Tag Archives: philosophical theology

Open Theology, Clement, Stoicism, and Prevenient Grace

There are many parallels between Clement of Alexandria’s theology and John Wesley’s. In fact, there was a study that I read and recommend, A Definitive Study of Evidence Concerning John Wesley’s Appropriation of the Thought of Clement of Alexandria by Neil D. Anderson.  Today, I want to briefly look at what John Wesley and Arminian theologians call preparatory, or preventing grace.  Prevenient grace is where “Wesley believed that God places a little spark of divine grace within us that enables us to recognize and accept God’s justifying grace.”  My apologies in advance for the long quotes followed below.  

“So there is no absurdity in philosophy having been given by Divine.  Providence as a preparatory discipline for the perfection which is by Christ; unless philosophy is ashamed at learning from Barbarian knowledge how to advance to truth.”

– The Stromata (Carpets/Miscellanies), Book 6, Chapter 17

This selection is one but many where Clement refers to the philosophies of the Gentiles as objects of preparation. As such, as Clement argues, these ideas and practices are in no way equal to the revelation that the Scriptures passed down to the Church attest to. On the subject of the Stoics, Clement of Alexandria was a bit critical of their doctrine. “Thence also the Stoics have laid down the doctrine, that living agreeably into nature is the end, fitly altering the name of god into nature; since also nature extends to plants, to seeds, to trees, to stones.”- The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 19.

Now, the subject matter, the literary context where Clement is talking about the Stoics confusing nature for god is what’s crucial. If nature is god (similar to process naturalism), god is an impersonal force. In the paragraph before, Clement is discussing Plato, and how Plato says that happiness is to be in the likeness of God. But Plato, according to Clement’s account, plagiarized Moses, and so it’s really only through the Exodus God that Moses wrote about that we can know personally who to (YHWH) and how (the Ten Commandments) to participate in the life of the Creator. “For the law calls assimilation following; an such a following to the utmost of its power assimilates. ‘Be,’ says the Lord, ‘ merciful and pitiful, as your heavenly Father is pitiful. [CoA citing Luke 6:36]’- ibid.

Following Clement’s argument, CoA is arguing that to partake in the Triune God’s life is to obey and be on one accord with the One True God of the Exodus. In his commentary on the Decalogue, on the first commandment, Clement explains there is but one God who revealed Godself to humanity in the deliverance of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.  YHWH freely defines Godself as a Loving and Just Divinity by showing pathetic acts of mercy.  It is in this self-revelation of the divine that humanity knows God in God’s pathos, the self-humiliating journey from the throne of heaven to the world.

Not only is the Exodus Creator God willing to demonstrate God’s holiness through acts of self-giving and self-revealing acts, God is awesomely generous.  God’s grace, as the Gospels say, is like the Sun, that shines on the just and  unjust.  For Clement, Truth has revealed himself in the Logos.  Speaking to the “Greek preparatory culture” since Clement was located in Alexandria, the Greek speaking city of Roman Egypt, Clement compares the salvific work of the Good Shepherd who not only takes “care of sheep, but the care of herds, and breeding of horses, and dogs, and bee-craft.”  While all of these philosophies differ, they can be useful for life. Now, question is how does Clement define “philosophy.”  They are in his words “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,” and more importantly, Clement stresses, “But such conclusions of human reasonings as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.”

Two important notes: first, Clement says that what ever is beneficial to Christian holy praxis, these philosophies are worthy.  However, these truths and practices are not to be understood as universal or binding, never to be called divine, or ever on par with Scripture.  These philosophies are glimpses of indirect contact with God,”in the way showers fall on the good land, and on the dunghill.” (above quotes taken from,The Stromata/The Carpets Book 1, Chapter 7).  The difference between the God as self-revealed, personal, and covenantal living with God’s people in the Promised and Athenian sophists speculating on a dungheap is great.  For example, take Clement’s critical appropriation of the Stoics, once more, “Now the Stoics say that God, like the soul, is essentially body and spirit.  You will find explicitly in all their writings.  Do not consider at present their allegories as the gnostic [Christian mystical] truth. presents them; whether they show one thing, and mean another, like dexterous athletes.  Well, they say that God pervades all being; while we [Christians] call Him solely Maker, and Maker by the Word,  They [the Stoics] were misled by what is said in the book of Wisdom: ‘ He pervades and passes through all by reason of His purity,’ since they did not understand that this was said of Wisdom, which was the first of the creation of God.” (Stromata/Carpets, Book 5, Chapter 14).

So Clement continues the line that the Greeks, even the Stoics, badly plagiarized concepts from Scriptures.  While the Stoics saw an impersonal force of nature throughout everything, Clement argues to say that it is the work of the Logos, the Wisdom of God.  An impersonal force cannot share life or any of its attributes with creation.  This ancient version of what we now call  process naturalism. This is why Clement, like a few other Church Fathers had to radically redefine ideas like impassibility.  God is covenantally and dynamically sovereign over Godself and the world, is in control of God’s emotions, but God also chooses to use passions to accomplish God’s mission in the world: salvation.  I will save Clement’s thoughts on grace, wrath and atonement for another post.  On God’s happiness, Clement says,

“And for this reason we rightly do not sacrifice to God, who, needing nothing supplies all men with all things; but we glorify Him who gave Himself in sacrifice for us, we also sacrificing ourselves; from that which needs nothing to that which needs nothing, and to that which is impassible from that which is impassible.  For in our salvation alone God delights.  We do not therefore, and with reason too, offer sacrifice to Him who is not overcome by pleasures […] The Deity neither is, then, in want of aught, nor loves pleasure, or gain, or money being full, and supplying all thing to everything that has received being and has wants.And neither by sacrifices nor offerings, nor on the other hand by glory and honor, is the Deity won over; nor is He influenced by any such things but He appears only to excellent and good men, who will never betray justice for threatened fear, nor by the promise of considerable gifts.”-

 

Stromata/Carpets, Book 7, Chapter 3

The Triune God is not some self-glorifying Johnny Bravo as Piper and the New Calvinism teaches, neither is God the recipient of all of human experiences as forms of process theism teach.  Rather God freely determines Godself, whose freedom and covenantal natural when God reveals Godself to us, operates as the source of what Clement calls “the self-determination of the soul.” Because “believing and obeying are in” our [the Christian mystics’] power, works always out of neighborly love, so that their neighbors may experience goodness, and become good themselves.  The person who is justified in Christ first rules over herself, and by partaking in the true, shared life of the Trinity, becomes a most moved mover and shaker co-creating a more just society with the God of the Exodus [Clement gives the example of Moses, specifically in politics] (ibid).  In conclusion, in order to understand what true justice is, and the purpose of social justice, humanity must have Justice revealed to them

RESISTERE, latin for resist: the meaning of resistance

GEORGE YANCY & EVERYDAY FAITHFUL CHRISTIAN RESISTANCE

“”To resist (resistere or “to take astand”) suggests the capacity “to stand back,” to acquire an oppositional perspective vis-a-vis a given set of objects. And while every act of agential behavior is not an act of resistance, every act
of resistance is an agential form of behavior. And while
cows might be said to ‘”resist,” they do not “take a
stand.” Deborah White (1999) notes, “While some
Southern whites called such behavior ‘rascality’
[breaking tools, for example], slaves [or to be enslaved]
understood it to be an effective form of resistance” (p.
77). As we shall see, some Black steamboat workers
consciously inverted the meaning of “rascality” as a
term of self-activity to describe their informal work
endeavors. Consider Alcey. an enslaved woman,”- George Yancey, “Historical Varieties of African American Labor: Sites of Agency and Resistance,” Page 345

 

The past few months, the topic of resistance when it comes to theology has dwelled on my mind for some reason. As a Protestant, I know we are ever living in PROTEST of authority, and that Protest Tradition in and of itself becomes a norm, and therefore, authoritative. As an African-American, our community’s religious and political life has been defined by our PROTEST of White Supremacy.  When I read books on black religion and/or black theology, there is an assumed oppositional, we are poised against this or that, it’s us versus the world attitude.  As part of Christianity’s institutional racism, portraying  people of color as perpetually angry and destructive has been part of the norm, and as far as arguments against liberation  theologies play out, this is exactly the case. Scholars from POC communities have critique liberation theologies etc., for not standing FOR anything (other than survival) and standing against/being defined by suffering and sin.

Resistance means “taking a stand,” and this stand can be for standing against racism, because we are standing FOR the Kingdom of God, standing FOR racial justice and reconciliation, standing FOR love. All stands are political, and so really, that standing doesn’t have to be “oppositional” as if the lives of Persons of Color are all just about struggle. It  could be standing back in admiration, looking at a work of art, or standing in pride after reading a book, or making a sports accomplishment, or perhaps even stand up comedy! God’s very own grace is the source of all true, legitimate resistance; [ the act of resisting] is everyday, it is liberating, and it is peaceable. 

For the next couple of days, I will explore a few biblical passages, using the Vulgate, to describe the type of everyday faithful Christian resistance I am talking about.

sometimes, the angels are in the details

I have began to notice something recently in discussions online.  Comments, blog posts, tweets, facebook threads, while many may dismiss these as “it’s just the internet,” these conversations do matter.  Let me give an example from the meat world, then make my way back to my point about online.

When I was in high school, one of my teachers taught us a *limited* amount of poetry by writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  On a personal level, the teacher was likeable, but there was nothing I learned about Emerson (back then) that would convince me to go read his works. Also, I was more interested myself in American government classes and U.S. history.  I have recently been reading Cornel West’s Democracy Matters, and he talks about how Emerson opposed the removal of First Nations people from states like Georgia, and how he criticized the Slave Fugitive Laws. If I had been aware of this, knowing that I believed in social justice then as I do now, I would have been more invested in Emerson, and probably U.S, literature much more earlier than grad school.

Sometimes teachers avoid these teaching moments because maybe they are afraid of the details of a writer’s political life may say about their own politics or biases.  Is teaching particularity something to be avoided? Transition now to online discussions.  I can think of one past and one more recent discussion.  In the former, there was a commenter who is highly educated as I am, but with some of the comment he left, you couldn’t really tell. At the same time, this commenter wrote a book on a theologian who has an affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, the openness of God, and an engagement with natural sciences.  You would think that this person and I would get along, and we do.  But some comments just don’t go away, like being told  that I should choke on the brand of philosophy I preferred to read, or only being seen under a gaze where the only two possibilities are a faithful Barthian Church-loving orthodox Christian, or A Heretical Schleirmacher-loving liberal who is only about experience.  This seems like an unfortunate form of dehumanization; I was being objectified and not addressed as a person.

The problem lied specifically in this writer being taught that his perspective was universal, and that anyone who started with particularity was a experience-driven, theologically liberal, Jesus-dissing heretic.  But fortunately, by way of providence, I have other friends who I am in conversation with, and they have encouraged me to read the late theologian in question in spite of this interlocutor’s behavior.  A similar situation arose during grad school.  In a Christian ethics course, I learned about virtue ethics and Thomas Aquinas.  Given the text that was selected, and the extremely limited focus on Aquinas as a Trinitarian ethicist (from a Protestant interpretation), I had difficulty seeing why Thomists loved Aquinas.  I do recall on Facebook during that semester, or somewhere about that time, in a very active (now really defunct) theology group, there was a philosophy student who identified as a feminist, and she was a Thomist.  I thought that was an interesting combination.

And then last Sunday night, in a long Twitter conversation with two or three friends, I learned how Thomas’ view of human flourishing may be compatible with liberationist and feminist theologies. Perhaps the problem with the class that I learned about Thomas Aquinas was that the professor did not teach specific details of Aquinas’ life or work, just generalities along with secondary texts.  It probably would have been more useful if we had access to primary texts as well.  Maybe, after all,  it’s not the devil, but the angels who are in the details, specificity, particularities, the nitty-gritty and that’s why these are all so important when it comes to learning, teaching, reading and writing.