  If anything, his poetry beautifies and elevates the disciple of doctrine.  Take a snippet of his description of God:

There is one God, without beginning or cause, not limited
By anything existing before, or afterwards to be,
Encompassing the aeons, and infinite. (On the Father, 25-27)

Or the description of his own humanity:

I am soul and body: the one, an efflux of divinity,
Of infinite light: the other was formed for you
From a murky root.  (Concerning the World, 32-34)

Sure, it’s directed, doctrinal theology, but the way he spins beautiful words around ideas is beautiful. It’s not just doctrine; it’s art.

With his brevity, his raw humanity, and his beautiful articulation, Gregory has crafted something for the ages. It all makes me wonder, why is so much of modern doctrine dull? We hammer out what we believe in terms that are definitely precise, but if doctrine is the truth of God, shouldn’t it be the culmination of every discipline? Not only philosophy and science, but poetry, art, and music? Why shouldn’t the truth of the most high God be worthy of an art museum? And by no means do I mean that it ought to always please us, as so many inspirational Christian wall hangings strive to do. A lot of art isn’t easy for humanity to swallow, but it’s beautiful all the same. Dostoyevsky famously wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” If God is true beauty (and a fervent Christian like Dostoyevsky knew that he was), I have to imagine that he’s right. We need more theological poets like Gregory in the world. We need people to help articulate beautiful beliefs, not only for evangelization and inspiration, but to write things worthy of God.