Saturday, October 25, 2008

Authority: The Beginning of Philosophy

Observe, this is the beginning of philosophy, a perception of the disagreement of men with one another, and an inquiry into the cause of the disagreement, and a condemnation and distrust of that which only seems, and a certain investigation of that which seems whether it seems rightly, and a discovery of some rule, as we have discovered a balance in the determination of weights, and a carpenter's rule in the case of straight and crooked things. This is the beginning of philosophy. Must we say that all thins are right which seem so to all? And how is it possible that contradictions can be right? Not all then, but all which seem to us to be right. How more to you than those which seem right to the Syrians? why more than what seem right to the Egyptians? Why more than what seems right to me or to any other man? Not at all more. What then seems to every man is not sufficient for determining what is; for neither in the case of weights or measures are we satisfied with the bare appearance, but in each case we have discovered a certain rule. In this matter then is there no rule certain to what seems? And how is it possible that the most necessary things among men should have no sign, and be incapable of being discovered? There is then some rule. And why then do we not seek the rule and discover it, and afterward use it without varying from it, not even stretching out the finger without it? For this, I think, is that which when it is discovered cures of their madness those who use mere seeming as a measure, and misuse it; so that for the future proceeding from certain things known and made clear we may use in the case of particular things the preconceptions which are distinctly fixed.

- Epictetus' Discourses II.11

There's no real need to belabour the point that Epictetus is making: we need a single rule and authority from which to proceed, especially in times of disagreement.

He seems to have hit the nail on the head for the Synod.

A large number of "philosophers" will, in the absence of some authority, resort to what "seems right to the most people." A tyranny of the masses. Rule by the lowest common denominator.

This is insufficient and Epictetus argues that what is necessary before disagreement can be resolved and philosophy begun in earnest is a common, objective authority. Once such an authority and measure (canon) is discovered, he asks the question I ask myself every time I go to a circuit conference and have to deal with pastors who don't share the Book of Concord as an authority: "Why, having found such a rule, would anyone vary from it?!"

What is Epictetus' solution to our Synod's woes? Begin with a common authority and do not deviate from it once you have agreed that it is a reliable guide.

ASIDE: I used to naively think that we HAD all agreed that the Book of Concord is a reliable guide, but obviously that isn't the case; some were apparently insincere in their UNCONDITIONAL subscription and remain so today. If there is one thing classical philosophy drives home it is this: you cannot have meaningful discussions with liars and sophists, because they are not seeking the truth, but only playing word-games.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Bounds of Freedom

There are a lot of people in the Church who under the mistaken impression that freedom is absolute. That simply isn't the case. There are limits to freedom imposed that exist for the sake of God-ordained order. Here is what the pagan Stoic Epictetus says:

For he is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can restrain. What! Then is freedom madness?!

So far, Epictetus certainly sounds like any number of church-goers who advocate absolute and unbounded freedom. They believe that freedom is the power to have things as they will them. That, of course, is madness to even the uninformed.

But Epictetus goes on to qualify what he has said. Freedom is truly doing is in accord with your desires, but if such freedom is going to be creative and not destructive, if it would be anything but chaos and madness, first the desires must be disciplined.

Do I want to write my name with letters of my choosing, or with letters of my own creation? No; but I am taught to want to write it as it ought to be written. And what is the case in music? The same. And what in every other art or science? The same, or otherwise there would be no purpose in knowing anything, if it were to be adapted to each person's whims. True instruction, then, is this: not considering things proper that I desire, but learning to desire the things as they properly are.

So what does this have to do with the Church? Or Liturgy?

Well, you give your children more freedoms when they demonstrate that they have already learned and disciplined themselves to desire what is good; in this way, you trust your children to use their freedom of doing as they will because you know that they will what is right.

In the same way, you withhold freedoms from your children when they demonstrate self-will and that they have NOT learned and disciplined their desires to constrain them only to what is proper.

Many congregations seem to think that their freedom is absolute and that they may deviate from the historic liturgy of the Church and do whatever they want. Even the pagan understands that such freedom is only granted those who can be trusted to want what is proper and promotes good order.

Our first duty is to learn and be disciplined to desire the proper practice, and then we can all use our freedoms to DO what we desire.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Church in Drag

When a young student of rhetoric came to him who has his hair arranged in a rather elaborate fashion and was in general richly dressed, Epictetus said...

What is it, then, that makes a dog beautiful? Is it not that excellence appropriate to dogs?

What is it, then, that makes a horse beautiful? Is it not that excellence appropriate to horses?

So what makes a human being beautiful? Must it not be the presence of that excellence appropriate to human beings, namely: justice, temperance, self-control - in a word, virtue.

So then, if you make yourself such a person, you can be sure that you will make yourself beautiful; but while you neglect these things, whatever contrivances you employ to appear beautiful, you will necessarily be ugly.

-The Discourses of Epictetus, Book 3 Chapter 1

A fantastic argument! Shall we apply it to the Church? What makes the Church beautiful? Is it not that excellence appropriate to the Church? Of course it is. And what is the nature of this excellence?

The pure preaching of God's Word - Law and Gospel.
The proper administration of the Sacraments.
Orthodoxy. Catholicity. Virtue.

You get the drift.

So then, the Church should busy itself with these things in order to be beautiful as Church.

What would Epictetus the Stoic say about Church Growth, Contemporary Worship, and all the other gaudy baubles that are contrived to make the Church beautiful and appealing apart from the Word and the Sacraments?

"While you neglect these things, whatever contrivances you employ to appear beautiful, you will necessarily be ugly."

Thanks, Epictetus. Thanks.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Be Ye Doers of the Word

Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don't speak about how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought.

-Epictetus' Enchiridion 46

Lent is right around the corner and my own thoughts are beginning to turn toward the disparity between what we preach and teach and confess and what we actually
do and how we live. For myself, as a priest and theologian, Epictetus' words have special import. Of all
Christians I am most tempted to be quick to speak a great deal about theorems - theological teachings
both concrete and abstract - among the unlearned. Theology is not a matter of words (though words mean something)
or of thought alone (lest we become Gnostic heretics), but a matter of the Kingdom of God coming among
us sinful men in power and might. It is not only a matter of the Faith being taught in purity and the
Sacraments being administered rightly, but also a matter of Christians hearing that Word of God and living holy
lives according to it; in the same way, the coming of the Kingdom is not a matter only of speaking the Word in every
corner of the earth, but also a matter of His people living holy lives now and in eternity.

When the Christian Faith becomes nothing but words, how can the Church become anything but a Gnostic fellowship where
thinking the right things in the right ways is the way of salvation? No, the One True Faith is more than
words and thoughts, and it ought to be communicated among the unlearned with all of one's being.

Friday, January 11, 2008


Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, aversion, turning from a thing; and in a word, whatever are our acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance; but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then, that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men; but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another's, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily, no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.
The Enchiridion of Epictetus (trans. George Long)

To be happy in life, according to Epictetus, one must first learn to discern between what is in one's power and what is not in one's power. Over what does one have control and over what has one no control?

Obviously, a man will be unhappy and disturbed if he works constantly to control what is beyond his power to control. Likewise, a man's will and self-control will atrophy if he neglects those things over which he may exercise his power.

I find many unhappy Christians simply because they believe they have control over things that are beyond their control. "You cannot change the color of a single hair on your head," said our Lord Jesus Christ. We have far less power than we believe. When sickness or death invades their life, they are upset because they feel powerless; they should not be surprised, for what man has the power to control death? It is only that now their self-deception is unmasked and they realize what they should have known all along: this is one (of many) spheres in which they have no control.

On the other hand, there are things over which we do have power, yet are convinced that they are not in our control. Chief among these is our will to do good for our neighbor. When faced with some opportunity to be charitable, many a Christian (myself included) mistakenly says something like, "I desire to do some good here, but it is not in my power." Perhaps fears concerning the future assail us or questions such as, "If I give this person aid, I may not have enough to feed myself tomorrow." Here we allow things outside our control to worry us out of exercising control over what has been given into our hands.

Perhaps our Lord Jesus had reason to demand an immediate and thoughtless charity in His Sermon on the Mount; self-fulfillment is to be found nowhere if not in the exercise of our will where it may be exercised - here and now - and upon those things which are in our power.

How miserable we are and what victims we claim to be when we believe ourselves to have control over what is not in our control, for when the truth becomes clear, we are bereft of every comfort our illusions gave us. Likewise what victims we become when we believe ourselves to be powerless even in those few matters that belong to us, and how full of regret we must be doomed to become once we have wisdom to recognize those times control was had and yet we did nothing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Say it ain't so, Seneca!!

There I was reading my copy of Seneca's Epistles, happy as a clam, when what should cast my philosophical musings into a chaos of questions and self-doubt?

We ought to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character. Just as I do not care to live in a place of torture, neither do I care to live in a cafe.

-Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Epistle LI)

Eegads!! What am I to think? This great Stoic hero of mine now looks down on the cafe as a place unfit for the philosopher to relax or reflect! I am at a loss and I can't even imagine how this excerpt must horrify and disturb my many theologically and philosophically minded friends.

Perhaps the vast gulf of time between Seneca and myself is enough to account for this horrifying revelation. Let's read a little more...

To witness persons wandering drunk along the beach, the riotous revelling of sailing parties, the lakes a-din with choral song, and all the other ways in which luxury, when it is, so to speak, released from the restraints of law not merely sins, but blazons its sins abroad, - why must I witness all this?

Oh thank God Almighty! The cafes in Seneca's days must have been quite different from our relatively harmless Starbucks, Strangebrews, and Kaldis.

Then again... $5 for a cup of coffee does seem a bit exorbitant. Maybe cafes are places where luxury is released from restraint and blazons its sins abroad. None of the SUV-driving hippies around me seems to blush as they hand over their money. I must reflect further on this.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Concerning those who trade true wisdom for word-games.

It is no occasion for jest; you are retained as counsel for unhappy mankind - the sick and the needy, and those whose heads are under the poised axe. Whither are you straying? What are you doing? This friend, in whose company you are jesting, is in fear. Help him, and take the noose from about his neck. Men are stretching out imploring hands to you on all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; men's hopes, men's resources, depend upon you. They ask that you deliver them from all their restlessness, that you reveal to them, scattered and wandering as they are, the clear light of truth.

- Annaeus Lucius Seneca (Epistle XLVIII)

Here is a challenge for the theologian and the pastor! How easily theology becomes sophistry and the Church becomes a place for arguing semantics. Truth is vital, but words can just as easily hide the truth as reveal it. Seneca uses the example of one "philosopher" who makes jest that 'mouse' is a 'syllable' and 'syllables' do not eat cheese, therefore mice do not eat cheese.

Of course such a game is silly and its emptiness plain to all, but is it not with ease that discussions of theology become nothing more than word games such as this?

Theology as a discipline must always deliver a Christian to the Person of Jesus Christ. Here there are not word games or sophistic arguments; there is only flesh and blood and divinity, real and uncompromising. With words you might, like the Marcionites, explain away the nativity or the death of God in Christ, but you will stand with Thomas before the flesh and blood living God, who offers you His side and hands.

We must engage in theological study, meditation, and discussion always in the presence of the living flesh and blood of Christ and in the presence of the living flesh and blood people who "stretch out imploring hands to you on all sides." With these firmly set before us, engaging in a false theology of word-games will make us blush with shame.