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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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