We Became American

I tend not to write essays of pure political punditry, but I have dipped my toes into the genre with this piece at Mere Orthodoxy. In it, I take aim at the simultaneously politically nonsensical and morally repugnant opposition to the acceptance of Afghan refugees into the United States being contemplated by the American right. Pulling from my own family’s experience as immigrants from Egypt (hence the Egyptian flag image for this post) and, more significantly, from data, I argue that the United States can, without much issue, absorb a few hundred thousand Afghan refugees, far more than the 30,000 currently proposed. Furthermore, I argue that the recent tropes being used by the right may well alienate Middle Easterners and North Africans who already live in this country, deepening ethnic and cultural divisions.

In 1969, my father escaped Libya in the back of a Red Cross ambulance just after Moammar Qaddafi overthrew King Idris I. Just six years old, my father, along with my aunts and grandparents, fled directly from Tripoli to Baltimore, where he lived for a year before relocating to the Chicago suburbs. My geddo (grandfather) was an Egyptian physician and public health expert whose work with the W.H.O and the U.N. took my family throughout the Middle East—Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and, of course, Libya—before my family made a home in America and naturalized. My father attended a Lutheran grade school and a Dutch Reformed high school, listened to Simon & Garfunkel records on the weekends, and eventually married my mother, whose family traces its roots to 17th-Century New England. In the span of half a generation, my Egyptian family became American.

My family history is hardly unique. Indeed, countless immigrant families like mine have successfully assimilated into American life. But this fact has taken on renewed significance as Americans begin a new battle in the culture wars, this time focused on whether to accept Afghan refugees into the United States. Several prominent figures on the right have voiced concerns about accepting such refugees.

Read the whole thing here.

“If a Man Possessed a Whole Kingdom…”

“If a man possessed a whole kingdom, or all the riches of the earth, and gave up the whole of it for the love of God and became one of the poorest men that ever lived on earth, and if God then gave him as much to suffer as he has ever given any man, and if he suffered it all until his death, and if God then gave him one single glimpse of what he is in his power, his joy would be so great that all his suffering and poverty would be too little.”

—Meister Eckhart

Source: Sermon 2, in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense

The Beloved Icon: An Augustinian Solution to the Problem of Sex

I am very pleased to announce the release of my research article, “The Beloved Icon: An Augustinian Solution to the Problem of Sex,” in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

Here is the abstract: “Augustine famously believed fallen human sex to be inescapably bound up with sinful lust. In every sexual act, lust embodies both the sin of the fall (prideful idolatry) and that sin’s consequences. John C. Cavadini has extended Augustine’s conception of lust to include domination, and even violence. This leaves us with a disturbing question: is sex without violence possible? Building upon Jean-Luc Marion’s distinction between idol and icon, this paper locates a solution to the problem of lust in Augustine’s conception of friendship. Identifying the beloved as an icon of God entails relating to the beloved without lustful domination.”

Read the whole research article here.

Augustine at the End of the World

My essay “Politics at the End of the World” was recently published by Breaking Ground. While it is the first essay I’ve written that engages politics directly, it is, I think, more appropriately considered anti-political. It begins where St. Augustine begins in his Letter to Macedonius (155) and Book XIX of The City of God: looking human suffering, incapacity, and fallenness squarely in the face. The pitiful state of humanity drives us to reckon honestly with the miserable state of our political capacities, and thence we are driven to seek succor in eternal goods. St. Augustine does not call Christians to retreat from politics—far from it—but neither does he sacralize politics. Like all earthly realities, for the Christian, politics is a dimension of our pilgrimage, and as such, it must be engaged only insofar as it helps us arrive at our destination. This life is preparation for the next.

This essay was also the last thing I wrote before Fr. Paul died. We discussed my research for it in our last conversation together the week preceding his death. And perhaps that was in God’s providential ordering; these past months, St. Augustine has been my medicine as I’ve dealt with Fr. Paul’s loss. Like Fr. Paul, Augustine is honest about the pains of this life and calls us to endure them, not to anticipate that we will be satisfied this side of glory. But he leaves us with hope, for hope is the offspring of the faith that anticipates sight.

Read the whole essay here.

Godspeed, Fr. Paul

Mere Orthodoxy has just published what is undoubtedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write—a tribute to Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J.

Hagiography has fallen out of fashion. Whether it is seen as dishonest or whether there are too few saints worthy of it, I don’t know. But the death of Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. calls for nothing less, for he was holy in the midst of unholy men. “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle?” asks the Psalmist. “Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart,” comes the response. If we trust the Psalmist, then surely Fr. Paul’s abode is now God’s very tabernacle. Like most men of true virtue, the recognition due him by virtue of his towering intellect, unwavering integrity, and unshakeable faith was always denied him. But every now and then, I would meet someone else who knew him, and we would delight to speak his praises.

You can read the whole tribute here.

Presbyterians In Egypt

Mere Orthodoxy recently published an essay of mine detailing part of the history of Anglophone missions in Egypt and investigating the role of American Presbyterians there. I conclude by asking what American Presbyterian activity in Egypt has to teach American Christians today.

Writing a report of his time as a missionary in Egypt, Andrew Watson had this to say about Egypt’s Christians: “In general, the Copts are a simple-minded, devout, religious people, with great reverence for the Scriptures.”[1] The stated goal of this nineteenth-century mission had been to convert Muslims to Christianity, so it is striking that Watson and his fellow American Presbyterians wound up attempting to convert the Coptic Orthodox to Protestantism. Their attempts to convert the Coptic Orthodox contrast sharply with the attitudes of the English Protestant missionaries who preceded them. [2]

The British and American missions were, admittedly, similar in several respects: both worked—or intended to work—for the eventual conversion of the Muslim population in Egypt, both focused on education, and both were self-consciously Protestant and saw one another as co-religionists.[3]

There was, however, one glaring difference of approach between the English and the Americans: the English missionaries wished to strengthen the Coptic Orthodox Church’s structures and educate her priests (admittedly, to make them more Protestant in theological orientation), but the Americans hoped to convert the Coptic Orthodox to Presbyterian Protestantism.

So what was it about the Scripture-revering Egyptian Christians that Watson and his American colleagues found wanting?

Read the rest over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Reforming Forgiveness

I have a new essay up at The North American Anglican investigating Richard Hooker’s doctrine of the keys of the kingdom and forgiveness of sins. I argue Hooker is fundamentally Reformed; by consequence, his view is actually very similar to that of nonconformist Thomas Cartwright, a Presbyterian who remained within the Church of England.

“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). This cryptic verse and its cognates were fiercely contested during the Reformation.[1] Rome argued that Christ granted priests and bishops the authority to “pronounce the sentence of remission or retention of sins.”[2] Already in his 95 Theses and his Explanations of the 95 Theses, however, Luther took aim at this doctrine; in his early treatise, Concerning the Ministry, he lays out what would become the consensus Magisterial Protestant view of the keys: “To bind and loose is…to proclaim and apply the gospel. For what is it to loose, if not to announce forgiveness of sins before God? What is it to bind, except to withdraw the gospel and declare the retention of sins?”[3]

In other words, for Rome, priests and bishops bind and loose by their own authority, whereas for Protestants, God binds and looses, and the keys consist in the (efficacious) proclamation by human agents in the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. The Reformed tradition’s English incarnation remained essentially wedded to Luther’s articulation of the keys, albeit with perhaps greater emphasis on the ordained minister’s role. This consensus was surprisingly stable across ecclesial factions in the Elizabethan era.

This paper argues that the divines Richard Hooker and Thomas Cartwright, a conformist and non-conformist respectively, held to the broadly Reformed consensus on the nature of the keys. Nevertheless, their rhetorical emphases diverged considerably owing to their different opponents. In short, both Hooker and Cartwright articulated a roughly “Calvinist” position, but they highlighted and foregrounded certain elements of this position for polemical purposes.

Read the whole piece here.

Imitation and Habit: Reflections on Plato and St. Augustine

I’ve been working my way through Plato’s Republic again, and this time, I was struck by the oddness of Socrates’ discussion of narration in poetry and theater. Although brief and strange, this passage might help us think about character formation, particularly given the ubiquity of entertainment dependent upon storytelling and acting. At the least, I suspect it will help us uncover certain of our assumptions about how virtue relates to imitation and the forms of entertainment. I should add at the outset that I haven’t read any secondary literature on this topic or read and reread the argument many times over, so my reading of the Republic on this point is somewhat provisional.

In this passage, Socrates discusses not merely the content of poetry and theater, which is what most of us evaluate when assessing the moral worth of entertainment. Socrates also focuses upon their form, and the key issue of form is imitation (mimesis).

Socrates begins his discussion of imitation by distinguishing between two kinds of narration (392c and following). In one kind, the poet speaks in his own voice, narrating the tale as himself. In the second, he speaks in the voice of another, “mak[ing] his own voice as much like that of the indicated speaker as possible” (393). This is imitation. In other words, Socrates contends, imitation is the poet’s attempt to “hide” himself in the persona of another narrator or a character. While it is curious that, for Socrates, the poet’s adoption of other narrative voices constitutes imitating other people, the more interesting feature of the passage is Socrates’s apparent belief that successful imitation requires that the moral character of the one imitated be adopted by the imitator.

While Socrates leaves this point unstated, it is, I think, implicit in his discussion of how the guardians should relate to poetry, theater, and imitation. He first asks whether the city’s guardians should be imitators. Earlier, he reminds his interlocutors, he argued that “each individual would do a fine job at one occupation” but would be a mediocrity if he tried his hand at many (395e). The same holds, Socrates claims, for imitation: “a single individual can’t imitate many things as well as he can imitate one.” To prove his point, he shows that different actors feature in different kinds of plays. The same person is not well-suited for both tragedy and comedy (395b).

From this, Socrates concludes that, if the guardians are to be good guardians (i.e. “do a fine job at one occupation”), they must be either forbidden from imitating or else permitted to imitate only conduct “appropriate for them” (395c). Socrates worries that, if guardians begin imitating the wrong things, they’ll develop a taste for the wrong things.

There’s a possible tension in Socrates’ understanding of imitation, however. On the one hand, he argues that only a certain kind of person can imitate a particular character well. The same actor is unlikely to be accomplished in both tragedy and comedy, ostensibly because the kinds of people presented in each—and the manner of their presentation—differ markedly. This indicates that the actor’s competence at the one is due to an innate or developed disposition toward it which cannot be easily suppressed. One cannot easily hide in an alien persona. On the other hand, however, Socrates worries the guardians will successfully imitate those they are not like and, in so doing, become like them. Thus, a man cannot successfully imitate someone he’s not like, but a man may become like someone he imitates. How do these cohere?

The most obvious solution is simply that Socrates thinks trying on vicious personae will gradually make someone vicious, especially someone young and impressionable. One may mostly fail at early attempts to imitate a vicious man, but he will eventually begin succeeding, and therein lies the danger. This solution is confirmed when Socrates claims, anticipating Aristotle, that “Imitations practiced from youth become a part of nature and settle into habits” (395d).

But once vicious imitations become part of our nature, what hope do we have? Are all of us consigned to our youthful follies?

Socrates’ discussion of imitation bears striking resemblance to Augustine’s treatment of habit in book 10 of his Confessions. For Augustine, sinners gradually become habituated to sinful lust. Once habituated, sinful people cannot merely resist lusts of the flesh through a decision of the will. The lust of the flesh (sexual or not) takes captive those who succumb to it—and everyone succumbs. Hence, as Augustine put it, he was enslaved to “habitual practices” which would “reabsorb” him and hold him “in their grip.” Those who are so held—again, all of us—are unable to break free on our own. Augustine takes St. Paul’s horror at himself in Romans 7 to epitomize this condition. Even the convert, having repented of his former life, cannot escape enslavement to sinful habit.


At any rate, he cannot escape quickly. Augustine does hold out hope that freedom from at least certain lusts is possible. God’s medicine, Christ Jesus, “is still more potent” than man’s diseases. How if not at the “moment” of conversion, how does Christ heal? By giving “the price of my redemption” to me in bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. Only heavenly medicine heals. Augustine’s belief in Eucharistic healing should not be confused with contemporary theological trends that propose liturgy or ritual as healing balms in their own right—as though mere repetition could free us from ourselves. Rather, for Augustine, the Eucharist is supernatural rehabituation, and indeed, supernatural imitation. In the Eucharist, we pattern ourselves after Christ and are united to Him in His life, death, and resurrection. We gradually put on Christ, hide in Christ, and become imitators of Christ.


The Lord is One

I’m excited to announce a new book, published by The Davenant Institute, entitled The Lord is One: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity. I was honored to pen the book’s introduction and, along with Joseph Minich, co-edit the volume. The volume features contributors with various areas of expertise—exegesis, history, and constructive theology— who investigate the doctrine of divine simplicity, its scriptural bases, historical development, and contemporary challenges to it.  We received endorsements from the systematic theologians Fred Sanders and Kevin Vanhoozer and the historian Carl Trueman, among others. Read the description below, and purchase the book here:

After an age of original integrity, the doctrine of divine simplicity fell from grace. Once a cornerstone of orthodox Christianity’s doctrine of God, many modern theologians expelled it from the garden for the sin of employing passé Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. But was the doctrine of divine simplicity’s fall deserved? Is it unreasonable to hold that God is metaphysically without parts? Is the Lord really one? Rather than dismiss the challenges leveled against divine simplicity, The Lord is One engages them, presenting exegetical, historical, and theological treatments of divine simplicity. This volume argues that the doctrine of divine simplicity is cogent and indispensable while also making space for historically marginalized or idiosyncratic articulations of it. After all, once expelled from paradise, nothing returns exactly as it was.

The Freedom of a Christian (Rapper)

I’ve recently written a fun piece over at First Things on the Lutheran contours of Kanye West’s conversion and new album. In it, I poke fun at theologians and writers (like myself), monks, and more. But the piece isn’t all jokes. The core of it explains some of Kanye’s lyrics and put them into conversation with Luther.  You can read it here.

Much to the chagrin of over-earnest theology scribblers everywhere, Kanye West is now one of America’s most well-known public theologians. Some Christians have expressed skepticism about his conversion, others about his qualifications. But the good news for all of us (on my side of the Tiber, at least) is this: The man who insists he’s not a theologian is channeling Martin Luther. To this longtime fan of both Luther’s theology and Kanye’s discography, it seems West has taken a path familiar to totally depraved Protestants the world over: Attempting to justify himself, he wound up condemned by the Law, spiritually desolate, and ultimately saved by Jesus…