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.]

Kolbe, Love, Milosz, and the A-Bomb

"While writing my poetry of the last few years I've been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I'm not sure how it came out in the end," say the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).

“The last few years, while writing my poetry, I’ve been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I’m not sure how it came out in the end,” says the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).

August 9th marked the deaths of both Maximilian Kolbe and Czeslaw Milosz. Cynthia Haven has written about how these two Poles have influenced the wider world in divergent ways that converge upon their Catholicism in the essay “The Doubter and the Saint.

Granted, Milosz was much more of a believer than we tend to give him credit. There is even a fairly badly translated series of letters exchanged between Milosz and JP2 available online here.

One goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are "sad stuff." But so is much of history and, not infrequently,  daily life.

One Goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are “sad stuff” and added a frowning smiley. But so is much of history and, not infrequently, so is daily life. But what does God have to do with that?

August 9th was also the 68th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. All of these convergences somehow reminded me of two short stories penned by the postwar Japanese-Catholic writer Shusaku Endo in the collection Stained Glass Elegies.

The first one features the strange encounter between a child and Kolbe during his mission to Japan. Later on, as an adult, the person shocked at the news of that someone so cowardly looking (like a mouse) found the courage to give up his life for another.

The other story involves a rich Japanese tourist visiting a Polish prostitute a severely economically depressed period in Poland and having an epiphany upon seeing a picture of Kolbe hanging on the wall (if I’m not mistaken) while waiting for her to undress.

All of this, in a roundabout way, brings me to a moving meditation on the blog City and the World about Nagasaki and Kolbe that I’d like to excerpt for you:

“…As I study the [picture of the relic, see below], I wonder what the appearance of this relic might have meant in an immediate postwar context. In 1949, the atom bomb’s effects on Nagasaki were still very visible: another of Mydans’ photos reminds us that the Pontifical Mass celebrated to mark four centuries of Christian faith in Japan took place within the ruins of a destroyed Catholic cathedral. Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin? I can’t know for sure, but I also can’t help but wonder whether they might have done so.

"Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint's hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb's victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier's body and the bodies of their kin?"

“Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin?”

What are we to make of all of this theologically? Looking at the image of the Xavier relic in Nagasaki, I find myself thinking of the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who served as a missionary in Nagasaki in the 1930s and later lost his life at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen for execution. As Kolbe once wrote, ‘Hatred is not a creative force. Love alone creates.’ For Maximilian Kolbe, self-sacrificing love represented the only effective response to the horrors of which humankind is capable. This kind of love led Kolbe to give his life for another; the same love led Francis Xavier to leave his home and everything that was familiar to him to preach the Gospel in faraway lands. Underlying these and all other examples of self-sacrificing love is the more fundamental action of divine love, the love that led the Second Person of the Trinity to embrace our humanity and to accept death on the Cross for the sake of our redemption…”

You can read the rest here.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of all these connections, but I’ll add another one: Despite the Youtube description, below you will find an excerpt from the excellent Krzysztof Zanussi film about Kolbe, “Life for a Life.” You can find copies of this film scattered throughout the States. Unfortunately, only a few of Zanussi’s films are available in the States. I’d recommend “A Year of the Quiet Sun,” which features stunning (nearly silent) performances by Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska. It is set in the devastation of postwar Poland.

===========

UPDATE: The whole film is available in Polish (with much German) on YouTube. The acting is good enough that you could watch it without knowing either one of those languages.

Fresh Caught Fish II: Top 10 Living Religious Novelists

Beauty Will Save the World needs a new title to reflect the contribution it makes to present debates. I suggest Beauty is Saving the World.

Beauty Will Save the World needs a new title to reflect the contribution it makes avant la lettre to recent debates. I suggest Beauty is Saving the World!

Paul Elie says all the great novelists are dead.  But he’s dead wrong!

I’ve recently discovered that Randy Boyagoda resurrected Elie’s argument in the latest issue of First Things here. He starts out by venting:

“I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.”

[Below: Noah Baumbach tackles nostalgia overload.]

Even though Boyagoda is tired of those consumed with nostalgia for a literary Golden age he ends up conceding their point by agreeing with Elie. He even takes Elie one step further by going into a quasi-sociological analysis that culminates with David Shields as the master-theorist of decline. In a nutshell, Boyagoda’s argument is built around these assumptions:

“As welcome as Elie’s effort was as a conversation starter, he failed to answer some important questions, even while he candidly admits to be wrestling with them as he works on a novel of his own: Primarily, what constitutes ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in literary terms, and how are we to evaluate the representation aesthetically, morally,theologically? [Interestingly enough Boyagoda does not answer this question!]… Nevertheless, Elie’s main point holds. Despite various idiosyncratic and veiled representations of religious experience in recent American fiction—in the works of Robinson, and also, with more qualifications, in the works of Toni Morrison [I object, see below], Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and others—most great contemporary writers don’t bother to engage the wholeness of experience for the great majority of readers.”

I’ll spare you a summary of the Shields part of the argument, but you can explore it in the link to Boyagoda’s essay above, or you can take a look at what Shields has to say in Reality Hunger.

Why a Richard John Neuhaus scholar would take the part of Shields over George Steiner is beyond me. Neuhaus never grew tired of singing the praises of Steiner. The great literary critic decisively argued that not only literature, but all of human reality, is dependent upon a Christian sacramental imagination. Let’s hope Boyagoda will not forget passages such as this one from Neuhaus while completing his RJN biography:

“In Grammars of Creation, more than in his 1989 book Real Presences, Steiner acknowledges that his argument rests on inescapably Christian foundations. In fact, he has in the past sometimes written in a strongly anti-Christian vein, while the present book reflects the influence of, among others, Miri Rubin, whose Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture is credited in a footnote. Steiner asserts that, after the Platonisms and Gnosticisms of late antiquity, it is the doctrines of incarnation and transubstantiation that mark ‘the disciplining of Western syntax and conceptualization’ in philosophy and art. ‘Every heading met with in a study of ‘creation,’ every nuance of analytic and figural discourse,’ he says, derives from incarnation and transubstantiation, ‘concepts utterly alien to either Judaic or Hellenic perspectives—though they did, in a sense, arise from the collisions and commerce between both.'”

"It proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence," says Steiner in Real Presences.

“Any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence,” says Steiner in Real Presences.

Yesterday we explored why Elie strategically exempted poetry from his argument here. The poets listed in that post are some of our most gifted writers. The novelists you’ll find below are of the same caliber. These writers have won countless awards writing fiction that will last long enough for later generations to envy our Golden Age of religious fiction.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that our generation of writers exceeds the Eliot-Auden and Percy-O’Connor generations. Novels are notoriously difficult to excerpt, so I’ll stick mostly publisher blurbs and a few sidebars to justify some of the choices that might strike you as unusual. At the bottom of this post there’s also a list of very honorable mentions. 

As usual, do follow the unique links provided below if you’d like to help me put some diapers on little Rosman butts. Please also consider donating directly through the link in the upper right hand corner of the homepage.

1- gilead
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with Gilead, an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

2 - Mariette-in-Ecstasy
A novel about convent life at the turn of the century? Hardly the makings of a page-turner, yet Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is a gripping, even life-changing book. For the Sisters of the Crucifixion, each day is a ceaseless round of work, study, and prayer–one hardly separate from the other. Their daily life is itself an act of devotion, caught by Hansen in a series of illuminated tableaux… Into this idyll comes Mariette–young, pretty, devout, but, as her father says, perhaps “too high-strung” for the convent. Prone to “trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and, as he put it, ‘inner wrenchings,'” Mariette scalds her hands with hot water as penance, threads barbed wire underneath her breasts while she sleeps, and is convinced Jesus speaks to her. Her very glamour disturbs the gentle rhythm of the nuns’ lives. But when she begins bleeding from unexplained wounds in her hands, feet, and sides, the convent is thrown into an uproar. Is Mariette a saint? Or just a lying, hysterical girl? Where do we draw the line between madness and faith, mysticism and eroticism, the life of the spirit and that of the world?

3 - 427450-pilgrim-tinker-creek-later-printing-edition
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the story of a dramatic year in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. Annie Dillard sets out to see what she can see. What she sees are astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

Her personal narrative highlights one year’s exploration on foot in the Virginia region through which Tinker Creek runs. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall, she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays King of the Meadow with a field of grasshoppers. The result is an exhilarating tale of nature and its seasons.

[This book is a hybrid: autobiography, fiction, theology, and biology. But if you’re so inclined there are other Dillard novels to choose from.]

4 - 9780880014977
Among the characters you’ll find in this collection of twelve stories by Tobias Wolff are a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life, a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience, a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride, and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship’s social director.

Fondly yet sharply drawn, Wolff’s characters in The Garden of the North American Martyrs stumble over each other in their baffled yet resolute search for the “right path.”

[Short stories are fiction, right?]

5 - jayber
Jayber Crow, born in Goforth, Kentucky, orphaned at age ten, began his search as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College. There, freedom met with new burdens and a young man needed more than a mirror to find himself. But the beginning of that finding was a short conversation with “Old Grit,” his profound professor of New Testament Greek. “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.

6-5181

In the backwoods of Mississippi, a land of honeysuckle and grapevine, Jewel and her husband, Leston, are truly blessed; they have five fine children. When Brenda Kay is born in 1943, Jewel gives thanks for a healthy baby, last-born and most welcome. Jewel is the story of how quickly a life can change; how, like lightning, an unforeseen event can set us on a course without reason or compass. In this story of a woman’s devotion to the child who is both her burden and God’s singular way of smiling on her, Bret Lott has created a mother-daughter relationship of matchless intensity and beauty, and one of the finest, most indomitable heroines in contemporary American fiction.

7-clark

By opening with a long epigraph from St. Augustine’s Confessions (in the original Latin, no less), Clark’s ambitious, atmospheric rumination on good, evil and the gray area in between announces intentions far loftier than those of the standard dime-store detective novels to which the book bears an intentional but superficial resemblance. Set in St. Paul, Minn., in the bleak winter of 1939, this high-brow thriller retains enough lowdown grit and grime to qualify as both a suspenseful read and a surprisingly touching character study. When two young “dime-a-dance” girls are murdered, tough-as-nails homicide cop Lieutenant Wesley Horner hones in on eccentric recluse and amateur photographer Herbert White as the prime suspect. Looking like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and Paul Bunyan, and equally obsessed with Hollywood starlet Veronica Galvin and the voluminous scrapbooks and journals he keeps in order to compensate for his (narratively convenient) memory loss, White takes the fall with sympathetic dignity: astute readers will have fingered the real culprit many pages earlier. The true mysteries in Mr. White’s Confession are psychological: Horner’s morally suspect relationship with teenage drifter Maggie is particularly fascinating. Having previously written a biography of James Beard (The Solace of Food), a cultural history of the Columbia River (River of the West) and a critically lauded first novel (In the Deep Midwinter), Clark here seesaws, most often successfully, between hard-boiled cliches and an earnest, self-conscious concern with the natures of memory and love.

8- house
A.G. Harmon’s A House All Stilled, won the Peter Taylor prize for fiction. Like the great Peter Taylor, Harmon is a Southern novelist whose prose is both precise and evocative, reflecting a deep relationship to the land and the mystery of familial relationships over several generations. But Harmon’s novel also has religious and symbolic resonances that Flannery O’Connor would recognize and salute. The novelist Doris Betts, who selected this novel for the Taylor Prize, adds yet another literary comparison: “Harmon’s style,” she writes, “has deft flicks of description and insight, similar to the way Graham Greene might toss out a selected metaphor then move on.” A House All Stilled is an auspicious debut for a major new talent in literary fiction.

[The greatest living writer you’ve never heard of. One of you should start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for his second novel.]

9-jazz
Morrison, in her sixth novel Jazz, enters 1926 Harlem, a new black world then (“safe from fays [whites] and the things they think up”), and moves into a love story–with a love that could clear a space from the past, give a life or take one. At 50, Joe Trace–good-looking, faithful to wife Violet, also from Virginia poor-times–suddenly tripped into a passionate affair with Dorcas, 18: “one of those deep-down spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” Then Violet went to Dorcas’s funeral and cut her dead face. But before Joe met Dorcas, and before her death and before Violet, in her torn coat, scoured the neighborhood looking for reasons, looking for her own truer identity, images of the past burned within all three: Violet’s mother, tipped out of her chair by the men who took everything away, and her death in a well; for Joe, the hand of the “wild” woman, his mother, that never really found his. And all of the child Dorcas’s dolls burned up with her mother and her childhood. Truly, the new music of Harlem–from clicks and taps of pleasure to the thud of betrayed marching black veterans with their frozen faces–“had a complicated anger in it.” Were Joe and Violet substitutes for each other, for a need known and unmet? At the close, a new link is forged between them with another Dorcas. One of Morrison’s richest novels yet.

[What other Catholic novelists do you know that use purgatory as a leitmotif?]

10-coextzee
I‘m going to be a little coy and recommend you read my post here where I argue Coetzee is possibly our greatest Christian novelist. Elizabeth Costello is probably his best novel, although I still haven’t read the UK edition of The Childhood of Jesus. It comes out this September in the US.
===============
The first installments in this series are “A Fish Rots from the Head Down” and “Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Religious Poets.”

Just in case you think any (or all) of the above choices don’t qualify, here are twelve literary apostles I left off this list due to time constraints: David James Duncan, PIckney Benedict, Suzanne Wolfe, John L’Heureux, Mary Doria Russell, Hwee Hwee Tan, Larry Woiwode, Dan WakefieldDavid Lodge, Andre Dubus IIIElie Wiesel, and Gene Wolfe. In other words, (actually, in the words of Randy Boyagoda), “We are not, in the end, alone.”

In fact, there are so many companions for the road already that I wonder whether I’ll have enough time to read Elie’s novel when it comes out. My present list just keeps expanding and expanding so much that I’m tempted to give up:

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?

  


 

 

What Does Love Know?

Love is an autonomous form of knowledge.

Love is an autonomous form of knowledge.

Jean-Luc Marion is a Catholic philosopher, some say the greatest living philosopher, who studied under Jacques Derrida. If nothing else, he is one of the best arguments for religious parents not shielding their kids from the “secular” academe. I’ve made this argument borrowing from my own experience here.

After all, the influence goes both ways. Derrida spent the last decade or two of his life engaging Marion and the tradition of negative theology in books such as Acts of Religion or The Gift of Death. In the end the king of deconstruction couldn’t shake the queen of the sciences.

What I’m really interested in for today is how Marion has developed the notion of Pascal’s three orders. In particular, how the third order, love, is a distinct form of knowledge.

He explains these orders of knowing in a short interview that’s available online:

“From the first point of view you see the world as visible, according to bodies, matter and the visible world. In that order, the leaders are the king, the president, the CEO of a corporation, the banking system and so on.

The second order is the order of the spirit. This is the invisible world of rationality. It includes the sciences, philosophy, art and literature. You can be completely unknown in the first order and be the leader in this second order. For example, Archimedes was a prince in the family of a king in Sicily, but he was really a leader as a mathematician. Mathematicians, like Einstein, are the kings of this second order.

The third order is charity, love or what art understands. In that order the saints, lovers and Christ are kings.

The lower orders are not seen by the upper orders. The president of the United States is not supposed to be a scientist or a saint. He has a job as president of the United States, period. The second order does not see the third, but sees itself and the first order. The first two cannot see the third order, but the third can see what is going on in the first two.”

Marion has developed detailed accounts of what love knows, how it knows differently than common sense and rationality, in books such as Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon.

Pictured: Robert Musil.

Robert Musil: “When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of fatty tissue supporting the epidermis.”

One way to suggest this difference is to take a look at what we could call “order mistakes” in one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Robert Musil’s, The Man Without Qualities:

“His answers were quite often like that. When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of the fatty tissue supporting the epidermis. When she mentioned love, he responded with the statistical curve that indicates the automatic rise and fall in the annual birthrate. When she spoke of the great figures in art, he traced the chain of borrowings that links these figures to one another.”

The comedy here arises out of a confusion of orders. The male character does not respond to the love shown to him with love. Instead of rising to the third order of knowledge he remains mired in the second order of rationality and thereby fumbles the relationship unfolding in front of him.

In fact, a comical mixing of orders of knowledge opens the book and marks almost every page that follows:

“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination  to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising  and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.”

These are fragmentary thoughts, but if one of you develops it into a conference paper, do cite me in the footnotes!

I’ll close by way of example from my own personal encounter with Jean-Luc Marion as his translator in Poland.

Right before going into the translator’s booth for Marion’s lecture about Descartes in Krakow I remember seeing him talking to my wife on the other side of the room. He had his arm around her. Whatever he was saying was of great import, yet it was said with a lot of warmth.

I suppose in the first order this whole scene might appear to someone as a famous philosopher accosting a young woman. In the second order this might appear to someone’s gaze on the level of fatty tissues or birth rates interacting (my wife was pregnant). In the end, my wife confirmed that Jean-Luc Marion had given her some sincere fatherly advice. But I already knew that.

On the day of his departure from Krakow Marion (middle) was having the best hair day between me and the poet Artur Grabowski.

On the day of his departure from Krakow Marion (middle) was having the best hair day between the poet Artur Grabowski and I (left, POOF!).

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?

The Prolegomena to Any Future Newman

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

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

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

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

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