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Cornel West as prophet

March 30, 2011 3 comments

I have to thank my friend Jo for sending me the link to this interview.

Cornel West, as he does so well, speaks the truth to power.  It strikes me as an extraordinary example of biblical prophecy in the contemporary world.  I am moved by the unapologetic, deeply nuanced, and yet crystal clear preferential option for the poor:

 

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Marion on excess: why we need both saturation and distance

March 29, 2011 3 comments

Early in his career (Idol and Distance 1977), Marion speaks of distance as a positively determined (but not predicated) divine excess through and toward which we traverse, but which we never abolish, in our prayer and praise.  God is ever greater as  given but more fundamentally as not given.  The difference between traversing and abolishing distance is precisely the gap between the given and the not given.  It is a gap which is denied by predication but respected by prayer/praise.  This is what Marion learns from the mystical theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, but also from Nietzsche, Hoelderlin, Balthasar, and certain passages of Christian scripture.   

Later in his career (e.g., In Excess 2001), Marion shifts focus toward the eidetic possibility of revelation conceived as the “saturated phenomenon par excellence.”  Again, the Dionysian tradition is recalled, but this time divine excess is thought as saturation: i.e., the surplus of intuition over intentionality.  This is a complete inversion of the Kantian (but also Husserlian) understanding of transcendence, according to which intentionality exceeds intuition, the latter being impoverished.  In saturation, it is not that givenness falls short of our ability to grasp it; it is that givenness wildly oustrips our ability to grasp it.  But what warrants our attention for the moment is this: that which makes God ever greater in this revised phenomenological rubric remains, perplexingly, a kind of immanence: immanence, not in the sphere of intentionality, but in the sphere of givenness (for consciousness), which entails possibility, not actuality.  According to Marion, we can say with phenomenological certainty that already within what is given there is given the essential possibility of much more intuition of God than we are able to organize, interpret, or understand. 

Question: having noted the difference and similarity between the two, should one conclude that saturation (because its theorization comes later) supercedes distance?  No. 

The emphasis has to be placed on distance, though not to the exclusion of saturation.  The earlier formulation must be prioritized.  Why?  Because the claim that God is ever greater cannot be translated adequately by a theory of immanence or givenness, however expansive and inverted.  If one thinks divine excess in terms of saturation alone, this suggests a never realizable potential for full understanding already within our consciousness.  It suggests that God is (qua eidetic possibility) already totally given.  It seems necessary to maintain, on the contrary, that however much the givenness of God already exceeds our ability to grasp it, that which is not given of God exceeds it all the more.  In short, the excess of distance exceeds (but does not render meaningless) the excess of saturation. 

Phenomenology perhaps cannot think this thought.  For this one perhaps needs prayer/praise, which, moreover, makes no pretense of bracketing the actuality of God.

Oscar Romero: Where to Start?

March 24, 2011 2 comments

Today marks the 31st anniversary of Romero’s assassination and the power of his words and deedsm endure. The basic contours of Romero’s three years as Archbishop of San Salvador are well-known, but I still want to point to a couple of particularly good resources. James Brockman’s biography of Romero remains a thorough and trust-worthy guide; Maria Lopez Vigil’s book Memories in Mosaic is an incredible telling of Romero’s life through a compilation of recollections of those who knew Romero from when he was a child up to his death; the Modern Spiritual Master’s Series also has a nice introduction. These are all very helpful works to turn to but let me recommend a fourth: Scott Wright’s new biography Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints. I do not recommend this because of its comprehensiveness or new insights. Indeed, it is rather short and is largely dependent upon the biographies from Brockman and Vigil. It does provide nice reference material to further sources but I mainly recommend it for one reason: pictures. The format of the book is simple yet elegant, with nearly every page including an image related to the topic at hand. These have a way of capturing the life of Romero and those around him (one of the most moving images for me was a simple one of Rutilio Grande – I had never actually seen a picture of him – carefree and smiling as he went about doing his work). Wright is able to make it through the major moments in Romero’s life (including his childhood and seminary years) in a compelling way and with enough depth to provide a nice introduction contextualization of Romero’s life.

For primary sources, the volume Voice of the Voiceless provides some of Romero’s most important public statements (Pastoral Letters, his Georgetown address, his letter to President Carter, his last homily, etc.). The compilation of homilies and statements by James Brockman, The Violence of Love, is a must-read – Henri Nouwen’s short preface aptly describes reading this book as a “spiritual event” (Update: Bridget over at WIT links an e-book version of this; wish I knew about this earlier!) Other books and collections are out there but these are great places to start.

There are also a number of good online resources on Romero. This blog is devoted entirely to Romero. Notre Dame and Creighton also have nice websites devoted to Romero. Hopefully the new movie on Romero that was screened at ND last year will be available soon. For more recent news on El Salvador, check out Voices El Salvador (Update #2: another blog I forgot to mention). During the last few days you could even turn to American news outlets since Obama just visited El Salvador (although CNN simply said he was visiting a “famous tomb” at the Cathedral). Finally, a friend here at ND just let me know of a new documentary on El Salvador which is free on hulu. (Update #3: I hope this is the last one. The Romero Trust has an incredible collection of Romero’s homilies and letters in addition to news and pictures. It looks like they have provided every homily he gave during his three years as Archbishop – quite a service and clearly a labor of love. For a number of them they even have the audio).

There are many famous statements from Romero. Perhaps the most oft-quoted is excerpted from an interview he gave two weeks before his death. Here is the statement in full as Sobrino relates it in the introduction to Voice of the Voiceless (p.50-51):

I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting; I say it with greatest humility.

As a pastor, I am bound by a divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that includes all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, I shall be offering my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador.

Martyrdom is a grace from God that I do not believe I have earned. But if God accepts my life as a sacrifice, then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of the hope that will soon  become a reality.

May my death, if it is accepted by God, be for the liberation of my people, and as a witness of hope in what is to come. You can tell them, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon them, and I bless those who may carry our the killing.

But I wish that they could realize that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God – the people – will never die

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Another Analogy for the Trinity

March 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Many analogies to the Trinity are to be found throughout the Christian tradition. Whether or not St. Patrick used a shamrock as an illustration of God’s triunity, it seems like a good day to call attention to a novel analogy from Balthasar. Balthasar develops a theatrical analogy for the Trinity within the economy of salvation as Author, Actor, and Director (see Theo-Drama, 1.268-305 for Balthasar’s primary exposition of this triad). The author has primacy in the drama as the one who brings unity to the drama: “[The author] stands at the point where the drama (which is to unfold between the individuals and their freedoms) comes into being as a unity” (268-269). As the origin and unifier of the drama, the author has “ontological primacy” over against the actor and director.

Yet, this primacy does not mean that the actor is the puppet of the author. The author and actor are mutually dependent upon one another: “There are not two things, the script (the idea) and the performance; the two are profoundly one” (284). The author’s work is potentially drama and needs the actor in order to become reality. Far from being a passive servant of the author, the actor’s job can be characterized as one of creative obedience. In consonance with the author’s unifying vision, the actor’s enactment of the drama is a creative task for which the author explicitly leaves room in his work.

The director has the essential and difficult role of bringing together the author, with his original, creative contribution, and the various actors and their differing abilities. The director has the task of maintaining the creative vision of the author and supporting the use of the actors’ own imagination and creativity in bringing about this vision. Thus, within this analogy, the Father is the playwright, the Son is the protagonist who carries out the heart of the drama, and the Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Son and brings other actors in the drama. While the Son is always receptive to the Spirit and is always fully one with his role on the stage, the Spirit must lead others through grace to becoming more closely identified with the role God gives them in the drama.

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Becoming a Writer

March 16, 2011 4 comments

James K.A. Smith has an interesting post up in which he makes the distinction between being an “author” and being a “writer”:

Being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.

But it’s just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
I find this post challenging because I am most decidedly an “author.”  This is particularly clear to me as I work through the works of Balthasar – certainly a writer if any theologian is. Consistent with one Smith’s main pieces of advice, Balthasar was immersed in all forms of literature (and music). De Lubac called him the most cultured person of the 20th century for a reason. The problem is that I simply prefer reading about  history and non-fiction in general more than fiction and poetry – unless you count Harry Potter. Writing also usually just seems like a task for me. In contrast, I assume that most “writers” probably enjoy writing. Not all the time, of course, but more than the rest of us. Ben Myers over at F&T comes to mind here (I would venture a guess that this is probably true with the majority of the most popular bloggers). Writers take real pleasure in the inspiration of a beautiful turn of phrase, whether their own creation or someone else’s.
 
I have tried this year to write at least thirty minutes a day, six days a week. Smith likewise advises that one needs committment and patience to become a writer. Of course, he is speaking more of attempting to make “language dance and play” every day in your writing. I just try to write something. He also points to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule from Outliers (the amount of time necessary to reach “genius” level with a particular skill). The math is humbling. Even if my dissertation counts as “writing,” if I write for one hour a day every day, I only have 25 more years until I am a writer! Thankfully, “conceptual clarity and careful demonstration” are worthy goals in the meantime.
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Reflections on academic obscurity

March 4, 2011 1 comment

I’ve been working on a paper on William of Saint-Amour lately, who is an interesting but almost completely unknown figure from the mid-13th century. Where he is known, it is only as a thwarted critic of mendicant orders. He had the unfortunate fate, at his first appearance on the public stage, of coming up against Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas in debate—and in a few short years, ending up excommunicated and in exile.

I happen to genuinely enjoy William as a writer and thinker, and I honestly think he gets the better of his more famous debate-partners on more than one occasion. I even think that he has a counter-proposal about the place of poverty and property in society that deserves a hearing on its own merit (which is the immediate subject of my paper).

But I’m under no delusions that William is actually very important. He did live on for a while as a kind of anti-mendicant icon, but his thinking had no real lasting influence. The fact that on purely intellectual terms he ‘won’ some of his debates with the mendicants means almost nothing, because those debates were largely decided by non-intellectual factors. And he’s not a strong enough thinker that I would recommend to anyone without an independent historical interest in this period that they read him.

So it’s been hard to avoid asking myself, what’s the point in writing on him? The answer I’ve come up with for myself has three main interrelated elements.

  1. The first is a conviction about the importance of historical or comparative study to philosophical and theological thinking. Cliché is one of the greatest enemies of thought, and the only way to avoid it is by approaching a problem in part through the perspective of someone outside your own cultural/intellectual horizon. I like to do that by studying the past; the same thing can be accomplished by studying other cultures or communities in the present.
  2. The second is a standard sociology of knowledge type claim that theological and philosophical thinking have to happen from the ground up, so to speak; that the meaning of texts is only discernible within the meaning of broader social situations. That includes immediate polemical contexts and social position. So studying the past can’t only mean studying past canonical thinkers (though that’s often a first and nonetheless important step); understanding those figures has to involve a deeper engagement with their world.
  3. And third is a growing belief in the importance of minor characters and themes in the overall understanding of a period or a person. For one thing, focusing on minor characters pushes one even further from one’s own intellectual horizon, since canonical figures usually already have a thick overlay of rationales for their “relevance.” (The relevance of any of this, insofar as there is any, is just perspective) For another, minor characters qua minor characters—i.e., without pretending to elevate them to a status of major ones—are usually just as determinative of broader currents of thought and life as are the major characters.

These conditions lead inexorably to a concern for certain kinds of historical or intellectual minutiae, but on the condition that it ultimately loop around to illumine ‘the bigger picture’ (and that is, at least for the philosopher/theologian, an absolutely necessary condition) that concern isn’t the same as obscurantism or navel-gazing. On the contrary, it’s a necessary part of good thinking.

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Balthasar on the Imitation of Christ

March 3, 2011 1 comment

Balthasar is oftentimes placed within the stream of ressourcement theology which sought to revitalize Catholic theology and the Church through a retrieval of various parts of the Christian tradition. One can see this clearly in Balthasar’s early work on figures from Nyssa to Maximus to Lisieux and this continues through the rest of his life. Precisely because Balthasar is continually trying to retrieve past voices I am always interested in noting those moments when he critiques important texts or persons. These criticisms unveil a great deal for us in terms of Balthasar’s theology and the way forward as he sees it. In the midst of his “metaphysics of the saints” in GL 5, we find the following footnote on The Imitation of Christ:

This is the most widely read book in Christendom after the Bible, and yet, for all its sobriety and forcefulness, there is something strangely opaque about it. It rejects and eliminates every speculative element not only of scholasticism but also of mysticism, and yet, at the same time, it abstracts from the colourful multiplicity of the Bible and – since it is written for those who have turned from the world – disregards the world, in all its richness, as a field for Christian activity…In place of the openhearted readiness of a Catherine of Siena, a subdued and melancholy resignation runs through the book…there is an excess of warnings about the world, the illusions of egoism, the dangers of speculation and of the active apostolate. In this way, even the idea of the imitation of Christ does not become the dominant perspective. There is no mention of the mediation of the God-man, of access through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father. The mystery of the Church, therefore, does not come into view either. The individual is unaware that his love of God can only be fulfilled if it expands into love of neighbor and into the apostolate. All [that] remains is a flight from the world, a world that has not been brought home in Christ.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, 103-104.

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