Saturday, April 09, 2011

Three Poem Re-Drafts

Discourse of St. Symeon

Who stands upon the ocean-shore
and looks out to horizon's end
may in its vastness somewhat share
but yet is bound upon the sand;
such see in truth the boundless sea
and yet the sea extends beyond;
unbounded sea they truly saw
and yet their seeing had a bound.
Yet, content not just to see,
will others into vastness wade,
and what shall we of these folk say
who feel the waves roll strong and wet?
They too the endless ocean share,
but they are conscious and made full,
far more than any on the shore,
of fullness, depth, and overflow.
But will not those who wade out lose
their vision as the water weaves
a wall through which their eyes see less
of anything but wave on wave?
And to the one who simply swims
all but the ocean then will fade;
in such a state the world then seems
to be but currents that enfold.

This is so with glory bright!
Even thus will be the lot
of those who by God's grace are brought
into God's deep and endless light.

In All the World Are None for Me

In all the world are none for me.
The lonely whispers from the sea
like shadows slink out on the sly
beyond the corner of my eye:
no words enmesh the wary heart,
nor force, nor faith, nor artless art,
and always-mocking almost-mights
still haunt the dark and lonely nights
like long-smashed idols made of sand
that whisper of a promised land,
or gnat-like nothings made of air
and pithless deserts, dry and bare.
But one small impulse deep inside,
so stubborn in its inborn pride,
will seek, will quest, and never stay,
till love is found, or judgment day.


On a dark and stormy night when a gale was rising high,
I was walking in the forest and thought I heard a cry;
muffled by the distance to a sound like mournful sigh,
it rose above the wind, then wavered, faltered, died,
so light upon the ear I almost could have thought
it was a trick of sound by storm and gale-wind wrought.
What could that whisper be? Sense and query fought,
but puzzle over-balanced, so sense I heeded not:
I rushed into the darkness of the wind and rain and cold.
The lightning flashed and glamored on a castle ruined of old
and there, like sheep who stray from the devil's fallen fold,
there walked in shadowed night the terrors, bale and bold,
who turned the rain to ice with malice in their breath --
their eyes looked chill upon me, and I met my freezing death.

To Starve Thy Sin, Not Bin

To Keep a True Lent
by Robert Herrick

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep ?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish ?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour ?

No ; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate ;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent ;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Hume as Historian

Daniel Little has a post on Hume as historian at "Understanding Society." I think gets some things right, although I think it also overlooks some very important things.

(1) It is quite true that Hume's History is highly biographical and focused on linear narrative. But I think it's inaccurate to say that "The narrative proceeds from court to parliament to war to plots to trials and executions, with virtually no commentary on the sequence." In fact, none of Hume's contemporaries read him this way: they read it as a continual commentary. In the charged politics of the time it was impossible for them not to do so. Many of the interpretations of events Hume makes were very controversial interpretations; as Hume somewhat melodramatically put it, everyone was united in rage against the man who presumed to shed a tear for King Charles and the Earl of Stafford. (It's also very hyperbolic since the History was very popular, indeed, Hume's most popular work in his lifetime and for a considerable time afterward.) His work was also widely seen as a sustained attack against Calvinism. The reasons for this are important, and lead us to the second point.

(2) We know from Hume's letters that the reason he shortchanges most of England's early history is that it is with the Stuarts that he first could clearly see the operation of factions. And this is exactly what the History of England is: it is a sustained study of factions in the concrete case of England. It is a biographical history, but saying that it is a biographical history makes it sound as if it were just a story of Great Men. But there is a reason it is biographical, and the reason is that factions lift up elites. Factions form around people, or certain people become representative of them, and so forth. All the economic and social context that Little finds missing in Hume is missing because factions don't take them into account except in very limited ways; the oppositions between Court and Country, for instance, were never about finer details of economics or government.

(3) Further, I think it's important to pay close attention to the mechanisms to which Hume explicitly appeals. These mechanisms aren't explained at great length in the History itself; in order to find theoretical discussion of them we have to go to Hume's essays. But they are there. Superstition (or priestcraft) and enthusiasm are posited as playing a real causal role in large parts of the History, for instance. As I've noted before, there's some room to doubt about whether Hume's use of them is sufficiently coherent for them to do the work he clearly thinks they need to be doing, and Hume's Calvinist critics, like MacQueen, pressed his use of superstition and enthusiasm as causal explanations very hard. But the important thing for our purposes is that there is in fact a large scale theoretical explanation of events going on throughout the History, one involving Hume's theories of political and religious factions. That he is less abstract in his explanations than Gibbon is certainly true; but that's because abstractions don't explain: particular events do. Hume's treatment of the particular events as explanatory, however, does involve a real theoretical set of ideas about how explanation in historical matters should work. It's just not right to say that there are no explanatory themes in the work; every page is full of them, and what is more, they were recognized as such, and criticized as such, by Hume's contemporaries.


I rarely post any pictures of myself, but here I am, between having seen Jefferson and going to see Lincoln, making friends with Fala at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Fala was the memorable part of what became one of FDR's most famous speeches (from September 23, 1944):

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him--at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars--his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself--such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to, libelous statements about my dog.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Thursday Virtue/Vice: Superstition

According to Aquinas, religion is a moral virtue by which one does well in rendering what is due to God. However, all moral virtues are described by the doctrine of the mean: they are means between extremes of defect and excess. The vice of excess that is opposed to religion is called 'superstition'.

However, there is an initial problem here. By its very nature, we cannot render what is due to God in such a way as to equal what God deserves. How then can we have an excess here? It's possible to have an excess because of an important feature of the doctrine of the mean that is overlooked. It is true that the golden mean lies between extremes, but these extremes can be extremes of conditions or circumstances of the act as well as extremes of the basic act. In this case, while the act of religion can never itself be 'too much' if properly directed, one can be excessive in religious devotion by rendering it to things other than God, or by failing to use appropriate means.

The virtue of religion has three primary ends, and these ends structure how Aquinas sees superstition.

(1) The first end of religious acts is to give reverence to God. Failing to do so is a sin of defect, but giving the reverence appropriate to God to something that is not God is a sin of excess and called idolatry. On Aquinas's view this is the most grievous kind of sin possible, although, as always, in particular cases it may be more or less bad due to circumstances, and the less bad cases of idolatry may sometiems be less bad than particular cases of other vices. Idolatry arises for a number of different reasons -- excessive attachment to non-divine things, perversion of our natural inclination to make representations of things, and ignorance of the difference between great creaturely power and truly divine power.

(2) The second end of religious acts is to be taught by God. When we engage in religious acts in order to be taught by something other than God, this is called divination. Aquinas thinks that this often arises through a pathological twist on a natural inclination: we have a natural inclination to know the future by human means (study of causes and the like). But we either get impatient or greedy and want to know the future by more than human means, or to know more of the future than human means (confined to things that happen always or for the most part) allow.

(3) The third end of religious acts is to direct human acts to God. When we adapt these religious acts so that our human acts are directed by them to things other than God, this is superstitious observance or magic. We fall into this vice through using inappropriate means to satisfy our natural inclination to learn things -- hence the longstanding links between the vice of magic and the vice of curiosity (which has to do with trying to learn things we are either not ready or not able to learn without detriment to ourselves or others) -- and through attempting to do things by using mere signs as if they were causes.

All of these are miscarriages of religious actions -- they render religious honor to things other than God. In addition, there is a fourth kind of superstition:

(4) When we really render religious honor to God, but in an inappropriate way, this is undue or inappropriate worship. Aquinas sees these as being a sort of religious lie. Thus someone who insisted on practices contrary to Christian principles or worship (e.g., demanding Jewish circumcision for entrance into the Church), or a priest who insisted on deviating from ecclesiastical requirements and customs in liturgy, is presenting a false sort of worship due to the mismatch between the means he is using and what it is supposed to represent.

All four of these involve a focus on various external features of religious acts, and thus neglect the heart of religious worship.

March's Virtue/Vice Posts

March was a busy month for me, so there are only two:




Craftiness, Guile, and Fraud

February's Virtue/Vice Posts

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

There Comes a Point Beyond Which It's All Icing on the Cake Anyway

Martin Rees was recently given some Templeton prize or other; Templeton, of course, gives prizes and grants to scientists whose work has something or other to do with spirituality. There are people who are very critical of Templeton's work for encouraging the mixing of science and religion. (Rees is explicitly an atheist, but has been pretty vocal for the claim that science and religious belief are not inconsistent, and in arguing that the Church of England is valuable for cultural reasons). I wouldn't mention it at all, but I was extraordinarily amused by this:

Professor Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist and atheist, said, "This will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's."

Looking at the short version of Martin Rees's CV, which doesn't even list his many, many papers in peer-reviewed journals, I really think he can take the hit.

An Everlasting Night

A Hymn To Christ
by John Donne

In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of thy Ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood;
Though thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face, yet through that mask I know those eyes,
Which, though they turn away sometimes,
They never will despise.

I sacrifice this Island unto thee,
And all whom I loved there, and who loved me;
When I have put our seas 'twixt them and me,
Put thou thy sea betwixt my sins and thee.
As the tree's sap doth seek the root below
In winter, in my winter now I go,
Where none but thee, th' Eternal root
Of true Love, I may know.

Nor thou nor thy religion dost control
The amorousness of an harmonious Soul,
But thou wouldst have that love thyself: as thou
Art jealous, Lord, so I am jealous now,
Thou lov'st not, till from loving more, Thou free
My soul: who ever gives, takes liberty:
O, if thou car'st not whom I love
Alas, thou lov'st not me.

Seal then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beams of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered be
On Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.
Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I go out of sight:
And to 'scape stormy days, I choose
An Everlasting night.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Some Jottings on Analogy and Via Triplex in Philosophical and Theological Lights

When reading Erin Kidd's defense of Sister Elizabeth Johnson in response to the USCCB's criticism of her recent book on theology (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV), and in particular a passage from Johnson's book, I was reminded of how far away from contemporary theologians philosophers are. (It should be noted in what follows that I'm not attempting any sort of commentary on the USCCB's criticism or on the defense itself, only giving an example of how alien contemporary theology is from contemporary philosophy, at least as I see it.) The passage in question:

Take, for example, the term “good.” Inevitably, our understanding of what “good” means arises from our experience of goodness in the world. We experience good persons, good satisfactions, good weather, and so on. From these we derive a concept of goodness that we then affirm of God who created all these good things. But God is infinite, so we need to remove anything that smacks of restriction. Thus we negate the finite way goodness exists in the world, shot through with limitation. But still we think God is good, so we negate that particular negation and judge that God is good in a supremely excellent way that surpasses all understanding. According to analogy, when we attribute goodness to God the theological meaning is this: God is good; but God is not good the way creatures are good; but God is good in a supereminent way as Source of all that is good.

At this point our concept of goodness cracks open. We literally do not understand what we are saying. Human comprehension of the meaning of “good” is lost, for we have no direct early experience of anything that is the Source of all goodnesss. Yet the very saying of it ushers or spirit toward the presence of God who is good, a reality so bright that it is darkness to our mind. In the end, the play of analogy brings us to our knees in adoration (Quest 18-19).

And then Kidd comments that this is simply a standard account of analogy. Perhaps in theology departments, but I think those of us in philosophy departments who deal on occasion with the theory of analogy would find some questions raised almost immediately, since our discipline requires recognition of issues that are not really found here. Some points:

(A) As a matter of technicality, the doctrine of analogy is conflated with the via triplex. The via triplex is an account of our knowledge of God, and is derived largely from an interpretation of the Dionysian (Pseudo-Dionysus). It's usually put in terms of eminence (or excellence), negation (or remotion), and causality (or affirmation), or some such, and the last sentence of Sister Johnson's first paragraph in the quotation above more or less captures it for the case of God and goodness: (1) we know by causal reasoning that the goodness of creatures can only be a participation in divine goodness, which is then the principle of goodness for creatures (causality); (2) however, because the effect is not commensurate with the cause in this case, we know God has goodness in a more eminent way than any creature can (eminence); (3) but our knowledge of this pre-eminent goodness necessarily falls short of what is actually in God because it is derived from creatures (negation or remotion).

The doctrine of analogy, on the other hand, is an account of the way things can be named or can take predicates, and is derived largely from an interpretation of Aristotle. When two things are given the same name, but the meaning is different from each, the names are predicated equivocally; when two things are given the same name, but the meaning is the same in each, the names are predicated univocally. The doctrine of analogy is the position that there is something between these two, in which the meaning is not wholly the same nor wholly different. As Aquinas puts it, "a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing." 'Healthy' applies to diets, urine samples, and bodies; this is not univocal, because diets are not healthy in the same way bodies are. But neither is it purely equivocal, either, because healthiness in diets obviously has some close relation to healthiness in bodies -- to be more exact, healthy diets are those diets that have something to do with health in bodies (they are contributing causes), and healthy bodies are those bodies that are healthy. And similarly, mutatis mutandis, with urine samples.

Thus the two aren't simply the same. This need not be a problem, however; Thomists will often say that the via triplex is the reason for saying that terms are predicated of God and creatures analogically: because God is good (which we know by causality and eminence), 'good' can't be equivocal when applied to both God and creatures; but because God's goodness transcends all creaturely good in such a way that we know that the term 'good' does not adequately describe God (which we know by eminence and remotion), 'good' can't be univocal when applied to both God and creatures. This is not an argument that has convinced all non-Thomists, and you can find plenty of people who accept the via triplex without accepting the doctrine of analogy, and would not be happy with the conflation. On the other hand, perhaps Sr. Johnson was simply speaking loosely because of the occasion (because of other things she says, I don't think she was, but it's possible); and, in any case, non-Thomists are used to not being happy with these sorts of discussions.

(B) The "negating the negation" characterization of eminence, by the way, I have seen often among twentieth-century theologians; it seems to me to be one of those things theologians say without thinking. I don't know who started this fundamentally useless way of talking about it (one suspects some misguided attempt to conflate it with Hegelian dialectic), but in recent times it seems to trace back to Walter Kasper. Negation of negation in any strict sense just puts you back where you started; Kasper claimed that negating the negation posited something higher, but always seemed to leave it rather mysterious how it could possibly do so. This characterization of eminence also requires that eminence always succeeds negation; but in fact it's clear from classical texts that this cannot be taken as definitive: in the tradition you can find plenty of passages in which eminence flows directly from causation and remotion is treated as the pinnacle of our knowledge of God. Aquinas, for instance, sticks to no particular order: not counting any other works, Aquinas uses the order {causality, remotion, eminence} in Sent. (3x), SCG (1x), and ST (1x); the order {negation, causality, eminence} in Sent. (1x), SCG (1x), and ST (1x); the order {eminence, causality,negation} in ST (1x); and the order {causality, eminence, negation} in SCG (1x) and ST (3x). (The only order that seems not ever to be found in Aquinas is {eminence, negation, causality}, and this seems purely a matter of accident.) This is not at all uncommon. The three are traditionally based on nothing other than three aspects of our knowledge of causes when we reason from effects to causes; there's no particular reason why it should only go in one order -- you can have them in any order you please, or all separately, or all at once, depending on what you are doing. This has always struck me as an example of the way in which originally sophisticated accounts degenerate in contemporary theology -- Kasper gives one particular account of it, and it is repeated as a formula over and over again without critical examination, as if it were a magical method with self-evident grounds.

(C) As I mentioned, the point in (A) is mostly a technicality, and could be regarded as simply a result of writing in a popular manner. But most of what Sister Johnson says here about analogy is most naturally read as saying that we are really in the realm of equivocation, unless she is engaging in a much more massive set of conflations than suggested above. If it's predicated analogically of God and creatures, in what sense can we say that "our concept of goodness cracks open" when we are talking about God? What is the metaphor here supposed to imply? In what way does it follow that we "literally do not understand what we are saying"? If we literally didn't understand what we were saying, we would have no way of telling whether the terms are predicated analogically or not! Precisely the point of the doctrine of analogy is that we know very well what we are saying in both cases, and there is a clear link between the two, despite the fact that we are not saying exactly the same thing in both cases. All three of those points (we find the uses of the term intelligible, we see that the uses are not the same, and we see the link between them) require that we understand what we are saying. Possibly this is a problem arising from the conflation of the triplex via (which is about what we can know about God) with analogy (which in this context is about how we use terms applying to both God and creatures); our knowledge of God may fall short of all God is, but nothing about this implies that we don't know what our words mean or why it's right to use them. It's not at all clear how one can pull out of the doctrine of analogy the idea that "human comprehension of the meaning of 'good' is lost" when we apply it to God. God, who is good, evades our comprehension because the word 'good' doesn't cover His excellence, being limited by the fact that we apply it to him by seeing good in creatures and realizing that this is just a participation of divine good; but the word 'good' and the concept good themselves are not so elusive, and our intellects are quite able to handle them throughout. There seems to be an intrusion foreign to the doctrine of analogy here, leading to analogy being described in exactly opposite terms to those with which it is usually described.

UPDATE: James has a better discussion of this point.

(D) When I read something like, "Yet the very saying of it ushers our spirit toward the presence of God who is good" I begin to suspect that the theologian in question is merely playing with words. The saying of things we literally do not understand, of which we have lost all human comprehension, "ushers our spirit toward the presence of God who is good"; how, one scarcely can conceive. Sober minds that are not apt to be spirited away by characteristics of names and predications may well marvel at the ease with which theologians are ushered toward the presence of God; it is only slightly less wonderful than being ushered toward the presence of God by exclamation points and question marks or by modes of supposition. Even the triplex via is just about causal reasoning, or about participation in matters of cause and effect. Of course, Johnson is probably only being florid here in the bad-high-school-poetry style modern theologians seem more and more to love, in which incoherent effusion takes the place of coherent thought, but I prefer to think that this is really performative, and that Sister Elizabeth Johnson is actually demonstrating the account she has just laid out by saying something we literally cannot understand, and of which all human comprehension is lost. It indeed shares the most famous feature of the peace of God: it surpasses all understanding. The Holy Spirit ushers our spirit toward God; perhaps you can say that creatures from whom we begin to reason usher our spirit toward God; but saying things we literally don't understand doesn't in any comprehensible usher our spirits toward God -- it just leaves us literally not understanding. And while it may be true that "the play of analogy brings us to our knees in adoration," one suspects there are a few steps left out between the cause and effect here; I, for one, know of nobody who, recognizing the play of analogy in talking about healthy bodies and healthy urine samples, was brought to their knees in adoration because of it. Something would have to be going on beyond analogy itself, indeed beyond the threefold way itself. All we seem to have here is the sort of useless and florid rhetoric contemporary theologians like to think is profound. I don't mind florid rhetoric, of course; but the thing about it is that its proper place is as flourish, not as substance. Try to make it substance and it becomes mere wild handwaving.

What once was theology is now scattered over at least three disciplines, biblical studies, philosophy, and theology. This has been to the detriment of all three, but I think theology is the scion that has most lost its robustness, and the above is an example of the problem. Johnson's account is, as Kidd notes, fairly standard for theology departments. But it seems to me to be clearly a degeneration of the original -- it's what happens when sophisticated and difficult philosophical discussions become treated in a formulaic or talismanic manner. This is not the only case I've ever seen. (Every work I've read by Johnson, all of which are actually quite good in comparison with most theological work done these days, suffers from analogous problems: vague methodology with at best loose foundations, inconsistent applications of principles, uncritical reiteration of things, rhetoric doing the work of reasoning, extraordinary imprecisions, and in short the whole kaleidoscope that makes modern-day theology a mere bagatelle constructed of phrases people find striking rather than a genuinely creative and intellectually powerful discipline.) There are lots of intelligent people in theology; but I worry about the habits of thought they are being taught to inculcate in themselves.

Monday, April 04, 2011

S. K. S. Perry

S.K.S. Perry is a writer who put a novel, called Darkside, up on his website as a free online novel. He decided eventually to make a Kindle version because a number of his readers had expressed an interest in having one. When he did so, however, he found that someone was already selling a pirated Kindle version, without any permission. He contacted about it and...nothing has happened (by U.S. law they are supposed to take down the work immediately and verify the identity of the person who was selling it). You can read about his struggle to get even to acknowledge the problem on his LiveJournal. has a famously bad reputation (e.g., inconsistent on good days, outright useless on bad) when it comes to customer service in matters that can't be handled by automation; but this is an especially serious issue -- more than a mere mistake, they seem currently to be in violation of the law.

The free online version of Darkside, if you're interested in the book.

The Kindle version of Darkside -- the authorized version, that is, if you want to support the author. The handy thing here is that you can actually read the book first to see if you like it enough to download it to a Kindle.

The Medieval Cram Text

Today is the feast day of St. Isidore of Seville, Doctor of the Church and widely regarded as the patron saint of the Internet. Why is he the patron saint of the Internet? (Besides the fact that John Paul II mentioned him in this connection once.) Because his most famous work, the Etymologies, is a collection of odds and ends on all sorts of different subjects. It is, in fact a set of quotations, paraphrases, and the like patched together and arranged under different headings; it was a quick resource for knowledge of grammar, science, legends, law, figures of speech, medicine, architecture, theology, and more. The full thing consists of 448 chapters, which is said at the time to have filled about 20 volumes; thus it is often called the first encyclopedia.

He is the most famous and influential of a family of saints; his brothers Leander and Fulgentius and his sister Florentina were all canonized; Leander became bishop of Seville, and Isidore took his place after Leander's death.

Road from Earth to Sky

The Rainbow
by Christina Rossetti

Boats sail on the rivers,
And ships sail on the seas;
But clouds that sail across the sky
Are prettier than these.

There are bridges on the rivers,
As pretty as you please;
But the bow that bridges heaven,
And overtops the trees,
And builds a road from earth to sky,
Is prettier far than these.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


The Ladder of Divine Ascent Monastery of St Catherine Sinai 12th century

Byzantine Catholics celebrate the Sunday of John Climacus today, which I've always thought one of the more sobering ecclesiastical traditions in Lent. St. John Climacus receives his name because of his famous work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Klimax = "Ladder"), one of the great classics of ascetic life. The central image of the work is that of Jacob's Ladder; St. John, who lived from the late sixth century to the middle of the seventh century, uses this as an image for teaching monks about stages of spiritual discipline; he gives no less than thirty stages, beginning with renunciation of the world and ending with the high trinity of virtues (faith, hope, and love). In effect it can be seen as a discussion of thirty types of spiritual practice, arranged roughly in order of difficulty.

Climacus was a monk living in the Sinai region, and eventually became abbot of St. Catherin's Monastery; the monastery has in its possession a famous icon related to the work, dating from (I believe) the 12th century. The one above is the version of it available at Wikimedia Commons. It's quite the picture: demons are dragging monks down to hell by means of their passions, as they struggle upward to Christ under the encouragement of the angels and the saints.

So Still and Secret Is Her Growth

Fourth Sunday In Lent
by John Keble

When Nature tries her finest touch,
Weaving her vernal wreath,
Mark ye, how close she veils her round,
Not to be traced by sight or sound,
Nor soiled by ruder breath?

Who ever saw the earliest rose
First open her sweet breast?
Or, when the summer sun goes down,
The first soft star in evening's crown
Light up her gleaming crest?

Fondly we seek the dawning bloom
On features wan and fair,
The gazing eye no change can trace,
But look away a little space,
Then turn, and lo! 'tis there.

But there's a sweeter flower than e'er
Blushed on the rosy spray -
A brighter star, a richer bloom
Than e'er did western heaven illume
At close of summer day.

'Tis Love, the last best gift of Heaven;
Love gentle, holy, pure;
But tenderer than a dove's soft eye,
The searching sun, the open sky,
She never could endure.

E'en human Love will shrink from sight
Here in the coarse rude earth:
How then should rash intruding glance
Break in upon HER sacred trance
Who boasts a heavenly birth?

So still and secret is her growth,
Ever the truest heart,
Where deepest strikes her kindly root
For hope or joy, for flower or fruit,
Least knows its happy part.

God only, and good angels, look
Behind the blissful screen -
As when, triumphant o'er His woes,
The Son of God by moonlight rose,
By all but Heaven unseen:

As when the holy Maid beheld
Her risen Son and Lord:
Thought has not colours half so fair
That she to paint that hour may dare,
In silence best adored.

The gracious Dove, that brought from Heaven
The earnest of our bliss,
Of many a chosen witness telling,
On many a happy vision dwelling,
Sings not a note of this.

So, truest image of the Christ,
Old Israel's long-lost son,
What time, with sweet forgiving cheer,
He called his conscious brethren near,
Would weep with them alone.

He could not trust his melting soul
But in his Maker's sight -
Then why should gentle hearts and true
Bare to the rude world's withering view
Their treasure of delight!

No--let the dainty rose awhile
Her bashful fragrance hide -
Rend not her silken veil too soon,
But leave her, in her own soft noon,
To flourish and abide.

God and Obligations

Leah at "Unequally Yoked" had an interesting post a while back in which she was collecting challenging questions by atheists for Christians. A few of the questions that people came up with are genuinely of interest, and so I've been thinking of taking a few here or there and giving some responses to them. I don't know how many I'll do, but here is the first.

Do you believe that God has moral obligations? Why or why not?

Obviously this question will depend very much on one's theory of obligation (by which I mean not a theory yielding specific obligations but a theory of what obligations are and why we have any at all), and as it happens there are a very great many different theories of obligation. Because of this, everything I can manage to say in a single post will be rough and merely sketched-out. Interestingly enough, however, on most commonly accepted theories of obligation it's difficult to make sense of the claim that God has obligations in a non-metaphorical sense of the term, at least any that we could know about. (Of course, anything can have obligations in some metaphorical sense of the term, and the question in such a case would be what that particular metaphor is trying to convey; and while one could hold that God has obligations but we don't know anything about what they are, that is, for practical purposes, not really much different from saying that he has no obligations of any sort we can recognize.)

Roughly speaking, there are three major families of theories of obligation (not strictly exhaustive, although genuine alternatives seem fairly rare, and not mutually exclusive, although full-fledged hybrids seem fairly rare): those based on the claim that there is some kind of obligating authority (two major kinds of these); and those based on the claim that there is some kind of obligating sentiment. In the first obligation tends to be seen as a sort of legislation; the second obligation tends to be seen as a sort of drive or impulse (at least in the mentally healthy).

The sentiment-group tends not to have strong reasons to regard any obligations universal: if obligation is based on sentiment, then it depends at the very least on the nature of what has the obligation. Human beings can share obligations, because healthy and thriving human beings have the same nature, and so the same basic impulses and drives. If, for instance, as Hume posited, there are particularly moral sentiments, then these sentiments can obligate. As he says in talking about promises (Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part V, Section V):

All morality depends upon our sentiments; and when any action, or quality of the mind, pleases us after a certain manner, we say it is virtuous; and when the neglect, or nonperformance of it, displeases us after a like manner, we say that we lie under an obligation to perform it.

As Hume himself recognized, however, an implication of this is that any clear understanding of obligations that we might have is confined to the human species as it exists now. If human nature were to change fundamentally, our obligations would change. And if we do not know the natural sentiments of a being, say, God, we do not know what obligations, if any, that being might have. This is a point Hume explicitly makes in a letter to Francis Hutcheson, whom he criticizes for ignoring it. Obviously not every sentiment-based account of obligation need be Humean; but Hume's problem will arise as a challenge to anyone who accepts such an account and holds both that God has obligations and that we can know anything about them. What one would seemingly have to do to answer the challenge is argue that God has to have sentiments sufficiently analogous to our own to allow us to talk about them. But this is not really consistent with most accounts of how we know anything about God.

Hume and a few others aside, most people ground obligation on authority rather than sentiment. They can be divided into two groups: those who hold that all obligating authority is extrinsic to the obligation itself and those who hold that in at least some cases the obligation itself can carry intrinsic obligating authority. The first group is arguably the largest family of theories of obligations, so let's take it first.

Extrinsic-authority theories of obligation can be of almost as many types as there are candidates for sources of authority, but in a sense they all depend on the imposition of will by means of some kind of sanction. One of the primary advantages of pinning obligation itself on an extrinsic authority is that pretty much everyone agrees that at least some extrinsic authorities can impose at least some obligations -- most people agree that the legislature can impose obligations on people, for instance. So the extrinsic-authority theorist is taking a phenomenon we all know well and generalizing it. Two versions in particular have been extraordinarily popular throughout history: divine command theories of obligation and social demand theories of obligations.

In divine command theories, say that of William Warburton in the Divine Legation of Moses, all obligation presupposes an extrinsic obligating authority. This need not strictly be God, but the obligations imposed by an authority are limited to the extent of power that authority wields: to find any universal obligations, one has to go to an authority with genuinely universal power. And obviously, God's the candidate who springs to mind for most people. On such a view God can only have obligations if He can obligate Himself. But as Warburton (if I recall correctly) argues at some length, the sense in which anyone can obligate themselves is a figurative sense of the word: if an obligation depends on your will, and there is no will higher countervailing you, then you can abolish the obligation as easily as you can impose it -- and an obligation that you can do away with as you please is not an obligation in the strict sense. This raises a serious challenge to anyone who holds a divine command theory of obligation and wants to say that God has obligations.

The other very popular extrinsic-authority theory is that obligation is established by the demands of society. Obviously when talking about divine obligations, the question immediately becomes, what society would have the ability to impose sanctions on God? And it's at the very least not clear, unless we are polytheists, that it is even coherent to talk about a society that can impose sanctions on God. But even if it is, how do we know anything about such a society? This, at least, would be a significant challenge for anyone who holds a social demand theory of obligation and wants to say that God has obligations we can know about.

So it would seem that the only hope for someone who wants to say that God has recognizable obligations is some kind of intrinsic-authority theory, in which at least some obligations obligate simply by being what they are. And indeed all the intellectually respectable accounts of divine obligations I can think of are intrinsic-authority theories; in general, they are the only theories that can easily handle the problem of how we can know anything about divine obligations (assuming that they present an account on which God could have obligations); although this is not strictly an advantage all of them share. The trick, then, would be to give an account of obligations in which it would be clear both (1) that this is a plausible account of the authority carried by obligations; and (2) that this account implies that even God would have obligations.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all intrinsic-authority theories of obligation do meet this second condition. An initially promising account of obligation for the believer in divine obligations, for instance, would be that of Kant, who holds that human obligations arise from features of human reason that necessarily and universally apply to anything that can genuinely be called rational. But Kant actually denies that God has any obligations. To have an obligation, there must be some constraint on will: that is, obligation or duty does not arise merely from the necessity of reason but from the fact that the necessity of reason would, if applied, restrict desires we have that would lead us away from doing what reason requires. But, says Kant, if there were a holy will, this latter condition would never be met. If God did have duties, we know what they would be, because God has divine reason, and duties in the strictest and most basic sense are necessary constraints of reason; likewise, on Kant's view we know something about God's moral life because God always acts according to divine reason. But nothing constrains God to do so: God, so to speak, acts as if he did have obligations, but God in fact does spontaneously and without obligation what we do only under constraint of obligation. Kant actually leaves open the possibility that this field of agents who act in harmony with moral law but not in any way obligated by it extends beyond God; if anything other than God has a holy will, it too acts completely in conformity with reason but without any obligation.

Likewise, natural law theories of obligation, the other major family of intrinsic-authority theory, hold that some things can, as law, have authority in and of themselves, namely, the first principles of practical reason. However, the most natural explanation for why these things have intrinsic authority is that they have been promulgated as law insofar as God has made beings that participate in eternal reason; and then the person who wants to accept this view but hold that God has obligations runs into self-obligation problems roughly analogous to those we saw with divine command theory.

These are by no means the only theories of obligation (Malebranche's theory of obligation, for instance, on which God does have obligations, fits none of these very well, although I suppose it's strictly speaking an intrinsic-authority view very different from either Kantianism or natural law theory), and obviously one could do some mixing and matching (holding that, for instance, sentiment is the foundation of obligation but that certain authorities can also, as a result, obligate externally) -- and, indeed, to account for many of the things we call obligations, one would arguably have to do some mixing and matching. And it could very well be that, for instance, one could have a divine command theory with a plausible answer to the challenge I raised above with regard to divine command theories of obligation. But (1) these seem to be far and away the most popular kinds of account historically, and (2) there are reasons in each case at least to worry about the claim that God has recognizable obligations.

For myself, I tend strongly toward an intrinsic-authority theory of natural law type, and I don't think we can make much sense of divine obligations in a strict and proper sense. I find, though, that people usually raise this kind of question as a challenge for Christians (or theists of any stripe) because they are assuming that if God has no obligations then anything goes and God could just as easily be a monster as otherwise. The brief discussion of Kant above at least shows that this cannot always be assumed; and there are good reasons in general for thinking that something can be good, and known to be good, without being obligatory, or known to be obligatory. Thus the question is not really relevant to whether God is good, except on the debatable assumption that God can only be good if He acts according to divine obligations.

So I don't think this is a hugely challenging question for Christians (or theists) in general. The really challenging question here is the nature of obligation, which has for literally centuries been a very contentious and controversial debate. Given an answer to that question, one's answer to the question of divine obligations falls out immediately. But the question of the nature of obligation is a question that arises for everyone.