Disconsolate Karłowicz & Dostoevsky Tarry with Theological Corpses

Hans Holbein, Dead Christ, 1522. Dostoevsky's inspiration in the Idiot.

Hans Holbein, Dead Christ, 1522. Dostoevsky’s inspiration in the Idiot.

My esteemed friend over at Catholic Culture and Society, a blog about organic Catholicism, has been chiding my obsession with the negative aspects of life.

Why not look at a happy integrated family, or the beauty of God’s creation? Why think about violence, death, and perversion?

I confess to writing mostly about the latter.  For example, I have written about Nowosielski’s dark iconic vision here, or Kristeva’s obsession with the Baroque here, or dirty Rabelaisian Catholicism here and here,  or even Cromwell as Karl Hungus here.

I talk abut these because they are aspects of my own experience that need to be integrated. You should also remember that I come from a country, Poland, that lost roughly one-sixth of its population during World War II.

What follows below is a florilegium that will hopefully suggest Manichean tendencies (of which I’ve been accused) aren’t the only thing behind these posts.

“‘The thought steps in, whether one likes it or no, that death is so terrible and so powerful, that even He who conquered it in His miracles during life was unable to triumph over it at the last. He who called to Lazarus, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ and the dead man lived—He was now Himself a prey to nature and death. Nature appears to one, looking at this picture, as some huge, implacable, dumb monster; or still better—a stranger simile—some enormous mechanical engine of modern days which has seized and crushed and swallowed up a great and invaluable Being, a Being worth nature and all her laws, worth the whole earth, which was perhaps created merely for the sake of the advent of that Being.

‘This blind, dumb, implacable, eternal, unreasoning force is well shown in the picture, and the absolute subordination of all men and things to it is so well expressed that the idea unconsciously arises in the mind of anyone who looks at it. All those faithful people who were gazing at the cross and its mutilated occupant must have suffered agony of mind that evening; for they must have felt that all their hopes and almost all their faith had been shattered at a blow. They must have separated in terror and dread that night, though each perhaps carried away with him one great thought which was never eradicated from his mind for ever afterwards. If this great Teacher of theirs could have seen Himself after the Crucifixion, how could He have consented to mount the Cross and to die as He did? This thought also comes into the mind of the man who gazes at this picture. I thought of all this by snatches probably between my attacks of delirium—for an hour and a half or so before Colia’s departure.

‘Can there be an appearance of that which has no form? And yet it seemed to me, at certain moments, that I beheld in some strange and impossible form, that dark, dumb, irresistibly powerful, eternal force.”

—Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Eva Martin.

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480.

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480.

“Holy Saturday. The drama of Holy Week dies down for a moment. However, our thoughts race ahead, because they are hesitant about stopping near scenes of mourning, at physically repelling pietas, or by the corpse of Christ that has turned blue (as Mantegna saw it during a moment of religious dread). It is difficult to stay with a dead God, if only because his very death negates the logic of all consolations—doubt strikes not only the object of hope, but also its very possibility. We run away. Even though the tortured body of Christ rests in its grave, we live in the inevitable arrival of Sunday. The encouraging signs: rolled away stone, empty grave, angels, glory! It’s as if the final battle with the gates of hell is already behind us. But why does God wait nonetheless? Why does he leave us at the grave? Why is the One who is capable of rebuilding the temple in three days incapable of rebuilding it immediately?

The temptation to run away from the silence of Holy Saturday is not new. These same waters—disgust with the foolishness of an actual incarnation and an actual sacrifice—water the Docetist heresy. In the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew (dated back to the third century) the harrowing of hell occurs already on Friday, even before the deposition from the cross.  However this only makes Christ’s tomb into a mere theatrical decoration, and Saturday a problem of rhetoric not philosophy. I believe that Irenaeus of Lyons, who thought the Savior was in hell from his death until his resurrection, has the backing of some weighty theological reasons.”

—Dariusz Karlowicz, Koniec snu Konstantyna [The End of Constantine’s Dream], my own translation.

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One More Nortre Dame Book on/and the Legacy of Solidarność

solidarity

Last night I went back and checked the Notre Dame Press overstock site on a hunch.  I wanted to check whether they publish one of the few books I know of in English about the legacy of Solidarity from a theological viewpoint.  Indeed, they do.  Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity describes its task as follows:

“Using Poland as a case study, Beyer explores the obstacles to promoting an ethic of solidarity in contemporary capitalist societies and attempts to demonstrate how the moral revolution of the early Solidarity movement can be revived, both in its country of origin and around the world. Recovering Solidarity is widely interdisciplinary, utilizing Catholic social tradition, philosophical ethics, developmental economics, poverty research, gender studies, and sociology.”

The “gender studies” stick out like a sore thumb.  Gender studies don’t seem to apply to 80’s Poland, which, I suppose, is all the more reason to inflict it upon those people and times (yet, what Beyer wrote about John Paul II in the Huff Post here is on the mark).

sign of cross

This dissonance was amplified by my bedtime reading of Colm Tóibín‘s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.   The subtitle might be a slight misnomer, especially since the chapter on Poland, “The Memory of War,” deals with the author doing his best to ignore and dismiss everything about Polish Catholicism.  That’s because he’s mainly there as a globalist tourist expecting to have an Auschwitz epiphany.  He initially bypasses the great centers of Polish culture, nearly a thousand years of history, and heads straight for the crematoria as if there’s nothing else to see in Poland.

In my darker moments I feel the Germans won the memory wars by planting their worst concentration camps in Poland, instead of on their own soil.  This intuition is best exemplified by the New York Times “Polish concentration camps” controversy.  Not that Tóibín is any different from our wedding guests in Krakow, some of whom headed for the sites of mass extermination the day after our nuptials.

Tóibín only changes tracks sporadically to become irked by the naive “mildness” of Poland’s practicing “Solidarity Catholics” of the 90’s and mocks them for their remembrance of the Katyń massacre.  He totally ignores the fact that in excess of 2.5 million Polish Catholics were killed during World War II, because their suffering somehow doesn’t count–even though Timothy Snyder points out they, not the Jews, were initially selected for extermination.  Perhaps the catholicity of suffering in history is too messy for us too take in?

I’ll come back to the topic of memory and World War II some other time, because I’m convinced that Eva Hoffman was right when she told me in private conversation that a balanced understanding of Poland’s history in the West is impeded by competing Jewish and Polish martyrologies locked in a zero-sum game.

There’s also a lot to be said about Tóibín’s discomfort with how much the liturgical calendar set the pace of life in 90’s Poland, and how much he could “relax, feel at home” (last words of the chapter) once he got back to the 24/7 consumerism of Western Europe. He might take comfort in the liturgies of capitalist secularism beginning to dislodge Catholicism in present day Poland.

The sometimes over-the-top clericalism of Polish culture might need some competition to clean house, but I fear the real gains of important historical episodes, for example, Solidarność, will be lost in the shuffle.  Dariusz Karłowicz, no stranger to these pages (I’ve written about his work here, here, here, and here), outlines the practical and theological contributions of Solidarność in an essay I translated a while back for the Tischner Institute in Krakow.  He concludes with questions I’d like to see Gerald Beyer’s book address:

“The qualified unity which shows itself during pilgrimages or f loods finds few outlets during day to day dealings with others. To judge from its past f lashes, the hidden potential of solidarity is still immense. Will it be utilized? Without a doubt, its guardian is Pope John Paul II. Will the Church be its future guardian or maybe the developing world of social institutions and non-profits? It’s hard to say.”

You can find the rest of this essay here on the Tischner Institute site.  There’s also an essay by the philosopher Charles Taylor I had to re-translate into English on the same site here (all because the original got lost and the Polish edition was the only one left).

z9433517AA,Ks--prof--Jozef-Tischner

Jozef Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity. He had a way of grabbing your attention. More about him in future posts.

“Socrates and Other Saints” Preview!

sokrates i inni

Check out the big font on the title!

The book Socrates and Other Saints Dariusz Karłowicz, which I recently finished translating, is a mainstay of this blog here and somewhat controversially here.  Karłowicz’s book deals with the Church Fathers whose writings, problems, and practices remain highly relevant as suggested here and here.  What follows is the conclusion of the book.  It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the Polish philosopher’s groundbreaking research into how early Christian theologians adopted the tradition of philosophy as a way of life to their own purposes.  The story he tells sullies any hopes for a pure Christianity, which is something I’ve written in my most notorious post here.

We are still courting publishers in the States.  Feel free to contact me about the right for publishing this book.

Conclusion

Satan hasn’t stolen our world. The world wasn’t created by an evil demon. Even if it seems to be broken, Genesis demands we remember it was created “good” by God. The Christians (unlike those who succumb to Manichean temptations) cannot simply wipe out the world, which obviously does not mean the world is perfect, because, after all, a disposition toward the good and its actualization are two different things. Even if the world contains so much luster, even if it promises a compromise, we should still not forget that we are in conflict with it. The conflict is life or death. We can admire the world, learn about it, we can use it, but we should know its dangers, and that it needs to be saved. Above all: it needs to be saved!

This is what the Apologists can teach us about the world, culture, and philosophy. The pendulum steadily swings between contempt and wonder. The aim is not compromise between these stances, rather we need both the extremes of the swing simultaneously. Each extreme taken on its own is too confined for Christian teaching, and so: neither unconditional rejection, nor unconditional embrace. After all, we are on the way like Odysseus to Ithaca. We find ourselves here for a short moment, being here is like finding ourselves strangers in a strange land. As guests and passersby we must take care of what’s been entrusted to us; we should use it sensibly, but we should not make ourselves too much at home, because we ought not forget where we are heading.

If we are on the way, said Augustine many years after the Apologists in his treatise De doctrina christiana, if we are wayfarers who want to return home, then we must see the world as a means of transportation (terestibus vel marinis vehiculis) and always remember to distinguish the means and ends. The metaphor of returning home serves to demonstrate the order of goods and so the right attitude toward earthly goods. Augustine enjoyed this homely comparison greatly. It served him during his youth (when he was a Marinist) as an image of the path to happiness. In his maturity it returned as an image of the path to salvation, “So in this mortal life we are like travelers away from our Lord [2 Cor 5:6]: if we wish to return to the homeland where we can be happy we must use (utendum) this world, not enjoy (fruendum) it . . .”

The Latin “uti” and “frui” are not easily translated into Polish or other languages without losing meaning. In the hierarchical world of Augustine the formula uti-frui allows us to distinguish three categories of being. The first category is composed of what we must feast upon (frui), rejoice over, when we posses it, or rather our clinging to it (how helpless language is here!) makes us happy. This is the Truine God. The second category is composed of all those things which aid in the attainment of the goods that make us happy. The work of philosophy is surely among them. The third category is composed of beings somewhere between those of the previous categories. They are not ultimate ends, but they reward us with a happiness that is a foretaste of perfection, they are a signal that we are headed in the right direction (another human being is such a good, when we can rejoice about them in God and when they direct us toward God. We ourselves are such a good and so are the holy angels). This obviously is the proper order of love. When it reigns within man it becomes the capacity to love things in proportion to their good. This is the love which sets us free.

The metaphor of a “means of transportation” helps to reveal the absurdity of giving autonomy to particular instruments, the ineptness of exchanging means for ends. Augustine writes, “. . . but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed . . .” In relation to philosophy, the wonderfully flexible formula uti-frui confirms the teaching of the Apologists. These concepts are crucial for analyzing Greek wisdom and practice, in its capacity to help us die to the world and liken ourselves to the truth. Philosophy as a goal in itself and for itself can only lead to death.

This is an important element of the legacy left behind by the Fathers. It can be observed in their openness, which is not naive. These are people who only read the Bible on their knees. They are aware of the similarities, but they can see the differences, and they are not afraid to clearly define the boundaries of orthodoxy and the boundaries of inquiry. They are brave in entering the dispute, but, above all, they are courageous—this is difficult to define, but it is obviously noticeable upon every page written by them—they do not retreat into the catacombs. They posses the boldness and aggressiveness of people who through imitating their Lord want to transform their world. They neither want to justify it, nor do they want to condemn it—they want to save it.

The latter tradition also confirmed the distaste of the Apologists for fideism. Both the Augustinian “faith seeking understanding,” and the philosophy of Aquinas grow out of the perspective of the Fathers upon this matter. Mind you, this is not some linguistic manipulation, which confuses contemporary philosophical standards with rationality. What’s at stake is an attempt to measure up to the task laid down for philosophy by academic skepticism. It is a difficult trial, which from the start eliminates the pre-Pyrrhic dogmatic naivete as an option for Christian philosophy. The Apologists take up this task going arm in arm with the representatives of philosophical schools, and they willingly borrow their best achievements. The following are the most important fruits of these undertakings: the cosmological argument, Tertullian’s testimony of the soul, the apodeiksis of the witnesses, Justin’s doctrine of the Logos, the original understanding of pistis as the initial axiom for a systematic knowledge of God. They cannot be circumvented, no matter what we think of them. It is also impossible, without using anachronistic criteria, to place them safely within the confines of faith, or place them in opposition to the philosophical standards of the time. The stance of the Apologists on reason is one of the most important stories in the testimony they leave behind. From the beginning this testimony excluded gnostic fables from the Christian heritage and it fused the question of reason with the living tradition of the Church permanently. Christian philosophy discovered its tone in the controversies against Pyrrhonism and fideism. It did not change its principles, but, it learned its lessons. Pyrrhonism became a vaccine of humility against the dogmatic naivete of reason, while gnosticism became a warning against faith celebrating its irrationality.

The last crucial matter in the testimony of the Apologists taken over from philosophy—or more precisely, developed thanks to it—is the idea of spiritual development and the spiritual exercises. The Execrcitia spiritualia best confirm the lasting connection between Christian spirituality with ancient philosophical ascesis. There is no need to describe the further history of this connection in order to imagine how different Christian life would be if we were to deprive it of the techniques of spiritual conversion it borrowed from philosophy. Of course there are difficulties in adopting this tradition. One of them is the holiness of ordinary believers, not only of interest to Clement’s gnostic, but also for Tertullian’s artisan who has ordered his life with a severe discipline of philosophical exercises. We have already discussed the problems associated with intellectual and/or ascetic elitism. We should remind ourselves that individual spiritual work invites Pelagianism into the Church through the back door, which ends up questioning the meaning and need for the sacrifice of Christ. The teaching on grace is the cure for both ascetic elitism and for Pelagianism. We should remember how the elderly man put emphasis upon this teaching in his conversation with Justin the Platonist. This emphasis did not let up over time. It became the topic of great controversies and schisms. The balance sheet between the necessity of spiritual effort and the consciousness of how evanescent our efforts are will no doubt remain one of the most important traits of the spiritual culture of the Christian world.

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.

Constantine, Socrates, and Other Saints

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Going up!

So far this blog has spent some time on unpopular causes by exploring recent historical research.  For example, this post took on the widespread idea of the early Church as a hippie commune, whereas this one suggests pluralism is an old hat issue for Christians.

In the latter post I quote Robert L. Wilken as saying, “Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.”  My esteemed colleague Peter Escalante responded to Wilken with the following, “Christians have long had to face the challenge of other Christians.”  This is also true (even if Calvinism is a very recent phenomenon).

Messy pluralism always flourishes within Catholic orthodoxy, whereas heresies have attempted to clean up the holy mess.  Who’s responsible for this?  Dariusz Karłowicz, a Polish scholar of the Fathers, singles out the following benefactor:

“Christianity might owe its variety of legitimate paths, or as Clement of Alexandria puts it, streams that feed the current of a river, to this very detachment from any particular philosophy. This variety would have been unthinkable had Constantine chosen to impose the Stoic, Epicurean or Platonic ways of life, and their attendant restrictions, upon his empire after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. And so it is not just a matter of what would have been the official philosophy of the empire, but also what elements of the pagan heritage would have been decisively excluded. It is possible that dialectic (cynics) would have been excluded, or poetry (Plato), while everyone, without exception, including the butcher and tailor, would haven been required to learn astronomy, geometry or music. The varieties of Christianity, incomprehensible to the Greek spirit, point toward a certain non-rigorous optimism,which gives expression to the belief that the world is essentially good and so the greatest works of humanity could not have come into being without God’s will and God’s inspiration.”

This passage is from the book Sokrates i inni święci [Socrates and Other Saints] recently translated by yours truly.  The book contains plenty of other surprising insights as it goes through the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and their strategy of presenting Christianity as a philosophical way of life.

The author and I are currently courting publishers in the States.  Please let us know if you’re interested.  I’ll post a few more passages from the book in the coming weeks and months.

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Constantine was more money than you thought.