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Addenda et Notanda
On Carpocratians, roads not taken, chimaeras, the Sage of Baltimore, and other things
1. On 24 August, 2022, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware passed away peacefully, just a few weeks shy of his 88th birthday. To some of us of a certain age, he was probably the first native English voice who attracted us to the Eastern Christian world. His two most famous and influential books came early in his public career: The Orthodox Church (1963) and The Orthodox Way (1979). Neither has ever gone out of print. The latter was especially important to me when I read it in my teens. I had encountered the writings of the Eastern fathers by that point, but had not yet ever heard anyone speak of Orthodoxy in an idiom intelligible to my Anglican ears. In some ways now, both works might be seen as presenting an excessively idealized picture of Orthodoxy; but, of course, the ideal is what the church is always supposedly striving to be. Both books, if nothing else, laid out with exemplary clarity much of the special ethos of the Eastern Christian world. In any event, Ware went on from there for many years as one of the most distinguished, reasonable, compassionate, witty, and engaging representatives of Orthodoxy in the West; in fact, he may have been the father of what could only be called a genuine British Orthodoxy. He will be greatly missed.
2. The text of my last post—“Roland on Repression”—went out to your inboxes in an unfinished form; this was because I had inadvertently uploaded a rough draft onto the Substack page. (I blame iCloud, which failed to update the document from one computer to the other. In fact, that failure led to more than one embarrassing episode for me.) The edited version is now in place on the website.
3. I have elected not to write two posts mentioned in previous announcements. While my next article (just a few days hence) will indeed, as promised, concern allegorical readings of biblical myths, it will not be followed by a reflection on the dismal state of current theological education. The reason for my change of mind is simple enough: it was a boring idea. And I can sum up the argument here in very few words: the erstwhile “Queen of the Sciences,” who demanded of her subjects that they undergo a thorough training in multiple languages (ancient and modern), as well as philosophy, history, biblical scholarship and hermeneutics, and any number of other disciplines before they could enter her service, has now become a dithering, doting, indulgent grandmother, handing out degrees with blithe wantonness, like molasses cookies she’s just baked for her visiting grandchildren.
4. I shall also refrain from writing my account of what I see as the decline—intellectual, moral, stylistic—of the journal First Things and of my break with it. You may recall, I solicited readers’ advice on the wisdom of such an article; and, while the results were mixed, slightly more of you advised against it than advised for it. My thanks to all parties, however. In the end, though, the reason for my change of plans is the opposite of my reason for not writing the article on theological education: it would have been impossible to make the article nearly boring enough. I had intended something dry, deliberate, dispassionate, rigorously (if insincerely) impartial; but I know myself too well. The temptation to satire—lavishly bedizened and purfled with outlandish turns of phrase, baroque similes, and viciously honest innuendoes—would have proved irresistible to me. My sense of humor was forged early in life in the crucible of the excellent public school system of Howard County, Maryland, where regional pride dictated that the tender souls of schoolchildren be regularly exposed to the works of H. L. Mencken. A class in prose composition? Needless to say, Mencken on the Scopes trial was one of the textual exemplars. A syntax-tree assignment? What better passage to vivisect (aside, of course, from the opening paragraph of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”) than one of Mencken’s extended meditations on the barbarism of New York’s gustatory habits? A class project on the history of American English? What more crucial source than The American Language? And so on. In fact, one of our standard texts in tenth grade was the glorious Mencken Chrestomathy. All of which I bring up here in order to explain many of my indurated habits as a writer; there is a tiny Sage of Baltimore forever sitting on my left shoulder, whispering wicked suggestions in my ear. I would never be able to contain my most malicious impulses if I set about writing such an article; I would soon be scribbling away with my favorite envenomed pen, striving to suppress my assassin’s smile while heaping one elaborately vituperative subordinate clause atop another. And what would be the point? There really is not that much mystery to what happened: the journal became evil and stupid, and I try my best to be neither.
5. One issue that came up in the “review” of Tradition and Apocalypse published by First Things was the matter of “gnostic universalism”: in particular, a single phrase in Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses concerning the sect of the Carpocratians. In my reply to the author’s reply to my reply to the original review, I briefly noted that the phrase in question almost certainly says nothing about universal salvation. One or two readers requested an elaboration. So let me explain. In his initial “review,” the author cited Michael McClymond’s gargantuan white elephant of a book, The Devil’s Redemption, claiming that it had “demonstrated” that Christian universalism was an invention of the “Gnostics.” I noted in my first reply that not only does the book demonstrate absolutely nothing of the sort, but in fact there is no evidence whatsoever of any universalist sects among the so-called “gnostics,” and that the very concept is silly. In his reply to this, the author of the “review”—apparently unaware that I had dealt with this issue already in my own review of McClymond’s book—triumphantly adduced (by way of McClymond) that snippet of Irenaeus. In the passage in question, Irenaeus tells us that the Carpocratians (remembered, accurately or not, as an antinomian sect that indulged in all sorts of carnal and vicious practices) believed in salvation through the systematic exhaustion of all possibilities of earthly entanglement, good and bad alike; then he casually notes, “sic quoque salvari et omnes animas.” This our author—like McClymond before him—takes as a firm declaration that the Carpocratians believed that all human souls will definitely be saved. Almost no scholar of the period, however, believes that this is either true about the Carpocratians (concerning whom we may know very little, but what little we do know militates against any teaching of universalism) or in fact a correct reading of what Irenaeus is saying in that passage. Rather, it is a statement regarding the process by which “any” souls that are to be saved must be set free from this world. “Omnes” here is not a comprehensive or definite “all” but rather, as is common enough in such constructions, a relative or indefinite “all”: that is, again, “any.” All the phrase indicates is that, for Carpocrates, there is only one path of escape from this cosmos. Our author, though, seems to think that the phrase is more or less an equivalent of “et sic omnes animae salvabuntur” or even “omnes animae salvandae sunt.” I am quite sure that, had that been what Irenaeus had meant to communicate, he would certainly have called more attention to it than he did.
6. All of which is somewhat secondary to the real oddity of this part of the McClymond volume. Christian universalism arose in the early centuries in impeccably “orthodox” circles. That is simply a fact of history. The attempt to hide that fact, and to assign a guilt by association to universalism by invoking the (vacuous but frightening) category of “gnosticism,” is an essentially disingenuous project. But who cares? The real wonder is how strange it is that, in a book of a couple thousand pages, purporting to prove a “gnostic” genesis for universalist doctrine, the only evidence the author can produce (against oceans of countervailing evidence) is a single fragmentary phrase from a murkily translated sentence—and then, as it turns out, a phrase that does not say what he thinks it says. Could a “scholarly” argument possibly arrive at a worse anticlimax than that? Which should serve as a reminder to us all: tendentious scholarship is a very dangerous thing, because it always encourages one to imagine something has been proved when it has not. (In this case, of course, the evidence available is not only inadequate; it in fact proves exactly the opposite of what the author wanted to demonstrate.)
7. John Carr, a classicist and a reader of this site, has published a very agreeable review of Kenogaia over at ClassicalU (the online journal of Classical Academic Press). I am grateful for the notice. And, given the legions upon legions of classicists out there... Well, it may help sell a few copies, regardless. More important is how well it presents the premises of the plot without giving away the resolutions.
8. I thought I should call attention to the appearance from the University of Notre Dame Press of Thomas Pfau’s new book, a gigantic and absorbingly rich meditation—one of those books one simply disappears into for an extended period—called Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image. If you are unfamiliar with Pfau, I think it fair to say he paints on a large canvas, but that the many small details are as rewarding as the entire picture. I expect to return to this book here at some point in the future.
9. I have been asked by several persons—some of them readers of this newsletter, some not—whether I intend to release the text of the paper that I delivered (in part and by Zoom) at the conference on Sergii Bulgakov that met in Fribourg, Switzerland September a year ago. It has generated interest in some circles because it expands on arguments I made in You Are Gods; but also because it lays out some of my disagreements (such as they are) with a circle of young scholars who have come to be called the “New Neo-Chalcedonians.” I have decided to release the text here at some point, so long as I feel sure that no one will complain that Leaves in the Wind is now becoming needlessly abstruse and academical as a result. The title of the piece, incidentally, is “Masks, Chimæras, and Portmanteaux: Sergii Bulgakov and the Metaphysics of the Person”—which is the best title of any academic paper ever written, with the exception of C. S. Peirce’s “Man’s Glassy Essence” (and I did not have to rely on Shakespeare, as Peirce did).
10. Back to Mencken. Those aforementioned “extended meditations on the barbarism of New York’s gustatory habits” are now clamoring in my mind, demanding to be quoted. Mencken lived at a moment in American history when Baltimore was still one of the country’s culinary capitals (I am not inventing this), just as it was home to far and away the most literate and respected newspaper in North America, and perhaps the whole Anglophone world, The Baltimore Sun. Maryland’s regional cuisine remains magnificent, but the great hotels and restaurants of the fading Gilded Age are no more; and that wretched AP-wire neighborhood flier that now wears the honorable name of the once great journal of lore is the burning shame of all my people. But, back when Mencken was in his prime, it was possible for a Baltimorean to sneer in withering disdain at the coarse cuisine of New York; and every week, when he boarded the train to that benighted backwater to take up his editorial duties at The American Mercury, Mencken had every right to feel like a general in the vanguard of Roman civilization, invading the savage hinterlands of the Germanic tribes. Which calls to mind an article written for The New York Evening Mail in 1918, under the title “Callinectes Hastatus,” describing the seafood and comestible wildfowl of the Chesapeake Bay—the most celebrated passage from which is this:
In New York, however, there is no such refinement of palate and dignity of feeling. I have seen fried oysters served in one of the most expensive hotels of the town, and the head waiter didn’t even put a screen around the table—which would have been done in Baltimore had a United States senator, a foreign ambassador, or some other untutored magnifico insisted upon having them. And in the so-called seafood eating houses, so I hear, they are dished up without the slightest question, and all the year ’round. Imagine a Christian eating a fried oyster in the summer!
Well, the people of New York do even worse; they eat Chesapeake soft crabs fried in batter! What is cannibalism after that? I’d as lief eat a stewed archdeacon. Think of immersing a delicate and sensitive soft crab, the noblest of decapods, in a foul mess of batter, drenching it and blinding it, defacing it and smothering it—and then frying it in a pan like some ignoble piece of Pennsylvania scrapple. As well boil a cocktail, or a smelt, or a canvasback duck.
The man was a god.