You Have no Idea How Much Nastier I Would be if I Was Not a Catholic

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

My post about the historical roots of resistance to the widespread and sociologically natural practice of abortion got quite a few people riled up. Luckily it didn’t result in as many stalkers, haters, and insinuators (usually about pedophilia) as my post on anti-Catholicism. I can only handle so many hatchet jobs before I get emotionally felled.

Be that as it may, the surprising reaction to the latter piece only confirmed it’s central thesis that something like anti-Catholicism is alive and even (especially?) among the exceptionally well-educated who don’t intend to offend. I was reminded of the real-world repercussions of this when Fr. Daniel berated our CL School of Community for leaving the door open given the recent threats against our parish. He went for his usual hyperbole with “Why did you leave the door open? Do you all want to get shot?”

Just to get back on track, Paganism was the topic of a previous post about how pre-Christian myths were filtered and preserved by Catholicism in ways you don’t see among both Protestants and its illegitimate twin of globalism. The topic of paganism resurfaced in the wake of the recent post on abortion and a picture I attached to it in a facebook thread:

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

My facebook friend Alexander Boldizar jousted back at me with the following provocation:

“Pro-abortion as antisemitism seems a bit of a stretch, like saying atheism is antisemetic — mixing race and religion. I know lots of atheist Jews. But the larger point seems consistent — as a very strongly pro-abortion atheist I have a much easier time relating to Zeus or Odin than I have to the Abrahamic God, because neither Zeus or Odin totalizes the way God does — and that totalitarian impulse in the Abrahamic God is what repels me so much about all of the monotheistic religions. And at its most basic, my support for abortion is rooted in relativism — that it’s not my place to make moral decisions for someone else.”

There is a lot to untangle in the response to this. First of all, there are plenty of pro-abortion Catholics who are unfaithful to their tradition, so there is nothing especially disturbing about there being Jews who are atheist (and pro-abortion).

The arguments of my post dealt with a faithful innovation within the Judeo(-Christian) tradition that set the Jews off from what we might presently label as the pagan groups around them.

The developments are interesting, because they arose within thoroughly violent totalitarian political structures, which used founding myths to justify their use of force against the populations. Compare the envy and violence involved in the account of creation in the Enuma Elish (or any of the creation myths of the Greeks, Romans, Hindus, and so on) to the non-rivalrous and peaceful account of creation in Genesis.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

The biblical accounts are posterior (ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!) to the Mesopotamian myths. They retell the earlier stories in a monotheistic manner that expunges the violence of the original polytheistic sources whose relativist syncretism required the various gods to duke it out in mythical cagematches.

I wouldn’t go so far as suggesting that even the New Testament is free of positive portrayals of violence, however, Rene Girard has frequently argued the Gospels are part of a slow Jewish unmasking of the myth of redemptive violence (abortion as a legitimate solution to harms done is one such contemporary myth) whose arguments first gained their steam in the writings of the prophets.

If one wants to call the exit from the notion of violence-as-creative as totalitarian then we’ll take it, but good luck enforcing toleration.

Some might complain that history didn’t become a bed of roses after Christianity appeared upon the scene. Fair enough. Such criticism reminds me of a Waugh riposte to someone who asked him why he was still suck a jerk after his conversion. His response was, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

On a wider scale, there would be no critique of totalitarianism or totalizing philosophies (think: Levinas and how his critiques of totalizing are indebted to the Hebrew Bible) without revelation, because what we call totalitarianism would be as natural as water is to fish–we wouldn’t notice it. The fight that broke out between our four and a half year old and three year old while I was writing this piece reminds me how much freedom it takes to break the cycle of violence.

Anyway, a taste of the great and ever-annoying Evelyn Waugh:

All in all, the idea of Odin as tolerant and non-totalitarian grafts uniquely Judeo-Christian sensibilities onto pagan myth. We should remember, as I’ve suggested here, we don’t live in a pre-Christian world, nor in an entirely anti-Christian world, but in a post-Christian world whose unquestioned manners of perceiving reality are indebted to revelation. This fact, especially given the unintentional spread of theological categories (or as we antiseptically call them “Western values”) through globalism, is possibly the only non-imperialistic way of understanding Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian.” 

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

The idea of an Odin-Christ reminds me of Bob Odenkirk’s last name. So here’s a relevant Mr. Show clip where he plays Jesus to David Cross’ Marshall:

Advertisements

The Wild & Wooly von Balthasar

Dare we hope all men be saved from war? Pictured: von Balthasar (left) and de Lubac (right).

Dare we hope all men be saved from war? Pictured: von Balthasar (left) and de Lubac (right).

It’s a given von Balthasar is smarter than you are.  Henri de Lubac once called him the most cultured man alive.  The story is he was so cultured he gave away his stereo because he could play back all of Mozart . . . in his head.  True story.  He’s frequently given flack for concentrating too much on beauty and not enough on politics, especially when he makes statements like this one which I cited in an earlier post here:  

“Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”

This vengeance takes on a decidedly political coloring when you consider its effects:

“But whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed (as happens… where ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’ are constructed as opposites), then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of ‘knowledge’, and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique.”

Say "hello" to your new Facebook cover photo.

Say “hello” to your new Facebook cover photo.

So much for von Balthasar as a aesthete.  What’s more, his answers to modernity’s cult of force are even more radical than you’d ever suspect.  They strike at the roots of our most cherished beliefs about what’s feasible:

“A few centuries ago, humanity was ripe for the insight that slavery is incompatible with human rights. Today we see the dawning of the day when responsible humanity will be ripe for the insight that bloody war contradicts its present adult state and is no longer an appropriate means to resolve questions and conflicts of humanity that has become indivisible and takes charge of its own self; this is the day when the best men begin to be ashamed of war. Very earthly economic and political reasons may have contributed to the emergence of this insight, but it is nevertheless the Christian seed that sprouts in the human conscience and leads to this decision, which is mature today.” [Thanks for the lead Gregory Dean Voiles.]

Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But you must admit the notion of abolishing the institution of slavery, which has been with humanity since time out of mind, must have seemed as silly to 19th century moderns as the notion of abolishing war does to us. Don’t forget that it wasn’t secularists, but Christians with their nutty Bible-reasoning who led the abolitionist movement.  Stephen L. Carter in God’s Name in Vain, a book I’ve cited here and here, reminds us of this important historical detail; the separation of church and state was used against abolitionists.

So, dare we hope all men be saved from war?

No joke. Pictured: von Balthasar (left) and Rahner (right)

By the way, Happy Birthday once again Toby! Dude, start a blog.

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

“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.

Constantine, Socrates, and Other Saints

Image

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.

Image

Constantine was more money than you thought.

Modern Religious Pluralism is Neither Radical nor Modern

Image

Robert Wilken: not impressed with pluralism.

Commentators on religion are always harping about how our contemporary “radically pluralist” situation is unprecedented, and more likely than not, catastrophic for the Christian tradition.

Self-styled radical theologians such as John Hick in God Has Many Names, Charles E. Winquist in Desiring Theology, plus John Shelby Spong and Raimondo Panikkar in academically less respectable volumes (whose names I shall not mention), argue that Christian theology must change or die in the face of this revolutionary situation.

Robert Louis Wilken, one of our most important scholars of early Christianity, believes nothing could be further from the truth.  In the volume Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans, 1995) he proves that we’re only replaying the debates of early (and medieval) Christians:

“Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.  For the first four hundred years of Christian history a traditional religious culture (which was not, as once thought, moribund) set the agenda for many Christian intellectuals, and its spokesmen energetically contested what seemed to be the [exclusivist] pretensions of the new religion.”

As much as I hate grading undergraduate essays that begin with “ever since the dawn of the universe / man / culture / religion / Christianity” or with “those who cannot remember the past . . .” the case of religious pluralism is an instance where one of those phrases apply.

Take a look at the arguments of Porphyry, Celsus, Cicero, and they all pretty much sound like Symmachus when he argues against the Christians:

“We gaze at the same stars, the sky belongs to all, the same universe surrounds us.  What difference does it make by whose wisdom someone seeks the truth?  We cannot attain to so great a mystery by one road.”

They also sound like today’s “radical theologians.”  Closer acquaintance with history should turn our notions who the conservatives and liberals are in the religious pluralism debates upside-down.  It makes all the difference.

As luck would have it, the book is available at a massive 60% discount from amazon.com.