The systematic theology area here at Notre Dame has been conducting some new faculty searches this spring, and it’s just been announced that Francesca Murphy and John Betz have accepted offers to begin in the 2010-11 academic year. Murphy is best known for God Is Not a Story, which she published in 2007, though her main interest is in theological aesthetics. Betz has become known recently for his role in the analogia entis debate—especially his two-part essay in Modern Theology, “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being” (Part 1, Part 2).
1.) Thomas describes prayer as rational. What modern would dare say this? Today one may easily get the impression that a choice has to be made: either adopt a romantic critique of the limits of reason, in order to make room for a more passionate, beautiful, fully embodied understanding of human existence, including spirituality; or embrace rationality as universally necessary and sufficient, but with the result that things like prayer and devotion are ignored or treated with great suspicion. Given the fault lines of our culture, it seems reasonable to ask, “What was Aquinas thinking?” But to him, the connection probably seemed obvious: “prayer (oratio) is spoken reason (oris ratio).” Moreover, when we pray, we are not just feeling a certain way but rather asking that something (namely, our lives, our world) be set in order, and it is our reason which enables us to apprehend such an order (ST II-II, 83.1.c). I think Aquinas has a point. Listen to people pray. The words are not mere feelings exteriorized but rather articulate visions of the way things could be, should be, in a reasonable universe. Prayers are the mind making sense out of an apparently senseless world.
2.) Aquinas speaks of prayer as the “interpreter of desire” (83.1.c and 83.9.c). If prayer is rational, it is also erotic, desirous, full of longing. Prayer translates our restless depths into rational discourse. The key, however, is that, as Augustine says, “it is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire,” and for nothing more (83.6.c). Prayer, then, ought to interpret desires which are properly ordered not only to our own good but also to the good of others, for “this is essential to the love which we owe to our neighbor” (83.7.c). Although this may include certain necessary temporal goods (ibid.), it ultimately amounts to willing that all may fully enjoy the glory of God (83.9.c). The desire which prayer speaks is necessarily, therefore, equivalent to love.
Let us not, then, be too quick to accuse Aquinas of being a rationalist when it comes to prayer, for, in a sense, he is also a romantic. And yet, he may also provide an important corrective to the erotic excesses of romantic spiritualities which are not reasonably ordered toward the good of humanity and the praise which is due to God alone.
I finally finished First As Tragedy, Then As Farce yesterday, having put it aside for a month once the end-of-semester whirlwhind struck. In addition to being so enjoyable to read, it always strikes me how clear Žižek is. Sometimes he does play a bit loosely with certain terms (I had a conversation last night about what he really means by “the state” in this book, which I still don’t understand), and his work is piled high with technical allusions the reader is to some degree expected to pick up on. But a reader can get on perfectly well without a crisp definition of the terms and without the allusions, still understanding the point under discussion. At least at the micro-level.
That’s the thing: Žižek is an amazingly clear, very plain-spoken, common-sense kind of writer, in the context of a single page or a continuous few pages. (All the more impressive given how, in a common-sense way, he’s able to directly confront common sense.) It’s partly the effortlessness of reading that makes him so enjoyable to read. But taken as wholes, especially in the more popular pieces like this one, his books are extremely erratic. It takes quite a bit of work—quite a bit more work than other, lesser writers—to really make sense of what the point has been once you’ve made it to the last page. There’s definitely a “main point” to this book, about the constitutive instability of capitalism and the renewed possibility of communism as an alternative, but its bulk is made up of other tangential points—about immigration in France, Obama’s victory, superhero films, Ayn Rand, the relation of Haiti to Hegel…
I don’t mean this as a criticism, God knows. These “tangents” are absolutely central to his success as a writer and public theorist. In fact, I’m tempted to think that this style—the frenetic unraveling of little points, happily digressive, all in service of one big, less determinate point (communists, come home!)—should, on the contrary, be directly advocated. I wonder for myself, at least, if I’ve not become too concerned with crafting an essay around a single large-scale syllogism—a kind of thinking that doesn’t come naturally to most, and which is therefore intrinsically less interesting, less capable of holding a reader’s attention.
The most recent thing keeping me from this blog was a paper for the medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo last weekend. It was another small step in my still-undefined quest to work through various theories of property and its relations—this time, a paper on Bonaventure’s theology of evangelical poverty. I called it “Voluntary Poverty and Political Theology: The Case of Bonaventure.” If anyone’s interested in seeing a copy, email me.
The paper’s central argument is exegetical: that Bonaventure’s thought on poverty pulls in opposing directions, that it’s marked by equally profound but contradictory logics. On the one side, Bonaventure tries to resist the idea that the Franciscan commitment to absolute poverty has any of the political implications it’s sometimes accused of. It implies no superiority to the church qua institution, no condemnation of the new economy, no intrinsic problem with ownership. He develops a fairly sophisticated theological rationale to deal with those objections—what I call in the paper the logic of conciliation. On the other side, when Bonaventure sets in to advocate evangelical poverty, to say why it’s integral to perfection, he roots his defense in a theological anthropology and ontology that does tend towards the universalization of poverty, and hints at some structural moral defect in the very institution of private property—what I call the logic of perfection. This tension within Bonaventure’s thought reflects the tension seen to exist in the Franciscan Order as a whole, and specifies it intellectually.
One of the most enjoyable things about Bonaventure, for me, is his speculative tendency, his impulse to reduce everything to first philosophy. When questions with obvious political bearing—like the relation between states of life in the church, or the ethical status of ownership—get answered metaphysically, as these do, you get some fascinating examples of other forms political theology might take.
Some of my favorite bits of scholastic writing come when these ordinarily stoic and irenic men lose their temper and let fly a bit of sarcastic rhetoric. It doesn’t happen often, but both Thomas and Bonaventure understandably succumb to the temptation while responding to those questioning the whole mendicant way of life, the life of voluntary poverty and begging. Here’s an example from Bonaventure’s Disputed questions on evangelical perfection (II.2, reply to objections 14).
Begging, per se, does not pertain to perfection unless perfection presupposes the total renunciation of everything—which is indeed in accord with God’s counsel, in which the Lord told the young man that if he would fulfill that counsel, by that very fact he would come to the pinnacle of perfection. For he said: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything.” He does not add: Hand it over to me, so that I may put it into my money box and all things may be held in common. Rather he says: “Give it to the poor.” He does not add: Go and buy your food through the work of your hands, but rather: “Come follow me.”
Or even better, from his direct replies to William of St Amour’s criticisms in the same question:
You say that he was begging out of politeness? Christ didn’t accept poverty to teach manners, did he? Did he choose to become needy and poor in order to teach social manners? Did he call himself a teacher of etiquette rather than a teacher of humility?