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Politics and the ‘Eschatological Proviso’

August 14, 2010 Leave a comment

If we were only to take account of God’s proviso, without also considering the specific content of belief in God, above all Christian belief in God, oriented on Jesus of Nazareth, the eschatological proviso could have a very reactionary function, to man’s detriment. For God’s proviso lies over all our human history and over everything that man brings to fruition in it. All political options are made relative by it. But that also means that if this real aspect of the revelation of God is taken in isolation, without considering what has come about for us in Jesus, this eschatological proviso can relativize any secular activity in such a way that both a conservative policy and a socialist policy demanding more justice for all can be neutralized in the same way. In that case Christian faith would not only desacralize politics and rob it of the threat that it might become absolute – which is the special justification and significance of the eschatological proviso or the freedom of God’s divinity – but of itself it would not be able to give any inspiration, still less any orientation (pointing in one particular direction) in the choice of a social and economic policy to further growing humanity and a realizable state of human well-being…a merely formal use of the eschatological proviso would simply throttle the humanitarian impulse which is present in liberation movements.

Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, 777-778

Again from O’Connor

August 3, 2010 1 comment

Another choice quote from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners:

Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to re-arrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. (163)

That’s from another speech, entitled ‘Novelist and Believer.’ It’s turning out to be another one of my favorites.

And yet again, it seems a lesson theology needs no less than any other ‘religious art.’

Flannery O’Connor and theological writing

August 2, 2010 6 comments

I’m in the middle of reading Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction. As to its style, the whole book is predictably inspiring; as to its substance, it’s less consistent. (For example: the opening essay, on raising peacocks, dragged on more than I would have liked. And her essay ‘On the Nature and Aim of Fiction,’ despite the occasional gem of a paragraph, is too scattered to be really involving.) There are a few real masterpieces in here, though, that are as useful to the theological writer as they are to the novelist—at least so long as the theologian is prepared to think of what she is doing as an art form, as I think we should anyway.

My favorite selection so far (though I haven’t yet read the final part, which contains her sustained reflections on being a Catholic novelist) has been her speech on ‘Writing Short Stories.’ The bits directly about short stories are fascinating in themselves. She gives a wonderful definition of a story as “a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person” (90). She lets loose a few enjoyable rants against the reduction of stories to their themes, to abstract statements. And the essay nicely encapsulates some of her most common contentions: that fiction begins and ends with the senses, that it hinges on the intrinsically meaningful portrayal of the concrete, that it aims at a believable presentation of the real, even (maybe especially) the invisible or impossible real. I think those contentions themselves could be helpfully translated into theology or philosophy, recognizing that those disciplines quite properly do deal in abstractions. It might be that theology could be understood as the intrinsic inverse of fiction, speaking constantly of the concrete under the guise of the universal rather than speaking constantly of the universal under the guise of the absolutely concrete.

What really struck me, though, were a few brief observations at the very end of the piece. The speech was given at some kind of writers’ conference, and O’Connor had apparently been given a few of the participants’ short stories ahead of time. She finished by marking a few problems she had seen in them. First, she noted “the use of language in these stories was such that, with one exception, it would be difficult to distinguish one story from another” (102). There were clichés, she said, but not one enduring image. Second, it was impossible to tell where these stories unfolded. They could have happened anywhere in the world without changing the story. Finally, the characters functioned as siphons for ideas or particular actions; they lacked real, story-driving personality.

Again, mutatis mutandis, these are the problems in a great deal of theological and philosophical writing. In some circles, language is intentionally stripped of its evocative power and made (so we are told) completely transparent; in others, the ‘evocation’ is so commonplace and so disconnected from the unique conceptual structure as to be meaningless—the very essence of a cliché. That doesn’t count the vast majority of essays or books written without any thought of their language at all. As for context, this is probably the principle problem of theoretical writing: its necessary abstractions are treated as absolutely self-sufficient, blithely indifferent to any concrete position whatsoever. The rise of ‘contextual theologies’ of various kinds have gone some way to correcting this terrible habit, but it’s not obvious to me that they have quite cornered the relation of thought to its setting—and in any case, most theology has not learned its lesson. The idea of personality in theoretical writing is perhaps on its face the most foreign, but not too hard to understand. A concept of Augustine’s is almost always recognizable as such, as is a line from Heidegger. It’s not only that these thinkers have stamped their own historical personality on their writing, though that is certainly true; it’s that in capable hands, their ideas acquire a life and spirit of their own. Just like O’Connor’s characters, thinking becomes a matter of following the inner dynamism of an idea always just beyond grasp.

Resurrection from the View of the Victims

August 1, 2010 Leave a comment

In my view there is now a sort of stagnation in theology of the resurrection, for which there would seem to be – among others – these two reasons. One is that, although the resurrection refers to the future of history, it does not seem to have anything important to say about the present, what is with us now. The other is that, although the hope rediscovered by the new theology is important, it is an unduly universal hope and does not recognize the partiality essential to it, since Jesus’ resurrection is hope, directly, for the victims.

For the resurrection of Jesus to keep its identity and relevance, I think we need to adopt a new viewpoint, one that, while recognizing the novelty of post-conciliar theology, goes beyond it. It follows from the above that this new viewpoint has to include two things. The first is that Jesus’ resurrection should, in some way, be a reality that effectively affects history in the present, which supposes the possibility of living now as risen beings in history and the possibility of re-creating the experience of finality implied in the post-resurrection appearances, with – of course – all the relevant analogies. The second, more fundamental in the Third World, is understanding the resurrection in its essential relationship to the victims, so that the hope it unleashed should, above all, be hope for these victims.

 Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator, 11-12

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