Monday, February 6, 2023

The Dust Doesn’t Settle

The council of Chalcedon was adjourned after its final session on 1 November 451.  The emperor and empress were indeed gratified that at last in their day the Church was properly unified…

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

…and the leaders of the council were also pleased that its decisions were unanimously accepted by the participants.

Almost, but not quite.  There were complaints that force was used to secure signatures.  Further, several Egyptian bishops never signed the Tome and the Chalcedonian definition of the Faith. 

The emperor ratified the decisions of the council, investing these with legal status in the empire.  Anyone who disputed the decisions of the council would be punished in accordance with his position and rank: a government official would lose his status; a private citizen would be expelled from the city; a member of clergy would lose his rank and suffer other penalties.  Critics were deemed heretic.

The emperor wrote that the council did nothing more than ratify the creed of Nicea as expounded in the councils of 381 and 431.  He would continue:

The council ‘made absolutely no innovation about the apostolic faith, but in all respects … followed the teaching of Athanasius and Theophilus and Cyril.’

It was deemed that Eutyches and Dioscorus were teaching the ideas of Apollinarius, and any followers of these shall not have the right to execute a will or inherit in accord with the provisions of a will; whatever is left to them will be forfeit.  They shall not ordain bishops or priests.  Their churches will be confiscated and they shall have no assemblies or meetings.  If they meet in a house with the consent of the owner, the house will be confiscated.

They shall not write anything against the council; if they do, they shall be exiled perpetually, and their books shall be destroyed.

In case it is thought that it was just a few Egyptian bishops who were on the outs, even pope Leo refused to accept the council for a time.  His disagreement was specifically concerning the see of Constantinople (recalling the desire of the emperor to make Constantinople equal to Rome and the most powerful see in the east). 

Ultimately, the threat posed by the non-Chalcedonian bishops drove Leo to accept the doctrinal decrees of the council.  It isn’t completely clear from Samuel’s text, but it appears this acceptance excluded any reference to the issue of Constantinople.

With Rome and Constantinople now united, the lines were clearly drawn.  It wasn’t only bishops in Egypt that were opposed.  However, the weight in this disagreement was clearly in favor of the emperor and the pope.  Samuel describes the opposition in four stages, beginning in 451 and running through the seventh century and the time of Muslim conquests of Byzantine lands. 

The first stage, running from 451 to 475 was a period where the non-Chalcedonians, with no imperial backing, were suppressed and reduced to the status of negligible sects in some inaccessible corners of the empire.  The second stage, running through 518, gave the non-Chalcedonian movement time to strengthen itself.

The third stage ran from 518 to 536.  While emperor Justin I brought back an era of persecution against the opponents of the council, his nephew and successor Justinian saw need to try and work out the disagreements by negotiation.  His efforts failed, and further efforts also did not succeed.  And this marks the fourth stage, running until the Arab Muslims began their conquests.

The initial opposition, or the first stage.  Of this time, A. A. Vasilev would write:

Friday, February 3, 2023

Plastic People, Liquid World

Plastic people

Oh baby, now

You're such a drag

-          Plastic People, Frank Zappa. 1967


Think about how you can turn your activity into something liquid. Liquids flow, they fill all available spaces, they adapt to the shapes of the environment.

-          We're Going To Be Living In A Liquid World, Enrique Dans


For our culture is one marked by plastic people who believe they can make and remake themselves at will; and by a liquid world in which, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, all that is solid seems continually to melt into air.

Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

Trueman’s story thus far: the major contours of the modern self include: the emphasis of the authority of our inner feelings; the centrality of sexual desire in this; the personal is political; various cultural and technological factors have served to promote all of the above.

Some general concepts that will better provide a framework for understanding:

The first is the nature of personhood; the second is the politics of recognition; and the third is the power of imagined communities.

These will help us better understand the distinctive nature of the culture in which we now find ourselves – ranging from a culture of identity politics and the rights of the diverse alphabet gender soup to the growing impatience toward the niceties of the freedoms of religion and speech.

What is a person: the chemicals constituting my body and the genetic code that provides my nature make clear what I am.  But they are not who I am.  To be a person is to be something more, someone in a particular place and time.  It is to consider my life and the people, places, actions and events that have shaped my sense of identity. 

We all like to assume that our identity is a monologue.  After all, we feel intuitively free.  Our lives are full of decisions we have made.

Not so fast.  Yes, we are intentional creatures.  But we also act in dialogue with our surroundings.  To be born in France in the eighteenth century as opposed to England today, or China a thousand years ago.  In each case, vastly different “persons,” shaped by the story in which they live. 

Our intentional decisions are made in societies that provide the means by which our actions have meaning.  How often do our intentional decisions result in our conforming to the society around us?  Even the most radical among us all show up at Woodstock doing the same things, wearing the same clothes (or not), listening to the same music.  We wish to be free; we also wish to belong.

The teenager who wants to express her freedom does so by wearing the uniform of the group to which she wishes to belong.

Which brings us to the politics of recognition: by recognition, Trueman means the recognition given to us in the act of belonging to a community by having our identity as part of the community recognized.

Societies as a whole have frameworks for recognition.  We might call this their ethical structure: the set of cultural standards and expectations to which individuals need to conform in order to be considered full members of a particular society or community.

Refusal to conform to such norms leads to a refusal of full membership in the society.  Jonathan Pageau has commented on this notion when examining a talk given by Tim Cook of Apple.  Cook is describing the system of today – the one being examined by Trueman.  But where Trueman sees vice and harm, Cook sees virtue and glory.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Words Cannot Explain…

…leaving scapegoats to take the blame….

The lack of real agreement at the council of 451 with reference to the Alexandrine emphasis is linked with the council’s treatment of Theodoret and Ibas.

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

It will be recalled that these two were condemned at the Second Council of Ephesus – a council rejected by Pope Leo and repudiated at Chalcedon.   At the same time, many at Chalcedon believed the judgment against these two was sound – the two were, in fact, Nestorians.  A resolution exonerating them should not be passed unless the two explicitly reject Nestorianism.

First, Theodoret of Cyrus.  He was introduced at Chalcedon with no reference to his earlier condemnation.  This was justified – overriding the more than 100 bishops of the earlier council – by the plea that he had been restored single-handedly by Leo of Rome.

As [Theodoret] came in, the bishops of Egypt, Illyricum and Palestine voiced their strong protest.  ‘Have mercy on us,’ they shouted.  ‘The faith is destroyed! The canons cast him out!  Cast out the teacher of Nestorius!’

Shouts went back and forth, one side in opposition, the other in support.  In the end, the commissioners ruled that Theodoret would stay in the capacity of a petitioner.  His case was brought up eighteen days later.  Ignoring the action of Leo, the bishops in opposition proclaimed ‘Theodoret is still under excommunication.’

Theodoret wished that his petitions to the emperor and the Roman legates be read.  The opposing bishops wished not for this, but only that Theodoret anathematize Nestorius directly and openly.  He said a few words, unsatisfactory to these bishops. 

‘Speak plainly,’ demanded the bishops, ‘anathema to Nestorius and his doctrine; anathema to Nestorius and those who defend him.’

Theodoret would attempt to explain his position.  He would condemn Nestorius, but this was not sufficient – he must anathematize him.  Instead of doing so, Theodoret once again attempting to defend his position, the bishops exclaimed ‘He is a heretic!  He is a Nestorian!  Away with the heretic!’

With this, Theodoret made a clear statement: anathema to Nestorius, to him who does not confess that Mary is Theotokos and who divides the one and only Son into two sons.  He also reminded that he had signed the Tome of Leo.  With this, the bishops agreed and restored Theodoret to the communion of the Church.

Samuel notes of this entire episode – of Theodoret and Nestorius:

Here we want to observe that Leo of Rome, in declaring Nestorius a heretic on the one hand, and supporting Theodoret who had been an ally of Nestorius and who had not condemned the man on the other, maintained a double standard in the Christological controversy.

Whatever Leo did, he did it single-handedly as opposed to the one hundred and more bishops who had earlier condemned Theodoret. 

Next, to Ibas of Edessa.  In the so-called robber council of 449, he was deposed on a charge of heresy and of mismanaging ecclesiastical properties.  Samuel presents a summary of the history leading to Chalcedon.  He concludes his summary:

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Creating Man in Our Own Image…

…or the problem of the thing being measured being also used as the yardstick.

Indeed, the notion of the self with which we now intuitively operate in the West – that of something plastic that we believe we can shape in any way we wish – is arguably simply one example of a much broader worldview of the whole of reality.

Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

How did we come to this?  What ideas shaped western man to the point where there is nothing fixed, nothing certain, nothing objective, no such thing as truth? Trueman offers the thinkers that he considers necessary for us to have come to this point – Rousseau, the Romantics, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Reich.

Necessary, but not sufficient.  How many in the West have heard of these men, let alone read anything by them?  Some of these were not even influential in their own day; why are they such a powerful force in ours – a century or more later?

Trueman will attempt to answer this question – how did these necessary-but-not-sufficient preconditions become sufficient?  He admits up front that even when he is through the reader might conclude that he has done nothing more than pile on a few more necessary preconditions without generate sufficient conditions.  Fair enough.  But pile up enough preconditions and eventually you will get the right conditions.

What he is after is to explain the how and why of our going from a fixed world to a plastic world – a world in which we have come to believe that we can shape reality to whatever we wish it to be.

Imagine being born a few hundred years ago.  Almost certainly you would have lived your entire life in the village in which you were born.  You would have married someone from the village, raised a family in the village, been baptized and buried in the village church. 

Your children would likely have remained in the village for their lives – and your sons likely would have learned their profession from you while your daughters would have learned how to be a wife and mother from your wife.

Every year, you would live the same cycle – governed by changes in seasons, changes in the time of sunrise and sunset.  Not only could you set your watch by it, you could have set the entire calendar by it.  Had this village been in western Europe, you would have belonged to the Catholic Church.

In other words, a very stable – even fixed – pattern of life.  But not our world.  Modern transportation, ease of migration, availability of education, social mobility, technology, science, medicine.  All have contributed to the changes in life’s rhythms and patterns when compared to that of the patterns in village life a few hundred years ago – a more plastic world.

I used to have to find my place in the fixed world of the village; now I can create my place in the wide-open spaces of the world.  I can shape my world – my being – to my will.

In 1400, the world seemed fixed, stable, and solid.  Today it seems as pliable as playdough.

Modern culture sees the world as raw material to be shaped by human will.  Trueman sees technology as having played the biggest part in this change.  As noted earlier, is technology to be considered just another necessary but insufficient precondition, or was it the sufficient condition that enabled the ideas of the aforementioned thinkers to be put into effect?

Technology reinforces the idea of “individual.”  In almost every way today we can individualize our experiences – music, news, videos, recreation.  Again, the individual is placed at the center of his reality.  The world is seen simply as “stuff,” to be molded and shaped according to the will of the creator – the modern individual.

We are the ones with power, and we are the ones who give the world significance.

Technology is the addition, the rise of something that gives the individual power and authority.  On the other side is the collapse of traditional external sources of authority and identity.  Trueman offers three examples to demonstrate this reality.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Words as Sticks and Stones

One of the most obvious aspects of modern public life is the central role that sex plays within it.

Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

The most private and intimate act has become the defining characteristic and primary category of our identity.  There was a time when sex was regarded as something human beings did; now it is to be understood as who human beings are.

Trueman traces this path from Marx to Nietzsche and Wilde.  A brief comment on these is necessary.  For Nietzsche, modern morality turned appropriate morality on its head.  What is appropriate morality?  Strength is good; weakness is bad.  Just the opposite of the Christian message, no doubt – a message designed such that the weak can demonize and manipulate the strong, according to Nietzsche.

Dwell on that for a moment.  In the bastardized form that many Christians practice today, we see that Nietzsche was right in a sense – the weak (more accurately, those on the fringes of society) use Christian morals to demonize those who hold to Christian morals, and many Christians have allowed themselves to be so demonized.  But, of course, the Christian message doesn’t end there (and for this, an understanding of natural law ethics is necessary).

Returning to Nietzsche, the moral codes that hinder strong individuals must be shattered.  But he did not pursue this via a return to natural law or to seeing God at the top of the hierarchy; instead, he gave us the superman: “a free spirit who transcended the spirit of his own age.”

Which brings Trueman to Oscar Wilde.  Wilde is described as the quintessential figure of modernity because the self-expressive individual that Nietzsche envisaged finds it most obvious manifestation in the shattering of traditional sexual moral codes.

Jacques Barzun addressed Wilde’s influence in his book From Dawn to Decadence.  He comments on Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest.  This is not because Earnest has the moral qualities praised by the Victorians, but because a young woman he loves fancies the name. 

“I live constantly in fear of not being misunderstood,” says Wilde, meaning: the public should be baffled by new art, not reduce it to something it already understands.

In other words, not earnest, as in a character trait, but Earnest as the formal form of Ernie.  Barzun concludes that the sexual revolution took place, not in the 1960s, but in the 1890s – during Wilde’s time.  Returning to Trueman, and his comments on Wilde: ethics is just a matter of taste.  Citing Wilde: “All imitation in morals and life is wrong.”

…actions cease to have intrinsic moral value; what makes them “moral” rather is the freedom with which they are performed.

In this one can see the libertine libertarians: having the freedom to perform any act as long as the non-aggression principle is respected.  That’s fine for figuring out criminal trespasses.  As we have come to see the fruits of the success of those like Marx, Nietzsche and Wilde, it isn’t fine if one wishes to live in a free society.

This has come down in our time to the central public role that sex plays in self-identity.  As imitation in morals is wrong, the alphabet soup of identity markers is a sign of “right.”  No one should imitate anyone else, so everyone is entitled to (in fact, almost required to take) a new marker. 

Happiness is no longer understood as beatitudo, or fulfilment through other-regarding action.  At best, one is left to define happiness as avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure.  Well…what is the strongest feeling of pleasure?  Freud answers the question (but I bet you know the answer already): sex. “…[man] should make genital eroticism the central point in his life.”

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Agreement or Power?

…in its final form [the Chalcedonian definition of the faith] was so framed as to enable the delegates belonging to the three traditions then existing in the Church, namely the Alexandrine, the Antiochene, and the western, to interpret it in different ways.

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

Two items bearing on the faith were considered and approved at Chalcedon.  First, the Tome of Leo was declared a document of the faith.  Second, it offered a definition of the faith.  It is this second point that is the subject of the quote above.

Samuel reminds of the political actions behind the council – the emperor, via his wife, wished the eastern Church to be unified under Constantinople.  Further, while supporting Rome, at the same time not allowing Rome to be seen as superior to Constantinople.

Hence, an understanding of Samuel’s statement: the purpose of the council was as much or more political as it was doctrinal.  An agreement must be reached, even if, once again, the terminology could be understood differently by the different traditions.  As long as agreement was reached, authority would move toward Constantinople and away from Alexandria.  And this would satisfy the desire of the emperor.

To be clear, this disagreement was not if Jesus was God or man; it was on the point of how, precisely, to understand and phrase that He was both God and man.

After some efforts, the bishops were ordered to come forward, and while over the Gospel that was placed in the middle, say they affirmed the faith in conformity with Nicaea, the creed of Constantinople, and the Tome of Leo.  One hundred fifty-eight men did so, each offering a short speech.  Thereafter, the remainder were asked to confirm by acclamation, and it was offered.

In their statement, the Illyrian bishops stated that – after having clarifying discussions with the Roman legates – the Tome offered nothing beyond that which was agreed in the earlier councils.  It was on this basis that they affirmed the Tome.  But here, again, is the problem.  The earlier councils were understood differently by different bishops.  Why wouldn’t this be?  Hence, doctrinally nothing was truly resolved.

In any case, thereafter having signed the Tome, the five who were condemned with Dioscorus were readmitted to the synod. 

What of the bishops of Egypt?  Seeing Dioscorus condemned, they realized their position on return to Egypt would be embarrassingly delicate.  The decision would not be accepted when the news reached home.  They signed a petition, asking to be free of involvement.  The petition included a statement of faith, did not condemn Eutyches, and it did not express acceptance of the Tome.

After much pressure, they did condemn Eutyches, but declared that they could not subscribe to the Tome without their archbishop…who was condemned!  The pressure grew greater, with the Egyptian bishops begging for mercy: “We shall be killed when we return to our country.”  “Be martyrs for the faith,” the council retorted.

The commissioners, secular officials of the Byzantine state, ordered the Egyptian bishops hold off on signing until an archbishop was appointed.  The Roman legate was not satisfied with this, demanding that the bishops could leave the city only after signing.  The intent was clear: acceptance of the Tome of Leo was required if one was to be considered a member in the Church.  The bishops from Egypt made it clear that the church in their country was not likely to accept the document.

The rest having accepted the Tome, now the eastern bishops presented their statement.  It did not conform to the Tome, nor did it refer to the Tome.  They apparently thought that, having accepted the Tome, the same courtesy would be extended to them. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Order or Chaos?

Does human nature carry with it a moral structure  and a specific end or purpose that remain constant over time and to which we must conform ourselves in order to flourish? 


Or are we simply the stuff of which we are made and beyond that be free to be or do whatever we so choose?


Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

I have been thinking lately about the book of Genesis, specifically the first three or four chapters.  Not as science or as history, but as anthropology and as foundational for natural law.

Genesis 1: 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Did God create a universe of order, or disorder?  We see the answer in all of creation, from the movement of the stars and planets to the sufficiency of all things necessary to sustain life on earth to the most minute processes in the human body.

We see the answer in the last verse of chapter 1:

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

Good: morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious: satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree: of high quality; excellent.  As opposed to bad: not good in any manner or degree.  having a wicked or evil character; morally reprehensible: of poor or inferior quality; defective; deficient.

We see that creation is ordered, and God calls this order “good.”  Had creation been chaotic, well, first of all there would be no creation to speak of, but I suspect God would have called it “bad.”  This being not possible, of course….

Order was created.  In this, we find the roots of natural law.  If order is created, that order can be discovered – it must be discovered, it cannot be invented.  Just as we can discover the order of the universe, we can discover the order of and between men.  To the extent we conform to that order, we will be right with creation.

Earlier in chapter 1 we have the following:

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Here we see another key component of natural law: all men and all women are made in the image of God.  This verse is the foundation of understanding proper behavior between men, but it says nothing of the capabilities and qualities of any specific man.  The only sense in which we can use the phrase “all men are created equal” is the one offered in this verse.  One cannot find egalitarianism in creation, where all outcomes must be equal.  We see that all outcomes aren’t equal in God’s created order, for example when God found Cain’s “outcome” unequal. 

Continuing in the first chapter:

28(a) And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,

I think this is self-explanatory.  It conforms to the proper created order that man populates the earth (and that requires some not-very-deep thinking on what this means regarding proper sexual relationships).

28(b) and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

This orders man’s place relative to the other living creatures.  As they are also created by God, man is to exercise proper dominion – to subdue the rest of creation.  This offers two aspects of this ordered creation: man is higher than any other aspect of creation, and man is to properly care for creation.  What cannot be derived from this is that man must be removed from creation in order to save creation, as many wish upon us today.