Roland on Dreams

From the November 2015 Print Edition

It was, I believe, the third time that the small, hard, moist rubber ball struck my forehead and dropped to my pillow that I awakened fully (or dreamed I had done). The gaze that met my own was that of my dog Roland, his coal-black snout, drooping brown ears, and handsome chalk-and-charcoal face so beautifully illuminated by the pale golden glow of the rush light beyond my open bedroom door that he looked like a saint or bodhisattva wrapped in a haze of glory. “Ah,” I said, clearing my throat and slightly raising my head, “yes . . . I don’t actually have any treats with me just now, and­—” But he interrupted me with his soft, slightly amused voice (so hauntingly reminiscent of Laurence Harvey’s): “No, no, I’m not playing that silly ‘Give’ game you like so much.” “Oh,” I said, still gathering my wits. “Then why . . . ?” “I was wondering whether you were dreaming,” said Roland; “and, if so, whether you’d be able to recognize the transition from one state to the other if I roused you.” His snout momentarily came nearer and he briefly sniffed about my lips and nostrils. “Yes,” he said, drawing back again, “you seem alert now. So—can you?” I cleared my throat again. “Well, yes . . . of course.” “Are you sure?” said Roland, drawing out the last syllable doubtfully. “Can you really?”—again, the last word skeptically prolonged. “Of course,” I answered. “Why do you even ask?” Continue Reading »

Saint Origen

From the October 2015 Print Edition

Amonth or so ago I found myself hovering at the edges of a long, rambling, repetitive intra-Orthodox theological debate over the question of universal salvation, and specifically the question of whether there exists any genuine ecclesial doctrine hostile to the idea. It is an issue that arises in Eastern Christian circles with some frequency, for a number of reasons, some of them reaching back to the first five centuries of the Church, some only as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century in Russia. Not that there really is much of an argument to be had on the matter. Orthodoxy’s entire dogmatic deposit resides in the canons of the seven ecumenical councils—everything else in Orthodox tradition, be it ever so venerable, beautiful, or spiritually nourishing, can possess at most the authority of accepted custom, licit conjecture, or fruitful practice—and the consensus of the most conscientious and historically literate Orthodox theologians and scholars over the past several decades (Evdokimov, Bulgakov, Clément, Turincev, Ware, Alfeyev, to name a few) is that universalism as such, as a permissible theologoumenon or plausible hope, has never been condemned by the Church. Doctrine is silent on the matter. So live and let live.But there are those who find this an intolerable state of affairs, sometimes because of an earnest if misguided devotion to what they believe Scripture or tradition demands, sometimes because the idea of the eternal torment of the derelict appeals to some unpleasantly obvious emotional pathologies on their parts. And the fiercest on this score seem to be certain converts from Evangelicalism who bristle at the thought that Orthodox tradition might be more diverse, indeterminate, and speculatively daring than what they signed on for. And so the argument went on, repeating a familiar pattern. Those who were keen to defend the gates of hell against every assault of hope cited the small handful of New Testament verses seeming to threaten everlasting damnation; those on the other side responded that none of those pericopes, when correctly interpreted and translated, says what the “infernalists” imagine, and then cited the (far more numerous) ­passages proclaiming universal rescue. The eternal-damnation party invoked various “binding” authorities, such as the 1583 edition of the Synodikon; the total-reconciliation party pointed out (quite correctly) that Orthodox dogma is the province only of the Seven Councils, not of some hoary collection of canonical pronouncements and para-canonical opinions. The hellions made vague appeals to “holy tradition”; the empyrealists (knowing that “holy tradition” can mean anything from unshaven priests to crypto-gnostic superstitions about departed souls rising through “aerial tollhouses” supervised by devils) were unimpressed. Continue Reading »

Roland on Vaikuntha

From the August/September 2015 Print Edition

At first there was only the vigorous snuffling sound of an inquisitive snout near my brow, then the sensation of humid breath falling tenderly upon my neck, then the light brush of a cool wet nose against my cheek, and finally the tentative probing tip of a broad ductile tongue along the rim of my ear. I stirred, an inarticulate but vaguely interrogative moan rising in my throat. At once, a voice hauntingly like Laurence Harvey’s said, “Yes, I thought you were awake.”I opened my eyes, and could tell from the deep, almost cerulean darkness that it was still night. A moment later I realized that the shape looming over me, silhouetted against the moon-drenched linen curtains of my window, was that of my dog Roland’s shoulders and head. “What . . . ?” I began.“I can guess why you’re so restless,” he said. “I expect it’s all the turmoil and vexation that all these debates you get involved in cause you. But you mustn’t allow indignation or personal passion to rob you of sleep.” Continue Reading »

Romans 8:19–22

From the June/July 2015 Print Edition

In a moment, another Auseinandersetzung with the indefatigable Edward Feser; but first a small prolepsis: A reader recently asked me why, in my technical writings, I treat the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas with such respect while, in my more popular work, I delight in casual abuse of Thomists. This is the peril of allowing one’s specialist vocabulary to leak into one’s public voice. In theological circles, the term “Thomism” (or “traditional Thomism” or “manualist Thomism” or “two-tier Thomism”) typically refers not to the writings of Thomas himself, or even to any given scholar—Maritain, Gilson, W. Norris Clarke, etc.—who happens to study Thomas’s thought, but to a particular faction of Baroque neoscholasticism, which began in the sixteenth century, prin­cipally with Domingo Báñez, and which largely died out in the twentieth, principally with Reginald ­Garrigou-Lagrange. This was the tradition that produced the infamous Thomist “manuals,” and that a succession of Catholic scholars—Kuhn, Blondel, Chenu, de Lubac, Lonergan, and so on—assailed as an impoverished early modern distortion of the medieval synthesis, and that was finally swept away in the last century by the twin torrents of the patristic ressourcement and a new golden age of Catholic systematic and philosophical theology. Simply said, Thomas was a dynamically original thinker, who today would make as avid a use of Darwin and Bohr as he did of the Aristotelian science of his day; Thomism, by contrast, is a school, which too often clings to its categories with the pertinacity of a drowning man clutching a shard of flotsam. So, to avoid confusion, I shall refer to the latter below simply as “The System.” Continue Reading »

Traditio Deformis

From the May 2015 Print Edition

The long history of defective Christian scriptural exegesis occasioned by problematic translations is a luxuriant one, and its riches are too numerous and exquisitely various adequately to classify. But I think one can arrange most of them along a single continuum in four broad divisions: some misreadings are caused by a translator’s error, others by merely questionable renderings of certain words, others by the unfamiliarity of the original author’s (historically specific) idiom, and still others by the “untranslatable” remoteness of the author’s own (culturally specific) theological concerns. And each kind comes with its own special perils and consequences. But let me illustrate. Take, for example, Augustine’s magisterial reading of the Letter to the Romans, as unfolded in reams of his writings, and ever thereafter by his theological heirs: perhaps the most sublime “strong misreading” in the history of Christian thought, and one that comprises specimens of all four classes of misprision. Of the first, for instance: the notoriously misleading Latin rendering of Romans 5:12 that deceived Augustine into imagining Paul believed all human beings to have, in some mysterious manner, sinned “in” Adam, which obliged Augustine to think of original sin—bondage to death, mental and moral debility, estrangement from God—ever more insistently in terms of an inherited guilt (a concept as logically coherent as that of a square circle), and which prompted him to assert with such sinewy vigor the justly eternal torment of babes who died unbaptized. And of the second: the way, for instance, Augustine’s misunderstanding of Paul’s theology of election was abetted by the simple contingency of a verb as weak as the Greek proorizein (“sketching out beforehand,” “planning,” etc.) being rendered as praedestinare—etymologically defensible, but connotatively impossible. And of the third: Augustine’s frequent failure to appreciate the degree to which, for Paul, the “works” (erga, opera) he contradistinguishes from faith are works of the Mosaic law, “observances” (circumcision, kosher regulations, and so on). And of the fourth—well, the evidences abound: Augustine’s attempt to reverse the first two terms in the order of election laid out in Romans 8:29–30 (“Whom he foreknew he also marked out beforehand”); or his eagerness, when citing Romans 5:18, to quote the protasis (“Just as one man’s offence led to condemnation for all men”), but his reluctance to quote the (strictly isomorphic) apodosis (“so also one man’s righteousness led to justification unto life for all men”); or, of course, his entire reading of Romans 9–11 . . . Ah—thereby hangs a tale. Continue Reading »

Vinculum Magnum Entis

From the April 2015 Print Edition

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist . . . you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that ­absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange. . . . Yes, well, as I say, this young Thomist told me that not only could my dog not love me (since he lacks a rational nature), but I could not love my dog (something about there needing to be some rational equality between lover and beloved). Now, while I admitted that I could only presume the former claim to be incorrect (if only on account of the tender sobriquets—Honeychild, Blossom, Barbarossa—by which my dog addresses me), I was adamant that I could be absolutely certain of the falsity of the latter. But my friend was not deterred: “Oh, no,” he insisted, “you don’t really love him; you just think you do because of your deep emotional attachment to him.” Continue Reading »

Reason’s Faith

From the March 2015 Print Edition

I learned in these pages not long ago that it is perilous to express doubts regarding the persuasive power of most natural-law theory in today’s world. Not that I would dream of rehearsing the controversy again; but I will note that, at the time, I took my general point to be not that natural-law theory is inherently futile, but rather that its proponents often fail to grasp just how nihilistic the late modern view of reality has become, or how far our culture has gone toward losing any coherent sense of “nature” at all, let alone of any realm of moral meanings to which nature might afford access. In our time, any argument from immanent goods to transcendent ends must be prepared for by an attempt to “recover the world,” so to speak: a deeper, wider tuition of sensibility, imagination, and natural reverence.Well, whether I was right or not, among the ­responses I provoked none surprised me more than the accusation of “fideism.” It had not occurred to me that anyone would imagine that the only alternative to a boundless confidence in reason’s competency to extract moral truths from nature’s evident forms, no matter what the prevailing cultural regime, is the belief that moral knowledge is the exclusive preserve of “revelation,” narrowly conceived as a body of inscrutable legislations irrupting into history from on high. If nothing else, excessive anxiety over the Scylla and Charybdis of “rationalism” and “fideism” seems like such a tarnished relic of the seventeenth century (or thereabouts). Both categories would have been unintelligible in the ancient or medieval worlds to which I had thought I was casting back a wistful eye—worlds in which reason and faith had not yet come to be regarded as utterly distinct, ultimately antithetical movements of the mind. Continue Reading »

Roland on Free Will

From the February 2015 Print Edition

In my dream (if it was a dream), I was roused by a soft, suave, gauzily sonorous voice, hauntingly reminiscent of Laurence Harvey’s. “Are you doing anything just now?” it said. I opened my eyes to see the face of my dog, Roland, bent close over my own. Even in the dim light before . . . . Continue Reading »

Ad Litteram

When lecturing undergraduates on ­Kafka’s Metamorphosis—during his otherwise idyllic American years, when he had to make his principal living in the classroom—Vladimir Nabokov liked to call his students’ attention to those sparse textual clues that made it possible to . . . . Continue Reading »

Ad Litteram

From the January 2015 Print Edition

When lecturing undergraduates on ­Kafka’s Metamorphosis—during his otherwise idyllic American years, when he had to make his principal living in the classroom—Vladimir Nabokov liked to call his students’ attention to those sparse textual clues that made it possible to deduce what kind of “monstrous vermin” it was that Gregor Samsa had changed into during the night. Precisely why Nabokov did this might not have been immediately obvious to his charges. Perhaps it was only a brief, pardonable moment of ostentation, like casually drawing an exquisite watch from one’s waistcoat pocket not because one really has any need to check the time but only to dangle it for a glittering instant before the eyes of the hired help. It certainly allowed him to flaunt his considerable entomological expertise before a captive audience. It even allowed him to demonstrate that he understood aspects of the story better than its author ever had. (Kafka might have been able to describe the insect in question, but it is doubtful he could have named it.) In fact, however, Nabokov’s motives were largely both pure and high. For him, there was no such thing as a ­merely incidental feature in any text—at least not in any text truly worthy of notice. He regarded it as of the very essence of reading that one know as exactly as possible what one is reading about at any instant. He approached every text in this way. He would lavish loving, sometimes obsessive scrutiny on every concrete detail of the story: trees and butterflies, the designs of drawing rooms and gardens; whatever flora might be springing up in the margins of the page, whatever unguiculate or sleekly squamous fauna might be slinking between its lines or scurrying from one paragraph to the next; the angles of shadows, the songs of birds; and so on. For him the special delight of literature, and in fact its special coherence, lay always in the particular: in the discrete details the author had gathered up into his prose and in the texture produced by their interweaving. And no one was more brilliant at noticing those details. Nabokov was an absolute master of—in the parlance of earlier ages—literal exegesis. Continue Reading »