Coetzee on the Stillbirth of the Humanities Out of Theology

You dropped something.

You dropped something.

I suspect the endless essays about the rethinking, protecting, death, in other words, the “crisis,” of the humanities in The Chronicle of Higher Education (if only) have cleared more than one forest.

I’ve written about the religious uses of the “secular” academy elsewhere in my post about Warhol and Blau.  As you can tell from the post it’s not like I’m first in line to bust up the idols of the secular academy. On the other hand, the disappointing exchange surrounding yesterday’s post about (classical liberal) ideology in what passes for theology in America brought me back to Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. (See: comment section)

I would like to highlight this novelistic account with the qualification that there is no reason to identify it with Coetzee’s own opinions, or to totally dismiss them as having no connection with them.

The argument presented by his character, Sr. Bridget Costello, in her lecture “The Humanities in Africa,” is that the humanities were a stillborn child of theology, even perhaps more so than futile academic projects such as the Death of God movement of a/theology. Without further ado, here’s a large chunk of her lecture:

‘Textual scholarship, I would want to say if I had more time, was the living breath of humane studies while humane studies were what we can properly call a movement in history, namely the humanist movement. But it did not take long for the living breath in textual scholarship to be snuffed out. The story of textual scholarship since then has been the story of one effort after another to resuscitate that life, in vain.

‘The text for the sake of which textual scholarship was invented was the Bible. Textual scholars saw themselves as servants in the recovery of the true message of the Bible, specifically the true teaching of Jesus. The

figure they employed to describe their work was the figure of rebirth or resurrection. The reader of the New Testament was to encounter face to face for the first time the risen, reborn Christ, Christus renascens, obscured no longer by a veil of scholastic gloss and commentary. It was with this goal in mind that scholars taught themselves first Greek, then Hebrew, then (later) other languages of the Near East. Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged. That is how linguistic studies, literary studies (as studies in interpretation), cultural studies and historical studies–the studies that form the core of the so-called humanities–came to be bound up together.

‘Why, you may justly ask, call this constellation of studies devoted to the recovery of the true word of the Lord studia humanitatis? Asking this question will, it turns out, be much the same as asking, Why did the studia humanitatis come into flower only in the fifteenth century of our dispensation and not hundreds of years earlier?

‘The answer has much to do with historical accident: with the decline and eventual sack of Constantinople and the flight of Byzantine men of learning to Italy. (Observing your Dean’s fifteen-minute rule, I will pass over the living presence of Aristotle, Galen and other Greek philosophers in medieval Western Christendom, and the role of Arab Spain in transmitting their teachings.)

‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The gifts brought by the men from the East were not only grammars of the Greek language but texts by authors from Greek antiquity. The linguistic command that was intended to be applied to the Greek New Testament could be perfected only by immersing oneself in these seductive pre-Christian texts. In no time, as one might expect, the study of these texts, later to be called the classics, had become an end in itself.

‘More than that: the study of the texts of antiquity came to be justified not only on linguistic grounds but on philosophical grounds too. Jesus was sent to redeem mankind, the argument went. To redeem mankind from what? From an unredeemed state, of course. But what do we know of mankind in an unredeemed state? The only substantial record that covers all aspects of life is the record of antiquity. So to grasp the purpose behind the Incarnation–that is to say, to grasp the meaning of redemption–we must embark, through the classics, on studia humanitatis.

‘Thus, in the brief and crude account I give, did it come about that biblical scholarship and studies in Greek and Roman antiquity came to be coupled in a relationship never without antagonism, and thus did it come about that textual scholarship and its attendant disciplines came to fall under the rubric “the humanities”.

‘So much for history. So much for why you, diverse and ill-assorted as you may privately feel yourselves to be, find yourselves assembled this morning under a single roof as graduates-to-be in the humanities. Now, in the few minutes left to me, I am going to tell you why I do not belong among you and have no message of comfort to bring to you, despite the generosity of the gesture you have extended to me.

‘The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago, perhaps as long as five centuries ago. The handful of men among whom the movement originated of which you represent, I fear, the sad tail–those men were animated, at least at first, by the purpose of finding the True Word, by which they understood then, and I understand now, the redemptive word.
‘That word cannot be found in the classics, whether you understand the classics to mean Homer and Sophocles or whether you understand them to mean Homer and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky In a happier age than our own it was possible for people to bluff themselves into believing that the classics of antiquity offered a teaching and a way of life. In our own times we have settled, rather desperately, for the claim that the study of the classics in itself might offer a way of life, or if not a way of life then at least a way of earning a living which, if it cannot be proved to do any positive good, at least is on no side claimed to do any harm.

‘But the impulse behind the first generation of textual scholars cannot be diverted so easily from its proper goal. I am a daughter of the Catholic Church, not of the Reformed Church, but I applaud Martin Luther when he turns his back on Desiderius Erasmus, judging that his colleague, despite his immense gifts, has been seduced into branches of study that do not, by the standards of the ultimate, matter. The studia humanitatis have taken a long time to die, but now, at the end of the second millennium of our era, they are truly on their deathbed. All the more bitter should be that death, I would say, since it has been brought about by the monster enthroned by those very studies as first and animating principle of the universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason. But that is another story for another day.’

Pentecost Vigil With Lay Ecclesial Movements In Saint Peter's Square

What if Judith Butler was Ockham’s God?


potentia absoluta or ordinata?

Judith Butler‘s account of love makes her sound like some fickle nominalist God who not only leaves her subjects quaking in fear, but probably also scares herself.  This is her recipe for scaring away any and all potential dates:

“On occasion when I am getting to know someone — when someone seeks to know me or, indeed, find in me the occasion for love — I am asked what my idea of love is, and I always founder. There are clearly those who have their ideas of love, who enter into their conversations, their letters, their initial encounters with an idea of love in mind. This is admirable in a way. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I have no answer, and that I cannot, in the moment of potential seduction, [have] an entrancing view of love to offer the one with whom I speak. … One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.”

Or, as Oppenheimer said after the first Trinity test, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Bad theological ideas like nominalism don’t die, they become transposed and banalized into critical theory.

If you want more comic relief this Friday read the rest of the excerpts with a red pen in your hand and be prepared to apply it to your computer screen.  It’s foolproof.

Don’t miss her proposed marriage of Freud and Kierkegaard; it seems to have issued from the pen of a precocious undergrad who needs more time to develop before graduate school.  Trust me, I just got done grading 400 pages of undergraduate prose and I’m still trying to recover.  Maybe it even has something to do with the essence [sic!] of this post?

However, if you’re looking for guidance in concrete relationships (and to perhaps avoid a divorce) then Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World is an infinitely better guide:

“Romance feeds on obstacles, short excitations, and partings; marriage, on the contrary, is made up of wont, daily propinquity, growing accustomed to one another. Romance calls for ‘the faraway love’ of the troubadours; marriage, for love of ‘one’s neighbour.’ Where, then, a couple have married in obedience to a romance, it is natural that the first time a conflict of temperament or of taste becomes manifest the parties should ask themselves: ‘Why did I marry?’ And it is no less natural that, obsessed by the universal propaganda in favour of romance, each should seize the first occasion to fall in love with somebody else.”


The choice is yours, or is it?

Don’t you wish you’d forgotten?  Now you can’t:

Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity


Cromwell or: How are they gonna keep ’em away from the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?

Philip Jenkins of Baylor U is probably our most perceptive commentator on religion.  His views are almost always even-handed, even if he’s describing trends he’s not quite comfortable with.  One cannot help but be extremely impressed when reading The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

There he described, in the first edition of 2002, an ineluctable shift of Christianity south of the equator, long before it was popular to say so, long before Bergoglio became Francis.

What’s impressive about his writing is that according to him–even though Jenkins himself appears to be a very mildly liberal Episcopalian, even though he seems to be squirming in his seat as he writes the words–Christianity will become much more “conservative and supernaturalist” than comfortable for First World Christians.  What’s more, he predicts a shift of focus away from petty First World bickering to real Third World problems.

Great read and a must read.

Great read and a must read.

A recent article of his,“Farewell, Old Pagan World,” is presently making its rounds through social media.  In it Jenkins goes through several examples of how Christianity supplanted paganism in the Western imagination.  He points out how several cultural artifacts, which were taken to be pagan by most moderns, have time and again proven to either be saturated by Christian redactions or totally fabricated by Christians.  The most amusing example, at least to my mind, is the striking Cerne Abbas pictured above.  There is a certain relish to what Jenkins says about it:

“Scholar Ronald Hutton points out that the figure is not even referred to before the late 17th century, unlike other authentic monuments like Stonehenge, which had intrigued travelers through the Middle Ages. By far the most likely conclusion is that this impressive figure, with his giant phallus and club, is meant to depict not Hercules but… Oliver Cromwell. The local landowner in the 1650s was a Royalist Anglican who loathed Cromwell’s Puritan regime. In internal exile on his estate, he whiled away his time ordering the construction of a savage chalk-cut cartoon of the dictator, with the large club indicating the regime’s total lack of legitimacy.  Cerne Abbas isn’t a pagan idol, it’s a dirty joke.”

He deconstructs Beowulf much in the same way.  The ultimate takeaway is that:

“In modern times, books by authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have inspired hugely successful popular culture treatments, although they are sometimes accused of imposing their Christian interpretations on the older mythologies. In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe’s pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.”

Much to my chagrin, Jenkins seems to come too close to something like an anti-pagan supersessionism when he ignores how the penetration goes both ways.

The Rick Perry episode I mentioned here is an example of what I’m talking about.  The governor thinks the secularists are persecuting Christians when “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.”  The mention of the Christmas tree is peculiar because, as any pedantic village atheist will tell you, it’s (GASP!) a (spoiler alert!) pagan symbol.

I believe the Cambridge theologian Catherine Pickstock does a much better job of capturing this double-penetration and some of its anthropological and political implications in the article “Liturgy and Modernity” in Telos (113):

“Catholicism much more tolerant than [classical] liberalism [/capitalism/globalism]. In this schema, each difference is fully tolerated precisely because it is more than tolerated, since each difference is a figural repetition of the other differences. Thus, Catholicism has allowed many local rites and variations, and has sheltered much traditional folk narrative and practice. It has been able to reconstrue pre-Christian myths and rituals as figurative anticipations of Catholicism. This may seem like an imperialist gesture, but this figurative reading enriches the sense of Catholicism. Thus, in the legends of the Holy Grail, Celtic ideas of inspirational cauldrons are read eucharistically. This also discloses new dimensions in eucharistic understanding.”

This should give pause to those who are worried about the leveling and cultural destruction globalism leaves in its wake.  Why imprison oneself in hegemony-envy of the Catholics like Gramsci?  Why wish for a St. Francis to radicalize the multitudes like Hardt and Negri?  Why, when there’s pope Francis and the hybrid God and the hybrid institution he represents?

He’s also from the Global South.

new pope woody allen


Rick Perry is Right? The Myth of Religious Freedom in America.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that's it.

Lumbergh: You can just go ahead and move a little bit to the left. Yeah, that’s it.

I don’t want to belabor the obvious when it comes to Perry’s right-ness.  What I want to concentrate upon is why he’s right about how freedom of religion has played itself out in the American public square.  Stephen L. Carter has written extensively about this issue, specifically how the metaphor of the wall of separation originated with Roger Williams (not Jefferson) and was always intended to protect religion from the interference of politics, not the other way around.    Some go as far as claiming we’re in a Stephen Carter moment right now:

“This should be the Stephen Carter Moment. For the past decade, the Yale law professor has been our most eloquent critic of strict separation of church and state. With vigor, he has championed the injection of religiosity into the public square. In his seminal 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, he decried the secularization of American life, the ‘trend in our political and legal cultures, toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion.'”

Wall?  Which wall?

Whose religion? Which wall?

Lo and behold, Rick Perry said pretty much the same thing the other day in a press conference.  He has the Raw Story (predictably) panicking, “I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state.  Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

The Raw Story people should calm down because they’re swimming against the tide of American history.  David Sehat has argued in a book (a helpful summary by the author can be found here), to the discomfort of both left and right, that American religious freedom, or freedom from a particular religion, is a myth.  Certain American religious groups (Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons) have always been legally excluded by certain Protestant groups.

You can be wrong most of the time, but you can’t be wrong all of the time.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

Lennon rickrolled by Grumpy.

American Literary Slugfest: Papist Upstarts vs. Established Prots



In his essay “Religion and Literature” T.S. Eliot makes a most reasonable critical observation, especially given the longstanding close tie between literature and theology (“religion” is a problematic concept as I’ve noted here):

“Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.”

Paul Giles takes up this mantle, when it comes to American Catholicism, in his path-breaking study American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics.  There isn’t enough time to go into the details of how he understands the Catholic imagination versus the Protestant imagination.  We’ll leave that discussion for later along with mentions of David Tracy and Andrew Greeley.

For now: wouldn’t this make for one hell of a slugfest (put away the salt Seattle residents)?

“It would seem reasonable to suggest that certain excellent writers have been undervalued because the (explicit or implicit) ideologies of their texts do not accord with what are conceived, often unconsciously, to be American literary values . . . It is this assumption also that may have contributed to the continued underestimation of Dreiser, Kerouac, Mary McCarthy, John O’Hara, J. F. Powers, Edwin O’Connor.  The Emerson-Frost-Stevens triad is a familiar combination in American literary history; Santayana-Tate-Frank O’Hara less so.”