June 15th, 2006

I See You!

Personal/Theological Notebook: Me Again

The last few months I've been a wretched correspondent: even with family I've not been in touch as much as I ought to be. I'm not sure what to blame the "crash" on, so I'll just blame it on me and leave it at that. Even the journal has hit a few hard weeks, and I've started to get inquiries, so I'm making sure to put in a little time here, so that I don't cause the kind of despair and panic kesil did with his temporary absence.

In brief:
• J.P. Hurt has gone and gotten himself engaged to Sheila, down in West Lafayette. J.P. is the most infinitely worst of all correspondents. What I apologized for above as an absence would be a frequency that would constitute stalking on his part. His fiancé was apparently baffled that he'd not talked to some of his best friends (Erik, Mark and I will be in the wedding party, with his brother Nick as Best Man) in a year. How could they be his best friends, she wondered, if that were so? J.P. didn't understand the question. And I love him for it.

• I've spent the better part of my time not working on my dissertation since returning from interviewing Francis Sullivan at Boston College. Instead, I've been ploughing away at designing my Introduction to Theology class and lectures for the Fall semester. It's been slow going at this point, working more on the syllabus rather than lesson plans. I'm making a huge pile of topics on top of my 15-week calendar and then shaking the thing to see if I can get them to distribute evenly across the period. I've yet to make a final schedule, but ideas are coming together.

• My cousin Rebecca graduated from high school last Thursday. Her graduation party was Saturday the 10th, up in Shorewood. I caught the bus up there and saw lots of family during the cool, sunny afternoon. After I arrived and chatted with Mom for a bit, Jim and Leslie arrived with the girls in tow. The 10th was Grace's birthday and – after being clingy with Mommy for awhile – she was able to relax and brag a bit about being 4. Becca is the last of our generation in the Sweeney clan, so that's the last of high school for us: but the next generation's first will be just another four years coming, so there'll be more of that. Her brother Ben is heading out for a semester (well, through November, really) in Argentina in a few weeks. He just turned 21, so we've made plans to go out to the campus bars before he leaves, which kind of blows my mind.

The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture has sent out their call for papers for their annual conference. This year's topic is "Modernity: Yearning for the Infinite," which will be held from November 30 to December 2, 2006 at the University of Notre Dame. I've been playing with questions of Modernity and Post-Modernity in my head for years, ever since sitting in on George Marsden's seminar on Christianity in a Post-Modern World back in '95 or so. There are times where I'm inclined to think that there really isn't a new phenomenon called [lamely] "post-modernity," but rather that what we are in fact witnessing is modernity stripped of its illusions, of the inherited conclusions of the medieval Christian intellectual heritage. And so I wondered if there might be a venue to explore that line of thought in the conference. But then I saw the suggested topic of "Vatican II and the modern." That's got the juices flowing in another direction, and I have a dozen books out from the library now as I'm thinking about a project in that direction. Watch this space for more on that.

• This semester I watched more television than I have in the last decade. Typically, I watch a couple of shows a year, usually sci-fi, like my current devotion to Smallville and the thriller remake of Battlestar Galactica, which is a weekly group event here at Marquette. But from one random night of watching television by myself when I was crashed at the Flemings' place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming while they were at the Fiesta Bowl, I ended up devoted to a number of other programs. So what's the one thing the high-quality shows I've picked out – like family drama Everwood, sci-fi/mystery nail-biter Surface, and geek standbys Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans – all have in common? They've all just been canceled. So much for my wanton habits. I couldn't be more annoyed. Do network executives watch any of these?

• The other night I was perusing an old book and a piece of paper fell out. I unfolded it and had to grin: I had discovered one of the great archaeological treasures of my undergrad. Toward the end of college, my roommate and best friend Dave Nutting and I had gotten confused in conversation one night and had written out this joint timeline of our college years, mostly in order to keep conversation about girls straight (of the "No, the thing with Beth happened fall of my first senior year, your junior year, same time as you were interested in Kim" sort). Too much fun to open this up and see everything sketched out. The sum dating/crush/fling joint total for the two of us: 22, counting Susie twice since we both were kind of going out with her. It was certainly easier to meet people in the dorms.

• I've been re-reading Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels and I think it's worse than I remembered. It's far too driven by current politics to be taken seriously as an historical study, but despite how explicit she is on the point, that doesn't seem to stop people from thinking highly of it. I can't get that kind of ideologically-driven text: I can't think I'm achieving anything if I know I'm fudging the numbers in order to do it. For fun I also read Joseph Ellis' 2004 His Excellency on George Washington, which was absolutely entertaining after zooming through his Founding Brothers that Erik had pressed on me in Boston. It's the only full-length study I've ever read on Washington, since I spend most of my academic reading in other areas, and so it was particularly satisfying to get a real sense of his career after all these years. I'm going to try to read more of Ellis' work for free reading this summer if I get the chance.

• Today I received from Amazon the biggest treasure of the summer thus far: the paperback edition of Lewis Ayres' 2004 Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology just came out. Because of the annoying new profit formulas it seems a lot of academic theological presses are following, the hardcover edition was $185 for this 400-page book. And that from such a mainstream press as Oxford University Press! The paperback came out at a more-approachable $45. Lewis is my advisor, Michel René Barnes', research partner. I'd mentioned before how the two of them had been shaking up Augustinian studies through the revolutionary tactic of actually reading Augustine in depth. Sad to say, this same tactic appears to be equally-revolutionary for the study of the 4th century's great Trinitarian and Christological controversies and developments. The vast majority of people doing study of the early church nowadays are doing social history under the apparent assumption that the intellectual history has all been done. In fact, a lot of that intellectual and dogmatic history has been dominated by the polemical categories of antiquity, and with all the textual research done in the 20th century, the entire field lies open and ready for major work, such as what Ayres is doing here. But only a dozen or 20 scholars worldwide are really doing it. And get this: the entire edifice of Christian theology is built on this material. So it's a big opportunity for me to try to master the new scholarship, even if I'm not officially a patristics scholar as I'd originally intended to be. Nevertheless, this kind of engagement with the critical foundations of Nicene trinitarian theology is going to be something invaluable for me as a contemporary theologian, and Ayres knows it and is trying to make it accessible for contemporary theologians in that way. But right off he's demolishing key assumptions of the pat way that this history is usually taught, such as dismissing the category of "Arian," for example, as simply a polemical term lumping in a number of diverse thinkers and theologies with the condemned Arius, even though most have little to do with Arius, whose theology it seems was not terribly influential among the so-called Arians anyway. I've picked up a certain amount of this from working with Barnes in different contexts, but this book is going to be hard going and an utter delight for its depth and difficulty. Already he's persuasively mashed as overly-simplified a lot of how I've taught this episode to my high school students....