Archive for October, 2010

New blog: WIT—Women in Theology

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

A few friends of Memoria Dei have started a really excellent new blog, which you should add to your readers immediately: WIT—Women in Theology. The writers are all in graduate programs at various schools in the Catholic circuit—Notre Dame, Marquette, or BC. They’ve already posted (among other things) primers on feminist theology and womanist theology, some extended reflection on a feminist Mariology (1, 2), and a powerful piece on prayer, mourning, and the recent suicides of young, gay men.

Let us take care of Christ

October 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Alright, last post from Gregory:

Yet think, I beg you, of humanity’s original equality, not of its later diversity; think not of the conqueror’s law, but of the creator’s…Let the one with good health or with riches come to the aid of the ailing and the needy; let the one who has never stumbled help the one who has fallen and is being trodden down…become more eminent than your neighbor by showing yourself more generous; become a god to the unfortunate, by imitating the mercy of God. For a human being has no more godlike ability than that of doing good; and even if God is benefactor on a grander scale, and humans on a lesser, still each does so, I think, to the full extent of his powers… The instruments of the Spirit have not simply spoken once or twice about the needy and then fallen silent; nor was it simply some of them and not others, or some more and others less, as if they were dealing with no great matter, with nothing of pressing importance. No – all of them laid this command on us, each with the greatest urgency, either as the first of our duties or as one of the first…

Do you think that kindness to others is not a necessity for you, but a matter of choice? That it is not a law, but simply an exhortation? I used to wish this very much myself, and supposed it to be true. But that ‘left hand’ has instilled fear in me, and the ‘goats,’ and the rebukes that will come from him who raises them to stand before him: condemned to be in this class, not because they have committed theft or sacrilege, or adultery, or have done anything else forbidden by the Law, but because they have not cared for Christ through the needy! If you believe me at all then, servants and brothers and sisters and fellow heirs of Christ, let us take care of Christ while there is still time; let us minister to Christ’s needs, let us give Christ nourishment, let us clothe Christ, let us gather Christ in, let us show Christ honor…since the Lord of all things ‘desires mercy and not sacrifice,’ and since ‘a compassionate heart is worth more than tens of thousands of fat rams,’ let us give this gift to him through the needy, who today are cast down on the ground, so that when we all are released from this place, they may receive us into the eternal tabernacle, in Christ himself, who is our Lord, to whom be glory for all the ages. Amen.

On the Love of the Poor, 26-27, 35, 39-40.

On Care of Lepers

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Another couple passages from Gregory’s On the Love of the Poor:

There stands before our eyes a terrible, pitiable sight, unbelievable to anyone who did not know it was true: human beings both dead and alive, mutilated in most parts of their body, scarcely recognizable either for who they are or where they come from…even the kindest and most humane of neighbors is insensitive to them; in this instance alone, we forget that we are flesh, clothed in this lowly body, and we are so far from caring for our fellow creatures that we think the safety of our own bodies lies in fleeing from them. One approaches a body that has been dead for some time, even if it has been dead for some time, even if it has begun to reek; one carries about the stinking carcasses of brute animals, and puts up with being full of filth; yet we avoid these lepers with all our might (what inhumanity!), almost taking offense at breathing the same air….

They are driven way from the cities, driven away from their homes, from the market-place, from public assemblies, from the streets, from festivals and private celebrations, even – worst of all sufferings! – from our water; not even the springs flow for them, though they are common property for everyone else, nor are the rivers allowed to wash off any of their impurities. Most paradoxical of all, we drive them away as bearers of pollution, yet we draw them back towards us again, as if they caused us no distress at all, by giving them neither housing, nor the necessary food, nor treatment for their leisons…Whose heart is not broken by the mournful cries of these people, sounding forth a kind of pitiable music?…the wail of their begging offers a counterpoint to the sacred singing within the church, and a miserable dirge is produced, in contrast to the sounds of the Mysteries. Why must I depict all their misfortune to people celebrating a feast day?Perhaps it is that I might stir up some lament in your hearts, if I carefully play out every detail; perhaps suffering will triumph over celebration! For I say all this, since I have not yet been able to convince you that sadness is sometimes more precious than joy, and gloom than celebration – a tear more praiseworthy than unseemly laughter…

What about us, who have inherited the great new name, in being called after Christ…disciples of the gentle and kindly Christ, who ‘bore our weaknesses’ and humbled himself so far as to share in the mixture of our nature, who ‘became poor for our sakes’ in this flesh…what about us, who have received such a great example of tenderness and compassion? How shall we think about these people, and what shall we do? Shall we simply overlook them? Walk past them? Leave them for dead, as something loathsome, something more detestable than snakes and wild animals? Sure not, my brothers and sisters! This is not the way for us, nursed as we are by Christ, the Good Shepherd, who brings back the one gone astray, seeks out the lost, strengthens the weak; this is not the way of human nature, which lays compassion on us as a law, even as we learn reverence and humanity from our common weakness.

On the Love of the Poor, 10, 12-15

On the Love of the Poor

October 20, 2010 3 comments

This semester I am having my first-year students read about poverty in early Christianity. John Chrysostom’s sermons on Lazarus and the Rich Man are rightly famous for their urgent demand to care for the poor and thus are the standard text for introducing this aspect early Christianity.  We will be reading a bit from Chrysostom but I decided to focus on a less well-known (and only recently translated) text by Gregory of Nazianzus: Oration 14: On the Love of the Poor. In this oration Gregory appeals to his congregation to have compassion for the poor and homeless, particularly those suffering from leprosy. Here is a taste:

Let each one simply walk on the way, and reach out for what is ahead, and let him follow the footsteps of the one who leads the way so clearly, who makes it straight and guides us by the narrow path and gate to the broad plains of blessedness in the world to come. And if, following the command of Paul and of Christ himself, we must suppose that love is the first and greatest of the commandments, the crowning point of the law and the prophets, I must conclude that love of the poor, and compassion and sympathy for our own flesh and blood, is its most excellent form. For God is not so served by any of the virtues as he is by mercy, since nothing else is more proper than this to God…

We must open our hearts, then, to all the poor, to those suffering evil for any reason at all, according to the Scripture that commands us to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’ Because we are human beings, we must offer the favor of our kindness first of all to other human beings, whether they need it because they are widows or orphans, or because they are exiles from their own country, or because of the cruelty of their masters or the harshness of their rulers or the inhumanity of their tax-collectors, or because of the bloody violence of robbers or the insatiable greed of thieves, or because of the legal confiscation of their property, or shipwreck – all are wretched alike, and so all look toward our hands, as we look towards God’s, for the things we need.

Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love of the Poor, 5-6.

Formalism in theology

October 16, 2010 11 comments

The idea of approaching Christ as a form–an idea popularized by Hans Urs von Balthasar (among others)–tends to crop up wherever the mere fact of revelation becomes the primary locus of theological attention, as it does, for instance, in the first volume of Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, subtitled “Seeing the Form.”  The decision to prioritize the fact of revelation finds its catalyst, and perhaps its warrant as well, in the epistemological anxiety of the modern age, within which, at least since Kant, it has come to seem impossible to think of the divine except as located on one or the other side of a fateful dividing line: that between the world of phenomenal objects present to consciousness, on the one hand, and the theoretically unknown noumenal beyond (for Kant a purely negative construct), on the other.  If the former, then “God is dead” and there are only idols; if the latter, then “God,” if anything, is inaccessible, and this is all that can be said.  The fact of revelation shatters this dichotomy: Christ, as visible form of the invisible God, makes actual precisely that which modern epistemology conceives as impossible. 

In his theological aesthetics, Balthasar richly develops this remarkable fact into a formidable theory of revelation, which has enjoyed a wide influence.  Without disputing its importance, I would, however, like to raise one concern, in the form of a question: To what extent does the perspective which presents Christ as a form promote, almost certainly despite itself, a certain formalism in theology?  I’m thinking here of a style of reasoning in which the mere fact that God is revealed in Christ (or analogously, in the church) takes precedence over questions regarding the determinate content which comes to light in Jesus’ parables, his healings, his prayers, the particular way he died, the particular way he rose from the dead, the precise images and concepts which the church has developed in order to understand itself in relation to Christ, and the many ambiguities which accompany these developments. 

I cannot at the moment point to any textual location (and, of course, Balthasar himself does not shy away from detail), but over the past several years I have heard praise expressed, on a number of occasions, for a theological text because it is Christological, ecclesial, Trinitarian–or in other words because it accepts the mere fact of revelation in one way or another–with almost no attention given to how adequately the text in question brings out those details which are most decisive for the gospels and for Jesus’ first disciples.  I propose that Jesus and his followers were not primarily concerned with the issues framing modern epistemology but rather with things such as death, disease, poverty, holiness, wisdom, the law, the prophets, the empire, the end of days, the promises of God, . . .  

Approaching Christ as a form is probably a necessary condition for the possibility of our appreciation of the details of revelation, precisely insofar as we find ourselves in the modern academy, but sometimes it seems easy to forget that this transcendental theological intervention is far from sufficient.  It is only a beginning–and perhaps finally not really the point.

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J. Kameron Carter at Notre Dame—on Barth and DuBois

October 7, 2010 5 comments

I just came out of a really excellent lecture given by J. Kameron Carter here on campus, whose visit was orchestrated by Andrew along with one other colleague, Steven Battin. The title of the paper he presented was “An Unlikely Convergence: W.E.B. DuBois, Karl Barth, and the Problem of the Imperial God-Man.” Even with quite a few sections edited out for time, the lecture ran a full 90 minutes and spanned a massive range of material, so there’s no way to say everything again. Still, I thought a few of you would find a brief summary interesting.

The point of the paper, as the title indicates, is to identify a substantial if oblique alliance between W.E.B. DuBois and Karl Barth with respect to a certain diagnosis of the post-WWI political situation. Both of those thinkers were concerned to perform a theological diagnosis of the modern west—that is to say, a diagnosis of the problem of the modern west as a theological problem. More specifically, Carter wanted to say that they both diagnosed the problem of the modern west to be located at the level of a kind of “theopolitical anthropology,”* with the west bearing at its heart an image of an imperial man (for DuBois, an imperial white man) that gets identified with the God-man.

The opening section of the paper lays out a kind of theoretical framework, dependent especially (as he was in Race) on Etienne Balibar, that could explain the idea and function of a theopolitical anthropology in the formation of the nation-state. This was a thick and fascinating section—too thick, really, for me to have captured all the nuance that makes it work for him, especially not knowing Balibar. The basic idea was that at the heart of the national personality, the national Geist, that produces a people and binds it together as a singular nation, is an idea of the ideal citizen, a concrete universal citizen, a persona ficta that must be imitated and even integrated into oneself in order to count as a real member of the polity. The bulk of the process of nation formation, according to Carter, happens at the level of the political unconscious, in the realm of what he was calling imagination or fantasy. So nation-formation is not something that only happens through institutions and laws; it happens within the individual subject. So too this persona ficta has to be taken within oneself, not only imitated (though certainly that) but also embodied in the process of nationalization. Balibar apparently identifies this whole process as analogous to the process of conversion to Christianity and integration into the church, and Carter plays on that analogy quite a bit: the persona ficta becomes the imago Dei of the nation, who is to be imitated as Christ and even “eaten” as in the Eucharist. In fact, he says, religious and national formation aren’t merely analogous; they are “a singular Janus-faced social process.” Thus the possibility of a theopolitical anthropology that mediates national unity.

The second section, which Carter worked through very quickly, tries to show these processes at work in post-WWI Germany, above all, to give context for Barth and a picture of the 20th-c. west. He summarized the changing contours of the German nation in that period, whose persona ficta is a virile, racially white, bourgeois missionary-warrior—in short, a Germanized Christopher Columbus (who becomes the subject of a great deal of cultural activity in 19th-c. Germany, apparently) or, more proximately, von Humboldt. (There were some really interesting hints here about the way gender played into Germany’s self-understanding, with the loss of its colonies experienced as “feminizing,” but Carter didn’t have a chance to spend much time on that.)

That stage set, he tries to show it as a necessary backdrop to Barth’s early work, focusing on the Römerbrief. He argues that Barth’s concern from the beginning was with the way that German piety had taken its nation-form within itself and vice versa, so that his main task was to demystify the “de-formed Christian world” shrouded in German self-perception. This is the lens through which one has to read Barth’s critique of the “anthropologization” of theology—which, he thinks, is secretly enthroning western, imperial man in place of the God-man—and of abrogating the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity—which he thinks is a way of making Europe the byway and the end goal of history, making Europe its own salvation and its own eschaton. In Carter’s terms, Barth is diagnosing the ways that the process of nation-formation has been co-implicated in religious formation, with the consequence of perverting Christianity and absolutizing the German imperial form.

DuBois accomplishes much the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic, except that he’s able to see farther than Barth to the global and racial dimensions of the modern, western, imperial man. DuBois too thought that a failure of Christianity lay at the heart of the western project: Carter quoted him talking about “the religion of whiteness on the shores of our time,” and saying that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, amen.” The analysis focused mostly on DuBois’s book Darkwater, the structural center of which is a short story entitled “Jesus Christ in Texas.” Carter’s argument was that DuBois’s Christ, like Barth’s, constituted an interruption that directly challenged the nation’s persona ficta. So in DuBois’s case, that meant (among other things) that Christ is depicted as racially ambiguous (though dressed in Jewish cloth) and non-conquering.

This spun out, at the very end, into the beginnings of a constructive Christology that built on this idea of interrupting the nation’s mediating personality, but too much time had left us at this point and we got only the most general of gestures. It was interesting to hear, in the (very brief) Q&A that followed, just how Barthian he takes himself to be. On the constructive side, he seemed ready to follow Barth a great deal of the way—wanting to add, of course, quite a bit onto the end about the things DuBois saw that Barth never did.

So there’s a summary—long, I know, but so was the talk. Carter certainly proved himself as one to keep an eye on.

* I can’t remember if Carter actually used that phrase, theopolitical anthropology, but it’s the kind of thing he would say, I think. It’s possible that he just talked about a theological anthropology that grounds the political order.

Rahner and Marion: a brief dialogue

October 1, 2010 2 comments

It must always be borne in mind that for a really Christian doctrine of the relationship of the world to God, the autonomy of the creature does not grow in inverse but in direct proportion to the degree of the creature’s dependence on, and belonging to, God.

–Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations 5.1, p. 12

The intimacy of man with the divine grows with the gap that distinguishes them, far from diminishing it.  The withdrawal of the divine would perhaps constitute its ultimate form of revelation.

–Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance, p. 80

Creaturely freedom increases with dependence on God.  Communion grows with divine distance.  Is this one thought or two?  In both, the relation between God and creature comes to be characterized through an inversion of the term that is used to describe it.  Moreover, the inverted result acquires a radical authenticity, which is attainable only through this inversion.  If one depends entirely on God, what this actually means is freedom–and precisely freedom in the truest sense of the word, freedom which exposes all worldly alternatives, which seek independence  from God, as shallow or derivative by comparison.  Likewise, if one reveres the distance of God, what this actually allows is communion–and precisely communion of the loftiest sort, a mode of communion which outstrips every spiritual intimacy that has not paid the price of divine distance. 

In addition to this formal likeness–which repeats the rhetorical strategy discernible in Saint Paul’s identification of true wisdom with the foolishness of the cross–one could also suggest that the freedom which Rahner associates with dependence on God is nothing other than the communion which Marion argues is available only in the midst of divine distance.  These two theological statements would, then, not only exhibit a similar (Pauline) structure but would also say very similar things (and, moreover, things of a Pauline sort).  For to depend on God is to rely on the God who withdraws, who is above or beyond all things, who–to use Marion’s language–is approachable only by way of distance, absence, danger.  Likewise, the revelation, the intimacy, the communion with God that opens up within this distance seems to hold within itself the substance of the freedom of which Rahner speaks, insofar as this freedom is not merely the abstract ability to decide but the positive enjoyment of the divine life.   “Dependence” and “distance” both indicate the sometimes extreme difficulty of an earthly existence which seeks to be open to God.  Paul would call this the foolishness of the cross.  “Freedom” and “communion” name the inestimable grace that awaits those who await it.  To bear the cross in the hope of this grace–this, for Paul,  is wisdom. 

I have, of course, been overlooking many of the significant differences between these discourses.  But at times it can be helpful to concentrate on some overlooked similarities.

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