TOP 10: Corrections to Peter Kreeft’s Contemporary Philosophy List!

Rembrandt, because I didn't want to use Raphael.

Rembrandt, because I didn’t want to use Raphael.

There are plenty of interesting things on Brandon Vogt’s website. They certainly have given me plenty of food for thought.

For example, I deeply appreciate the G.K. Chesterton video he posted not too long ago. It gave me a new, if somewhat idiosyncratic, vantage point on the always troubled Christian-Muslim relations here (join the conversation).

Brandon also recently posted a list of books that was recommended to him by none other than Peter Kreeft. Kreeft is a wonderful popularizer of classical philosophy and theology. Ancient Athens and Medieval Christendom are where the Boston College philosopher feels most at home. I’d like to argue later that he’s a little bit iffy when it comes to more recent philosophy.

The footnotes in the Summa of the Summa are indispensable.

The footnotes in the A Shorter Summa are indispensable for beginning to understand the Aristotelian-Thomistic idiom. My copy is all marked up. This book is well worth your time.

To see what I mean, take a look at the Medieval lists Kreeft compiled below:

Medieval Philosophy, Basic List:

Medieval Philosophy, Additional List:

"But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality," say Anselm in the Proslogion. And really, I can't think of the better list than the one given by Kreeft here.

“But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality,” says Anselm in the Proslogion. And really, I can’t think of the better introductory medieval list than the one given by Kreeft above.

The ancient and modern lists in Brandon’s post are just as solid as this medieval one.

So, I was shocked to read the following list of “contemporary” philosophical texts recommended by Kreeft:

Contemporary Philosophy, Basic List:

Contemporary Philosophy, Additional List

Even the author of Orthodoxy is surprised by this rather unorthodox list.

Even the author of Orthodoxy is a little shocked by this rather unorthodox list of “contemporary” philosophers.

I agree with the choice of Sartre, Marx, and William James for the basic list. Then again, The Varieties of Religious experience is a much more fundamental William James text for both philosophy and the study of religion. In fact, it’s one of the texts that brought serious study of religion back into the mainstream of academic culture. Varieties is still the departure point for most work done in religious studies. It’s the one book you must agree with, or quarrel with.

Pascal belongs in the modern list, whereas C.S. Lewis does not belong at all. Lewis is a first-rate popularizer, but he does not belong on a list of basic or supplementary “contemporary” philosophical texts. This means I’ll have to nominate two replacements for the basic list of contemporary authors. Actually, make that three, because Nietzsche is much more deserving of a position on such a list than Sartre.

  • Nietzsche: You might as well dive into the Nietzsche Reader if you want to understand his influence on key modern thinkers like Sartre, Heidegger, but also upon contemporary theology. The selections in this collection are first rate and Hollingdale writes a mean introduction.
  • Heidegger, Being and Time: Pure and simple, it’s the most important philosophical treatise of the 20th century. What’s even better? Heidegger borrows half of his concepts from theology–and then tries to unsuccessfully conceal them. You may not ignore this book and I must finally read it in its entirety!
  • Henri de Lubac’s The Mystery of the Supernatural is, hands down, the most obvious replacement for Lewis. This tome is perhaps the single most influential theology book of the 20th century. It helped to disentangle theology from modern philosophical adulterations of Thomism. De Lubac shaped the agenda for both Vatican II and the critiques of its implementation with this book and several others.

The Mystery of the Supernatural has influenced you even if you know nothing about it.

The Mystery of the Supernatural has influenced you even if you know nothing about it.

Mill is probably the only second stringer on Kreeft’s additional list that deserves to definitively remain there. We can feel the deleterious effect of his philosophy upon every aspect of our lives. The others, not so much.

Kreeft seems to go on an unjustified binge of analytical philosophers whose books are not terribly important. Chesterton is a figure on the fence–there really are more important books out there, but his philosophical standing is on the rise. So let’s say that leaves us with about four replacements:

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: Wittgenstein totally revamped the conclusions he reached in the influential Tractatus in the Investigations. What’s more, he has played an important role in reinvigorating theology as Fergus Kerr has argued in his Theology After Wittgenstein, which, by the way, contains one of the most creative and convincing arguments against abortion.
  • Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, which is divided up into Volume I and Volume II. This unjustly ignored mid-century Catholic existentialist philosopher might turn out to be more pivotal to the history of philosophy than some of the other thinkers mentioned in these contemporary lists. His influence is so ubiquitous, especially among Catholics, that it’s invisible.
  • Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology: Kierkegaard, because if you haven’t wrestled with Kierkegaard, then you haven’t wrestled with modern philosophy (and the opportunities it holds for theology).
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord volume I: This book inaugurated a series of reflections that brought beauty back into the fold of both theological and philosophical reflection. It’s in a virtual tie with the de Lubac book I mentioned in the main list for “contemporary” philosophers. On another day, they could switch sides. Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans could also substitute for either one of these books given its immensely positive historical influence.

Now that’s more like it!

As you can see, we’ve culled out most of the analytical philosophy, which is the philosophical and existential equivalent of a glorified New York Times crossword puzzle.

However, if you insist on reading some philosophy of language then you must buy American. Charles Sanders Peirce has been called “the American Aristotle” by Fr. Oakes in a First Things piece that can be found here. It’s best to dip into his selected philosophical writings.

Viola!

Viola!

Finally, Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life is a book that anyone interested in the discipline must read. It will totally transform your vision of what ancient philosophy was and what philosophy ought to be.

Don’t miss out on the other TOP 10 booklists on this blog: one on religious living poets, one on living religious novelists, one on books about heaven and hell, and finally, one on recent theology books.

Before you get too deep:

Heaven is Not an Atom

Manoussakis: taking theology up a notch.

Manoussakis: taking theology up a notch.

I knew there was a reason why I took my “Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)” up to 11. Somehow I just knew that I had to read the extra book I added.

Well, actually, Fr. Peter Nguyen, SJ (one of the good ones) read the book on my semi-blind recommendation about a year ago. He came away with a glowing face full of new insights. Now that I’ve started reading God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic, I know why it’s been haunting me.

God-after-Metaphysics-Manoussakis-John-EB9780253116949

“I have not seen anything in breadth, importance, and intensity!,” says Jean-Luc Marion about God After Metaphysics. That’s praise which is beyond good.

John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a Greek Orthodox theologian, begins with a quote from Chesterton (who was the subject of yesterday’s post). God After Metaphysics is ecumenical in its engagement with all the best in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. The following epigraph from The Everlasting Man is just one example of the intellectual hospitality of God After Metaphysics and its author:

“It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had even claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had even suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years– that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word… it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.”

Manoussakis finds and deftly comments upon such gems throughout his book. It’s as if he wants you to go broke collecting a library as you read.

Now, the importance of the Greek intellectual heritage for understanding the uniqueness of Christianity is something we’ve previously addressed in a post related to the work of Jaroslav Pelikan here. Manoussakis points out how the notion of a human person as a relational reality is something that developed within the Greek literary and philosophical traditions. In fact, relation (between persons) was so crucial to the notion of a person that early Greek literary texts used the plural (prosopa) almost exclusively even when referring to individuals. What’s more, the antonym of person (prosopon) is atomon. A-tomon can be etymologically parsed as that which cannot be cut any further. The same implication is embedded within the English word individual (that which cannot be divided anymore, an atom).

“If life is an illusion it's a pretty painful one,” says the author of The Elementary Particles.

The flip side of Manoussakis: “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” says the nihilistic but compassionate author of The Elementary Particles.

All of this reminds me of Michel Houellebecq’s contemporary classic novel of social fragmentation The Elementary Particles. Even though the novel charts the free-fall of the two main characters, who are half-brothers, into different forms of deadly isolation Houllebecq leaves threads like these for his readers to hang onto, “Love binds, and it binds forever. Good binds while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit.” Hell as I’ve suggested elsewhere is the life of elementary particles. This insight seems to be true for Houllebecq the author, even though his characters never achieve it.

The novelistic dictum is at bottom in concert with the implications of the Incarnation, our fundamental relation to God, as explained by Manoussakis:

“The urgency for particularity, however, was forced upon philosophy by an event that lay entirely outside its proper scope. As a number of studies, both old and new, have shown, the thought of the classical World lacked the the notion of the uniqueness of the human person. The cruel Spartan law which demanded that every baby born with some physical or or mental defect be discarded at the outskirts of the city was consistent with the classical mentality. The classical worldview was turned upside down in the wake of the Incarnation. The Christian dogma of the ‘Word made flesh’ bestowed upon any person an infinite value–or rather, the value of the infinite.”

It is as if the relationality built into the Greek language needed the Gospel to bring out its most radical implications. And the practical implications of this passage continue to be fundamental for the most controversial contemporary debates such as abortion or euthanasia. Ultimately, the task comes down to facilitating a parallax shift from talk about individuals to talk about persons.

Theology is not a spectator sport. You might just have to change your life.

The classic film Seconds poignantly highlights this need for personal engagement in a final tragic monologue before the protagonist’s death:

“I couldn’t help it, Charlie. I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want! Things! Not people… or meaning. Just things. And California was the same. They made the decisions for me all over again and they were the same things, really. It’s going to be different from now on. A new face and a name. I’ll do the rest. I know it’s going to be different. I suppose you do too.”

[Its opening sequence is filled with some of the most hellish images of fragmentation caught on film.]

Chesterton, Crusading, and Cairo

My facebook buddy, the blogger Brandon Vogt, recently posted the video above on Facebook. I was surprised to find out there is a video of Chesterton, best known for his The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and biographies of Aquinas and Francis. It seems like like he’s too big a personality, wellnigh mythical, to fit on film.

Apparently Chesterton’s cause for canonization is being advanced in Rome these days. It’s not surprising given how much influence he has exerted on Catholic writers, popes (including the present pope), and even atheist authors such as Slavoj Zizek whose The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity is heavily influenced by the English Catholic writer.

"Wha? Zizek?!," say Chesterton in an aside of his writings on Dickens.

“Wha? Zizek?!,” says Chesterton in an aside in his still wildly popular Orthodoxy.

Chesterton is generally known as an all-around funny guy who wrote on serious topics in a way that could get anyone interested in the adventurous minutiae of orthodoxy. It’s an effective writing strategy that can catch opponents off guard. I’ve seen his writing style compared to Kierkegaard recently. Apparently there isn’t anything new in this comparison, because specialists were making  it a long time ago.

In the video Chesterton is proclaimed “One of the foremost crusaders of modern letters.” When I first heard the video I thought he was being proclaimed a “dictator.” In hindsight his response to receiving the honor doesn’t seem funny or effective. It leaves me more uncomfortable than if he had been proclaimed dictator of letters, “I can only say that I am not much of a Crusader, but at least I am not a Mohammedan.”

You might or might not remember that the First Crusade (1096–1099) began as a pilgrimage and ended as a military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. Jerusalem was recaptured in 1099. Subsequent Crusades followed and resulted not only in more rifts between the Rome and Islam, but ultimately also between Rome and the Christian East.

The Lost History of Christianity tells the millennium long Christian tale of lands we usually consider Muslim.

The Lost History of Christianity tells the millennium long Christian tale of lands we usually consider Muslim.

One cannot help but think of how the intersections of Christian and Muslim history have always been marked by violent conflict, starting with the minor conquests of Mohammad of what used to be Jewish-Christian and pagan lands. Philip Jenkins, ever the myth-buster, has also written a book about what happened afterwards, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. We tend to track the progress of Christianity in these lands with much interest, since they are some of the biggest growth areas in the world. However, they have a long history both we and they can tap into.

Now one might say Islam started with about five hundred years of victories, only to be followed by steady and depressing slide into defeat that still continues. The decimation of non-Western Christianities seems to be more of a desperate lashing out by certain factions within Islam than anything else. It’s also a sad fact that the vast majority of Western Christians have only become aware of non-Western Christianities only as they are being destroyed. For example, in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, and more recently in the much covered events in the areas surrounding Cairo.

How should we respond to these sorts of situations? Will violent intervention by the US help the Copts? Or will it just create more resentment toward Christians in the region? Then again, will Western Christians just sit by and watch the decimation of these communities?

And so given the history of violence between Islam and Christianity in the region is there much hope for a resolution, or is it a zero-sum game? If Christ is the Prince of Peace, then is it too much to ask the people of Egypt and other places to suffer martyrdom? Then again, if we do believe the promises of the New Testament could this be the most rational thing to ask of them? Do they believe that? Do we? Should we?

From what I was able to gather from the reports: this might be a picture from one of the churches that had to cancel its liturgies.

From what I was able to gather from the reports this might be a picture from one of the churches that had to cancel its liturgies.t’s been reported that Egyptian churches interrupted 1,600 years of continuous liturgies this past Sunday due to the violence.

As we ponder these questions it’s been recently reported that Egyptian churches interrupted 1,600 years (!) of continuous liturgies this past Sunday due to the violence. Whatever the solution might be, Chesterton’s irreverent triumphalism (it had its place after centuries of anti-Medieval Enlightenment propaganda) in this video is probably not up to snuff when facing the complexities of the choices ahead, or the consequences of inaction.

This is not an attempt to take Chesterton down a notch, because he remains a highly innovative and relevant theologian. It’s just that the level of comfort he, and the Inklings who followed him, felt when it came to Christian miliatarism is something we cannot afford after World War II and Hiroshima (or, at least I like to think so).

"Radner's A Brutal Unity is at a book of startling insight, extraordinary erudition, and is replete with theological implications. His ability to help us see connections between Christian disunity and liberal political theory and practice should command the attention of Christian and non-Christian alike. A Brutal Unity is a stunning achievement." --Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

“Radner’s A Brutal Unity is at a book of startling insight, extraordinary erudition, and is replete with theological implications. His ability to help us see connections between Christian disunity and liberal political theory and practice should command the attention of Christian and non-Christian alike. A Brutal Unity is a stunning achievement.”
–Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

One possible avenue of reflection and a source of humility in such times is Ephraim Radner’s recent book, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. Matthew Levering has said the following about it:

“Massively learned and beautifully written, this book has to be the best work ever written against the holiness and unity of the Church by a Christian theologian. Not one to mince words, Radner presents Judas as the mirror of the faithless, violent, and fractured Church. For Radner, the failure of liberalism arises from and reflects the failure of the Church to repent. But he does not end here: he argues that in God’s creation of things separate from God, and in Christ’s radical giving of himself, we find God’s holiness and oneness as a gift for God’s people and as an invitation to imitate God’s asymmetrical giving. Those who disagree with Radner will thank him for pressing us to examine anew why Christians rightly confess the Church to be one and holy.”

Do you have any other guides for reflection or action?

======================================

Update et mea culpa: I think the ignorance of Western Christians about these other traditions is best exemplified by the fact that I initially used “we” where I now use “Western Christians” in the following sentence: “It’s also a sad fact that the vast majority of Western Christians have only become aware of non-Western Christianities only as they are being destroyed.”

My thanks go out to Joseph Koczera, SJ for catching this mistake.

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?

  


 

 

Confession: How I Lost My Faith After Reading Rachel Held Evans

Bleep-blop-bleep-bleep-blop and the internet was born in my lifetime.

Bleep-blop-bleep-bleep-blop and the internet was born in my lifetime.

I’m around 35 (!) and I can’t say whether I qualify as millennial. But fear not, recent studies suggest millennials remember much less than senior citizens. So let’s pretend that I am one, because they won’t know the difference anyway.

I also don’t remember when I wrote my first essay, but it was with a pencil, because my parents couldn’t afford to have me throwing away paper (we lived in the projects of Detroit). By the time I graduated from college I was using “church” as a verb and couldn’t afford a cell-phone like the rich kids.

I’m old enough to have listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam on the radio. The popularity of their music convinced me my contemporaries must be as lost in the cosmos I am. My tastes were decidedly classical: from Bach to The Beatles. I’ve only come to appreciate Vedder and Cobain after turning thirty.

You probably have read the Rachel Held Evans piece I reblogged yesterday by now. You probably realize I can’t continue in the same parodic vein, replicating almost every sentence; at some point a parody that parodies every sentence of a sincere statement that reads like a parody becomes serious. And who wants that?

Rachel Held Evans: worried Evangelicals are getting high.

Rachel Held Evans: worried Evangelicals are getting high.

From what I gathered: Held Evans seems to be most worried about Evangelicals leaving the fold for the high traditions such as Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Episcopalianism, and Lutheranism. Why this should be a problem is beyond me.

But she doesn’t seem to notice the “high traditions” are also bleeding membership. You can check the statistics at your preferred statistics caterer. Former Catholics are now the second largest religious group in the United States, only behind practicing Catholics.

I’m convinced (and I’m not the only one) that Catholicism is blowing its Catholic Moment because it has idolized assimilating to America. This applies to the Republican-Catholic party at prayer as much as it does to the Brikenstock-wearing priest from the Newman Center who is always talking about the “spirit of…” and asked you whether you were Opus Dei.

These two groups are a few of the many signsposts in our strange land. They point to the futility involved in accommodating to the Americanisms of any epoch. By the time the identity politics of any given generation trickle down to the liturgy those identity politics are out of fashion and lead to even more people trickling down and out. This eternal return then leads to more fruitless discussions about why the young are leaving, more accommodations, and so on.

This is the reason why the main takeaway from the Rachel Held Evans piece, “But I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community,” is such a throwaway.

My generation (and the generation of students we teach in college classes) is totally clueless. If you ask us we will tell you that we are lost in the cosmos. We have failed at manufacturing our own meaning, because meaning cannot be manufactured like the consumer services and trends mentioned at the start of this (and the Held Evans) piece.

This I believe: I’ve lost faith in myself. I’ve lost faith my generation. They’ve lost faith in themselves (and in me). Leaders in the Church should face up to the real situation, to our collective loss of faith in ourselves (deconstruction was but a symptom not a cause and the best analysis still remains the hybrid masterpiece that is Lost in the Cosmos):

“You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: “You live in a deranged age – more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

If church leaders will not provide us with authoritative responses to what’s going on in our deranged and eviscerated public square, with the right (ortho-)spiritual exercises, with the most fruitful paths to follow, with a new Philokalia, or the old one, then it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there:

We also have a Top 10 list of books about heaven and hell here just in case you believe it’s darker than Zimmy thinks. You will also find a recent post, with a curious title, about the robust presence of faith in the contemporary literary scene here.

Seusscharist: “One bread, two bread, me bread, you bread.”

Aggiornamento: You’re doing it wrong!

In the woodworks: Niagra Anglican Archdiocese is planning an internet porn service designed to connect with the experience of teenagers.

Karl Barth would say “Read the Bible in one hand, and Dr. Seuss in the other.”

ATTN: Notre Dame Press Blowout Clearance < 2 Weeks Left!!!

Don't just sit there. Do something!

Don’t just sit there. Do something!

The University of Notre Dame Press is one of our premier academic publishing houses. They’ve been holding a blowout clearance on a great swath of their catalog for almost two months.

There are only two weeks left to get $30-$50 books for only FIVE BUCKS (some of them are ten).

Anyway, the following post contains all the instructions you’ll need to navigate the sale. Don’t forget to enter the checkout code after you select your first book (I bet you can’t stop at just one) and put it in the checkout basket. Afterwards all the other items in your basket will automatically appear with the discounted price (if you’re pressed for cash and want to weed out the ten dollar items).

I ended up buying nine books from them. I’ll spare you the details of each and every one of them. The pictures included in this post are my top three recommendations. Must reads.

FCB of Hillbilly Thomist fame

FCB of Hillbilly Thomist fame

Where in the world is Lech Walesa?

Where in the world is Lech Walesa?

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.

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.]