The Prolegomena to Any Future Newman

Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)

Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Ripatrazone featured today on his blog The Fine Delight:

Artur Rosman’s site, Cosmos The In Lost, has become a daily read for me: sharp, smart, well-written essays ranging from Catholic theology to art to culture to literature, all delivered with a sense of humor missing from most other religious discussions. The panoply of subjects doesn’t result in slim reading: rather, the opposite. Rosman is able to introduce, elucidate, conclude, and educate; to open conversations rather than close them; to make me reconsider my assumptions about contemporary Catholicism in America and Europe. Here are some of his thoughts on the site, Milosz, Warhol, Nowosielski, American Catholicism and its political stains, and more.

1. Cosmos The In Lost is a rarity: a smart, entertaining blog about Catholic theology, literature, art, and culture. When and why did you start the site?
I started the blog out of desperation. I’m presently writing a doctoral dissertation on the poetry (and theology) of Czeslaw Milosz. This has proven to be tortuous when coupled with a several year writing block. I thought having to write posts almost daily might cure me. The blog-writing is fun; we’ll see about the dissertation.
2. What attracts you to the writing and thought of Milosz?
Milosz was right in the middle of everything. He saw the worst (and the best) of the 20th century firsthand. What’s more, as a poet and thinker with a profoundly Catholic imagination he wasn’t afraid to talk about the neuralgic points the faith still needs to address more clearly for our generation: scientism, totalitarianism, consumerism, and the problem of evil. I like to think of him as the prolegomena to any future Newman . . .
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A True Opium for the People is a Belief in Nothingness After Death!

Hans Memling, Last Jugdment, stolen by pirates bought by the city of Gdansk, PL: Hell Ain't What it Used to Be

Hell ain’t what it used to be!  (Hans Memling, Last Judgment, stolen by pirates & bought by the city of Gdansk, Poland. YESSS.)

When was the last time any of you (who don’t attend fundamentalist churches) heard a good and theologically sound hellfire sermon? The last, no the only one, I’ve ever heard was in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here it is in its glorious entirety if you need a memory refresher (BE AFRAID!):

Over the last two centuries Hell has been banished from the Catholic imagination more effectively than Adam and Eve from Eden. I suppose the last blows came sometime during the long 19th century dominated by Napoleon, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach.

The infernal trenches of World War I gave hellfire a slight rebound. The whole messy experience cast hell from oblivion back into our world, but not the underworld. It became a truism to say that people not infrequently make hell on earth. The concentration camps and gulags of World War II firmly entrenched hell upon the face of the earth.

Now, to some extent, we also still half-heartedly believe that sin is its own punishment. But why can’t Hell be both the state after life and a state in this present life? I’m all for a Catholic both/and here.

Now, you might ask yourself, why is the author obsessing about hell? Reading the headlines has left me in a bit of a foul mood. Consider what the AP recently said about poverty in the United States:

“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

Four out of five is not a misprint as far as I know. It has unfortunately checked out on all the searches I’ve done so far. I’m still hoping it’s wrong, after all, this is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world. Then again, our family of five has always been well below the poverty line, so it’s a little comforting to know we’re not alone.

Then this picture showed up on my social media radar as if to drive the point home:

"A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death--the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged." --Czeslaw Milosz

“A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” –Czeslaw Milosz

I also happened to be reading (because who doesn’t read five things at time?) the book-length dialogue between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. There the future Pope Francis forcefully reminds us of the close tie between authentic religion and social justice:

“Hence the [classical] liberal conception of religion being allowed only in places of worship, and the elimination of religion outside of it, is not convincing. There are actions that are consistently done in places of worship, like the adoration, praise and worship of God. But there are others that are done outside, like the entire social dimension of religion. It starts in a community encounter with God, who is near and walks with His people, and is developed over the course of one’s life with ethical, religious, and fraternal guidelines, among others. There is something that regulates the conduct of others: justice. I believe that one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers.”

One should not forget that the mandate toward social justice is solely a Judeo-Christian invention. The pay raises of Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, coupled with the poverty awaiting most of us, signal a return to the much more cruel gods of Graeco-Roman religion. Whether we like it or not, we can look forward to a massive, but unintentional, experiment in comparative religion. It’s unavoidable, since I don’t foresee CEOs suddenly having epiphanies like this one:

Finally, these perfidies of American betrayal and greed bring us to my dissertation topic (what else?), the poet Czeslaw Milosz. After you read a passage from one of his works below you will agree he also happened to have a finely-honed feel for theological reflection.  The following reflection, which comes from the section “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” (props to Bunuel) in the collection Road-Side Dog, turns Marx upside down, or at least shakes up a well-known phrase of his real good.

“Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

It's a dog's life.

It’s a dog’s life.

You might object by saying that you can be a nice lad or lass (even point out Sweden as a sociological examplewithout the afterlife and the threat of judgment hanging over your head. But Sweet Viking Jesus would tell you otherwise. Swedish ethics are influenced by revelation through and through, as is the rest of the West, and everyone influenced by globalism, meaning… pretty much everyone.

What’s more, those who aren’t believers (Swedes aren’t the only ones. Jag är ledsen!), but hang on to the Christian ethic of protecting the weak and the victims, are probably the worst fideists of all!

They are embedded in something they can’t justify, something whose origins they’ve willfully obscured, but deep down they know that empty phrases about Gilgamesh, Odin, or Kant won’t get them anywhere.

So, given where the world is heading, our eviscerated public square, and who is at the helm… how about we pray that there’s a Hell?

There is a caveat: nobody gets a free pass.

The musical coda is a song from Bill Mallonee that first got me thinking seriously about these issues way back when.

Self-Surrender and Superabundance

Contemplative in the Mud

Jacques MaritainThis self-surrender demands proofs; the twisted and torn limbs of the martyrs, the bloody destruction of the great Victim on the cross, point out what kind. However, what is primarily necessary is the interior stripping indissolubly linked to charity: dispossession of the self; the remainders is, so to speak, added by way of superabundance.
Jacques Maritain (1882–1973)

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Miłosz, Penderecki, and Jeremiah: On the Contemporaneity of the Bible

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.

I’m taking a bit of a break from my Catholiclandia series before I tackle the trends in Polish Catholic media and intellectual life. Part I is an attempt to provide a differentiated picture of both homogeneity and diversity in Polish religious life. Part II briefly sketched the mixed legacy of Solidarity. There’s a little bit more on Solidarity here.

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In an issue of ZNAK Monthly (557) from 2001 Czeslaw Milosz uses the following words from a Polish musician as the epigraph to his response (“Polish Snarls”) to Chantal Delsol’s article “God in Exile” in the same issue:

“Igor Markievich was disturbed by Penderecki’s texts, ‘But there are no more religious people these days. All that is behind us.’ Penderecki responded that it’s different for us [Central Europeans]. There are no texts more contemporary than the biblical texts: Psalms, Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the New Testament, or the Apocalypse. What’s more contemporary? You think Ionesco or Beckett? Igor didn’t respond to it, he just looked at me, searching for support. But he didn’t get it from me, because I also think that we have no more contemporary texts than the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Penderecki was right.” –Zygmunt Mycielski, Journal, Autumn 1966

Penderecki conducting his "Credo" at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz's grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Rosman, 2008

Penderecki conducting his “Credo” at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz’s grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Sebastian Rosman, 2008

As far as I know, neither Milosz’s “Polish Snarls,” nor this text from Mycielski have been previously translated.  More on Milosz from Cosmos the in Lost here and in a post recently mentioned by the Book Haven right here.

Here’s Penderecki’s “Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” which includes passages from the Lamentations as you can see here.

Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part II)

Smoking! Lech Walesa leaves Gdansk's Shipyard to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Smoking! Lech Walesa leaves Gdansk’s Shipyard to meet with Pope John Paul II.

Yesterday kicked off a series of posts about the orientalization of Poland among Western scholars. The term “orientalization” denotes an image of a culture as “Eastern,” meaning exotic, backward, uncivilized, and possibly dangerous. The term has been used to describe Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern Muslims, but recent scholarship has expanded its semantic field beyond Edward Said’s original intentions in his seminal work Orientalism. The very notion of Poland belonging to “Eastern Europe” invites such analysis, especially since residents of the region have always insisted upon being called Central Europeans, residents of MItteleuropa, because that would, of course, allow them to orientalize the ever-threatening Russians.

Orientalism: the French think there are polar bears in Poland; the Poles think the Russians are polar bears.

Orientalism: the French think there are polar bears in Poland; the Poles think the Russians are polar bears.

My meditations on Poland are not meant to take Poland down a notch. Instead they’re meant to introduce the reader to a much more differentiated understanding of Polish Catholicism–its weaknesses, but also its strengths.

I should return to yesterday point about  religious diversity, especially the part where I said “Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased the country’s traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up.” There is so much of diversity, when compared with the relative homogeneity of Western Europe, that I forgot to mention the Eastern Catholic churches that emerged out of the Union of Brest. Of course Eastern Catholic frequently feel forgotten by the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, and, well, I unfortunately didn’t buck the trend.

Let’s fast forward to the 1980’s when Solidarity was breaking ground as a non-violent trade-unionist movement set against a totalitarian government. With this we’ll continue to explore Polish religious particularities that are too difficult for Westerners to understand. Although a few of them have written books about it, as we’ve noted elsewhere.

The left and Church came together.

Solidarity: The left and Church came together.

3. Solidarity was both a Catholic movement and a somewhat secular movement. However, there is almost no doubt that it was politically the single most successful worker movement in history. It helped to topple, irony of ironies, a socialist regime. Granted, that regime had declared martial law, was armed to the teeth, and its tanks and guns were aiming at civilians.

Solidarity was composed of simple pious workers, leftist intellectuals (such as Michnik, author of The Church & the Left) who were fellow-travelers of the Church, and finally clergy. The Church played a decisive role here, because churches, thanks to the sweeping influence of Polish clericalism and papist internationalism, were the only place where free debate was permitted to everyone (including the non-believers).

Solidarity went through several phases until this mixture of diverse groups began to splinter under communist pressure and this only continued once power was transferred to them.

4.  Consumerism: The unusual mix of intellectuals (not that they were all secularists) and the pious masses could not hold in Poland as the 90’s became a kind of Hobbesian free-for-all. The Gdansk shipyards, which anchored the whole movement, were precisely the sort of unwieldy state-run outfit most likely to collapse under the free market. Governments of both left and right cycled in and out, some out of of existence. The only constant was the austerity measures that caused misery for a decade and laid the groundwork for a relatively stable Polish economy, the spread of consumerism, and a creeping secularism.

This turn of events either demonstrates the power of consumerism as a natural opponent of religion, or it exposes the weakness of the earlier synthesis, or both. Either way, the seeds of destruction were probably planted in the movement of liberation that was Solidarity. Which is unfortunate, because the kind of collective communication, cooperation, and reconciliation fostered by Solidarity at its zenith is precisely the sort of thing snuffed out by an increasingly technocratic economy and style of governance in Poland.

Before our next installment of this series, take a look at yours truly trying to make sense of Krakow’s Solidarity past within the parameters permitted by capitalism:

For those of you interested in reading more about Solidarity and its legacy: there is a complete free issue of the Tischner Institute journal Thinking in Values devoted to those topics.

The Solidarity issue.

The Solidarity issue.

The third installment in this series will appear here, The first installment can be found here.

Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)

The Papal States . . .

The Papal States . . .

. . . have Pope money!

. . . think the pope is money.

There are plenty of stereotypes floating in the seas of religious punditry. The so-called pundits are usually anchored in quite a circumscribed set of prejudices they project onto Poland. Both liberal and conservative leaning theologians like to think of my home country, for very different reasons, as a kind of Catholic Disneyland. Upon closer inspection these flattened Western pictures of Poland mirror what Edward Said labeled as Orientalism. They paint a picture of an exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous culture. Poland as a mythical Catholiclandia is a haven for conservatives (where they have no NYT), while it’s a reactionary hell for liberals (possibly the only hell they believe in).

At the Dominicans in Krakow.

RJN singing the praises of Poland in Poland. The picture he presented was a bit fuzzy.

I remember seeing Richard John Neuhaus in Krakow (Summer 2007)  and being pleasantly surprised  by his Jack Nicholson voice. He spoke enthusiastically about Poland’s vibrant Catholic culture and its strong alliance with the United States against the secular-exception of Western Europe (in the context of a worldwide sea of religion) and added a few words in defense of capitalism. It was a (too?) bold reversal of the secularization thesis, which usually has Poland and the United States as the exceptions (in the tiny island of what used to be Western culture). I asked the poet Artur Grabowski what he thought of what Neuhaus said and he replied with, “I wish it were like that” (rough!). In retrospect it seems RJN was projecting a positively backward exoticism not only onto the homeland of Wojtyla, but also the USA.

Authors such as Hans Küng adopted different reductionist projects. Their Orientalist version of Poland was usually attached to an animus toward JP2 and an oversimplified picture of Poland’s past. They were convinced that someone who earned his chops in a black and white struggle against the commies couldn’t sees Poland as a place Church during the Communist era was clearly too simple. John Paul II didn’t connect with the complexities of the late modern West (questionable, but hey). My favorite example of this type of Orientalism was Peter Hebblethwaite who spent years hating John Paul II’s Polish stupidity. For years he was always the guy on CNN predicting who the next pope would be. The irony is he died before his book on the “next pope” was published, not to mention about a decade before John Paul II died.

With that quick setup  let’s start with the reasons why Poland, like Brazil, is not a Catholic utopia (and that’s OK):

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

1) Clericalism:  Fr. Jozef Tischner, Solidarity’s chaplain, Poland’s leading phenomenologist, spent the better part of his life fighting against Polish clericalism. The writings Poland’s leading literary figures, world class writers such as Witold Gombrowicz (atheist) and Czeslaw Milosz (Catholic), contain their fair share of anti-clericalism. With the help of phenomenology, personalism, and the mystics John Paul II put stress upon active lay holiness in ways unseen until his papacy.  Poles (including Polish clerics as you can see from the examples above) have always been healthily suspicious of Catholic clerics. You can figure out some of the reason for it by continuing to read below.

It's complicated.

It’s complicated.

2) Diversity: Until very recently Poland has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This probably has something to do with the fact that for the better part of Poland’s history, pretty much since it came into existence in 986, the papacy usually sided with Poland’s enemies. This started with Rome’s favoritism toward the Holy [sic!] Roman Empire. Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased its traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up. Poland also took in all the Jews who were expelled by Western Europe right around the same time. Nineteenth century Polish Romanticism, a significant political/literary movement (one of JP2’s greatest intellectual influences), also tended antagonize the hierarchy with its tendencies toward socialism and resistance against authoritarian regimes. Kloczowski’s A History of Polish Christianity is a magisterial overview of the variety of Polish Christianities, its history of religious pluralism and tolerance, plus it also covers intra-Polish-Catholic diversity.

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: "God's spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people."

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: “God’s spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people.”

Next I’ll tackle the following two interconnected phenomena: the collapse of Solidarity and the growing influence of Neo-Con inspired consumerism. [Catholiclandia II is now available here.]

Mirroring Desires

Mimesis & Bananas

Imaginary Visions of True Peace

beanBagsIt’s no surprise to be told that neurons fire inside your brain when you decide to pick up a banana and again when you actually pick up the banana. What might surprise some people is to be told that exactly the same neurons fire when you see somebody else reach for a banana and then pick it up. This was not the kind of thing neuroscientists were looking for or expecting to find. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, this one was the result of serendipity. An experimenter who was analyzing the firing of neurons in a macaque monkey left the probes in its brain while taking a short break to have a snack. When he picked up a banana, the monkey’s neurons fired the same neurons that fired when the monkey picked up a banana. So began the following up of an exciting discovery.

The prime importance…

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