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Archive for March, 2016

The Most Underrated Thinker in the History of the Christian Church

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 17, 2016

If Cyril of Alexandria isn’t exactly a household name these days, it’s hardly surprising.  Lucky the household where even the name of Jesus is remembered and honored.  What is surprising is that in so many households, countries, centuries, schools and circles that should have known better, the connection between Cyril and Jesus (yes, that Jesus, but what Cyril?) has gone unmentioned.  He was a bishop of the 5th century AD, but is conspicuously absent from the standard English edition of the Post-Nicene Fathers.  Works by the far less influential Cyril of Jerusalem are included, but none by the Alexandrian father who was at the center of the controversies which led to the convening of the Council of Chalcidon,  that final and definitive Christological conclave.

If being hated and ignored by the world is the litmus test of those Christians who follow in the steps of the Master, then Cyril of Alexandria certainly passes with flying colors.  His predecessor Athenasius is aptly nicknamed Athenasius “contra mundo”…a man against the world.   During his worldly career Cyril had better fortune than the frequently exiled Athenasius, who’s strident opposition to the Arians (a.k.a. “Unitarians”) provoked both governmental and ecclesiastical persecution.

However in contrast to Athenasius, appreciation for  Cyril seems to have declined over the ages .  Just as Athenasius (eventually) vanquished his enemies the Arians, Cyril saw his opponent Nestorius thrown out of power and influence.  This should be considered, according to the doctrine of most churches today, a victory for othodoxy.  Indeed, on a purely intellectual level, most church historians grudgingly admit that Cyril was in the right, at least according to the witness of scripture and the consensus of the church worldwide.  Yet recognition, let alone celebration, of the Alexandrian bishop is decidedly low-key, at least in the Western churches.

What accounts for the diminished reputation of a man who was perhaps the second or third most important figure in the history of the post-Nicene church?   In modernist or feminist circles it would be put down to Cyril’s alleged connection to the murder of Hypatia, a philosopher who subsequently attained the status of a Jean d’Arc for rationalists.  I wrote a novel on this theme where I tried to do justice to all sides in the complicated civil politics of late Roman Alexandria.  If you are interested, it can be obtained here:  http://www.amazon.com/Whore-Babylon-M-R-Sunwall/dp/1498456553/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1458193308&sr=8-2&keywords=The+Whore+of+Babylon.  so I am not going to go further into the matter here, except to state that the Hypatia affair is, if not a complete red herring, not the salient reason for Cyril’s posthumous unpopularity.

Rather, it seems to me that most Christians simply don’t understand the theological problems that Cyril of Alexandria was passionate about, and those who do understand are likely to side with his opponents.  I’ll go so far as to venture that all people (or more specifically, Christians) are born Nestorians and only become Cyrilians through the grace of God.  Placed side by side Nestorianism seems reasonable and orthodoxy seems fanatical, at least at first blush.  After all, its only reasonable to see Jesus as an itinerant philosopher-prophet who was able to get in contact with his “inner Christ.”  Throughout history that is what most reasonable men and women have wanted to believe about Jesus.  To give a famous example, that is more or less what Thomas Jefferson believed about Jesus.  A more contemporary and deplorable example is Ann Rice (yes, the vampire novelist) who wrote a psychological narrative purporting to illustrate the young Jesus encountering his divine alter ego.  Crudely put, that’s Nestorianism as well.

Cyril was the man who went to great pains to demonstrate that this surface plausibility of Nestorianism does not stand the test of concise reasoning out of scripture.  As with all of the early church writers, he wasn’t substituting or supplementing what was written in the Bible, but was engaged in a kind of “mining operation” which saves us from starting over from scratch if we use his works as a study guide for our own encounters with scripture.  For example, we don’t need to study Cyril to see that Nestorianism leads to a Trinity-plus-one (a Quaternity?) consisting of God the Father, the Holy Spirit, the Archetypal Christ and the Incarnate Jesus.

One can begin to see why this way of thinking provoked Cyril to the point of irritation.  What if Christ and Jesus are two different persons?  In this case hopefully anyone can see that “less” (numerically) is indeed “more”(morally)!  Indeed, for the benefit of modernists, lets translate the whole problem into Kantian terms.  Let’s suppose that when we read about the person of Jesus in the Gospels we are just looking at a narrative about a person from the point of view of the evangelists.  It is just an outside point of view, since we can’t really get into mind of Jesus.  So we see him as a phenomena.  We don’t even have (unless you count a short and probably forged letter written to the King of Edessa) anything written by Jesus himself.  This means that the real “inside” Jesus is what physicists would call a “black-box”…or what Kant would call a noumena.   We don’t know what is inside the black box (noumena) so we can make up pretty much anything we want to out of our own imagination.  In the case of the Gospels we can fabricate pretty much any Jesus our heart desires, and many people, even people who don’t know the word “Nestorianism” have done precisely that.  We can “discover” especially if we are “liberation theologians” that he looks and acts pretty much the same as Che Guevarra, if we are gay we can conjure up quite a bit of evidence that he was a homosexual, and then there is always the friendly Jesus-the-hippy-guy whom everyone knows and loves.

On the other hand, if Jesus and Christ (a.k.a. “the Logos”) are the same person we can’t play these kinds of games.  Like the legendary King of Edessa we are in possession of a letter written directly to us by Jesus, in which he reveals his character to us in no uncertain terms.  In fact we are much more privileged than that fabled king, because the letter in our possession is much, much longer.  It’s called the Bible.

Cyril of Alexandria was a man who knew the character of Jesus Christ, and also understood that any knowledge of His character was dependent on acknowledgement of the unity of his person.  Understanding the logical consequences of dissolving the unity of the God-Man, he got understandably peeved at the unthinking advocates of the unequal Archetype-and-man yoke.  That yoke was no joke.  It made Cyril angry, and he made sure there were consequences.

That used to be called orthodoxy.  Today it is called “intolerance.”  Now you know why Cyril of Alexandria is not the world’s most popular theologian.

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Civility, a god that failed

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 5, 2016

The conservative movement, at least in its present form, is over. Pundits have been not only pointing this out, but doing so for a long time. The American people no longer have any ideological choice beyond the two strands of crypto-Marxism that constitute the valid ideological options according to the mainstream media (neoconservativism and progressivism). At least they didn’t until now, with the rise of Trump and his new populism.

People who complain about Trump and claim that he is vulgar in some way or another should be looking at the man in the mirror if they are movement conservatives. It would have been far better if there had been some dialectical refutation of neoconservativism before the whole edifice collapsed. But there was no such conversation, and the so-called “right” was simply taken over by co-optation and intimidation from within.

Was this because the neoconservatives were numerically strong or intellectually brilliant? Hardly! They were never anything more than a small cabal, and while there were one or two intellectual giants among them, the brain of Leo Strauss didn’t spread into their rank and file through osmosis. The problem was that they were able to prey on a weakness in the values of the conservatives themselves.

The conservatives wanted to be liked, better liked than the people on the left. Actually the people on the left were never particularly well liked, but that didn’t matter, like any mental complex this didn’t require fundamental assessment by reality, although once adopted it required constant empirical validation. Conservatives looked in the mirror every morning and asked “Are we accepted?” And if the answer was “no”…or worse “nobody cares” then the remedy was “culture.” Not folk culture of course, but the high culture of noble rhetoric and high minded ideals. William Buckley was the very incarnation of this attitude. He strove to be a man of impeccable cultural taste, and expected people to like, or at least respect him, on that basis.

The problem is that you can have impeccable cultural taste and still be a malicious bastard. Buckley was both, and the conservative movement as a whole tended to follow his erudite and snarky nastiness. Their tendency was to substitute aesthetic values for moral values. It was,”Look at us, we are the beautiful people!” Since that isn’t a political argument it is hardly surprising that when people showed up who actually had ideas (albeit pretty much the same ideas as the left) they conquered instantly. It was not just that nature abhors a vacuum but that people who crave acceptance will fall for anything.

Now the mittens (pun intended) are off and the conservatives are spouting vulgarities worse than anything that Donald Trump could imagine. I hate to think that civility is another god which has died a well deserved death. Perhaps civility can still be useful in an educational environment. After all, Ron Paul could be revolutionary without losing his temper. But then Ron Paul was primarily a visionary, not a politician. To win and win big you may need a little (or a lot of) vulgarity to crash through the lies and the apathy. If so, the Donald certainly has the right stuff.

The conservatives are likely to go the way of that tuna fish Charlie in the old TV adverts. They wanted to be lauded for their “good taste”…but they have left a sour spittle in the mouth of the American public. And like the Lord vomiting out the lukewarm piety of the Laodicean church, the Republican party is going to be expectorated if its only homage to democracy is a stolen convention.

The vulgarities are only likely to get worse as the election year wears on. Still, I hate to think that we have seen the end of civility in public discourse. However polite and reasoned partisan discourse may have to wait until the rudiments of justice and a free society have been restored. After all, civility is not a false god, and we should fondly anticipate its resurrection sometime in the hopefully not to distant future.

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