04 February 2014

Some preliminary thoughts on the Weedon lectures

I am slowly working through the two-part talk of that most eloquent orator, Rev'd Wiliam Weedon. No one can fault his rhetorical brilliance. It was not for nothing that he was once considered for a post as chief speaker on the Lutheran Hour. The press of duty (6 university-level classes plus priesting duties) prevents me from making a rapid rejoinder, and that is good. I need time to digest, reflect, filter and sort my thoughts. From what I have seen so far, he is saying in a rather lengthy way what Dr. Gil Meilaender told me once in a much more pithy way: "Once you give up the idea of a true visible church of God on earth, the problems are bearable."

In his presentation, Weedon refers to a post-communion prayer to the Theotokos. Let me note that I discussed that very prayer on this blog, back in the summer of 2008. Those who wish to, may check out those posts. At this point, two thoughts of a general nature underlie the response that is brewing. The response itself may not come for some time.

 1. The importance of context.
St. Irenaeus said of the first gnostics, "Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king."

Rev'd. Weedon is a skillful weaver of tessarae, both of the Scriptures and of the fathers, as anyone who visits his blog will testify. But as has been pointed out often, when one can cite the fourth century fathers on matters of salvation and ignore or reject them on matters such as the intercession of the saints, we may wonder if the little snippets cited are understood in their proper context.

2. Attending to facts before rushing to judgments.
In my introduction to philosophy classes, I teach students how to read texts. The first text we focus on is the Tao te Ching of Lao-Tsu. We typically spend an hour or so on the first sentence, "The Tao that can be trodden (lit. 'Tao'd') is not the enduring and unchanging Tao."

The first step in interpretation is simply to notice and pay attention to what is. For example, in the case of the Tao's first sentence, it is noteworthy that the word 'Tao' appears three times in the sentence. It is noteworthy that the subject and predicate are joined by a negative copula. Again, the word 'Tao' means 'way' or 'path.' I call these 'facts' (though, as Alasdair MacIntyre notes, the word 'fact' is not without its problems), because even a hostile observer will have to grant that they are, indeed, so.

One may move from that kind of observation to the second level, where judgments of an elementary kind are made. In the case of the first sentence of the TtC, the copula 'is not' may serve as a reasonable basis to conclude that, since the Tao of the subject is not the Tao of the predicate, we may infer, for example, that the Tao which can be trodden is not enduring.

Beginning students of philosophy find it hard to stay long on the level of fact. They rush to higher levels too quickly, and so their judgments tend to miss the mark. Truth falls victim to plausibility.

This rush to judgment is not unique to beginning students of philosophy. Yesterday the market went down 300 points. Here's a sentence from today's CNN report on the market: "Stocks in Asia and Europe suffered another battering early in the day, led lower by Japan as markets took fright at weak manufacturing data that sent U.S. stocks plunging Monday." The fact buried in that sentence is that U.S. stocks plunged Monday. But one must be skeptical when one reads it was weak manufacturing data that caused the plunge. Nassim Taleb has dealt with this issue in his fine books.

  I have always been impressed by the nimbleness of Rev'd. Weedon's mind. But as one who reads Hellenist philosophy for a living, and who has struggled with Plotinus a bit, allow me to be a little skeptical when I hear an exchange like this in his combox:
Trent Demarest said... I've heard that Pseudo-Dionysius is really far more influential in modern Orthodoxy than any of the great Eastern Fathers such as Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, etc.
2:19 PM Blogger William Weedon said... I'm not sure I'd put it so. Clearly the Plotinus that filtered through him was influential. Heath Curtis finally directed me to read him, and it was a bit of an aha. But both Chrysostom and the Cappadocians remain hugely influential, but the Orthodox emphasize different things in their writings than we do. Everyone (and I mean everyone) does a "pick and choose" job among the fathers, and that's to be expected. None of us believe that they were inspired. But we know that they were holy and we listen to them respectfully, even when we end up disagreeing with them (which, as Chemnitz rightly points out, THEY free us to do whenever they put forth an opinion that is not established out of the Sacred Scriptures).
I find it more likely that scholars like David Bradshaw, who have dealt with the text of Plotinus and of Dionysius for years, and who have a much more nuanced understanding of what the fathers made use of and what they rejected from Plotinus, get it right.

Weedon says that his issue with Lutheranism was an 'error' in its doctrine of the atonement. That is a dispute on the level of judgment, not of fact. He nimbly jumped to the conclusion that the Book of Concord contained a material error, and just as nimbly jumped back. Lutheranism is very powerful on the level of judgment...not so much on the level of fact.

I cannot speak for all those who left Lutheranism for the Church. For myself, one key thing was attending to the following FACT: the Lutheran Confessions DESCRIBE an actually-existing trans-parish entity. They do not PRESCRIBE. "Our churches teach," they say, not "Our parishes ought to teach." The trans-parish entity they describe, no longer exists. This is a fact. (Perhaps Rev'd. Weedon still remembers a conversation he had with Dr. Norman Nagel about that, concerning the non-existence anywhere of a Lutheran body with a quia subscription. Perhaps not.) Lutherans today use the Confessional writings in a way that goes against the text of those writings themselves: as moral ideals instead of as factual descriptions.

 The Reformation took place on western territory. It did not take place on Orthodox territory. This, too, is a fact of the sort I mentioned earlier--even Orthodoxy's detractors must recognize it.

Well, that's all I have time for now. I mean no ill toward anyone. Life is a difficult journey, and I am only too conscious of my own failings to speak in a triumphalist way. May Christ God, through the prayers of his most holy Mother and of all the saints, have mercy on us.

4 comments:

Nick said...

Do you have a link to these Weedon lectures you speak of? I'd be interested to listen to them. Very interesting point about the BoC.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Thanks, Nick. Those who are interested may, I'm sure, track down Weedon's lectures. Please also note my new policy on comments. Thank you!

Robb

Victor Domin said...

Thanks for the post Fr. Gregory. I have listened to Rev. Weedon's lectures a few times and have exchanged correspondence with him on a number of prior occasions. I was wondering what your opinion was of his take on the desert father who died saying, "I need more time to repent." I am operating on distant memory here, but if I recollect correctly I believe the whole point of that story was different than what Rev. Weedon made it out to be. Do you know off-hand if Rev. Weedon's critique was in fact a decontextualization or a misconstrual? I will have to find the source again and look into it.

I look forward to reading the rest of your evaluation should you have the time to get to it!

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

I am at a loss for time, so I can't review Weedon's lecture, but as he told the story I remember thinking he took it out of context. Another correspondent who's emailed me privately confirmed me in that view. As time permits I'll say more.