Monday, September 30, 2019

"The Madness of Crowds" by Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray's The Madness of Crowds is perhaps a little too reliant on lengthy anecdotes from current events, scene-by-scene (or blow-by-blow) transcriptions of televised traumas and social media skirmishes, such that those familiar with some of the incidents related my be tempted to skip over some pages. Nevertheless, I believe this stands is one of the best analyses of the functional incoherence of the phenomenon of intersectionality, with its competing oppressions [and/or] victimhood of race, sex and gender which to Murray "grinds hideously and noisily both against each other and within ourselves."

Murray mines the world of television talk shows, Facebook frenzies, Twitter-storms, and other locuses of current events to depict our times -- where a misconstrued word or phrase or action can become tinder for blame and resentment; where what might be an ordinary differing of opinions all-to-quickly escalates into the deaf shouts of a vengeance-thirsty mob; where daily life and social interaction is rife with "impossibility problems" (i.e., in the observation of Mark Lilla, one simultaneously demands "you must understand me" AND "you cannot understand me"); where life has been reduced to a "endless zero-sum game between different groups vying for oppressed status, [robbing] us of time and energy for the conversations and thinking that we do need to do."

That this cultural phenomenon has all the characteristics of what was erstwhile reviled in religion -- the zealous hounding of heretics, the establishment of campus inquisitions -- has not gone unnoticed to Murray ("A fixed set of virtues are being celebrated. And a fixed set of prepositions are being set up"). In this case, however, the claims advanced and to which everyone is expected to give assent are themselves a recipe for madness:

As anyone who has lived under totalitarianism can attest, there is something demeaning and eventually soul-destroying about being expected to go along with claims you do not believe to be true and cannot hold to be true. If the believe is that all people should be regarded as having equal value and be accorded to equal dignity, then that may be all well and good. If you are asked to believe that there are no differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality, men and women, racism and anti-racism, then this will in time drive you to distraction. That distraction -- or crowd madness -- is something we are in the middle of and something we need to try and find our way out from.

Murray's book is long in the diagnosis -- but worth reading for his keen ability to identify what is amiss. At the same time it comes up short on a prescription, perhaps impeded in part because Murray suspects those engaged in the fomenting the madness may not necessarily be in search of a cure (capitalizing as they are in the perpetuation of grievances) or otherwise chasing after a utopian dream. After all, muses Murray: "the most likely explanation of human motivations in the future is that people will broadly go on behaving as they have done throughout history, that they will continue exhibiting the same impulses, frailties, passions and envy that have propelled the species up to now."

One of the strongest chapters (if only a brief interlude) is on the necessity of forgiveness in societal relations and civic health -- culling from Hannah Arendt ("without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover"). Murray points out how society's capacity to forgive has diminished, hampered by the all-encompassing memory of social media, where one's sins are no longer confined to the community (where they might fade over time, or be negated by further acts of reconciliation) but instead rendered transparent and timeless on a global scale, for all eternity.

For it is the tendency of social media to bolster the trench-digging and doubling down on positions -- "when someone is face to face with another person it is far harder to reduce them to one thing that they have said, or strip them of all characteristics except one." Murray reminds us that it was not too long ago that Alexis de Tocqueville observed (in his travels in the 1830's), that one of the strengths of the United States was the capacity of the American citizenry to resolve their differences in face-to-face encounters, remedying disputes before the intervention of higher authority was needed. These days, it seems we are rushing headlong in the other direction -- thanks in large part to social media's ability to erase barriers between the private and public, past and present. To counter this, Murray asks if in fact the "spirit of generosity can be extended any more widely" in interpreting the remarks of others, and to counter the headlong rush to "politicize everything" by doing precisely the opposite:

"Of all the ways in which people can find meaning in their lives, politics -- let alone politics on such a scale -- is one of the unhappiest. Politics may be an important aspect of our lives, but as a source of personal meaning it is disastrous. Not just because the ambitions it strives after nearly always go unachieved, but because finding purpose in politics laces politics with a passion -- including a rage -- that perverts the whole enterprise. If two people are in disagreement about something important, they may disagree as amicably as they like if it is just a matter of getting to the truth or the most amenable option. But if one party finds their whole purpose in life to reside in some aspect of that disagreement, then the chances of amicability fade fast and the likelihood of reaching any truth recedes."

* * *

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Samuel Gregg: "Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization"

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization
by Samuel Gregg.
Gateway Editions (June 25, 2019). 256 pgs.

The genius of Western civilization is its unique synthesis of reason and faith. But today that synthesis is under attack—from the East by radical Islam (faith without reason) and from within the West itself by aggressive secularism (reason without faith). The stakes are incalculably high.

The naïve and increasingly common assumption that reason and faith are incompatible is simply at odds with the facts of history. The revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures of a reasonable Creator imbued Judaism and Christianity with a conviction that the world is intelligible, leading to the flowering of reason and the invention of science in the West. It was no accident that the Enlightenment took place in the culture formed by the Jewish and Christian faiths.

We can all see that faith without reason is benighted at best, fanatical and violent at worst. But too many forget that reason, stripped of faith, is subject to its own pathologies. A supposedly autonomous reason easily sinks into fanaticism, stifling dissent as bigoted and irrational and devouring the humane civilization fostered by the integration of reason and faith. The blood-soaked history of the twentieth century attests to the totalitarian forces unleashed by corrupted reason.

But Samuel Gregg does more than lament the intellectual and spiritual ruin caused by the divorce of reason and faith. He shows that each of these foundational principles corrects the other’s excesses and enhances our comprehension of the truth in a continuous renewal of civilization. By recovering this balance, we can avoid a suicidal winner-take-all conflict between reason and faith and a future that will respect neither.

Reviews and Discussion

Monday, August 19, 2019

Here and There

  • Five Insights Christianity Brings to Politics, by Michael Matheson Miller. Law and Liberty 05/29/19:
    The relationship between Christianity and politics is a complex one. The Church has played a mixed role in the history of political liberty to be sure. At times it has suppressed political, religious and economic liberty. Yet despite that, and unserious caricatures of history from secularists like Steven Pinker, Christianity has been one of the most important forces for liberty and the idea of a limited state. Though Christianity is not a political program it nevertheless gives us a certain way of thinking about the state and the role of politics. ...

  • Remembering an Aristotelian Radical: Henry Veatch and Rational Man, by Douglas B. Rasmussen, Douglas J. Den Uyl. Law and Liberty 09/09/18:
    Veatch often remarked that there is a difference between having what it takes to live well and living well. Though he certainly would not dismiss empirical studies of human flourishing that attempt to measure the development of the capabilities people need for flourishing, he would rightly insist on a difference between the development of people’s capabilities and the exercise of their own practical wisdom. It is the deployment of the latter that is central to what constitutes one’s flourishing.

    In sum, we can say that Veatch has offered in Rational Man and his other works a way of understanding ethics that celebrates both the individual and the importance of the self-perfecting life. This celebration is based on his thorough-going realism -- a realism that rejects the temptation to make reality simply a human construction but also a realism that holds that human knowing, achievement, and flourishing are possible, if we will but exercise those virtues that make us rational animals.

  • Edward Feser notes the passing of philosopher and theologian Norman Geisler (1932-2019):
    I am sorry to report that philosopher and theologian Norman Geisler has died. Geisler stood out as a Protestant who took a broadly Thomist approach to philosophy and theology, and as an evangelical who vigorously defended the classical theist conception of God against the currently fashionable anthropomorphism he aptly labeled “neo-theism” (and which Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism”). Those of us who sympathize with these commitments are in his debt.
  • Widening Gyres, by Brian Kemple. The Agonist. While I admit sites like Quillette remain guilty pleasures (inasmuch as they advance a free and reasonable exchange of ideas in the face of fideistic oppression) there is something lacking in the greater scheme of things, and Brian Kemple nails it in this essay:
    Yet despite their adoration of reason, these “Reasonabilists” are in truth no more than “reasonablish,” I say somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Clearly, they are not so unreasonable as the raving social justice ideologues they rightly lambast, nor are they lost in the clouds of Gnosticism and mystical superstition that they readily attribute to pre-modern thought.[12] But the fact that they cling adamantly to this caricature of pre-modern beliefs reveals the limits of their reason. A critical examination of the true contours of pre-modern society would show it to be no less and, in some instances, a great deal more reasonable than the thinking that came to prevail through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and perhaps therefore induce reflection upon the modernist principles which they have uncritically taken for granted. [...]

    Indeed, ignorance of history is not only a hallmark of the Enlightenment and its contemporary advocates, but a deliberately cultivated shortcoming. Rather than engage with the whole system of scholasticism, men such as Descartes, Cudworth, More, and Leibniz extracted points for criticism that, once deprived of context, appear absurd. Likewise, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau emphasized an interpretation of history and society whose preoccupation with practical economics, technology, and politics relied on a caricature of the intellectual heritage of the Middle Ages. They thereby skipped over many details of life proper to the period, when the questions of philosophy were intertwined with the life of faith. The closeness of the Christian religion to philosophy shows how integral Christendom was to European culture, especially in the embrace and promotion of classical learning.[31] Truly, having the Enlightenment and its heirs as the only source of learning for understanding the Middle Ages would be like having Aristophanes as the only source for understanding Socrates.

  • Anselm's Account of Satisfaction Siris 04/14/19:
    There has been some discussion recently of this interview with Elizabeth Johnson; it was actually done late last year, but has been getting more attention now, since 'tis the season. Much of the interview is more a matter of provocative phrasing than substantially wrong claims, but some of it goes very awry. And pretty much all of the discussion of Anselm on satisfaction in Cur Deus Homo, is wrong. It's wrong in entirely avoidable ways; but, I find, ways that are often not avoided, so it is worthwhile to say a few things about them. ...

  • The Last Modernist: The Legacy of Jacques Barzun, by David Warren. The Imaginative Conservative 04/04/19:
    Barzun was “civil” as well as civilized, yet never pusillanimous. A large part of his work consisted of serenely articulated anger, focused chiefly upon the teaching profession. The phenomenon that is glibly called today “political correctness” — a far stronger term is needed to convey the stench of it — has been a feature of North American intellectual life for a long time. It is in fact the contemporary expression of the Puritan theological outlook, that landed with the Mayflower; and it has everything to do with cults of specialization, and with heresies (i.e. deceitful half-truths) both within and beyond the formal perimeter of religion.

  • Legutko: Enemy Of The Politruks, by Rod Dreher. The American Conservative 04/23/19. An interview with scholar and statesman Ryszard Legutko, whom in April 2019, after traveling to Vermont from Poland, was abruptly disinvited from a speaking engagement at Middlebury College after its administration decided that it could not guarantee his safety:
    [Rod Dreher] It seems to me that the way you were treated at Middlebury vindicates much of The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. If so, please explain how.

    The book is about how liberal democracy tends to develop the qualities that were characteristic of communism: pervasive politicization, ideological zeal, aggressive social engineering, vulgarity, a belief in inevitability of progress, destruction of family, the omnipresent rule of ideological correctness, severe restriction of intellectual inquiry, etc. All of these I remember from my young days in communism, and all these I have been observing, with a growing sense of alarm, in today’s liberal democracy. In the heyday of the communist rule it was customary that the communist students disrupted the lectures of old “bourgeois” professors, accusing them of having reactionary views, of trying to corrupt the young minds with idealist philosophy, and of being at the service of imperialist forces. Why teach Aristotle who despised women and defended slavery? Why teach Plato whom Lenin derided as the author of “super-stupid metaphysics of ideas”? Why teach Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was propagating anti-scientific superstition? Why teach Descartes who in his notion of cogito completely ignored the class struggle?

    The professors were abused and humiliated. Heckling and caterwauling were a standard weapon of the militant students then, and they are a standard weapon of the militant students today.

    Each time the results are the same: certain authors are stigmatized, certain arguments cannot be raised, and certain questions must not be asked. Both then and now the ideological hooligans live in the illusion that they open new perspectives and tear down the existing barricades. In fact, they are doing the opposite: they help to legitimize intellectual vulgarity and intimidate all courageous and independent thinking. They reinforce this feature of all ideological regimes, which George Orwell called "thought crimes."

  • Peak Woke Philosophy, by Daniel A. Kaufman The Electric Agora, commenting on a recent skirmish over gender-related politics and academic freedom:
    The essential thing to realize is that woke philosophy isn’t philosophy at all, but politics by another name. Philosophy, for the most part, is conducted by way of arguments and aspires to relative dispassion and (in the modern era) is largely an intellectual endeavor, the purpose of which is to raise tough, serious questions with regard to a highly diverse set of topics. It’s mode is essentially critical. The aim is not to win or to feel good about oneself or to obtain a particular policy outcome or to identify and punish wrongdoers of one stripe or another. These are the aims of social and political activism and agitprop. And yet, this is what woke philosophy is all about: specifically, the advancement and establishment of contemporary identitarian politics within the profession and the society at large.
    On a related note, Brien Leiter of Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog is keeping tabs on the internecine debate within the halls of philosophy.

    Salvador Dalí’s Illustrations for The Bible (1963):

    ... These are not his first religious subjects; he had always referenced big scenes and broad themes in Catholicism. But the illustrations represent a deeper engagement with the primary text—105 paintings in all, each based on select passages from the Latin Vulgate Bible. Published by Rizzoli in 1969, Biblia Sacra (The Sacred Bible) was commissioned by Dalí’s friend, Dr. Guiseppe Albareto, a devout Catholic whose intention “for this massive undertaking,” writes the Lockport St. Gallery, “was to bring the artist back to his religious roots.” Whatever effect that might have had, Dalí approaches the project with the same diligence evident in his other illustrations—he takes artistic risks while making a sincere effort to stay close to the spirit of the text. If he did this work for the money, he earned it.

  • Slut Shaming in the Adoration Chapel, by Larry Denninger. A Catholic Misfit 08/09/19. -- Or, how NOT to be a Catholic.

  • The Alt-Left Media Landscape, Ray Suarez (WBUR Podcast). "It’s not just the alt-right. A vibrant alt-left media landscape is peddling conspiracies to politicians and news consumers alike."

  • Leonard Cohen’s Cocktail Recipe: Learn How to Make "The Red Needle" OpenCulture 08/07/19.

  • Lastly, a bit of humor: Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong (NYMag)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

David French vs. Sohrab Ahmari

Against David-Frenchism, by Sohrab Amari. First Things 05/29/19:
In March, First Things published a manifesto of sorts signed by several mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, who argued that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.”

Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?

I don’t claim to speak for the other signatories. But as one of the principal drafters, I have given the question a great deal of thought, both before and since the document’s publication. And I can now say that for me, “Against the Dead Consensus” drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.

Further Discussion

  • Response What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong, by David French. National Review 05/30/19:
    What is singularly curious about this, and Ahmari’s essay on the whole, is the extent to which it depends on the creation of two fictional people: a fictional David French far weaker than I think I’ve shown myself to be over many years of fighting for conservative causes, and a fictional version of Donald Trump as an avatar of a philosophy that Trump wouldn’t recognize. It is within the framework of these two fictional people that my approach is allegedly doomed to fail and Trump’s approach has a chance to prevail. ...
  • What's at stake in the French-Ahmari Debate?, by R.R. Reno. First Things 09/19/19.
  • David French and the Revolutionary Style in Conservative Journalism, by Jake Meador. Mere Orthodoxy 07/03/19:
    just as in 2016, when fearful and reactionary conservatives told us to give our support to a man whose life represented the wholesale rejection of divine love, we must be willing to accept a loss of power before we would countenance cynical, consequentialist lines of thought meant to justify some greater good. When our methods of resistance become intelligible to our opponents we have left the path of fidelity. If First Things is going to resist liberalism through laughable misrepresentations of Trump and an increasingly cozy posture to some genuinely scary trends on the American right, then leaving the path of fidelity is precisely what they will end up doing.

    “What, then, of political power?” you might ask. Does not the above represent little more than yet another twist on Anabaptist style quietism, a refusal to get one’s hands dirty in the necessary and inevitably messy work of politics?

    It does not. Rather, it recognizes that a genuinely Christian political witness is not merely about a certain political content in our ideas, but a particular mode of existing as political beings. To become intelligible to those whose only political standard is the acquisition of power is to give up any political good other than power. It is, then, to give up our quiet confidence that God is at work in the world and that his work will not be advanced by those of us who would eat the king’s food and bow to his idols.

  • David French Is Right: Classical Liberalism Is the Best Framework for Protecting Religious Freedom, by Robby Soave. Reason 05/31/19. "In which First Things throws a temper tantrum."
  • The High Church of the Low Blow: Sohrab Ahmari embraces Trump’s sucker punch politics, by Bret Stephens. New York Times 05/31/19.
  • Sohrab Ahmari Vs. David French, by Rod Dreher. The American Conservative 05/31/19:
    I don’t have Ahmari’s faith in smashmouth right-wing politics of the Trumpian sort. David French’s fundamental decency as a man and as a Christian is not a fault, but a feature. I don’t get why his decency and honor is a liability. If we lose that for the sake of winning political battles, are we not at grave risk of having sold our souls?
  • David French and Sohrab Ahmari: What Are We Debating?, by Ramesh Ponnuru. National Review 05/31/19.
  • ‘David French–ism’ without David French, by J.J. McCullough. National Review 05/31/19. "French has been unfairly caricatured — but the caricature is worth defending."

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and "Ordinary Values"

The difference between [Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus] seems to me wonderfully revealed in a little incident related by the Dominican priest Father Bruckberger, who was active in the French resistance and was close to both at the time. Bruckberger used to run into Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the cafe, the two of them huddled over books and notes and discussing points of philosophy. They struck him, he remarks, like two permanent graduate students (and perhaps we may add, Sartre remained something of that to the end). They were joined one day by Camus [...] Sartre was then in the process of completing his big book Being and Nothingness, and he was in the misdst of expounding to his hearers the view of absolute liberty which he develops in that tome. This liberty is a possibility we carry around within us like a terrorist's bomb, which at any moment we could detonate in any direction. "Nothing prevents us ..." -- this is Sartre's recurring phrase to indicate that at any moment we can step off in a new direction out of the rut that we have hitherto traveled in life. At that moment a German officer in full regalia walked past on the sidewalk, and Camus, who had been listening in silence, remarked: "Even granted that liberty, there are some things we wouldn't do. For example, you wouldn't denounce me to the Germans even though you had the pure possibility of doing so." The remark, Bruckberger tells us, seemed to disturb Sartere, as if he had never thought of the question so concretely and personally before, and he was at a loss for a reply.

This little episode seems to me to sum up the two men, Sartre the rampant ideologue, and Camus the advocate of what he came to call "ordinary values" -- those elementary feelings of common decency without which the human race would not survive. There was a quality about Camus which made him something different as an intellectual, a quality indeed that most intellectuals lack: he was a man of the people who remained in touch with our common humanity.

-- William Barrett, The Truants pp. 118-119.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.

Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.

Suffering is consecrated to God by faith – not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. To accept suffering stoically, to receive the burden of fatal, unavoidable and incomprehensible necessity and bear it strongly, is no consecration. ... suffering has no power and no value of its own.

To believe in suffering is pride. But to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.

* * *

Only the sufferings of Christ are valuable in the sight of God, who hates evil, and to him they are valuable chiefly as a sign. The death of Jesus on the cross has an infinite meaning and value not because it is a death, but because it is the death of the Son of God. The cross of Christ says nothing of the power of suffering or of death. It speaks only of the power of him who overcame both suffering and death by rising from the grave.

The wounds that evil stamped upon the flesh of Christ are to be worshiped as holy not because they are wounds, but because they are His wounds. Nor would we worship them if he had merely died of them, without rising again. For Jesus is not merely someone who once loved us enough to die for us. His love for us is the infinite love of God, which is stronger than all evil and cannot be touched by death.

Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.

Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island [pp. 78-79]

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

James V. Schall - requiescat in pace - 1928-2019


Friday, April 12, 2019

On Thomas Merton, contra Garry Wills

I came into the Church not only by the philosophical route (studying Aquinas at a Lutheran college) but also by way of discovering the writings of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day (both of whom profoundly influenced my decision to convert). I wouldn't characterize myself as a "devotee" of Merton, but I've appreciated his work, particularly his private journals as well as his contributions to interreligious dialogue (where if anything I like him for his ability to engage Buddhism, Hinduism and Islamic Sufism with a clarity and precision that is often found wanting in the casual syncretism of contemporary dialogue today).

Which brings me to the newly published review by Garry Wills of Mary Gordon's On Thomas Merton, now making its way through Facebook and Twitter: "Shallow Calls to Shallow: On Thomas Merton 50 Years After His Death" (Harpers April 2019). True to form, Wills' take on Merton is particularly caustic, from his dismissal of the Seventh Story Mountain ("not much more than third-rate Joyce, fourth-rate Eliot, and some out-of-date Surrealism") to deriving rather great enjoyment in selectively-excerpted details of an affair, ultimately writing off of Merton as simply another phony:

[Merton's attempts to conceal the affair] are one with a pattern built into his “apostolate” as the with-it monk. He pretended to love the monastic community he thought full of “half-wits,” whom he wanted nothing more to do with, as part of the quest for a “greater solitude” he used to increase his audience of fans and the famous. He wanted the best of both worlds, as a holy preacher and a covert sinner.

On the matter of Merton's affair

Taking stock of Merton's affair, it's understandable how one might arrive at the conclusion: "Thomas Merton was a bad horrible individual. He abused the power of his office to prey sexually on an emotional vulnerable woman half his age, just because he could." The relationship certainly had aspects that were exploitative: she was a volunteer nurse, he a renowned and celebrated author. She was reportedly 25 (though some accounts place her even younger), he was 51, and in her care. Whether "M." would cast herself as helpless victim we do not know: she would go on to marry another and has opted to maintain a perpetual state of silence about the subject; Merton on the other hand chronicled every step in his journal, which was posthumously released.

Re-reading those passages from 66-67, my sense is less of Merton as predator than a celibate monk utterly blindsided by a dizzying, intoxicating plunge into eros -- though whether the relationship ever actually resulted in sexual "consumation" is questionable (Wills infers that it happened; textual evidence however is lacking). In any case, Merton should have known better, and the entire matter comes across as more confusing than Wills lets on. The content of the journal entries from this period vacillate between lovesick rationalizations, romantic celebrations, and moments of genuine moral anguish as Merton reconciles what he perceives as his love for "M." (and "M.'s" professed love for him) with his religious vocation and priesthood.

As to the question of whether he eventually repented, Merton seems to have achieved a state of regret with time, distance and perhaps -- though not absolving him of his moral responsibility -- attaining some measure of sobriety as well. I can't say I particularly cared for Mark Shaw's book on the affair (Beneath the Mask of Holiness), but he did make an interesting observation:

... a valid interpretation based on his journal entries leaves little doubt alcohol was, at the least, a contributing factor in the romance with Margie. Certainly his words indicate alcohol was a constant companion as the relationship intensified, perhaps a fortifier of the courage he needed to keep the love flame alive, despite a reality check now and then. His passion for Margie was intense, and the alcohol may have bolstered his feelings of manhood. Few Merton scholars have approached this subject, perhaps out of respect for him, or because no one has heretofore connected the dots between his pre-monastic conduct and Merton’s intermittent drinking during the Margie affair. It does appear that after he had finally decided to choose God over Margie, the drinking was curtailed, evidence that alcohol was less of a crutch than before.
Nonetheless, two years later he would write:
"It was a humbling experience: What I see is this: that while I imagine I was functioning fairly successfully, I was living a sort of patched up, crazy existence, a series of rather hopeless improvisations, a life of unreality in many ways. Always underlain by a certain solid silence and presence, a faith, a clinging to the invisible God – and this clinging (perhaps rather His holding on to me) has been in the end the only thing that made sense. The rest has been absurdity …. I will probably go on like this for the rest of my life. There is "I" – this patchwork, this bundle of questions and doubts and obsessions, this gravitation to silence and to the woods and to love. This incoherence!"
And a year after that, in 1967:
"I was literally shaken and disturbed, knowing clearly that I was all wrong, that I was going against everything that made sense in my life, going against everything that was true and authentic in my vocation, going against the grace and love of God." (4/10/67).

Merton's life is complex, flawed, psychologically troubled, subject to human vice and sin. The vows of a priest and the solitary life of a Trappist monk do not render one immune from temptation, and that Merton stumbled (greatly) along the way comes as no surprise. But I'd venture that we can yet learn from him, and he will likely persist in leading many into the Church. Reading his journals, I still find myself profoundly awed by the rigorous, unrelenting scrutinizing to which he subjected himself; the perpetual assessment of motives and the open acknowledgement of his failure and duplicity.

Commenting to Wills' article on Twitter, Greg Hillis (Associate Professor of Theology, Bellarmine U.) observes:

"... it would have been very easy for Merton to burn his private journals or at least to tear out the pages in which he talks about his relationship with Margie (he knew the journals would be published 25 years after his death). He he knew the potential damage this might have to his reputation. To me, this manifests a remarkable humility, a willingness to allow himself to be known, warts and all."

On Merton's Turn toward the East

Somebody else alludes to having burned Merton's later books, another claiming "his mysticism is closer to Buddhism than authentic Catholic mysticism". I notice in those unfamiliar with Merton a tendency to place his interest in other religions as something of a lark, a "post-Vatican II" infatuation. It might come as a surprise, but Merton's interest in other religions came much earlier, even in college and predating his entrance into the monastery; his later exploration of Buddhism was hardly the resigned capitulation of a disinterested and "lapsed" Catholic. Jim Forrest, a longtime friend of Merton:

"It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious."
For another fair-minded, rather more charitable (and yet still critical, from an orthodox perspective) assessment of Thomas Merton one might turn to "A Many-Storied Monastic: A Critical Memoir of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey" by Patrick Henry Reardon (Touchstone Sept/Oct 2011), who also dispels spurious rumors that Merton lost his faith:
a couple of decades ago a well-known Orthodox writer, learning that I had been a novice under Merton’s tutelage, expressed misgivings about him: “It seems to me,” he confessed, “that Merton was a writer first, a monk second, and a Christian last.”

I was happy to dispel that impression. From my earliest meeting with Merton (at 4 p.m. on December 28, 1955) I was moved by the sense of his deep conversion, metanoia, and the humility that exuded from his person. He said to me, “I have reached the point in my spiritual life at which I am certain that I know nothing about the spiritual life.”

In addition, it is a documented fact that Merton, unto the day he died, cultivated standard and traditional disciplines of Christian piety: the observance of the Canonical Hours, the daily recitation of the rosary, the habit of regular Eucharistic adoration, the constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer, and so forth. These were not the practices of a Buddhist.

I suppose what I find most disappointing about Will's cherry-picked tabloidesque expose is the manner in which it will (predictably) provide a vehicle for a sanctimonious pile-on in the comboxes and an altogether convenient excuse never to engage the breadth and diversity of his works. I can take heart, however, as I've learned that Greg Hillis is in the process of writing a book that looks at "how seriously Merton took his identity as a Catholic, as a priest, as a monk, and also examines his Eucharistic theology." Perhaps Wills won't get the last word on Merton after all.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction"

In On Thomas Merton, Mary Gordon takes note of a period in Merton's life where he served as a spiritual counselor of sorts to the English writer Evelyn Waugh (and Merton in turn would petition Waugh for tips on how to be a better writer). From their exchanges comes this recommendation which struck me as particularly appropriate for Lent [Merton to Waugh, September 22, 1948]:
The virtue of hope is the one talented people most need. They tend to trust in themselves -- and when their own resources fail then they will prefer despair to the reliance on anyone else, even on God. It gives them a kind of feeling of distinction.

Really I think it might do you a lot of good and give you a certain happiness to say the Rosary every day. If you don't like it, so much the better, because then you would deliver yourself from the servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction: and that slavery to our own desires is a terrific burden. I mean if you could do it as a more or less blind act of love and homage to Our Lady, not bothering to try and find out where the attraction of the thing could possibly be hidden and why other people see to like it. The real motive for this devotion at the moment is that the Church is very explicit: a tremendous amount depends on the Rosary and everything depends on our Lady.

Not to dismiss entirely the subjective element within one's religious life (the Church recommends a wide variety of spiritual devotions and practices which the layman can avail himself of), but I couldn't help but observe Merton's remark on the "servitude of doing things for your own satisfaction" as a wry comment alluding to a consumerist mindset that we can sometimes fall into, "spirituality-shopping" as it were, in the form of seeking out those practices that are most appealing, emotionally comfortable or psychologically "satisfying". Sometimes this takes the form of parish-hopping (don't like the hymns? the homily? the mass?); at other times it might be a particular way of meditating, praying, a regimen of fasting, et al. But I think Merton is on to something in his criticism of referring to our own self-satisfaction as the ultimate criterion for value in spiritual life, especially where we might be inclined to forsake a practice because we find too "hard", too "boring", too "uncomfortable" or that we simply (in the contemporary language of our age) "didn't get anything out of it."

Likewise regarding Merton's reference to the "slavery of our own desires", I find I am too entirely susceptible to misinterpret my wants as "needs", not just on a physical level (indulgence of the senses and appetite, especially in the way of food and drink) but mentally and psychologically as well, perpetually grasping after this or that fleeting desire which even when satisfied is found to be wanting.

Gordon observes in closing:

Merton here is urging upon Waugh, the amateur contemplative, the same self-forgetting discipline that Waugh urges upon Merton, the fledgling writer: embrace what is difficult, what is least comfortable and natural, and get on with the job at hand.
May these forty days of Lent -- with its small and large sacrifices -- provide opportunities for us to take notice of the relentless, distracting and demanding tug of of our own desires, but in those moments to seek more fervently God's grace to overcome, to "get on with the job at hand."

Lenten wisdom from Fulton J. Sheen

You have freedom only to give your heart away. To whom do you give yours? You give it either to the moods of the hour, to your egotism, to creatures, or to God.

* * *

No soul ever fell away from God without giving up prayer. Prayer is that which establishes contact with the divine power and opens the invisible resources of heaven. However dark the way, when we pray, temptation can never master us. The first step downward in the average soul is the giving up of the practice of prayer, the breaking of the circuit with divinity, and the proclamation of one's own self-sufficiency.

Ven. Fulton J. Sheen

Friday, February 15, 2019

Here and There

  • Edith Stein, Phenomenology and Analytic Theology, James Orr, interview with Richard Marshall. 3am Magazine:
    Stein sympathised with Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as ‘thrown’ into the world and his claim that the radical contingency of my existence—the brute fact that I might not have been—attends my every mood, my every project, and that in some fundamental way my existence is not something I can control any more than I can fix beforehand the conditions into which I have been thrown. At the same time, she had read enough Augustine and Kierkegaard by this point to recognise that Heidegger was overplaying the originality of this insight. And she also saw that it was at least an open question whether the sense that I am in no way responsible for my existence means that I am alienated from the source of my existence, or that there could be nothing more fundamental on which my existence might depend. It is here that Stein rehearses Aquinas’s early modal argument in De Esse et Essentia, but gives it a striking phenomenological twist. Phenomenological awareness of my ‘thrownness’ into the world presupposes, she insists, a dependence on something more metaphysically robust. Stein saw that phenomenologically attuned introspection of the kind we find in the finest mystical writings suggest that our finitude in time need not exclude (as Heidegger insists it must) the possibility that we participate in the infinite fullness of the divine life. [...]

    Stein’s resistance to the rejection of essence [in Heidegger] taps into various strands of the Christian theological tradition—especially Augustine and Kierkegaard—to show that the essence/existence dichotomy is a false dilemma. If we take seriously French existentialism’s later stress on ‘alienation,’ Stein would have asked: alienation from what? She claims that it could not be the ‘thrown’ phenomenological subject that sustains its conscious life; consciousness is, rather, received being, being as a gift, the paradigmatic acte gratuit that places me in my world and sustains me from moment to moment.

  • Poetic Injustice and Performative Outrage, by Clint Margrave. Quilette 02/14/19:
    It used to be that the people who wanted to censor artists were members of powerful institutions like the church or the government, but these days, they are more likely to be artists and professors and publishers themselves. The same people who, at one time, testified against the state of California and saved publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti from going to jail during Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for “Howl” in 1957. So, half a century later, what do we do now that they are the ones calling for censorship? “Even if you are truly offended by a poem, then all I want to say is fine, that’s your right. Be offended. You know what adults do when they are offended? They feel offended and move on,” says Custer. “I am offended in my very spirit by people who use their power to try to silence the art of others, under some guise of righteousness.” ...

    The probability that someone will misinterpret your work and react negatively is, of course, just part of the vulnerability to which one necessarily exposes oneself when making art. There will always be critics willing to denigrate an artist’s work due to a lack—or a surfeit—of sensitivity. Critics, academics, and colleagues have always challenged and objected to the work of their peers, be it on aesthetic, political, moral, or historical grounds. But what seems to be different now is that the critics are behaving in bad faith, less interested in debating a work’s merit than assassinating the artist’s character and clamoring for censorship.

  • Unique from Day One: Pro-Life Is Pro-Science, by Anna Maria Dumitru. Public Discourse 01/17/19. "The main dividing line between pro-life and pro-choice is not which side cares more about women, families, and their basic freedoms. It's how each group applies the scientific facts to determine what constitutes women's rights."

  • In Defense of Reading Pagans: Why I assigned The Kingdom, by Stephen E. Lewis. 01/18/19:
    Last week, a controversy erupted over a book I assigned in a five-student advanced literature seminar at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) during the Spring 2018 semester. Not wishing to further divide our university community, I trusted that my superiors at FUS would handle the matter appropriately and I refrained from public comment. But many observers have assumed that Franciscan University’s decision to remove me from my role as chair of the English Department confirms that I assigned the book out of hostility to orthodox Catholic belief. Because nothing could be further from the truth, many friends have urged me to explain why I put Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom on my syllabus in the first place. Now that some time has passed, I feel a duty to the Franciscan University community and others concerned by the uproar to provide an account.
  • Remembering Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, by Wilfred M. McClay. Public Discourse 01/12/19. "Fr. Richard John Neuhaus got to the central question facing us: Is it true that postmodern liberal societies are incapable of sustaining the religious values without which they could not have been born, and without which they cannot long function? Neuhaus was unwilling to surrender to that proposition. Neither should we be."

  • Richard J. Neuhaus: Teacher, by Fr. Vincent Druding. First Things This essay was originally delivered on January 8, 2019, as a homily for the Richard John Neuhaus Memorial Mass at Church of the Immaculate Conception in New York.

  • The End of Traditional Civil Rights?, by Daniel A. Kaufmann (The ELectric Agora):
    In my essay “Self-Made,” I described identificationism (though I didn’t name it such) as a simultaneously anxious and hubristic deformation of the modern conception of the self, whose origins lie in the philosophies of Descartes, Locke, and Kant. (1) The reasonable version of this conception entails a rejection of the pre-modern idea that a person is defined entirely in terms of his or her position in a social framework that is governed by a normatively thick conception of natural law, in favor of the notion that (to a substantial degree) who we are is a matter of our internal consciousness and thus, is determined by us. It was an idea whose ultimate aim was to ground the moral and political autonomy of the individual necessary for life in a modern, democratic polis.

    What the reasonable version of this conception never entailed, however (substance dualism and noumenal selves aside), was a complete rejection of material or social reality, but this is precisely what contemporary identificationism does, maintaining that the individual is entirely self-made; that who and what I am is a matter of my own consciousness and will alone, irrespective of nature or social consensus. The result is an incoherent, unstable ground, on which identity and civil rights as traditionally understood can no longer be sustained.


    Identificationism presents itself under a progressive banner, but is essentially a form of hyper-individualism and is thus an extreme variety of liberal, rather than progressive politics. If one follows the logic of contemporary gender-identificationism, according to which there literally are scores upon scores of self-identified genders, then there really aren’t any men or women or anything else, but only self-defined individuals. (6) Apply this logic to race or ethnicity and one gets the same result, and it becomes hard to see what a civil rights movement, as traditionally conceived, would be about. I think it’s fair to say that taken to its logical conclusion and stripped of all of its civil rights trappings, contemporary identificationism is essentially a form of liberal utopianism, for it denies that material realities place us into groups, the rights and prerogatives of which may need to be fought for in civil and political society, and insists instead that the only groups to which we belong are those of our choosing and that the only realities impinging upon those choices are those existing within the consciousness of each individual. Ultimately, this is a rejection of the very basis on which the need for civil rights movements rests, with the only remaining “cause” being that of getting people to accept other peoples’ self-identifications. Now, perhaps we have reached the point at which we no longer need the traditional civil rights movements. Perhaps, we have reached the point that Martin Luther King hoped we would one day reach, at which every individual is judged solely on the basis of the content of his or her character, rather than on his unchosen, material condition, but it seems to me that before we jettison the traditional conception of civil rights, we should probably have a serious, public conversation about whether that is, in fact the case.

  • Huumanity Dehumanized: Hegel’s Reflections on the Enlightenment & the French Revolution, by David Lawrence Levine. The Imaginative Conservative This essay was originally given as a lecture at St. John’s College, Santa Fe on February 3, 2016 and November 3, 2017, dedicated to Dr. Eva Brann of St. John's College, Annapolis.

  • Martin Heidegger and Catholicism: The Unexpected Enemy in the Black Notebooks by Judith Wolfe (Publication originally printed by The Tablet in 2017, re-published with permission):
    One of the most striking lessons of the Notebooks is the extent to which Heidegger’s attraction to Nazism – and his later rejection of it – was animated by a quarrel with the Catholic Church. “Contemporary Catholicism”, Heidegger wrote to a friend in 1929, “must remain to us a horror”. The history of that quarrel is, to a large extent, the history of Heidegger’s philosophical life.
  • Wojtylan Fantasies, Revisited, by George Weigel. First Things 02/07/19:
    For almost three decades the Catholic left has turned intellectual somersaults arguing that John Paul II didn’t write, and indeed couldn’t have written, what the rest of the literate world recognizes as a guarded endorsement of regulated markets in the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. The further charge from the fever swamps is that I, along with several friends and colleagues, willfully distorted the pope’s teaching in an effort to spin him into some sort of papal libertarian or neo-liberal. Alas, for those who continue to chew this cud, their argument implies that the man whose teaching they claim to be defending was a fool who didn’t know who his friends were or what they were doing.
  • You Don’t Really Believe That, Do You, Andrew Cuomo? - David Mills takes on the specious claims of the Governor of New York that he "[doesn't] believe that religious values should drive political positions".

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism", by Thomas J. White

The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism
by Thomas Joseph White.
The Catholic University of America Press (August 4, 2017). 328 pages.
The Light of Christ provides an accessible presentation of Catholicism that is grounded in traditional theology, but engaged with a host of contemporary questions or objections. Inspired by the theologies of Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman, and rooted in a post-Vatican II context, Fr. Thomas Joseph White presents major doctrines of the Christian religion in a way that is comprehensible for non-specialists: knowledge of God, the mystery of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the atonement, the sacraments and the moral life, eschatology and prayer.

At the same time, The Light of Christ also addresses topics such as evolution, the modern historical study of Jesus and the Bible, and objections to Catholic moral teaching. Touching on the concerns of contemporary readers, Fr. White examines questions such as whether Christianity is compatible with the findings of the modern sciences, do historical Jesus studies disrupt or confirm the teaching of the faith, and does history confirm the antiquity of Catholic claims.

This book serves as an excellent introduction for young professionals with no specialized background in theology who are interested in learning more about Catholicism, or as an introduction to Catholic theology. It will also serve as a helpful text for theology courses in a university context.

As Fr. White states in the book's introduction: "This is a book that offers itself as a companion. I do not presume to argue the reader into the truths of the Catholic faith, though I will make arguments. My goal is to make explicit in a few broad strokes the shape of Catholicism. I hope to outline its inherent intelligibility or form as a mystery that is at once visible and invisible, ancient and contemporary, mystical and reasonable."

Fr. White is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., and author of many books, including Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Thomistic Study in Natural Theology, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology, and Exodus Theological Commentary. He is co-editor of the academic journal Nova et Vetera and in 2011 was appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Here and There

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

But love DOES such things!

What we have just attempted to grasp in the obscurity of divine action now presents itself to us in visible form. At first a child like any other, it cries, is hungry, sleeps, and yet is "the Word ... become flesh. " It cannot be said that God "inhabits" this infant, however gloriously; or that heaven has set its seal upon him, so that he must pursue it, suffer for it in a manner sublimely excelling all other contacts between God and man; this child is God in essence and in being.

If an inner protest should arise here, give it room. It is not good to suppress anything; if we try to, it only goes underground, becomes toxic, and reappears later in far more obnoxious form. Does anyone object to the whole idea of God-become-man? Is he willing to accept the Incarnation only as a profound and beautiful allegory, never as literal truth? If doubt can establish a foothold anywhere in our faith, it is here. Then we must be patient and reverent, approaching this central mystery of Christianity with calm, expectant, prayerful attention; one day its sense will be revealed to us. In the meantime, let us remember the directive "But love does such things!

Romano Guardini, The Lord "The Incarnation" pp. 17-18.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Paul Johnson's "Mozart: A Life"

I'm what you probably call mostly illiterate when it comes to classical music -- I an't read a sheet of music; never learned to play a musical instrument, have no appreciation beyond whether I personally enjoy it or not. So when it comes to reading a book like Johnson's "Mozart" I was not prepared to enjoy Paul Johnson's Mozart: A Life (2013) as much as I did.

One is naturally informed that "Mozart was a genius, yadda yadda yadda ..." -- the strength of Johnson's biographical portrayal is that, in the brief space he has (the book is only 162 pages), he effectively communicates an understanding of precisely WHY Mozart is considered a genius -- and why people love his work. Some impressive observations:

  • Mozart's earliest compositions were done when he was five
  • His musical personality began to emerge at the age of eight; by eight or nine he "played all keyboard instruments, reading at sight, even including the organ, though his small size raised difficulties with the foot pedals";
  • by ten or eleven he was already an accomplished musician with an admirable familiarity with most orchestral instruments. (One notable exception was the harp, which he could not play).
  • By the age of twelve Mozart was a mature composer -- from which point on there was "never a month, scarcely a week, when he did not produce a substantial score"
  • The sheer volume of his work is phenomenal. Franz Liszt once remarked the Mozart actually composed more bars than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime
Mozart "had a highly personal approach to music. He associated each instrument with particular people he knew who were especially good at playing it, and wrote with them -- or often one of them -- in mind. Nothing pleased him more than an intimate talk with a player about his instrument, what it could do or not do, and what it could be MADE to do by a masterful player." Johnson ventures into great detail regarding the nature and challenges of the instruments that Mozart worked with, such as the organ, the violin, the viola, the flute, the clarinet, and other horned, reed and timpany instruments. (The most fascinating for me being the bassoon, as I had no idea just how delicate it was).

One gets a genuine sense of Mozart's personality. He could treat with utmost seriousness those things one ought to treat with gravity (his Catholic faith and the Last Things, writing to his father: "I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity (you know what I mean) of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness") but also possessed a robust sense of humor and a joy in life.

"Gay himself by nature, he saw no reason why people should not enjoy a little innocent pleasure, or not-so-innocent pleasure, for that matter. He might conduct a Stations of the Cross in the morning [...], or a Stabat Mater, a similar service centering on the Virgin Mary, or even a requiem, then turn to and arrange a riotous set of German dances in the afternoon.
Mozart loved and appreciated jokes, and was fond of inserting into his works segments that were literally impossible for instrumentalists to play.

What I found particularly beneficial is Johnson's sympathetic treatment of various figures in Mozart's life, particularly his father, his sister, and his friendships with other composers of his day (Bach, Hayden). Thankfully, Johnson also address various historical myths that have sprung up regarding Mozart's life, from what are relatively benign (ex. that he "disliked the flute") to those that are more pernicious. Concerning the unfavorable portrayals of his wife, Constanze he concludes the following:

The truth, so far as I can judge, is that Constanze was always a good wife and mother, ran the household well, but was out of action a large part of the time, either pregnant or nursing or in Baden in desperate attempts to regain her health and strength. Nor was Mozart a bad husband.
and of their financial difficulties, a subject which it seems is often over-emphasized:
Indebtedness was almost a universal habit among married couples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ... [despite being in debt] his total liabilities never exceeded his assets. At his death, his debts were small by prevailing standards and were rapidly cleared from current income.
and of the negative portrayals of his father, Leopold Mozart:
We have been taught to see Leopold Mozart as a bossy, overpossessive and tyrannical figure, eager to control every aspect of his son's life down to the smallest detail.. There is something to this, but in may ways he was an admirable father, who sacrificed his own promising career as performer and composer entirely in order to promote his son's and who behaved in many ways with heroic unselfishness.
and of course Salieri, villified in Peter Shaffer's play and in the 1984 cinematic adaptation Amadeus:
The story that he was poisoned is a complete fantasy, and the naming of Salieri as the murderer is a gross libel on that hardworking and innocent man."
Johnson's own appreciation of classical music is on display, as he employs a number of musical terms that had me thumbing the dictionary, though not overwhelmingly so. Had I a better grasp of musical terminology I would have better understood certain segments of this book, but my own personal impediments aside, I found this one of the most thrilling books I've read this year. To such an extent that I'm now motivated to spend the coming year to seriously investigating Mozart's many works (and not just those I'm familiar with).

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Christian Imperative

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes: "faith is reduced to this anguished problem: can an educated man, a contemporary European believe, really believe in the divinity of the son of God, Jesus Christ?" By now the religious problem plays itself out at the level of this question. In any case and for any individual who hears it, the mere fact that even one man claims: "God was made man," presents a radical, unavoidable problem for the religious life of humanity.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his Journals: "The basest form of scandal in human terms is to leave the whole problem of Christ without a solution. The truth is that the Christian imperative - you must - has been completely forgotten. That Christianity has been announced to you means that you must assume a position in Christ's regard. He himself, or the fact that He exists, or the fact that He existed represents the one decision to be made in life." There are certain provocations that, because of their radical nature, man cannot eliminate or censure once he has perceived them, if he is to act as a man. Man is forced to answer yes or no. The mere fact that he has heard the news that one man declared: "I am God," means that he cannot be indifferent to it. He must arrive at his own conviction as to whether the news is true or false. [...]

The Christian imperative is that the content of its message presents itself as a fact. This cannot be stressed enough. An insidious cultural disloyalty, aided by the ambiguity and fragility of Christians as well, has facilitated the dissemination of a vague notion of Christianity as a discourse or doctrine and perhaps, therefore, a fable or moral. No. First and foremost it is a fact - a man joined the ranks of men.

But the imperative embraces another aspect of the fact: the advent of that man is an announcement transmitted down through the years to us today. To this very day, this event has been proclaimed and announced as the event of a Presence. That one man said: "I am God," and that this is passed on as a present fact, forcefully demands a personal stance. We can smile about it or decide not to bother with it: this would mean, in any case, that we decided to resolve the problem in a negative way, that we have not wanted to face up to a proposal whose dimensions are so great that they are beyond the realms of human imagination.

This is why society so often turns away from this announcement and wishes to confine it to churches and the individual conscience. What society finds most disturbing is the vastness of the dimensions of the problem: whether he did or did not exist, or rather, whether he does exist or existed; whether we can verify it or not; this is the greatest decision of our existence.

Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim (pp. 33-34)

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Hauerwas on Richard McBrien

I recently finished reading the memoir by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas. One of the more fascinating periods of his life was his stint of teaching at Notre Dame University in the 70's, which he describes as follows:
We came to understand ourselves not as a Catholic department but as a “theology department in a Catholic context.” We probably did not know what we meant by that description, but it sounded good. At the very least, it meant that we were determined to “be Catholic,” which meant that we desired to hire Catholics to fill positions when they came available. Burtchaell, much to the displeasure of many Catholic members of the faculty, had begun a campaign as provost to urge all departments at the university to hire Catholics. Anyone unfamiliar with Notre Dame may think dits Catholic identity is no less certain than the pope’s. But in truth, Burtchaell was right to insist on hiring Catholic faculty if Notre Dame was to avoid drifting into the cultural mainstream. Of course, the kind of Catholics hired made all the difference.

I soon learned that self-hating Catholics were no help. Indeed, I began to find tiresome the Catholic habit of blaming the “hierarchy” or the “clergy” because it had rained on Tuesday. I began to think that Catholics had developed the bad habit of not taking responsibility for the conditions that made them possible. For many Catholics, the church just seems so “there.” Moreover, many of the Catholics at Notre Dame had never lived outside the Catholic world. They talked constantly of making the church relevant to the world, but they had little idea what the “world” was like. I kept trying to suggest that we Protestants had long made all the mistakes they seemed desperate to copy.

Some faculty wanted Notre Dame to be the Catholic Yale. I had been to Yale and liked it well enough, but I saw no reason why Notre Dame should try to be what it never could be. I thought it quite enough of a challenge for Notre Dame to be Notre Dame. Following [David] Burrell’s lead, I felt like I was part of an exciting intellectual adventure that might avoid the sterile “liberal” and “conservative” alternatives that seemed to shape the theological world.

From Hauerwas' account, Notre Dame in that time appeared to be an intellectually stimulating, philosophically-rich academic environment where multiple traditions engaged each other and, more importantly, where teachers of non-Catholic persuasion were necessarily obliged to engage the teachings of the Church (and Catholics in turn were expected to critically engage non-Catholic traditions as well). For example, Hauerwaus lauds the appointment of a professor of Judaic studies: "we thought it a mistake to hire someone who would teach only the historical background necessary to understand Christianity. More important, and challenging, would be the appointment of someone in Judaica who would force us to recognize the continuing challenge Judaism represents for Christians." It was also there that Hauerwaus encountered and found his own thinking provoked by such scholars as John Howard Yoder, Robert Louis Wilken, Alasdair MacIntyre and others -- many of them Protestants, yes; but Christians nonetheless and anything but "liberal".

And then Richard McBrien happened.

Hauerwas' account of McBrien, coming from a Protestant even, is simultaneously comical, persuasive and telling: "... in the interest of re-Catholicizing the Department of Theology, the university had hired a Catholic liberal." Hauerwas remembers:

I was about to confront another side of the Catholic world. I had known vaguely that this other side existed but largely had been able to avoid it because of David’s extraordinary, capacious theological vision ...

Dick McBrien, however, often seemed to care primarily about Dick McBrien. In particular, he cared about being the talking head on television who confirmed that the Vatican was made up of reactionary conservatives. He had actually written an article in which he said that if he had not become a Roman Catholic priest he would have most liked to be a U.S. senator. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a priest or a senator, but it was difficult for me to understand how the ambition to be one or the other could exist in the same person. But then, I really did not understand Irish Catholicism, particularly as it sometimes became a parody of itself in the cities of the Northeast. Dick was "political." I thought I was “political,” but I was a rank amateur compared to Dick. I simply did not understand how manipulations by the chair could so quickly turn the direction of the department. [...]

Early on, he told me I was the one person in the department he did not want to lose. But he then explained that under Burrell’s leadership we had tried to be a nondenominational department of theology that could compete with Yale, Harvard, and Union. But that was a mistake. Instead, he said, we should be denominationally Catholic and competing with schools such as Boston College and Marquette.

I was absolutely dumbfounded. I responded by observing that Protestants are denominations. Catholics are the church. He did not get the point, which was crucial for understanding what we had been trying to do before he arrived. That is, we knew that only Catholicism could sustain a theology department that included faculty who represented other forms of Christianity as well as Judaism and who sought to do history and theology in a manner that exposed the pain of our disunity and the possibilities of unity. That Catholics should think of themselves as a denomination confirmed that Catholicism in America had become a form of Protestantism.

Dick, quite understandably for a theologian of his generation, assumed that theology was primarily a weapon to be used to fight battles between Catholic conservatives and liberals after Vatican II. We had tried to be a department that avoided those battles. We did so because we thought that too often the way battle lines were drawn between Catholic conservatives and liberals was intellectually uninteresting. Those battles represented and reproduced the insular character of Catholicism. Ironically, Catholic liberals who wanted to be “open to the world” had often never lived in “the world.” [...]

As far as I could tell, McBrien’s deepest passion was to Americanize Rome. He wanted the American church to be more democratic. There is much to be said for making the church more democratic, but, to continue the analogy, Dick’s way of going about things made it appear that his true interest was in being the first president of Roman Catholicism in America.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Walker Percy, Philosopher

Walker Percy, Philosopher
by Leslie Marsh (editor).
Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. (July 31, 2018)

Though Walker Percy is best known as a novelist, he was first and foremost a philosopher. This collection offers a sustained examination of key aspects to his more technical philosophy (primarily semiotics and the philosophy of language) as well as some of his lesser known philosophical interests, including the philosophy of place and dislocation. Contributors expound upon Percy’s multifaceted philosophy, an invitation to literature and theology scholars as well as to philosophers who may not be familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of his work.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought, by Elio Guerriero

Benedict XVI: His Life and Thought, by Elio GuerrieroBenedict XVI: His Life and Thought
by Elio Guerriero.
Ignatius Pr (November 6, 2018). 715 pgs.

In these pages Benedict XVI shares his story for the first time since his retirement from the papacy. Joseph Ratzinger is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant theologians and spiritual leaders of our time. Born in Germany in 1929, he lived through Nazism, war, and Communism, like John Paul II, who after his surprising election in 1978, insisted on having Ratzinger at his side for his whole twenty-seven-year pontificate.

When Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005, he took the name Benedict XVI. He opened a path of purification for the Roman Catholic Church at a time when it was shaken by financial and sexual scandals. He has repeatedly said that Europe must return to its Christian roots and build a new humanism for the twenty-first century.

Benedict XVI was misunderstood by many, and in 2013, he astonished the world by resigning from the papacy. Many saw this gesture as a sign of the decline of Catholicism, but it was the opposite: it was a seed sown in the hope of bringing the Church a younger, more vigorous leadership in the face of so many daunting challenges.

Elio Guerriero, who for many years has had an ongoing relationship with the Pope Emeritus, presents a thorough, well-rounded portrait of the brilliant intellectual and humble man of the Church whom many more have come to love and respect since his resignation. This book includes a Foreword by Pope Francis, and contains the first interview of Benedict XVI since the end of his pontificate.

Elio Guerriero, theologian, philosopher, and historian, is the longtime director of Communio, and editorial manager at Jaca Book and Edizioni San Paolo. He edited the Italian edition of the History of the Church directed by A. Jedin. His other books include Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Drama of God, and Saint Giana Molla: Wife, Mother, and Doctor.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Exploring Aquinas with the help of Reinhard Hutter

In Dust Bound for Heaven: Explorations in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas, pp. 20-25, Reinhard Hutter provides an immensely helpful and insightful list of books for those interested in further explorations of St. Thomas Aquinas:
For those readers who come as neophytes to the thought of Thomas, the following invitation to further explorations should serve as a beginner’s guide to his philosophy and theology, a beginner’s guide that gradually progresses to some more substantive and demanding interpretations of Thomas that are most helpful. For those readers already more advanced in their encounter with Thomas’s teaching and for those who would call themselves Thomists, the more demanding among the following list of studies simply indicate among a much larger body of Aquinas scholarship those works to which I am most gratefully indebted.

The best popular introduction to Thomas’s life and work remains G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas (2009) and the best recent scholarly introduction is Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, Volume 1: The Person and His Work (2005). For a lovely, accessible, yet still profound paraphrase of the Summa theologiae in pocket size, the reader might turn to Walter Farrell, O.P., and Martin J. Healy, My Way of Life: Pocket Edition of St. Thomas: The Summa Simplified for Everyone (1952).

The most accessible and concise introduction to Thomas’s philosophy is Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2009), to Thomas’s theology is Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (2002), to Thomas’s ethics is Paul Wadell, The Primacy of Love: An Introduction to the Ethics of Thomas Aquinas (1992), and to Thomas’s masterwork, the Summa theologiae, is Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Aquinas’s Summa: Background, Structure, and Reception (2005). An exceedingly helpful resource to Thomas’s theology for beginners is Joseph P. Wawrykow, The Westminster Handbook to Thomas Aquinas (2005). Those readers who want to get an exposure to Thomas’s theology under the guidance of leading contemporary Aquinas scholars should turn to The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, edited by Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow (2005). For a brief, concise, and lucid account of the remarkable history of reception, interpretation, defense, and application of Thomas’s thought in the course of the more than seven centuries since his death, students of Thomas should turn to Romanus Cessario, O.P., A Short History of Thomism (2005). For a useful guide into various aspects of Thomas’s philosophical thought that organizes his theology, the beginner might turn to The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, edited by Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump (1993). For a first introduction into Thomas’s metaphysics that is as accessible as it is lucid, one can hardly do better than to avail oneself of W. Norris Clarke, S.J., The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (2001).

For a balanced and lucid overview of and solid introduction to all topics treated in the Summa theologiae, the student of Thomas’s thought might first want to consult Brian Davies, O.P., The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (1992). However, the reader who is looking for guides to the most central treatises of Thomas’s masterpiece will find excellent guidance from the following studies, which are not listed alphabetically but along the lines of the order of teaching (ordo disciplinae) the Summa theologiae unfolds.

On the First Part of the Summa:

On the First of the Second Part of the Summa:

On the Second of the Second Part of the Summa:

On the Third Part of the Summa:

To assist the reader in grasping Aquinas' philosophy (without which his theology "cannot be adequately understood, let alone appreciated"), Hutter offers the following recommendations:

The most thorough historical-genetic treatment of Thomas’s philosophy is John F. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas: From Finite Being to Uncreated Being (2000). The best account to see Thomas’ metaphysics concretely at work in a conceptual reconstruction of its main moves would be Lawrence Dewan, O.P., Form and Being (2006). Eleonore Stump, Aquinas (2003), offers an excellent treatment of Thomas’s thought, primarily his philosophy, but also aspects of his theology, that is directed to a readership influenced by analytic philosophy and the natural sciences. Inspired by an Aristotelian-Thomist integration of natural philosophy and metaphysics, Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., in his opus magnum, The Way toward Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics (2006), offers an impressive demonstration of how the pursuit of philosophical wisdom along the lines of Thomas — metaphysics as meta-science — allows a comprehensive vision of all human sciences in a coherent and expansive framework. Jacques Maritain’s earlier and in many ways unsurpassed classic, Distinguish to Unite or The Degrees of Knowledge (1995), offers an even more expansive framework of Thomist epistemology: from the knowledge conveyed by the senses to natural philosophy and natural science, from there to metaphysical knowledge and theological knowledge, and finally to mystical knowledge. And in order to find out why indeed Thomism as a coherent intellectual tradition of philosophical discourse and inquiry proves superior to modern and postmodern modes of such discourse and inquiry, one cannot do better than turn to think through the argument advanced in what has become a classic in a very brief time: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Tradition, Encyclopaedia, Genealogy (1990). Another set of expanded Gifford Lectures offers a brilliant and spirited defense of Thomas’s understanding of philosophical wisdom. No other recent work will help the interested reader better to understand why natural theology was absolutely indispensable to Thomas’s overall theological project than Ralph McInerny, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (2006). For a contemporary restatement of Thomas’s natural theology that addresses and rebuts the criticisms against natural theology raised by Kant and Heidegger, one best turns to the lucidly argued book by Thomas Joseph White, O.P., Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (2009).

Those who want to find out — contrary to recent rumors — why Thomas’s philosophy is far from dead but intensely engaged by contemporary analytic philosophers might want to consult John Haldane (ed.), Mind, Metaphysics, and Value in Thomistic and Analytic Traditions (2002), John P. O’Callaghan, Thomist Realism and the Linguistic Turn: Toward a More Perfect Form of Existence (2003), Craig Paterson and Matthew Pugh, Analytical Thomism (2006), and David S. Oderberg, Real Essentialism (2007). For an instructive and very broad-minded Thomist engagement of philosophy as presently practiced in America, one might turn to Thomas Hibbs, Aquinas, Ethics, and Philosophy of Religion: Metaphysics and Practice (2007), and for learning to appreciate the ongoing relevance of Thomas’s doctrine of natural law for contemporary political and legal theory and for the practice of law-making, the reader will profit immensely from Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a PostChristian World (2003) and from J. Budziszewski, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (2009).

For those readers who are interested to find out how Thomas’s theology inspires and informs the work of contemporary theologians, they might want to turn to Ressourcement Thomism: Sacred Doctrine, the Sacraments, and the Moral Life, edited by Reinhard Hütter and Matthew Levering (2010) and to The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or the Wisdom of God?, edited by Thomas Joseph White, O.P. (2011).

By the time the reader has reached this point of the introduction it might have dawned upon him or her that this kind of invitation to a deeper exploration of Thomas’s philosophical and theological thought might presuppose a more encompassing intellectual reorientation and reeducation. Such a reader is well advised to take advantage of two rather unique books, one as precious as the other: A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (1980), and Josef Pieper, Leisure — The Basis of Culture (1998).