Of Idle Tales and Stupefying Joy


Resurrection Icon

Virgil Nemoianu claims that “‘Christian humanism’ is rooted primarily in the Gospels of Luke and John.” Nowhere is this more evident than the 24th chapter of Luke. In this remarkable chapter, Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty, Jesus appears to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, he has a meal with his disciples, and he ascends into Heaven—all in 53 verses. Yet, in spite of these tremendously important events, dare we say, the most important events of Jesus’ life, we are given little detail. The reader may be struck by the lack of specifics concerning these events, and we can only speculate as to why Luke did not take more space to explain just what happened in these last crucial days of Jesus after the crucifixion.

That Luke does not take the space to provide more detail may be an indication of the disciples own state of mind at the time. That is, Luke presents, in a quite literary fashion, the puzzlement of the events from the point of view of the disciples. None of them had expected the resurrection and they struggled to understand just what was happening. Their confusion is evident from the very beginning. When the women find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, “they were perplexed about this.” (Luke 24:4) When the women tell the disciples and others about this, they disbelieved the women. There is no blind credulity here that is often attributed to religious believers. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”(Luke 24:11) So convinced were they that the women’s story was an “idle tale” that only Peter went to investigate. He finds the tomb empty as the women had described and went away “marveling” because he still did not understand what was going on. Much like Joseph seeking to leave Mary when he learned she was pregnant, the disciples displayed the kind of common sense and healthy skepticism that critics of religious believers tout as incompatible with religious belief. Yet here it is present in the most devout of Jesus’ followers.

Even when Jesus appears directly to the disciples, they still do not understand. In fact, they think he is a spirit, a vision from beyond the grave. It is this encounter, along with Jesus breaking of the bread with the two he met on the road, that reveals the deep mystery of the Incarnation. For just what kind of being are they encountering? He appears and disappears at a blink, yet he has a physical body and eats and drinks. He is their beloved Lord, back from the grave and standing before them in the flesh. “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39) At this, Luke says, they “disbelieved for joy.” (Luke 24:40) It is too much for the disciples to take, it is too good to be true, and so they doubt. Again, this is a reasonable, human response to the situation. The joy is beyond their comprehension, it simply cannot be. And so Jesus takes the time to eat with them, showing them that he is not some disembodied spirit, and to explain to them all that had happened as “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45) On their (and our) own, we are not able to understand. It takes the work of God to overcome our limitations and doubts.

The notion of Jesus’ resurrection and resurrected body is as stupefying to us as it was to the disciples. With the hope and joy in the final resurrection we are given a glimpse here of eternity, but the nature of this resurrection and resurrected body are still a mystery. Just what sort of body did Jesus have, and just what sort of body will we receive? Paul explores these notions at great length in I Corinthians 15. Resurrection means something more than mere resuscitation, a notion that was not foreign to Jewish beliefs. With resurrection we are given a new body, one at the same time continuous with the present body, and yet transformed and recreated. Heaven is not a place of disembodied life, but a life fully embodied and transformed. Such passages as these ought to go far in dispelling the notions of Gnosticism. To be human is to be embodied.

These are no “idle tales,”—they represent the full hope and joy of the Christian. The joy that is beyond both our deserving and our comprehension. Luke shows us the commonality between us and the disciples, and the reasonableness which ought to typify us. The Christian is not called to blind credulity, nor to pessimistic skepticism. For the former who lead them astray, the later would keep them from the truth. And the truth is in the promise of the resurrection, the promise of the fulfillment of human nature. There is no escapist philosophy here, but a philosophy of joy and hope grounded in truth.

Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

What Is Philosophy? A Very Short Overview

“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.”

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliClassically (and etymologically), Philosophy is the “love of Wisdom.”  “Love,” in this sense, is the eros or “passionate desire” for Wisdom and Truth.  Philosophy investigates and seeks to answer the perennial, fundamental questions of human existence: “what is the purpose of life,” “what does it mean to live well,” “what is truth,” “can truth be known,” “what is good and evil,” etc.  Given this breadth of inquiry, Philosophy qua philosophy is not an end in itself; instead Philosophy encompasses all disciplines / knowledge as they tend towards Wisdom and Truth.* Since all Wisdom and Truth are grounded in God, Philosophy naturally leads to Theology.  Furthermore, because all Wisdom and Truth is essentially theological, Philosophy itself is always at the service of Theology; as Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, Philosophy is the ancilla theologiae (the Handmaiden of Theology).  Philosophy serves as the ancilla theologiae in three ways:

Ratio (method / procedure) First, Philosophy equips Theology with the rules of thought / Reason by which the mind operates, the dialectic of argumentation by which the mind investigates Truth, and the analytic and synthetic processes by which the mind discovers Truth.

Auctoritas (authority) Second, Philosophy provides Theology with insights discovered by the great philosophers (both Christian and non-Christian) who arrived at the Truth with the light of Natural Reason and practices deference to their authority.

Concordia (union / harmony) Third, Philosophy coordinates its discovered Truths with Theological Doctrine and subordinates these Truths to Revelation.

*Related to this definition, philosophy is also the investigation into the presuppositions of any subject / discipline.  It asks and attempts to answer the foundational questions of all areas of study (e.g., “how ought we to proceed in the study of X?”).  Thus, philosophy incorporates the Seven Liberal Arts and the Four Sciences as it provides a “philosophy” of each of these disciplines: e.g., “the philosophy of grammar,” “the philosophy of science,” “the philosophy of arithmetic,” etc.

Misconceptions Concerning Kierkegaard

First Things has a nice article on Kierkegaard up today:

The two biggest misconceptions about Kierkegaard have to do with his attitude toward the Church, and his general disposition. Because he rebuked the Church so sternly, some people think he was trying to subvert it. On the contrary, says scholar Howard Johnson, Kierkegaard was a “loyal son of the Church,” who “like St. Thomas Aquinas,” or any other theologian until recent times, was “so living in the sacramental, ecclesiological reality” of Christianity that it would never have occurred to him to try to “topple altars.” His critique was constructive, not destructive. …

The second misconception is that Kierkegaard was a perpetual malcontent, the “gloomy Dane,” who could only protest and never find peace and solace. In fact, the moment he committed himself to Christ, unreservedly, Kierkegaard found that peace which was the source and strength of his whole life.

You can read the rest here.

Seek A Holy Leisure

As to these three modes of life, the contemplative, the active, and the contemplative-active, a man can live the life of faith in any of these three and get to heaven. What is not indifferent is that he love truth and do what charity demands. No man must be so committed to contemplation as, in his contemplation, to give no thought to his neighbor’s needs, nor so absorbed in action as to dispense with the contemplation of God.

The attraction of leisure ought not to be empty-headed inactivity, but in the quest or discovery of truth, both for his own progress and for the purpose of sharing ungrudgingly with others. …

No man is forbidden to pursue knowledge of the truth, for that is the purpose of legitimate leisure…Thus, it is the love of study that seeks a holy leisure; and only the compulsion of charity that shoulders necessary activity. If no such burden is placed on one’s shoulders, time should be passed in study and contemplation. But, once the burden is on the back, it should be carried, since charity so demands. Even so, however, no one should give up entirely his delight in learning, for the sweetness he once knew may be lost and the burden he bears overwhelm him.

~St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX, Ch. 19.



Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid: A Lesson Concerning “Co-Habitation”

Dido and AeneasBook 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid presents one of the most famous (and tragic) love stories in the history of literature. Dido, queen of Carthage falls madly in love with the story’s hero, Aeneas. As the two give themselves over to each other, Aeneas is called back to his duty to found the Roman people. In fit of rage and despair, Dido throws herself on Aeneas’ sword and commits suicide rather than live without him. Famously, St. Augustine recorded in his Confessions that, as a boy reading The Aeneid, he had wept over the death of Dido. This later caused him to reflect on his own lack of self-knowledge: “What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God…” (Augustine Confessions 1.13). Yet I would argue that we should not weep for Dido. That, while Dido’s story is sad, she is not suffering at the hands of the gods or fates; that she is not treated unfairly, but rather, she is a victim of her own lack of self-control and wisdom.

From the beginning of Book 4, Vergil describes Dido as a woman enslaved to her passions. Though we see no indication of this while Aeneas is recounting his journey from Troy to Carthage, once he’s finished, Dido is completely beside herself with love for Aeneas. “Now the queen’s lifeblood fed her grievous love wound / An unseen flame gnawed at her hour on hour” (Vergil The Aeneid Bk. 4.1-2). The two dominant metaphors Vergil uses to describe Dido are fire and sickness: She is “stricken Dido” (4.8), her passions “blaze” (4.54), she suffers from “madness” (4.65), a “flame devoured her tender marrow” (4.66-67), “Dido burned” (4.68), and love-sickness “gripped the queen” (4.90). This is hardly a list attributes to admire!

Given this “love-sick” condition, it is not surprising that Dido is consumed in thought and deed for Aeneas. She “fixates” on Aeneas (4.78). She creates excuses, sometimes with the help of Juno, for the two of them to be together (4.129-165). She plays with Iulus, Aeneas’ son, because he is “so like his father” (4.83). While doing all this, she completely abandons her duties to Carthage:

The towers she started do not rise. The young men
No longer drill or build defending ramparts
Or ports. The work stalls, halfway done—the menace
Of high walls, and the cranes as tall as heaven. (4.85-89)

So, Dido has completely lost herself in her passion for Aeneas. She has “let her folly outrun her good name” (4.90-91). These are not the attributes of someone we should emulate or admire, and Vergil rightly calls it folly.

Perhaps out of pity for Dido, Juno arranges for Dido and Aeneas to be together. During one of their outings, Juno uses a storm to bring Dido and Aeneas together in a cave, and there the two give themselves over to passion. Though there is some ambiguity as to whether Juno thinks she has bound the two in marriage, it is clear from the text that no marriage ever took place, and the two of them knew this:

From this day came catastrophe and death.
No thought of public scandal or of hiding
Her passion troubled Dido any longer.
She called it marriage, to conceal her shame. (4.169-172)

Dido knows quite well that this sexual relationship with Aeneas is “shameful,” so she must pretend it is a marriage, and it is this double-dealing that will lead to her ruin. While in this relationship, the lovers show no better common sense than before it. They flaunt their love before the city and live openly in their shame. Jove looks down on “the lovers who’d forgotten all decorum” (4.221) and decides it is time for Aeneas to leave Carthage. Aeneas can leave Dido without contradicting his duty precisely because there was no marriage covenant between he and Dido. Had Dido first bound herself in marriage (as she ought) to Aeneas before their carnal relationship began, all of her misery could have been avoided, but passion led her instead of wisdom.

Furthermore, once Dido discovers Aeneas’ plan to leave, she reveals herself to be one who does not love Aeneas so much as one who wants to possess Aeneas. That is, she is not interested in what is best for Aeneas, but rather she wants to consume Aeneas. When Aeneas refuses to stay, Dido immediately lashes out at him, turns on him, and views him as an object of hate rather than love. This is precisely because he is keeping her from getting what she wants. There is no thought for Aeneas himself. Her irrational passions rear up again and she “raved all through” (4.300), “madness and grief filled her defeated heart” (4.474), and “her love ran wild” (4.531). She even admits, “hot madness drives me” (4.376). When Aeneas tries to explain himself to her, she calls him names (a sure sign that one has been defeated with reason or argument): “monster” (4.309), “traitor” (4.365), “sharp-rocked Caucasus gave birth to you” (4.366-67), “Hyrcanian tigers nursed you” (4.367), “my proud enemy” (4.424), “criminal” (4.498). Such flattery would hardly induce Aeneas to remain. Dido again presents herself as a concupiscent, irrational woman.

Counter to all this, an argument might be made that Dido is treated rather unfairly by Aeneas. After all, Dido did not have this relationship by herself. Aeneas was right there the whole time, and gave every indication that he was as much in love with Dido as she was with him. Vergil even says that Aeneas was “deeply lovesick” (4.396) over Dido. So, she had every indication that Aeneas would remain with her forever. When he decides to leave Carthage, it is a betrayal of their love, a betrayal that will end in Dido’s suicide. It is not that Dido cannot have what she wants and so kills herself, but rather that she has been betrayed by her great love and despairs.

However, the text simply does not bears this out. As was pointed out, there was no marriage between Aeneas and Dido, and therefore, Aeneas has no duty or obligation to stay with her. Vergil describes Aeneas as the “right-thinking hero” (4.393) who honors duty above personal interest. In fact, The Aeneid might be seen as a series of personal sacrifices on the part of Aeneas for the sake of duty. While Dido attempts to guilt Aeneas into staying by making reference to a marriage, Aeneas reminds her: “I never made a pact of marriage with you” (4.393). If he had, then Aeneas would be torn by duty to marriage and duty to his ancestors. But as no such pact was made, he does not have to face this dilemma. Dido herself finally admits that there was no marriage, and therefore she has no means by which to demand Aeneas stay: “I could not live a blameless life, unmarried, like a wild thing, and be spared this agony” (4.550-551).

So, we have no cause to weep for Dido. She is a victim of herself and nothing more. She is a woman ruled by her passions, who comes to ruin because she cannot have what she wants. At most, we might pity her for her condition as a love-sick woman, but not because of the end of an ill-conceived love-affair. Furthermore, there is a lesson here against “co-habitation,” people living together without the pact of marriage. When a person enters into an immoral relationship with another, they cannot complain of being “cheated” out of it. Without the covenant of marriage, there is no duty that keeps one person bound to the other. So, there can be no violation of duty if one person simply decides to leave. In fact, it is an act of duty to leave.

The Challenge of Job

Job-s-Depair,-by-William-BlakeWhat are we to make of the Book of Job? Ostensibly, it is about the problem of pain and suffering; the problem of why good people suffer and bad people prosper; the problem of how God could be omnipotent and just given the evil in the world. No doubt, the Book of Job is concerned with good, evil, suffering, and God. Popularly understood, the book of Job is one of “theodicy,” that is, the theological and philosophical attempt to harmonize God’s goodness, His power, and the existence of evil. Yet, is the Book of Job a “theodicy”. Does it intend to provide an answer to these problems? Is so, what is that answer? If not, what then is the purpose of Job? A brief examination of the text reveals that if Job is a theodicy, it is a remarkably poor one. What then is its value?

In the opening of the book of Job, the common assumption that God blesses the good and curses the wicked is affirmed. Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away evil” (1:1 ESV). Consequently, he is extremely blessed, enjoying a large family, a great estate, and renown across the land (1:2-3). Then, in a heavenly scene unbeknownst to Job, the accusation is brought forth that Job only worships God because God has blessed him. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:9-10 ESV). Job is then stripped of his family, his possessions, and his health. He is left with the conundrum: “what have I done to deserve this?”

With the entrance of Job’s three friends is the reaffirmation that only the wicked suffer and only good prosper. Job is suffering, therefore he must be wicked. Job maintains his innocence despite his circumstances heightening the dilemma of suffering. In a fit of rage, the young Elihu, accuses Job precisely of not producing a theodicy. “He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2 ESV). Elihu then affirms yet again the belief that no one is truly innocent, so Job should repent.

God finally responds to Job in a series of rhetorical questions, the effect of which is to demonstrate to Job that despite the apparent injustices, God is in control of the universe and is just.  Job responds first with silence, then with repentance.  Finally, God restores Job above and beyond his state prior to his suffering.

Where, then, is the theodicy in this? Job is given no explanation as to why he is suffering. No explanation is given generally as to why good people suffer or why wicked people prosper. No justification is offered as to how God’s omnipotence, goodness and the existence of evil might be reconciled. The problem of pain and suffering is left completely unresolved. In fact, in light of God’s response to Job, the book seems to argue that no such answer is even possible.

If the purpose of Job is not one of theodicy, what is its purpose? While Job does not offer a solution to the problem of evil, what it does do is dispel us of the notion that when we are prosperous it is because we are righteous (and vice-versa) and when we suffer it is because we have done wrong (and vice-versa).  The book of Job shows there is no “quid pro quo” karmic relationship between our good deeds and prosperity nor our evil deeds and suffering. It rids us of the notion that suffering is a sign of God’s judgment.

So why do we suffer? The Book of Job does not say. What it does though is provide us with a framework for how we respond to such seemingly meaningless suffering. The solution is not to be found in philosophical and theological argument, the gulf between God and man is simply too great for such explanations to be truly satisfying. The solution is found in God Himself. In the end, Job recognizes that his complaints against God were not based on a full knowledge of God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).

Finally, the Book of Job should rid us of the myth that the Judeo-Christian religion is “escapist”.  That it is wishful thinking in a good, all-loving God who will save us from our pain. The message of Job is not that God will save us from suffering, but that in the midst of our suffering, God is there. God Himself is the answer to the question. In the face of God all questions evaporate. This is how someone like St. Thomas Aquinas can look back on his work and refer to it as “straw” after having an encounter with God. Then, and only then, we can affirm with Job, “I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).