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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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Bonhoeffer conference at Notre Dame coming up soon!

February 28, 2011 1 comment

The graduate student conference on Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we mentioned last fall is coming up soon, and the list of speakers and schedule is now set.

Check out the conference poster or the conference website for all the details, including speakers and paper titles.

The conference will be held here, at Notre Dame, on April 10–11. The organizers have lined up three fantastic keynote speakers: Bernd Wannenwetsch from Oxford, speaking on Bonhoeffer and the meaning of disability; Christiane Tietz from the Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, speaking on “Bonhoeffer and the Ontological Structure of the Church”; and Robin Lovin from Southern Methodist, speaking on “The Divine Mandates in an Age of Globalization.” There is a really marvelous line-up of student papers too, pairing Bonhoeffer with everyone from Lacoste to Agamben.

Registration is free, but it is strongly requested that you do register so we can have a decent count. Do consider coming!

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Scapegoating and Idealization

January 29, 2011 15 comments

Another fascinating bit from Daly’s Beyond God the Father is her analysis of the relation between scapegoating and idealization, both of which are instrumental to the subjection of women in Christianity. During her chapter on the idea of the Fall, she insists that the role of women as scapegoats for evil’s entrance into the world be taken seriously. Besides obviously shoring up male superiority, it also mystifies the nature of evil—and so distorts the way we try to combat it.

She builds on this in her chapter on Christology by tying it into the way Jesus functions as a very different kind of scapegoat: Jesus is a scapegoat who is also a model for our behavior. This complicates things. Daly definitely does not believe, in a Girardian way, that because Jesus is both a scapegoat and a model, scapegoating is somehow put to an end. It’s just that the scapegoating becomes more complicated and difficult to see.

What happens is that as a model, Jesus is split in two. On the one side, Jesus’ ideal qualities as a victim—“sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc.” (77)—are ascribed especially to women. Of course, women already are victims, and insisting on these virtues only reinforces their place on the sexual hierarchy. But what’s more, because these are now impossibly idealized, women can never be “good” enough to match up to them. (This is solidified by the fact that the ideal woman, Mary, is seen as literally inimitable–both in her virgin motherhood and in her sinlessness.) “Thus doomed to failure even in emulating the Victim, women are plunged more deeply into victimization” (ibid.). On the other side, the power embodied in Jesus’ victimhood—represented by the ritual offer of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist—remains available, but is left solely in the hands of men.

Far from negating the role of women as scapegoats, the image of Jesus as the ideal scapegoat redoubles their subjection under the mystifying veil of their valorization. Women are asked to play the part of the self-sacrificial savior, but simultaneously, in their inevitable failure to measure up, are shown to be all the more in need of salvation—which they will again have to seek at the hands of men.

I think this is an extremely perceptive and troubling analysis. At the very least, Daly is giving me more concrete reasons to doubt that simple appeals to Jesus’ “feminism” or his identification with the oppressed are adequate indexes of the political meaning of those who make those appeals. She is certainly strengthening my conviction that the recent obsession with the celebration of the Eucharist as the one decisive political act is profoundly misguided, or at least very often naïve. Most unsettlingly, she’s convincing me that the fact of Jesus’ maleness poses a more difficult problem than I’ve usually been willing to admit.

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Mary Daly’s historicized analogia entis

January 28, 2011 4 comments

I’m in the middle of Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father, which is far more straightforwardly compelling than her reputation had led me to expect. One of the things I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing is how she ties together, far better than most, ontology, spirituality, and historical progress—though it’s almost impossible to resist putting scare quotes around all three of those terms, since she’s working so hard, and largely succeeding, to put all of them into a new semantic field.

I’ll just give the one example, since it’s likely to be of some interest to the blogosphere, of her surprising appeal to the analogia entis. (It comes in the middle of another surprising claim—that the self-expression of woman-consciousness toward God might, in some sense, have more in common with medieval than with modern theology.) She calls hers a living analogy of being, and says that “the particular aspect of our existence from which we are enabled to draw the analogy is the courage that is experienced in the liberation process” (36).

The idea she’s been developing up to this point is that the whole movement of liberation begins with the experience of or confrontation with nothingness, known under patriarchy by women above all, which is then rejected as the woman steps instead decisively, courageously into being. So the whole process is conceived within an ontological frame. Moving into being involves a transformation of consciousness and also an active opposition to the external structures of patriarchy. And all three of these elements—the movement toward Being, the transformation of consciousness, and the dismantling of patriarchy—are bound together in such a way that you can’t move forward in one without moving forward in the others.

When she invokes the analogia entis, she is beginning to explain how an analogous structure is attributable to Be-ing itself—one of her shorthands for referring to God as a Verb. Be-ing asserts itself precisely over nothing, over nothingness. The experience of courage is a kind of sacrament (though Daly certainly does not use this language) of the self-assertion of Be-ing over non-being. “The unfolding of woman-consciousness is an intimation of [or, she’ll also say, participation in] the endless unfolding of God” (36).

Kotsko on O’Regan

November 29, 2010 1 comment
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