Abortion, Natural Law, & Antisemitism?

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

This is the ancient history behind present day hot-button issues.

The plurality of stances possible within orthodoxy is surprising to our uncritical post-Enlightenment prejudices. On the other hand, heresy, perhaps by definition, or at least by etymology, tends to be sterile and one-sided. Ross Douthat, captures some of this heretical reductionism in Chapter 5 (“Lost in the Gospels”) of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “The goal of the great heresies . . . has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.” [I’ve previously mentioned the surprising role Constantine played in the development of Christian pluralism here.]

Christians have been critically aware of orthodoxy’s perennial dynamism at least ever since John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which you can read here in its entirety at the Newman Reader.

Yet, there have been some constants in this torrent of constant change. For example, Judeo-Christian sexual ethics totally revolutionized the looser attitudes of their Graeco-Roman predecessors. More importantly, given the recent mayhem in Texas over abortion legislation, there is the ancient Christian tradition of opposing abortion. It is enshrined in its oldest post-biblical documents such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Your mom!

Your mom!

There is no direct mention of abortion in the New Testament, because the pro-life position was taken for granted by Jews. The early Christians, as good Jews, followed many centuries of Jewish tradition by rejecting abortion, contraception, and infanticide.

One example is the Alexandrian Jewish writings known as the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before dogs and vultures as prey.” It doesn’t take much effort reading between the lines to figure out these must have been fairly common practices among the Graeco-Roman population in which the Jewish diaspora lived. The most cursory glance at the historical scholarship done on Graec0-Roman practices will confirm what I’m saying here. You can also reference their literary output.

I can’t say what Asia and the Indian subcontinent thought about these things, but I’m guessing they were probably (unfortunately) very much like the Greeks and Romans.

The difference of the fates of Oedipus and Moses are instructive here. They hint at very different attitudes toward children. One exposed child is fated to be a criminal, while the other becomes a liberator.

"I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see."  Can't really say the same for Oedipus.

“I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.” Can’t really say the same for Oedipus.

Therefore, the interesting historical twist might be that being pro-abortion is anti-Semitic.

There are also connections with the controversy about natural law, and its application to our abortion debates, started by David Bentley Hart in First Things. He says the following:

“There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.

That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.”

I’ll have to do some more research before taking sides in this debate. It might be the case, like with the abolishing of slavery (think Moses again), that being pro-life is yet another revolutionary innovation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.

Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)

Here is a list of what I consider to be the ten most important theology-related books (I’ve read) of the past ten years. They’re in no particular order (kinda). If given another chance to make this list I’d probably choose (mostly) the same books, or I’d make the list longer. The books are accompanied by publisher blurbs, which should explain why these books are so important. I’d like to see what your top 10/10 list looks like. Feel free to submit one in the comment section of this post. Please order books via the links provided here if you’d like to help put some diapers on little Rosman butts!
There's plenty of theology in there.

There’s plenty of theology in there.

The Modern Philosophical Revolution breaks new ground by demonstrating the continuity of European philosophy from Kant to Derrida. Much of the literature on European philosophy has emphasized the breaks that have occurred in the course of two centuries of thinking. But as David Walsh argues, such a reading overlooks the extent to which Kant, Hegel, and Schelling were already engaged in the turn toward existence as the only viable mode of philosophizing. Where many similar studies summarize individual thinkers, this book provides a framework for understanding the relationships between them. Walsh thus dispels much of the confusion that assails readers when they are only exposed to the bewildering range of positions taken by the philosophers he examines. His book serves as an indispensable guide to a philosophical [and theological] tradition that continues to have resonance in the post-modern world.
Hug an atheist today.

Hug an atheist today.

In this stimulating book, Denying and Disclosing God, distinguished theologian Michael J. Buckley, S.J., reflects upon the career of atheism from the beginnings of modernity to the present day. Extending the discussion he began in his highly acclaimed At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the author argues that atheism as ideology was generated neither by the rise of hostile sciences in the Renaissance nor by the medieval and inferential theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Professor Buckley locates the origins of atheistic consciousness in modernity’s bracketing of interpersonal religious experience as of no cognitive value. Atheism was generated by the very strategies formulated to counter it. This dialectical character of modern atheism suggests the further possibility of the negation of this negation, thereby bringing about the retrieval of the religious in form and content along with a new admission of the cogency of religious experience.

Lovely.

Lovely.

In seven essays that draw from metaphysics, phenomenology, literature, Christological theology, and Biblical exegesis,Marion sketches several prolegomena to a future fuller thinking and saying of love’s paradoxical reasons, exploring evil, freedom, bedazzlement, and the loving gaze; crisis, absence, and knowing.

Swirly things and a cross.

Swirly things and a cross.

Theopolitical Imagination is a critique of modern Western civilization, including contemporary concerns of consumerism, capitalism, globalization, and poverty, from the perspective of a believing Catholic.

Responding to Enlightenment and Postmodernist views of the social and economic realities of our time, Cavanaugh engages with contemporary concerns–consumerism, late capitalism, globalization, poverty–in a way reminiscent of Rowan Williams (Lost Icons), Nicholas Boyle (Who Are We Now?) and Michel de Certeau. “Consumption of the Eucharist,” he argues, “consumes one into the narrative of the pilgrim City of God, whose reach extends beyond the global to embrace all times and places.” He develops the theme of the Eucharist as the basis for Christian resistance to the violent disciplines of state, civil society and globalization.

Trust me, this book is big.

Trust me, this book is big.

In The God of Covenant and Creation Larry Chapp develops a true ‘theology of nature’ that begins and ends with strictly confessional Christian warrants. He begins by showing how modern naturalism arose out of a theological matrix and how it lost its way specifically as naturalism as soon as it rejected that theological matrix. Indeed, modern naturalism is not so much a-theological as it is a rival theology to that of the Church. All claims of ultimacy, including those of natural science, have inherently theological orientations embedded within them – however unconsciously. Therefore, what confronts us in the modern world is not so much a choice between a non-theological naturalism and a theological naturalism. Rather, what confronts us is a choice between two rival theologies – one agnostic and a-theistic in its implications while the other is revelocentric and Christian.

Not for the birds.

Not for the birds.

This landmark work presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. In a thorough and fascinating look at this spiritual practice, two of today’s most versatile and admired authorities on religion probe the language and fruits of prayer, its controversies, and its prospects for the future. With a focus on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Prayer: A History promises to be the standard on the subject for readers of all faiths.
Empty throne.

Empty throne.

Why has power in the West assumed the form of an “economy,” that is, of a government of men and things? If power is essentially government, why does it need glory, that is, the ceremonial and liturgical apparatus that has always accompanied it?

In the early centuries of the Church, in order to reconcile monotheism with God’s threefold nature, the doctrine of Trinity was introduced in the guise of an economy of divine life. It was as if the Trinity amounted to nothing more than a problem of managing and governing the heavenly house and the world. Agamben shows that, when combined with the idea of providence, this theological-economic paradigm unexpectedly lies at the origin of many of the most important categories of modern politics, from the democratic theory of the division of powers to the strategic doctrine of collateral damage, from the invisible hand of Smith’s liberalism to ideas of order and security.

But the greatest novelty to emerge from The Kingdom and the Glory is that modern power is not only government but also glory, and that the ceremonial, liturgical, and acclamatory aspects that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of Western power.

King Artur?

King Artur?

How does worship work? How exactly does liturgical formation shape people? And how does the Spirit marshal the dynamics of such transformation? In the second of James K. A. Smith’s three-volume theology of culture, the author expands and deepens the analysis of cultural liturgies and Christian worship he developed in his acclaimed Desiring the Kingdom. Drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, Imagining the Kingdom helps readers understand and appreciate the bodily basis of habit formation and how liturgical formation–both “secular” and Christian–affects one’s fundamental orientation to the world. Worship “works” by leveraging one’s body to transform his or her imagination, and it does this through stories understood on a register that is closer to body than mind. This has critical implications for thinking about the nature of Christian formation and the role of the arts in Christian mission.

Hurts so good.

Hurts so good.

In this classic treatise on Christian spirituality, Rowan Williams takes us with a new eye along a road marked out by Paul, John, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and finally to Luther and St. John of the Cross. The Wound of Knowledge is a penetrating psychological and intellectual analysis of Christian spirituality.
Monkey see, monkey don't.

Monkey see, monkey don’t.

According to British scholar Conor Cunningham, the debate today between religion and evolution has been hijacked by extremists: on one side stand fundamentalist believers who reject evolution outright; on the opposing side are fundamentalist atheists who claim that Darwin’s theory rules out the possibility of God. Both sides are dead wrong, argues Cunningham, who is at once a Christian and a firm believer in the theory of evolution. In Darwin’s Pious Idea Cunningham puts forth a trenchant, compelling case for both creation and evolution, drawing skillfully on an array of philosophical, theological, historical, and scientific sources to buttress his arguments.
Glowing blurbs all over this one.

Glowing blurbs all over the back of this one.

And 1.  I’ll be reading this soon:

While philosophy believes it is impossible to have an experience of God without the senses, theology claims that such an experience is possible, though potentially idolatrous. In this engagingly creative book, John Panteleimon Manoussakis ends the impasse by proposing an aesthetic allowing for a sensuous experience of God that is not subordinated to imposed categories or concepts. In God After Metaphysics Manoussakis draws upon the theological traditions of the Eastern Church, including patristic and liturgical resources, to build a theological aesthetic founded on the inverted gaze of icons, the augmented language of hymns, and the reciprocity of touch. Manoussakis explores how a relational interpretation of being develops a fuller and more meaningful view of the phenomenology of religious experience beyond metaphysics and onto-theology.

Nota Bene: Cosmos The In Lost also features a top 10 list of books about heaven and hell.

Musical coda:

American Idol

Czeslaw-Milosz-Quotes-4

Sarcasm anyone?

That something went wrong with the post-conciliar Church is a truism of both left and right Catholics.  The right thinks it went too far and was too much “in the spirit of” anything goes.  For the left it didn’t go far enough, or wasn’t interpreted enough “in the spirit of” anything goes.  These debates are boring enough to drive away people in droves.  They merely reflect, bow down to, the dominant political trends of this nation.  The fact that former Catholics are the second largest religious group in the United States is both a sign of a post-Protestant America and a sign of American Catholicism’s inability to make much of its opening in the public square.

Doesn’t Catholicism have anything to offer in itself?

Czeslaw Milosz captures some of the reasons behind this abject failure:

And there was a holiday in Megalopolis.
Streets were closed to traffic, people walked in procession.
The statue of a god, slowly moved along:
A phallus four stories high
Surrounded by a crowd of priests and priestesses
Who tossed about in a whirling dance.
A service was also being celebrated in Christian churches
Where liturgy consisted of discussion
Under the guidance of a priest in Easter vestment
On whether we should believe in life after death,
Which the president then put to the vote . . .

The desperate attempt to be accepted also has its right-syncretist equivalent as a recent prayer distributed by the USCCB reminds us:

Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty

“O God our Creator,
from your provident hand we have received
our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have called us as your people and given us
the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God,
and your Son, Jesus Christ.
Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

My reaction?

How the Church expects to survive by wrapping itself in the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge to the Flag is beyond me.  Which brings me to the following choke by the Diocese of Brooklyn:

Unfortunately not The Onion

Unfortunately not The Onion

This is not a bad joke, as documented by the Millennial blog.  In fact, such plagiarism is not new.  It dates to way back before Vatican II.  It is part of a long tradition, starting at least with John Courtney Murray, of bending the knee to the flag while breaking the back of Catholic universalism.

For example, do you remember this proud moment when American Catholics finally went mainstream?

Stephen L. Carter, in his God’s Name in Vain, documents what the statement, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all” really meant.

Kennedy was actually letting the electorate know he wasn’t going to follow the Vatican’s severe pressure on him to do more to fight racial segregation.

The context makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Sure, other countries do it, but here I’m talking exclusively about American idolatry and the American Church’s surrender.  American Catholics really shouldn’t allow themselves to be stuck with this (caution: foul language):

Perhaps one ought to pray for another declaration of independence?

 

What if Judith Butler was Ockham’s God?

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potentia absoluta or ordinata?

Judith Butler‘s account of love makes her sound like some fickle nominalist God who not only leaves her subjects quaking in fear, but probably also scares herself.  This is her recipe for scaring away any and all potential dates:

“On occasion when I am getting to know someone — when someone seeks to know me or, indeed, find in me the occasion for love — I am asked what my idea of love is, and I always founder. There are clearly those who have their ideas of love, who enter into their conversations, their letters, their initial encounters with an idea of love in mind. This is admirable in a way. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I have no answer, and that I cannot, in the moment of potential seduction, [have] an entrancing view of love to offer the one with whom I speak. … One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.”

Or, as Oppenheimer said after the first Trinity test, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Bad theological ideas like nominalism don’t die, they become transposed and banalized into critical theory.

If you want more comic relief this Friday read the rest of the excerpts with a red pen in your hand and be prepared to apply it to your computer screen.  It’s foolproof.

Don’t miss her proposed marriage of Freud and Kierkegaard; it seems to have issued from the pen of a precocious undergrad who needs more time to develop before graduate school.  Trust me, I just got done grading 400 pages of undergraduate prose and I’m still trying to recover.  Maybe it even has something to do with the essence [sic!] of this post?

However, if you’re looking for guidance in concrete relationships (and to perhaps avoid a divorce) then Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World is an infinitely better guide:

“Romance feeds on obstacles, short excitations, and partings; marriage, on the contrary, is made up of wont, daily propinquity, growing accustomed to one another. Romance calls for ‘the faraway love’ of the troubadours; marriage, for love of ‘one’s neighbour.’ Where, then, a couple have married in obedience to a romance, it is natural that the first time a conflict of temperament or of taste becomes manifest the parties should ask themselves: ‘Why did I marry?’ And it is no less natural that, obsessed by the universal propaganda in favour of romance, each should seize the first occasion to fall in love with somebody else.”

Image

The choice is yours, or is it?

Don’t you wish you’d forgotten?  Now you can’t:

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

Forthcoming: The Experience of God – Hart, David Bentley – Yale University Press

Beam me up.

Beam me up.

“Despite the recent ferocious public debate about belief, the concept most central to the discussion—God—frequently remains vaguely and obscurely described. Are those engaged in these arguments even talking about the same thing? In a wide-ranging response to this confusion, esteemed scholar David Bentley Hart pursues a clarification of how the word ‘God’ functions in the world’s great theistic faiths.”

The Experience of God – Hart, David Bentley – Yale University Press.

Czesław Miłosz | To Raja Rao

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“I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.”

TO RAJA RAO
Czesław Miłosz

Raja, I wish I knew
the cause of that malady.

For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else.

A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
I would live by the hope of moving on.

Raphael, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, 1510

The city of “real presence” is not primarily about Plato. Augustine is a much better lead.

Somewhere else there was a city of real presence,
of real trees and voices and friendship and love.

Link, if you wish, my peculiar case
(on the border of schizophrenia)
to the messianic hope
of my civilization.

Image

Stefan Jasieński, Sacred Heart on the wall of his Auschwitz cell (194?)

Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,
in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption.
Building in my mind a permanent polis
forever deprived of aimless bustle.

I learned at last to say: this is my home,
here, before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets,
on the shore which faces the shores of your Asia,
in a great republic, moderately corrupt.

Jasper Johns, White Flag (1955)

“in a great republic, moderately corrupt”

Raja, this did not cure me
of my guilt and shame.
A shame of failing to be
what I should have been.

The image of myself
grows gigantic on the wall
and against it
my miserable shadow.

That’s how I came to believe
in Original Sin
which is nothing but the first
victory of the ego.

Tormented by my ego, deluded by it
I give you, as you see, a ready argument.

I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru’s.

No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.

If I am sick, there is no proof whatsoever
that man is a healthy creature.

Greece had to lose, her pure consciousness
had to make our agony only more acute.

Grunewald_-_christ

Wounds still there.

We needed God loving us in our weakness
and not in the glory of beatitude.

No help, Raja, my part is agony,
struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate,
prayer for the Kingdom
and reading Pascal.

Berkeley, 1969

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“Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end… They will never take the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

 Cynthia Haven of The Book Haven has more on Milosz and Catholicism here and here.

You can compare this to Walker Percy’s quiz to get a better idea of the influences behind this blog’s name.