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Contemplative clouds: a site of solitude or subjectivity?

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing asserts that his work depends on Dionysius “from beginning to end” (ch. 70).  The influence is obvious, but perhaps not as complete as the Cloud author suggests.  As much as it draws on the patristic tradition of mystical theology, this text already seems to be moving away from it, toward a more proto-modern mode of mysticism and the isolated or buffered subject of modernity which such mysticism foretells. 

Not yet at the extreme of Descartes’ methodological doubt or Husserl’s phenomenological epoche, the contemplative prayer advocated by this English mystic nevertheless involves a certain bracketing.  On the one hand, God is to be sought exclusively through the “cloud of unknowing,” which is a barrier to knowledge that is nevertheless permeable by divine love, or grace.  On the other hand, there is the “cloud of forgetting,” which detaches the contemplative from all sensations, images, and thoughts of people or things existing in the created world (ch. 5).  Now, clouds are not walls.  There is a certain degree of porousness implied by the metaphor.  And yet, the image of these clouds does encourage the prayerful soul to cultivate a profound sense of isolation from concrete reality in order to draw nearer to the God who nevertheless remains ever distant, thinkable only as “nothing” or “all,” approachable only from “nowhere” (chs. 68-9).  The clouds act like buffers, leaving the self prayerful but abstracted.  Soon, the prayers will cease but the abstraction will remain. 

That having been said, modern subjectivity having been identified for the problematic and contingent occurrence that it is, an open question remains concerning the potential value of this sort of spiritual practice.  The theme of solitude, more positive in connotation, could be developed here.  And it could be pointed out that such cloudily enclosed contemplation is meant to attract others to the grace of God, through the change in spiritual and physical appearance which it brings about in the practioner (ch. 54).  Ultimately, this contemplative prayer is, in its effects, both social and bodily–two qualities which we postmoderns demand.  And yet, ought not these qualities condition prayer itself, and not only its outcomes?  Or ought they not (at least not in the heights of contemplation)?  This question, to me, seems as important and perplexing today, as ever.  Must there be aloneness with the Alone, or is this precisely that which a prayerful encounter with the living God seeks to subvert?

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Constitutive Anti-Judaism

Susannah Heschel’s superb book Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus analyzes Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), one of the most important figures in the development of the Reform Judaism in the 19th century, in terms of his historical work on ancient Judaism and Christianity. Geiger’s work is described in post-colonial terms as a ‘counter-history’ to the dominant Christian narratives regarding Judaism, Jesus, Christianity, and modernity. This book is challenging in its clear portrayal of the theological role played by anti-Judaism within theological/historical accounts of Christian origins in the 19th century and beyond. One of Geiger’s principle goals in his scholarly work was to combat this entrenched anti-Judaism by placing Jesus firmly within Judaism rather than in opposition to it. Geiger argued that anti-Judaism played a constitutive role in most Christian accounts of the origins of Christianity and the life of Jesus.  For example, he noted that Palestinian Judaism and the Pharisaic movement are almost universally disparaged.  This disparagement creates for the Christian author a dark background in front of which Christianity can shine in lucid brilliance.  Judaism was depicted by conservatives, liberals, and rationalists alike as legalistic, nationalistic, primitive, and depraved; “jewishness” represented dangerous tendencies of false religiosity, immorality, hypocrisy, physicality, and dishonesty.  Anti-Judaism was one theological tenet on which all could agree.

The demand to place Jesus within his Jewish context and to provide an accurate depiction of the Judaisms of his time is common today. Nevertheless, it is important to understand and engage the parts of Christian history which have led us to this conclusion (and the ongoing temptation to construct typologies of Judaism in service of Christian theological aims). Heschel’s book provides a highly nuanced account of the diverse deformations of Christian theology through its accounts of Judaism. Particularly helpful for demonstrating the depth of anti-Judaism within Christianity is its place among various liberal Protestants. From Heschel’s concluding chapter:

The tenacity of the negative construction of Judaism in Christian theology was something Geiger could never accept; in a letter to a friend he wrote, ‘Ah, if only Christianity really were the religious force that it pretends to be’…the persistent hostility toward Judaism that marks liberal Protestantism has been explained by a variety of factors…but the underlying problem was the noetic structure of liberal Protestantism…Even with the sophisticated debates over dating the gospel sources and the skepticism in judging the sayings as authentic, Jesus’ inner spiritual life was retained as a legitimate category and made the basis of claims for his uniqueness. The threat perceived by liberal Protestantism was not only from conservatives, who claimed that historical method would undermine Christianity, but from a figure such as Geiger, who demanded that historical method be thoroughly applied, without the hindrances of theological commitment. Liberal Protestants were not willing to take that step…For them, the rhetoric of anti-Judaism served the crucial function of bridging the limited application of historical method and the retention of the theological category of Jesus’ uniqueness. In painting a negative picture of the religion of the Pharisees, Jesus could stand out in sharp contrast, his extraordinary nature preserved intact.

The emergence of new methods in Protestant theology during the early twentieth century only sharpened the anti-Judaism. Ritschl’s arguments in the field of church history, taken up by his disciple Adolf Harnack, left no positive role for Judaism within early Christianity; it was simply an influence to be erased…Jesus’ unique religious consciousness remained a central category throughout Protestant theology, invariably contrasted to an inferior Jewish religious mentality. Even when the study of rabbinic Judaism was taken up by some Christian academics, the results were troubling. For instance, the Strack-Billerbeck compilation of rabbinic parallels to the New Testament became a notorious example of anti-Semitism corrupting scholarship. It is striking that most of the few Christian scholars who participated in the study of rabbinic Judaism during the Weimar period became involved in producing anti-Semitic propaganda during the Third Reich (225-227).

Heschel’s account of Geiger omits most of his intra-Jewish work (the majority of his work) but it is still an excellent introduction to the basics of his thought, and it provides an outstanding account of both Geiger’s 19th century theological (and German) context and the Christian depictions of Jesus and Judaism of his time.

Blogging in the Classroom

July 27, 2010 5 comments

This coming fall semester I will be teaching two sections of the first-level theology course here at Notre Dame and I will be integrating blogging into the course – assignments include blogging on various topics and responding to posts from fellow students. I hope to post during the semester as to how this is going but right now there is an interesting piece over at the Chronical of Higher Ed on Teaching with Blogging by Lanny Arvin. The author notes that blogging facilitates active engagement with the course material and fits nicely with principles for good undergraduate education. Nevertheless, he raises two concerns that I had as I designed my course: difficulty of students adapting to the medium and student privacy.

The medium: ideally blogging provides an atmostphere for creative thinking and thoughfully articulated dialogue within a course (ideally, I know!).  As I have designed my course I see the danger that blog assignments will become no more than the standard reflection papers given in many classes. The fact that students put these papers up on blogs may be entirely superficial. Dr. Arvin found that this was a real danger as his students had trouble opening up and personally engaging the material. However, I have honestly been more worried that blogging would lead to posts that are not serious enough; too open-ended, too much stream-of-consciousness. Finding that balance between substantial engagement and free thought will be a task throughout the semester. Right now (and this seems supported by his experience) I am hoping that my commenting on student blogs and requiring students to comment upon other student blogs will help generate substantial and creative reflection and take advantage of blogging as a medium.

Privacy: legally, no student can be required to post in public forum using his/her real name. I am hoping that students will feel comfortable using only their first names to ensure anonymity but pseudonyms are also an option. At the end of the article the issue of aliases is raised. It is unclear whether or not giving aliases would be intended to protect anonymity with the wider public or within the classroom as well. If the former, I agree that anonymity within the wider blogosphere will aid students (particularly first year-students) in opening up and putting their thoughts out there. If it is the latter, I think it might be detrimental, since part of the benefit of blogging is to build a sense of community in learning. Anonymity from others in the class would signficantly hurt this. 

My reflections at this point, of course, are only what I hope to accomplish with blogging. I am excited about the possibilities blogging brings to the classroom and am thankful for those who have tried it already. We’ll see how it goes in the Fall.

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“Preferential Option” and “Church of the Poor”

July 27, 2010 8 comments

I am reading Roberto Goizueta’s new book Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation and I hope to post some reflections on it in the near future (particularly on the appropriation of aesthetics within the logic of liberation theology). For now, I want to post two quotes which further illustrate three points I made in my note on the Kingdom-World-Church theses: 1) the de-centering of the Church vis-a-vis a poor; 2) the sacramental role of the crucified people as mediators of the presence of Christ; 3) the methodological aspect of the preferential option for the poor (an aspect emphasized throughout the work and, in my view, affirmed too exclusively in the  first passage below: “nothing other than”). As I said in my earlier post, the first supports the idea that mission precedes church within the theses; the second and third seem to be at odds with central affirmations of the theses. The theses are, of course, only theses; by definition they await further exploration and substantiation. Nevertheless, the complexity of liberation theologies must be kept in mind as the affirmations of the preferential option and the ‘church of the poor’ in thesis 11 are developed .

 The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the church and in the world. The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they extend mercy, they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: ‘Peace be with you’ (36).

 ‘The Spirit of Jesus is in the poor,’ asserts Jon Sobrino, ‘and, with them as his point of departure, he re-creates the entire Church. If this truth is understood in all its depth and in an authentically Trinitarian perspective, it means that the history of God advances indefectibly by way of the poor; that the Spirit of Jesus takes historical flesh in the poor; and that the poor show the direction of history that is in accord with God’s plan.’ In no way does this suggest a ‘parallel church’; rather it specifies the privileged (not exclusive) sociohistorical locus wherein the church is church and discovers what it means to be church…the ecclesiological image of the church of the crucified people posits not a new church but ‘a new mode of being the Church’ (38 – quoting Sobrino’s The True Church and the Poor, 93, 96).

Remembering the Dead

One last Rahner quote, this time from the chapter, “God of the Living”:

I should like to remember the dead to You, O Lord, all those who once belonged to me and have now left me…I see my life as a long highway filled by a column of marching men. Every moment someone breaks out of the line and goes off silently, without a word or wave of farewell, to be swiftly enwrapped in the darkness of the night stretching out on both sides of the road. The number of marchers gets steadily smaller and smaller, for the new men coming up to fill the ranks are really not marching in my column at all.

True, there are many others who travel the same road, but only a few are traveling with me…the others are mere companions of the road, who happen to be going the same way as I. Indeed there are many of them, and we all exchange greetings and help each other along. But the true procession of my life consists only of those bound together by real love, and this column grows ever shorter and more quiet, until one day I myself will have to break off from the line of march and leave without a word or wave of farewell, never more to return.

That’s why my heart is now with them, with my loved ones who have taken their leave of me. There is no substitute for them; there are not others who can fill the vacancy when one of those whom I have really loved suddenly and unexpectedly departs and is with me no more. In true love no one can replace another, for true love loves the other person in that depth where he is uniquely and irrreplaceably himself. And thus, as death has trodden roughly through my life, every one of the departed has taken a piece of my heart with him, and often enough my whole heart.

A strange thing happens to the man who really loves, for even before his own death his life becomes a life with the dead. Could a true lover ever forget his dead? When one has really loved, his forgetting is only apparent: he only seems to get over his grief. The quiet and composure he gradually regains are not a sign that things are as they were before, but a proof that his grief is ultimate and definitive. It shows that a piece of his own heart has really died and is not with the living dead.

Encounters with Silence, 53-55

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From pragmatism to the practical: reflections on the Stout, Rorty, Hauerwas debate

July 24, 2010 5 comments

What’s interesting to me about Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, and his rebuttals to the critical responses of West, Rorty, and Hauerwas in the panel discussion published in the recent JAAR volume, is not so much his commitment to pragmatism (which is, notably, complicated by his recogntition of the  plurivocity of this term) but rather his evident insistence upon being practical

The former, I take it, has considerable positive content.  Stout and Rorty disagree precisely on whether a preference for secularity is essential to this content.  Stout thinks no strong preference of this kind is entailed.  Rorty–insofar as he remains worried about the authoritarian implications of metaphysical (or metaphysical-like) theories of truth, including Christian, Platonic, Cartesian, and others–continues to argue for the importance of such a preference, even though he interestingly suggests (citing Wolterstorff) that theists can legitimately speak from their own points-of-view in the public square.  

But, as Hauerwas’ line of questioning makes clear, and as Stout himself emphasizes, an account of pragmatism which is less restrictive than Rorty’s is not, for this reason, lacking in certain commitments, which constitute a positive tradition.  The main challenge which Hauerwas poses to Stout, as I see it, is that the compatibility of Stout’s more inclusive but still somewhat positive version of pragmatism with the radical demands of Christian discipleship is not a foregone conclusion.  Stout’s hospitality to the Christian other, however welcome and welcoming it is, however refreshingly different from Rorty’s performatively dogmatic secularism, nevertheless may not be able to embrace this other as such, absolutely, without qualification.  A Stoutian society may still be one in which Christians have got to compromise themselves, to some extent, albeit to a much lesser extent than Rorty would ultimately want.

In the end, the question is this: If one wants to be more than a Christian pragmatist (a position which, thanks to West and others, as Stout contends, need not be construed as oxymoronic) and become, above all else, and without compromise, a Christian simpliciter (a disciple of Christ and not Emerson, James, Dewey, etc.), does this desire commit one to becoming impractical?  To be practical would entail minimally taking seriously in some way or another the pluralistic fact of humanity, because such is the state of the real world in which action is possible, in which alone discipleship can be embodied and not merely envisioned.  This is the challenge which Stout poses to Hauerwas, but also to Christians more generally.  Stout also makes a recommendation, in the form of a (revisionist-)pragmatist account of the practical.  But it seems to me that the space for future dialogue is precisely the practical as such, which includes the given constraints of profound human diversity, but which is not necessarily in every respect identifiable with a pragmatist account of the practical, even of a Stoutian variety. 

The logic of Stout’s work and the intelligibility of Hauerwas’ response to it seem to be pushing in this direction.  Away from pragmatism as the condition of dialogue (though it remains in the dialogue) and toward a more general framework of concern, not structurally positioned (in any respect) against the theological but not explicitly entailing it either: a framework which I’m calling here “the practical.”

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New JAAR on theology, secularity, and politics

July 22, 2010 3 comments

It’s relatively rare that a whole issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion is directly relevant to theologians, so for those of you who don’t receive it, I thought it worth mentioning that the most recent one (78.2, June 2010) is. The whole issue is devoted to theology, secularity, and political participation.

Table of contents:

  • “Post-secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular”—by Ingolf U. Dalferth
  • “After the Secular: Toward a Pragmatic Public Theology”—by Michael S. Hogue
  • “Turning to Narrative: Toward a Feminist Theological Interpretation of Political Participation and Personhood”—by Rosemary P. Carbine
  • “Pragmatism and Democracy: Assessing Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition“—panel discussion with Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas and Jeffrey Stout, edited by Jason Springs
  • “Radical Islam and Human Rights Values: A ‘Religious-Minded’ Critique of Secular Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”—by Jenna Reinbold
  • “The Return of Comparative Theology”—by Reid B. Locklin and Hugh Nicholson

There’s one other essay, “The Romans and Ritual Murder” by Celia E. Schultz, which the editor says was meant to belong to the last issue.