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?

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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.

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Colm Tóibín’s Regensburg Moment & Macauley’s Catholic Dissidents

576px-StPeter_Regensburg

Regensburg solid.

Colm Tóibín’s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe is a real treat.  There’s nothing like seeing the familiar, in this case Catholicism, from an eccentric standpoint.  It’s a roller-coaster ride where the memoirist  simultaneously plays the role of Catholic insider and outsider.  Tóibín frequently rubs me the wrong way with his pronouncements about Polish Catholicism (which I partially registered here).

His speculation that John Paul II would not even know how to fathom the profound depths of Bultmannian demythologization in the watered-down secondhand version Tóibín got from the first-rate second-rate theologian Norbert Brox is (hopefully) unintentionally comical.  Note the Dowdish bathos (again, comedy?) when he obliquely references Hamlet in  his evaluation of Brox vs. Wojtyla:

“It struck me that these new ideas [of gnostic provenance, only about 1900 years older than Bultmann (my own interjection)] were being fostered once more in the fertility of the German mind, and were so far from what is dreamed of in John Paul II’s philosophy that he probably would not know how to counteract them.”

These revelations are usually followed in the memoir by serious (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) reluctance to submit to Catholic discipline and mysteriously combined with mind-numbingly uncritical acceptance of Primal Scream therapy along with a heavy dose of ketamine.

I’m having too much fun here, but he does get serious and insightful:

“‘Protestants one, Catholics nil,’ I said to myself as I went to midnight Mass the following evening in the Catholic cathedral in Regensburg. But then I thought about it: they won on music and sheer, solemn style, and their churches were charming and pretty and neat. But their churches were small. Our Catholic cathedral in Regensburg, on the other hand, was a big soaring, shadowy Gothic structure, by far the most imposing building in the city.  They had Bach; we had buttressing.”

[Video courtesy of Fr. Joseph Koczera, SJ who runs a respectable and noteworthy blog “The City and the World.”  Give it a spin here.]

The solidity of the popish institutional buttressing came into sharp focus in yet another great column by Philip Jenkins, “Macaulay’s Catholic Dissenters” over at Real Clear Religion.   Borrowing heavily from Macauley’s review of von Ranke’s book on the popes, Jenkins notes Rome’s effectiveness in flexibly absorbing and directing the energies of eccentric figures and movements in ways Protestantism doesn’t:

“Macaulay notes that Christianity inevitably inspires great thinkers and activists, what we might call spiritual entrepreneurs. The enthusiasm of such individuals can make them hard to live with, and institutions find it very difficult to keep them within reasonable bounds. As these people know, absolutely, that they are serving God, they see no point in following merely human instructions. Inevitably, charismatic or prophetic individuals often desert their former institutions to set up new churches, sects or denominations, and that process has recurred frequently within the Protestant tradition. In fact, it is a trademark of that tradition.

The Catholic Church, in contrast, has always shown its ability to absorb an amazing range of dissidents. Its inclusive powers are not absolute — witness Martin Luther, and the various spiritual leaders condemned as heretics throughout the years. But in countless cases, the church succeeded. The Catholic genius was to provide means to absorb and channel virtually any form of charisma or inspired spirituality, while at the same time presenting itself as an unchanging and even inflexible hierarchical institution, semper eadem–always the same. We think how the wild, anarchic, spirituality of St. Francis was channeled and disciplined into the Franciscan Order. Eventually, even a pope would take his name.”

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (2017) Jenkins has the following to say to his Protestant colleagues:

“Macaulay’s vision [of Catholicism] could offer a practical recipe for modern-day churches contemplating how to survive and flourish in apparently impossible circumstances.

Not that this is new, but the formulation is striking.  Many Protestants have been moving toward a rapprochement with Rome ever since the pathbreaking pontificate of John Paul II.  This is evidenced by initiatives like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or the intellectually vibrant Anglican and Roman Catholic scholarly cooperation under the banner of Radical Orthodoxy.  There are also many recent instances of Protestant intellectuals crossing the Tiber, among them, Christian Smith (the sociologist), Paul J. Griffiths, and Reinhard Hutter.

Get it?

Get it?

This institutional flexibility is the best example of Hegel’s most famous concept, Aufhebung, that I can think of.  What a great historical irony given how Hegel saw Catholicism as but a stage on the way to universal Protestant individualism!

Yet a Chrome browser auto-correct reminds me that indeed some things are necessarily rejected in the dialectic. Whenever I try to type “syncretism” into this very blog entry it gets a red underlining. The suggested replacement is, get this, “cretinism.”

So perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre is a necessary supplement to what I’ve been saying here? In this video he reminds us that Catholicism always defines itself as being an alternative to, “instead of,” some other movement. The most famous example is Augustine who chose Catholic Christianity instead of continued adherence to neo-Platonic gnosticism. A more recent example is pope Francis continuing the severe critiques of capitalism of his two predecessors by presenting Catholicism as an alternative.

Here is MacIntyre:

And so in the end . . . “Let me tell you, I stand with two-thousand years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me. My kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants! And I couldn’t give a [rat’s ass] for your Internet-assembled philosophy!” Check out the whole “Evil Vicar” clip below:

Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity

cerne1

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

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

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

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

Great read and a must read.

Great read and a must read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s also from the Global South.

new pope woody allen

both/and