A Fish Rots from the Head Down (On Paul Elie and Secularization in the Arts)

The head of a rotting fish would be too much for even the most devoted readers; so here's a shark eating a shark instead.

The head of a rotting fish would be too much for even the most devoted readers; so instead here’s a shark eating a shark.

The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) is widely read in American poetry circles. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that many Americans almost think of him as one of their own (Cynthia Haven even documents his worldwide influence here).

Now Milosz’s poetry appeals to me because he interprets his experience of late modern America and early 20th century totalitarianism with a finely honed Catholic theological imagination. Don’t take my word for it. There’s plenty of evidence for my judgment here, here, here, here, and here.

Czeslaw Milosz (right) with friend and literary rival Gombrowicz (mentioned later in post).

Czeslaw Milosz (right) with friend and literary rival Gombrowicz (mentioned later in post).

Czesław Miłosz, as we’ll see, appears to be in agreement with Paul Elie who recently pronounced the death of the religious novel along with plans to resurrect the genre single-handedly with a novel-in-progress. Elie proudly announced in a New York Times article, “Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?” The article in question, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” expands upon these questions with the following answer:

“The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall. Their detractors see a people threatening rear-guard political action, or a people left behind.”

“We come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours," says Paul Elie.

“We come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours,” says Paul Elie in The Life You Save...

Czesław Miłosz tells the story of literary secularization within a much longer and damning historical arc than Elie, author of the study The Life You Save Maybe Your Own. In that fat tome (eminently readable and well-researched) Elie presents the work of Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy as a literary-religious triumph. Milosz viewed the literary victories of the last few centuries within a much more Pyrrhic frame. The Nobelist saw modern literature, which is not to say all of it, as the culmination of the process of European secularization:

“The fact of Europe’s dechrstianization is indubitable and depressing. It can also be translated into numbers of victims. If a half-Christian Europe could not prevent the First World War and its massacres in the trenches, then two totalitarianisms, which exterminated millions in concentration camps, were the product of leaders who were entirely godless.However, the ties between religion and society are too complicated to draw up a clear boundary between Christian and post-Christian countries. A fish rots from the head down, and what we call the erosion of the religious imagination began with the philosophers of the 18th century, only to progress through the whole of the next century, receiving its lasting expression, above all, in literature and art…”

Now consider this statement in the context of what Nietzsche, Flaubert, Ibsen, Andre Gide, Sartre, and Gombrowicz wrote. Then you’ll get the picture.

Even this may be true it still doesn’t take away from the achievements of poets and novelists of both past and present who are legion. In the piece “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” Gregory Wolfe argues the myth of rampant secularization in the arts is precisely that: a myth. Here’s how he puts it:

“In The New Republic in 2008, Ruth Franklin noted that ‘the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with shock how complete it is.’ Last month in a New York Times Sunday Book Review essay entitled ‘Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?, Paul Elie suggested that ‘if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.’

Really? From where I stand, things don’t look that way. That is in large part because for the past 24 years I have edited Image, a journal that publishes literature and art concerned with the faith traditions of the West. Our instinct when launching the publication was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues.

Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.”

You can read my own contribution to IMAGE here.

You can read my own contribution to IMAGE here. You can subscribe to IMAGE here.

Perhaps the fish isn’t all that rotten? At least not in the head? Over the next few days I plan on compiling some Top 10 lists of contemporary poets (Now available!) and novelists who write from within a theological imagination.

I don’t think the task will be as tough as Elie makes it out to be. The toughest task will be keeping the lists down to only ten authors each!

The follow up posts are now up. They are “Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Religious Poets” and “Fresh Caught Fish II: Top 10 Living Religious Novelists.”

Damien Hirst with the most famous piece from his Requiem series which is the subject of this IMAGE issue.

Rotting heads: did you know one of these Damien Hirst sharks (pictured left) rotted in a gallery and had to be replaced?

  


 

 

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Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists 2: The Christianity of Camus

like atheism

like atheism

Albert Camus was nearly as unfaithful as Jean-Paul Sartre . . . to atheism.

This should not be especially surprising to any semi-conscious reader of his novels.  Despite his good existentialist intentions Camus could never really get beyond good and evil.  Most of his literary works collapse under the weight of trying to cover up their origins in, and direct debts to, classical Christian doctrines, especially Original Sin.

It’s as if he keeps trying to roll a rock to seal off the tomb, only to find it rolled away every darn morning.  Just look at the plots of The Fall, The Plague, and The First Man and tell me God shouldn’t sue for copyright infringement upon the biblical narrative.

The connections go even deeper as a recent memoir reveals.  The book is entitled Albert Camus & the Minister.  It is written by the (Methodist) minister, Howard Mumma.  Mumma hailed from Ohio and met Camus, was actually hounded by him, during a stint as guest minister at the American Church in Paris.

The two talked about Christianity constantly and it got to the point where Camus asked to be re-baptized, only to be turned down. Today’s Methodist ministers are nothing like the hardcore Methodist ministers of yesteryear!

Camus was still actively courting the Christian faith when he was cut down in a car accident.  We don’t know how things would have turned out if Camus had lived, however, as this book recounts, he thought he was heading for a reversion.  Actually, he was already there.

I don't believe in an interventionalist God.

I don’t believe in an interventionalist God (see video below).

Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists: Sartre’s Crossover

This story will leave you confused.

This story will leave you confused.

Almost everyone will agree that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is rightfully recognized as a major figure of 20th century atheism.  Fewer people will agree about his stature as a philosopher.  Even fewer people will testify to the staying power of his novels and plays, although he still inspires some good poetry written against his philosophy.

However, it’s still not general knowledge that Sartre was not only unfaithful to Simone de Beauvoir, but also to atheism.  With the help of his secretary Benny Levy (no not that one) Sartre wandered into Judaism late in life.  And so the late-late Sartre said things like these:

“The Jew lives. He has a destiny. The finality towards which every Jew moves is to reunite humanity . . . It is the end that only the Jewish people [know] . . . It is the beginning of the existence of men for each other.”

Edward Said had an encounter with the Sartre-Levy duo and wasn’t entirely impressed:

“Lévy (then still known as Pierre Victor) seemed to Said to be: ‘a sort of station master, among whose trains was Sartre himself. Aside from their mysterious interactions at the table, he and Victor would occasionally get up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then the pair would come back.’ When Sartre made a platitudinous closing statement that failed to mention such burning issues as the Palestinians, disputed territories or Israeli settlements, Said assumed it had been written by ‘the egregious Victor’ himself.”

Read more about Sartre’s Judaism here.

Just to make things even more confusing, carnivaleseque, and Rabelaisian, Sartre wrote a Christmas play, in which he gushed about Jesus, when he was interned in a German POW camp.

 

Sartre walking away from atheism.

Sartre walking away from atheism.

 

  

 

Debunking Science & Religion Myths: The Copernican Revolution Wasn’t a Demotion

Whoa, he's Polish!

Whoa, he’s Polish!

The science and religion debates are chock-full of ideological myths.

Nowadays the scientific side usually has the upper hand in the construction of history.  This position means its stories should arouse healthy suspicion and invite demythologizing.

Everyone has rehearsed all those terribly touching stories, perhaps even with a tear in the eye, about the persecution of the brave scientific martyrs by the ecclesiastical Grand Inquisitor(s).  Let’s ignore the fact the Inquisition had more respect for due process and evidentiary rules than the Bush-Obama White Houses and explore something more moving.

The shifting of the Earth from the center of the universe, coupled with the setting of the planet in motion around the sun, is usually presented as a real cosmic bummer from which we’ll never recover.

John Hedley Brooke, in Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, says nothing could be further from the truth (if you take 16th century cosmology into consideration),

“Even if men and women were removed from the center of the cosmos, this was not necessarily to diminish their status.  The center of the geocentric cosmos had not been salubrious.  It was the point to which earthly matter fell, the focus of change and impurity, the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state.  To be placed on a planet was to move upmarket.  It was to be delivered from a dump that was, in reality, diabolocentric.  Galileo was certainly conscious of this, rejoicing that there was an escape from the refuse.  Kepler, too, spoke of an enhanced status for the earth.  At last it enjoyed legal citizenship in the heavens.  Not surprisingly, John Wilkins was to say that a prevalent objection to the Copernican system was not man’s dethronement but an elevation about his true stature.”

Oh merde!

Oh merde!

Feel free to annoy your starry-eyed science-geek friends with these newly-learned facts.  Why not also pass along the story I published here and the conclusion to the one here while you’re at it?

By the way, the above passage from John Hedley Brooke was cited by Larry Chapp in his groundbreaking tome The God of Covenant and Creation.  You’ll be hearing about it a lot more in the near future.  I’m still reading it (with great enthusiasm).

I could only find an untypically modest-sized picture.

I could only find an untypically modest-sized picture.

What if Judith Butler was Ockham’s God?

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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.”

Image

The choice is yours, or is it?

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

Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Must read.

Must read.

In De praescriptione, vii Tertullian asks, ” What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

As it turns out, quite a lot.  Michael J. Buckley in his must-read Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism lays out how a too close association between religion and early modern science eventually led to the propagation of atheism.

Yes, you read that right, the relationship was not not marked by antagonism (yet another Enlightenment myth exposed).  Poor and mad Giordano Bruno was an exception that proves the rule.  The close marriage between science and religion in representative figures such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton caused trouble for religion, because the arguments of the scientists-believers were impersonal and decontextualized faith in God.  Buckley (SJ) believes the natural turf for theological lies elsewhere:

“More astonishing in their absence–within Christian Europe–were the two trinitarian modes of divine self-disclosure and communication: the self-expression of God become an incarnate component within human history or the Spirit transforming human subjectivity in its awareness, affectivity, and experience.”

In other words, in another language, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”  I’d prefer to see this badly translated as “You must other [verb] your life,” but below you’ll find a more conventional rendition along with the torso of Apollo from the Louvre that inspired Rilke’s ejaculation:

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The implication of this is that the lives of the saints flesh out the arguments with narratives of changed actions and transformed subjectivities.  If religion is not about changing your heart of stone into a heart of flesh, then it’s irrelevant.   Buckley approvingly quotes one of Wittgenstein’s letters as recommending such an approach:

“If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different.  It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.”

Be well = do good work.

Be well = do good work.

In many ways this might be the intention behind the recent words of Pope Francis about the CDF:

“Say you err, [or] make a blunder – it happens! Maybe you’ll receive a letter from the Congregation for Doctrine [sic], saying that they were told this or that thing…. But don’t let it bother you. Explain what you have to explain, but keep going forward…. Open doors, do something where life is calling out [to you].”

CatholicPassion2

Sides with Claudel

However, all of this should not drive a wedge between philosophy and theology when philosophy is properly understood.  The temptation is great as the otherwise commendable The Catholic Passion (an attempt at a more fleshly, incarnate, and subjective-transformative approach to theology) demonstrates:

“In this book I chose to go with Claudel [as oppose to writing a commentary on the Baltimore Catechism] to explain Catholicism by way of the experience and faith expressions of real Catholics–saints, composers, poets, playwrights, missionaries, ordinary believers.  This approach seems appropriate to Catholicism, which is not a philosophy of life so much as a personal encounter and relationship with a divine person, Jesus.  The church’s creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are indispensable–they ensure that this encounter with Jesus is true–but if this neat order of rules and laws is the theorem, then Catholicism’s proof will always be found in what Catholics think and hope for, how they pray, and what they do with their lives.”

The misstatement lies in the opposition between Catholicism and a “philosophy of life.”  We must understand philosophy, at least ancient philosophy, but also more recent philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, in the way Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, et al all did, that is, as a way of life, as a set of spiritual exercises, practiced and lived out in philosophic communities.

What’s more, Tertullian, for all his anti-philosophical bluster (a style he borrowed from Greek and Roman philosophical schools), actually stole many other things from Athens in the service of Jerusalem.  The following passage comes from Dariusz Karłowicz’s Socrates and Other Saints, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post here:

“In Tertullian we can find all the Stoic-Platonic exercises mentioned by Philo of Alexandria. For example: study, meditation (meletai), cures for the passions (therapeiai), recalling the beautiful, self-control, doing one’s duties, or others, such as: listening with a constant attention that is turned upon oneself (prosoche) and indifference toward indifferent things. There was no lack of typical Cynical exercises to combat the passions through bodily mortification. These exercises became so rooted in Christian spirituality that our contemporaries are surprised to discover the ancient philosophical roots of Tertullian’s advice to meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer by first purifying oneself of anger or an unquiet heart. One can confidently say that for Tertullian constant spiritual exercises constitute the content of daily life for members of Christ’s church.”

Step back Harnack.

Adolf von Harnack

Miffed.

In related news: Laura Keynes, a great-great-great-granddaughter of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, has gone papist.

The Problem of the Good (not Evil) or: On Rabelaisian Catholicism

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Rabelais: cutting through the crap.

The Charles Ramsey story went from viral to vile very quickly.  The rescuer of three kidnapped Cleveland women is himself a former wife-beater and deadbeat.  Do these details somehow tarnish his heroism?  Why would they?

They make it all the better. They  remind us that even assholes can do the good.  For example, my grandfather (R.I.P.) was a one man life-wrecking crew who was capable of just enough astounding and gratuitous good to disarm his victims.

And so I hereby declare myself a Rabelaisian Catholic, because the taint of the Puritan untainted makes me feel dirty.  Let me go even further: all those Catholics (and others) who  complain about the compromised bishops, big crisis of the church, the cabal of the clergy, and so on (ad nauseaum) are anathema to me. I embrace my historical continuity with bad Catholics of all stripes, times and ages.

It would feel extremely uncomfortable (like in the back of a Volkswagen) if everyone were as unalloyed as both the New York Times Catholics and Neo-Conservative Catholics make themselves out to be.

Observance in the breach deserves our admiration much more than untroubled dissent.

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Brodsky: leading the arrière-garde against Rousseau.

I’m with Joseph Brodsky who says in an old New York Times (!) article recently unearthed by Cynthia Haven:

“If one is to call conventions and make resolutions, the first resolution we should make is that we are all good-for-nothings, that there is a murderer in every one of us, that only chance circumstances save us, sitting in this hypothetical chamber, from being divided into murderers and their victims. What ought to be done first of all is to rewrite all of the history textbooks, throwing out all the heroes, generals, leaders and so forth. The first thing that should be written in the textbook is that man is radically bad.”

Brodsky knows that the question of evil is the wrong question, “The possibilities for compassion are extremely limited, far inferior to the possibilities for evil.”  What’s astounding is that we ever get around to doing the good.   The good is the real mystery of our world.  Give it some time and humor not only your own sins, but the sins of others with the help of Max von Sydow:

[Thanks for the inspiration Justin Tse.]