I recently came across a figure whom I had not encountered before: St. Elphege, a monk, abbot, and finally archbishop, living in England before the Norman conquest, who, like Oscar Romero centuries later, lost his life defending the lives of the poor. St. Elphege is revered as a martyr and St. Anselm of Canterbury defended the appropriateness of this title.
A short biography of Elphege is available here: http://www.bartleby.com/210/4/192.html. It is worth a quick look, if only because it shows that the practice of the preferential option has been a crucial aspect of Christian witness and sanctity for quite some time and does not, contrary to some misperceptions, arise as a novelty in the twentieth century.
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers a remarkable account of the development of modern secularity. He understands this condition as involving, not merely the decline of religious belief, but also and more definitively a situation of mutual fragility occurring between various opposing perspectives on the world, society, the self, etc. The rise of exclusive humanism as a positive and widely available option is the major source of this mutual fragility. It keeps a theonomous view of things from being mostly taken for granted, as it once was in pre-modern Christendom.
I’ve been reflecting on Taylor’s analysis recently in light of a visit which I made to El Salvador earlier this summer. This context has led me to hypothesize that disunity in the church’s attitude toward political matters is, in various ways, a powerful force of secularization. What I want to highlight, then, is a kind of fragility within the church itself–a fragility which may be, in some respects, generative of the growth of exclusive humanism and, therefore, of the mutual fragility which Taylor sees as constitutive of secularity.
The Catholic Church in El Salvador, as elsewhere, remains tragically divided. The divisions are displayed starkly in the cathedral in San Salvador. In the crypt below, a Mass takes place in memory of Monsignor Oscar Romero; images of the murdered and the disappeared are brought up during the offeratory; pamphlets and flyers are distributed by lay members of the community detailing pressing issues requiring immediate political action–issues in which what is at stake is precisely the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
Up above, in the main sanctuary, another Mass takes place. There will likely be no mention of Romero, no mention of political exigencies; these topics would be taboo. The liturgical form is impeccable. The message is usually traditional, somewhat predictable, therefore ostensibly safe, but not for these reasons untrue or unimportant. Of course, as has often been noted, the sort of “apolitical” stance exhibited in the top part of the cathedral is, intentionally or unintentionally, always already implicated in politics. In El Salvador, in the U.S. as well, perhaps in principle, silence implies a certain measure of consent. Consent to what? In El Salvador, to a society where many go without clean water, sufficient food, plumbing and sanitation, trustworthy police, basic healthcare, basic education, the prospect for a better life. I do not mean to say that the people in attendance necessarily consent, but that the liturgy appears to, insofar as it consistently keeps silent on such matters, when they are all around and affecting everyone.
Hence, the topology of the cathedral manifests a split-level practice in the church itself. There is a more explicitly political and a more covertly political form of worship and Christian identity formation dividing the space and the people of God into the regions of top and bottom. The one body of Christ, received in both settings, has in each one a significantly different feel.
What does this situation have to do with the question of secularity? On the one hand, secularization can be associated with politicization–and not without reason. The line between a genuinely theological political theology and a post-theological political philosophy has tended to become blurred within modernity, with the result that the work of salvation has been transferred more and more to human hands. The desire for a more “apolitical” liturgy can, accordingly, be understood at least in part as a desire to subordinate the modern political/secular sphere of worldly striving to a higher calling. On the other hand, however, the “apolitical” approach also has the potential to promote secularization, and in several respects: (1) insofar as it is inevitably political in any case, (2) insofar as its pretense to transcend politics makes it appear, to many whose lives are in the balance, hypocritical and irrelevant, and (3) insofar as it factors into the paralyzing disunity in the church which compromises the meaningfulness and fruitfulness of its sacramental practice. In all of these ways, the church risks its identity and its credibility.
Just as, in Europe, the fragmentation and discord in the church of the 16th and 17th centuries laid the groundwork for the rise of exclusive humanism as an increasingly prevalent option in the 18th and 19th centuries; so too, I fear that these sorts of grave tensions in the El Salvadoran church and the church throughout the world, if left unchallenged, will only hasten the globalization of secularity. This ecclesial fragility is not the only factor, but it is an important one among others.
To address it, it seems that we need to recognize, minimally, (1) that the gospel, though more than political, has political implications; (2) that politics, though necessary, is not the only necessary thing; and (3) that any divisive rhetoric we use has a price, possibly a very high price, and should therefore be used only with great caution. I would also suggest that we need to look once again to the example of Oscar Romero, who responded in faith to the needs of his society and saw no conflict between the two (orthodoxy and action). His response to suffering, which led him in a more political, but not reductively political, direction must be seen as an increase in Christian theological rigor.
The most reliable way to resist secularization worldwide is to unite the church in a simultaneously divine and human love for the poorest of the poor.
Those who follow this blog may have noticed the decline in blog posts here over the last few months (I just checked and my last post was in March). The spring and early summer were overrun as I finished up and defended my dissertation in June.
Now for the news: I have been hired as the assistant chair for graduate studies at Notre Dame. I will be working primarily with the doctoral program on recruiting, admissions, and graduate teaching (feel free to contact me with questions regarding the program). I will also be teaching a 3-1 load this year and plan to repeat last fall’s experiment with student blogging next semester.
For the foreseeable future my”break” from blogging will be more permanent. I may occasionally put up a post on pedagogy or theology but for now I am going to focus on my teaching, research, and administrative work here at Notre Dame.
I have been feeling somewhat bothered by the fact that my post with the same name from a few days ago was not especially clear–one might even say, badly written. I confess, I wrote it in haste! But there is an idea in it which I wanted to express, so I’m going to try it again. This time more straightforwardly.
After now ten years spent in the context of higher education (particularly in the fields of continental philosophy, theology, and religion), I am left with the impression–and it is at this stage only an impression, not something which I have researched and am prepared to demonstrate, but nevertheless a persistent impression–that a certain kind of critical thinking has become hegemonic.
The particular sort of critical thinking that I have in mind exhibits a complicated relationship with Kant’s Critiques and what they represent: namely, a very sophisticated form of modern skepticism, objectification, or suspension (epoche), for which he is obviously not the only representative. This bracketing procedure can approximate a certain kind of nihilism. Because everything would seem to be, as far as we know it, determined by the conditions of transcendental consciousness, everything has, to some significant extent, lost its gravity, its credibility, its affirmability (for lack of a better word). However, many thinkers who have come after Kant have subjected his own critical work to a further critique. His transcendental approach was too naive, precisely because it neglected or concealed many of the conditions for its own possibility: history, culture, power, language, flesh, environment, etc. But if Kant’s critique destabilizes a positive and meaningful sense of the whole, the mode of critique which has sought to move beyond Kant (a mode which one might call “meta-transcendental” or “postmodern”) has seemed, at times, only to increase the threat of some sort of implicit nihilism. I acknowledge that this tradition can be interpreted in another way, as seeking to retrieve or rediscover sources of meaning which modern transcendental reason excludes. But what I am concerned with here is its critical aspect, which is often salient, and which departs from Kant only while amplifying the intellectually elite negation of the whole which is expressed powerfully in his work.
My point is that much contemporary critique gives me the impression that we are still embedded in a kind of Kantian danger. The message of academic discourse is still, basically, that everything is suspect, unreliable, already invalidated by a critical awareness of the conditions for its possibility.
Given this state of affairs, I would not want to advocate an end of critique but rather a more concerted effort to articulate a positive context which is larger and more powerful than the critique itself. It seems to me that, without this effort, the intellectual life becomes a kind of badly infinite “gotcha” game, in which the goal is to pull the rug out from one another, to reveal with ever greater acuity the depths of another’s unacknowledged naivete and implicit culpability. To put the point more positively, we need to try to answer questions like: What is not illusory? What is it that we are attempting to protect by means of critique? What ultimately warrants our allegiance, our fidelity, our affirmation, our praise? It is for this reason that I want to suggest precisely theological praise as a point of departure for reflection concerning the bases for saying “yes” definitively and, therefore, for saying “no” in a localized and meaningful way. Even Qoheleth, who sees the world and declares “vanity of vanities!” does not make this critique in the absence of God but rather in recognition of God’s glory.
I have recently discovered a book which I would like to recommend: Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millenium (Stanford University Press, 2011).
Through her insightful interpretations of many different artistic, literary, and pop-cultural representations and performances of black-white mixture, Elam seeks a middle way between, on the one hand, the insufficiently critical anticipation of a thoroughly hybrid and post-racial American culture (an increasingly popular attitude which is easily co-opted by those who no longer want to see racism as a problem) and, on the other hand, the insufficiently complex traditional rhetoric of blackness and black emancipation (which, though it has been productively destabilized by new patterns of cultural and biological miscegenation, nevertheless remains necessary in the fight against racism). In other words, Elam takes on the contemporary aporia of race with impressive nuance and subtlety.
Whether you work directly in this area or not, my advice would be to read this book, and soon.