Saturday, March 31, 2007

Democracy or Liberty

Lawrence of Arabia has a great post on the failure of American and European foreign policy in the Middle East.
The failure, then, is the inability of the United States, among others, to recognize and articulate that it does not want democratization but liberalization in the middle east: something that is not tied, initially in any case, to a particular form of choosing one's rulers. Monarchies, dictatorships, oligarchies, etc. are all capable of being liberal, and it was only the liberal revolutions in France in and the United States that made democracy something more than the tyranny of the mob (and that only after a great deal of bloodshed at the hand of the mob in France).
I'm a strong believer in democracy, that is, the right and duty of the citizen to be involved in the governing of the society. Of course, elections is a very small part in this. True democracy is about the individual haveing the possibility to control his or her life. This is exactly what liberty is about.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Making Consumers - BBC documentary on Edward Bernays

How did we end up being consumers? Well, it did not happen by chance, and there certainly is nothing natural about it. This fascinating documentary tells the story of Edward Bernays, the man that more than anyone else worked out how to turn people into consumers by tying products to their deepest desires, thus shifting our behavior from buying things we need to buying things we want.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Agressive Peacemaker - Peaceful aggressor? David Bentley Hart

If David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite is the best thing theology has to offer at present, I'm not sure that theology is in such a good place at the moment.

Don't get me wrong, large parts of it is brilliant. The Dogmatica Minora at its center is very good, even if I am a bit hesitant about elevating beauty quite to the heights Hart does. In the end of the day, one man's beauty will be another man's porn, and I'm not sure it is ever a good idea to try to contain all of Christian doctrine in just one concept. But the account of the Trinity as Peaceful Difference is a very good idea, I think and it is the one idea I will keep with me from reading Hart.

But there is a lot of stuff here that troubles me greatly. One thing is that Hart does not seem to want to acknowledge his dependence on earlier (academic) theology. He is very critical of almost everyone he mentions except for Milbank, still he operates totally within the framework created by 19th and 20th century academic theology. He does not seem to be aware of the direct continuity between his work and that of the 20th century Germans he looks down upon. Like them, Hart retells the Christian story in the language of contemporary philosophy, as when he calls Christ the Father's "supreme rhetoric".

As I said, the thing I appreciate the most is Hart's location of peace at the absolute center of the Christian dogma. However, the way he does it - in the sense of his attitude and style of writing - all but destroys this achievement. As I said in my last post on this book, Hart's attitude to philosophy (and indeed most theology) is that it is something that has to be violently torn down. I realize this is not original criticism, but I find it extremely important. You can't talk about the beauty of peace and then have this arrogant attitude towards all that think differently. It is that kind of attitude that creates violence in the world, much more than certain ethical or philosophical ideas.

The biggest problem is that most of the trashing that goes on ends up in ad hominem attacks. After several pages of intense discussion, Nietzsche in the end just has atrocious taste. Heidegger is an old Nazi. And the attack on Levinas is so over the top ("I know of no modern philosophy of 'values' more morally hideous than that of Levinas") that one can't help but thinking that Hart must be completely off the mark. If all these great names of modern and post-modern thought are such imbeciles, how come no one has noticed before?

Who does this Hart character think he is?

Some would argue that this kind of rhetorics makes for a more enjoyable read. Well, if you want to enjoy yourself, go watch TV.

I can't help but thinking that Hart's way of doing theology (as opposed to his theology) is the exact equivalent of US Foreign policy. A potential threat from the outside to the peace within should be bombed out of existence. Carthago delenda est.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

13 Letters by St. Augustine


I usually do not advertise books on my blog, but this is a bit special... It is the first book published in my name, and I'm quite proud of it. It is a Swedish translation of 13 of St. Augustine's letters, that I co-edited with Anni Maria Laato. I worked mainly on turning rough translations into nice Swedish and wrote parts of the introduction (on Asceticism and on Pelagianism.)

It is a nice little introduction to Augustine. People who read Swedish and are interested can order the book here for merely 98 Swedish crowns.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More on Arcade Fire

Somebody left a link to this article in a comment to my post on Neon Bible. It's an article that explores some of the biblical language on the album, some of it very interesting, some of it a bit far-fetched... Turns out Win Butler is a former theology student, which explains a lot of things. Like these quotes:

I wrote that song after our first headlining tour of the States....It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was visiting my own country as some sort of outsider. I had lived in Montreal for a few years at that point, but I didn't realize that I had really made it my home until that trip. In theology there is this idea that it is easier to say what God isn't than what God is, and in a way that song is my trying to say everything about my country that is not what makes it great or beautiful. In a way it makes what is great and beautiful and worth fighting to preserve more clear.
and:
A good percentage of rock bands, when they perform it's a totally sexual thing. But I don't think we're that sexual. At least that's not what we're singing about or acting out. On a good night, it's more like the ecstasy of St. Theresa.
Do we know of any other theologians turned rock stars? The last quote is not only a rather good description (check out these clips on YouTube), but rather funny, since, as most of you know, St. Theresa is known for using quite sexual language to describe her ecstatic experiences.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Arcade Fire - Black Mirror

This is just a post to say that the new Arcade Fire is really really good.

Ok the music is a bit samey as the last one, but the lyrics are so marvelous - especially set to this music. I get a very similar feeling as when Radiohead's Hail to the Tief came out: the music just blends in with the way you look at the world and becomes a seamless whole. This is rock music when it is as its best - rather then being an escape from the world it is takes you in deeper into reality, making the things that happen around you even more real.

There is a lot of paranoia on this album (yes the Radiohead link is not just in my head). This is from Keep the Car Running:

If some night I don’t come home
Please don’t think I’ve left you alone
The same place that I must go when they die
You can’t climb across a mountain so high
The same city where I go when I sleep
Can’t swim across a river so deep

They know my name ‘cause I told it to them
But they don’t know where and they don’t know when
It’s coming or when
Is it’s coming? Keep the car running
A lot of the songs deal with the feeling of living in post 9-11 land, where the state distrusts us and feels it needs to monitor us (A feeling very close to me today as dark forces won the elections yesterday...). One of the most beautiful songs is the thoroughly depressing Ocean of noise. But religion is a really big theme, from The Well and the Lighthouse that seems to be about Christ, to (Antichrist Television Blues) that is about, well, anti-Christ, in the form of a parent that exploits his child for fame. In the next song, Windowstill, we get the other perspective, the kid's:
MTV, what have you done to me?
Save my soul, set me free!
Set me free! What have you done to me?
I can't breathe! I can't see!
But the penultimate song, No Cars Go, is really joyful, that seems to suggest a way out from all this paranoia and violence, in the moment "between the click of the light and the start of a dream".

The last song is a chapter of its own. Stong platonic languge, "My body is a cage, but my mind holds the Key". Several possible interpretations for this one. Like in antiquity (as I argue in my dissertation ;) ) the body is a metaphor for all those things that hold us back, in this case, "from dancing with the one I love".

I've listened to the album about ten times now, and, as you see, my impressions are still very sketchy. There is that feeling that there is still a lot more to discover here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Interview with me

Michael L. Westmoreland-White has posted an interview with me at his blog. Check it out (you can find out the well kept secret of my denominational background, among other things), and support his Christian Peace Blogger initiative!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hart on Tillich

I'm about half-way through David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite, and I will reserve my judgement of the whole book for a later post. Since Hart's criticism of Tillich is, as far as I can see, fairly irrelevant for his intentions, I will treat it separately.

I'm really curious as to what provoked this attack (it comes so surprisingly that an attack is exactly what it is). It can't be Tillich's use of the concept of symbols, since Hart makes no attempt to understand it. Rather than discussing this concept, Hart quickly moves on to a quote about demythologization, which Hart misunderstands completely. Tillich was not really doing demythologization. Hart is reading Tillich through Bultmann, who actually did reduce some myths to existential philosophy - notably the resurrection. Tillich did not do that. When Tillich is defending demythologization, as Tillich understands it, it is because unlike the literalists (fundamentalists as we call them today) demythologization, resists the temptation to reduce myth to propositions. In more modern vocabulary (that did not exist in Tillich's time), Tillich is defending the narrative structure of the biblical texts against those that read the bible as a science-book.

This is really ironic, since this is part of Hart's program as well. And it is not the only area where similarities can be found. Harts ontology is really similar to Tillich's, though Hart does ground his better in the trinity (a real weakness of Tillich's). Both work out their theology in dialogue with the present-day philosophy.

It is often the case when theologians criticising the theologians of the preceding generation, that what is criticised is not so much what they say, but what they do not, i.e. that they do not answer the same questions. Tillich has little to say about theology in the post-modern discussion - as understood by Hart.

I guess this attack is just another example of how Tillich in America has become a symbol for liberal theology - which is odd since he of course was part of the first (real) post-liberal generation.

Of course there are real differences between Tillich and Hart. Tillich used philosophy as a means of communicating theology to the secular. Hart uses theology to do battle on philosophy as a proponent of the secular.

I, for one, prefer Tillich's attitude.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Rant on John Milbank

Yes, I have read Milbank's Theology & Social Theory. All of it. My original intention was to write a critical and serious review of it, but then I thought what the heck, I'll just write what I feel about it instead.

To be honest, Milbank lost me even before the "acknowledgments" part. In the dedication. "For Alison (fair enough, that's presumably his wife) and the Remanant of 'Christendom'." How is it possible to get so much arrogance, snottiness and sentimentality into a single line? Ok, here we have a guy that feels nostalgic about a time when dissent from "Christian" faith would mean death by fire.

I won't deny that Milbank's book has its merits. The very first paragraph: "Once, there was no 'secular'" is an important point to make and Milbank's arguing for the invention of the secular is very good. He has a width of knowledge about the history of modern philosophy and sociology that is nothing short of amazing, even though he presents it in a way that seems to be intentionally difficult. The ironic thing is that his sense of Christianity is so puny. First of all, and this really annoys me, he is constantly arguing out of what "Christianity" is and what is "Christian", as if the content of these concepts were given and clear. It gets absurd at times because Milbank nowhere gives his criteria for what is genuinely Christian theology, he just refers to it as if he had a secret knowledge about what this really is. What do we call that, again? Yeah, right: gnosticism.

Here's my favorite example: "Eriugena's ontology, based on God as internally 'maker' and then on different degrees of participation in creation, is therefore more profoundly Christian than that of Aquinas." Incidently I agree with him here, Eriugenas understanding of creation is really good, but how can one just claim that it is more Christian than Thomas? According to what? Who?

The problem for me with Milbank's theology is that is so lacking in religious value. Milbank's entire credo seems to be "I believe in the Church". God Father, Son and (especially) Spirit all play very peripheral roles in his theology. His alternative to a world based on secular reason is the Church, which is not so much a place where the Word of God is preached nor where the sacraments are celebrated and the Mystery is worshiped, but a kind of alternative society. And what kind of society is this? This is again extremely ironic, but it seems that Milbank's vision of a society based on Christian Socialism is essentially a kind of liberal state where some aspects of life are centrally governed but for the most part it is a free market economy. Sounds familiar? That's exactly what we have in the Western world today. Only Milbank would like people to be a bit nicer, because that is more "Christian".

Another problem with this book is that the practical applications of his argument always come as complete surprises, like the half-hearted criticism of capitalism mentioned above, or the championing of non-violence. It has a very loose connection to his over-all line of argument.

An then we have the final chapter. In these few last pages we find out that Milbank actually don't think the Church is such a great place after all. It has failed miserably at what it was supposed to be and do, and created liberalism, nihilism, violence and power-politics in the process. And then it stops with a kind of "but at least it is better than secular reason". And that's it. 433 pages to get to this result?

How about an eschatological perspective on the Church? Nope. How about some notion about the importance of the believers relation to the ultimate? No, not that either. How about the Church as place of overcoming of sin and learning the behavior of the citizens of the Kingdom of heaven? Not in there.

Not much of a point then, really?