Author Archive

Milbank on sex

November 16, 2010 4 comments

In case you haven’t seen them yet, I thought I should mention that the women of WIT have come down with two scathingly brilliant responses to Milbank’s latest article: Mystery Theology Theater 3000: John Milbank and a Followup to the Milbank post.

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Milbank on Mennonites

November 6, 2010 13 comments

Halden Doerge has written before about a concern with the way Anabaptism is ‘appreciated’ in contemporary ecumenical circles, by expressing a vague gratitude for its witness to peace—a witness that can just be lifted off and appropriated by another tradition without any kind of structural conflict.

What’s even more bewildering, and unfortunately very common, is when the same kind of gratitude is shown by Anabaptism’s critics, as in Milbank’s most recent piece for the ABC, “Power is necessary for peace: In defence of Constantine.” The article aims at the total demolition of any ‘anti-Constantinian’ position, but for some reason Milbank feels the need to offer a little paean to Mennonites at its center.

Mennonites avoid the trap of individualism, he says, by recognizing that the practice of the power of weakness, the nonviolent and reconciling power of Jesus, is a real power that must take real form in a community. “What is most precious about the Mennonite tradition,” he says, is “that they offer, not the path of misguided purism, not the illusion of ‘beautiful souls’, but rather their own middle way between apoliticism and political compromise.” We know that Christian charity have to be animated by a certain form of power, cannot be reduced to a vaguely spiritual and inward longing. So he acknowledges that the anti-Constantinianism of the radical reformation is not driven by the obsession with purity, the singular concern with one’s own private salvation, which he criticizes at the beginning of the article.

But the Mennonites don’t see that one can’t choose the power of powerlessness rather than “contaminated, compromised coercive power”; Christianity has to have them both. The gloves come off: Mennonitism does turn out to be obsessed with purity after all (how?), as well as being Marcionite (rejecting the political level of the OT), Gnostic (“because God creates us as hybrid material-spiritual creatures, the church includes certain physical spaces that one may have physically to defend”), obviously unrealistic (because Christianity wouldn’t even exist if Christian kings hadn’t slain the pagans), incapable of redeeming the state (like the venerable Justinian did), and—best of all—in practical denial of the resurrection (an accusation he doesn’t even try to explain).

In other words—the Mennonites are very inspiring and all, but they’re also wrong in every essential respect. Mennonites are the tragically misguided heroes, the clever but immature children, stuck on a step on the ladder to ‘true Christian love’ that other traditions had legs long enough to skip.

What’s so odd about this kind of ‘appreciation’ is that, unlike some of the genuine ecumenical overtures, Milbank is explicitly aware that the Mennonite peace witness is structurally opposed to the use he wants to make of it. That is, he knows that he has no sympathy with the Mennonite peace witness in itself at all; he makes use of the tradition to say that even nonviolent love must exercise a certain power, and then discards it. That argumentative strategy isn’t invalid—’even so-and-so who disagrees with me completely would agree that x‘—but it makes no sense to go from there to speaking of Mennonites’ “specifically Catholic witness” (his emphasis, big-C, whatever that could conceivably mean) or to praising our “new and more profound” way of combining charity and power.

A nice bit of evidence that the Niebuhrian tradition lives proudly on.

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.

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.

The Gospels’ theological style

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment

On the drive up to Chicago yesterday, I listened to a handful of the New Testament podcasts Todd pointed to a week or so ago—which, incidentally, are really, really good. It’s immediately clear how good of a teacher Goodacre must be, and they would be worth listening to as a pedagogical model even if they weren’t helpful in substance. But then, of course, they are helpful in substance, if relatively basic.

Anyway, listening to a few of Goodacre’s mini-lectures on the Gospels reminded me of how outstanding the gospel writers are as theological stylists, undoubtedly better than many of the figures I put on my list. The genre itself is genius, and in each case it’s executed with really surprising creativity. The quiet riffs on older scriptural themes and figures, the way explicit points are also made to function as structural patterns of the whole narrative, the sheer number of ideas that arise solely from the story’s form, never once hammered didactically through a particular character…

I do think that any narrative-form genre has a massive stylistic advantage over expository genres. When narrative writers have some theological or philosophical point to make, they’re really forced to express it through the form of the piece rather than saying it directly (or else end up with a pretty terrible story). Most philosophers and theologians, accustomed to saying everything directly, don’t feel any need to say anything at the more elusive and difficult level of form.

Metaphors of weight

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find metaphors involving weight extremely moving and compelling. It’s a fairly common trope, at least since Augustine—who talked occasionally about how the pondus voluntatis et amoris, the weight of desire and love, was the real ordering principle in the cosmos. I ran into it again recently in Dante (who probably gets it directly from Augustine). Beatrice has to explain to him, when they first pass into Paradise, how his body is able to speed upwards towards and beyond the moon: because the weight of love allows one to fly, as surely as a waterfall pours faithfully to the earth.

And now this wonderful passage, from Kierkegaard’s discourse on the birds of the air:

And yet, yet human language has not ever, and thought has not ever, invented a more beautiful symbol of independence than the poor bird of the air. And yet, yet no speech can be more curious than to say that it must be very hard and heavy to be—light as the bird! To be dependent on one’s treasure—that is dependence and hard and heavy slavery; to be dependent on God, completely dependent—that is independence…. Dependence on God is the only independence, because God has no gravity; only the things of this earth, especially earthly treasure, have that—therefore the person who is completely dependent on him is light. (Upbuilding Discourses, 182)

Who are the greatest philosophical stylists?

September 3, 2010 28 comments

If we take the mark of a great philosophical or theological stylist to be the capacity to say as much in the form of communication as in its substance, or to fully integrate form and substance in philosophical presentation, who are history’s greatest philosophical stylists? The top ten, if I were to pick a list off the top of my head, would be (in chronological order):

* Socrates
* Plato
* Augustine
* Dionysius
* Eckhart
* Dante
* Hegel
* Kierkegaard
* Nietzsche
* Wittgenstein

Though I can see right away that this list is weighted towards ‘dialectical’ thinkers of one stripe or another, possibly because that’s an easier philosophical difference than some to convey formally. Or possibly because I just prefer them. Eckhart, though certainly a master stylist, might be a slightly arbitrary pick from among the late medieval mystics. Is he really a step above Marguerite Porete, Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross?

It’s hard to come up with any truly great recent stylists. Derrida is good, but wouldn’t rank, I don’t think, with the figures above. I’ve wondered about Hélène Cixous, just because of the unbelievable range of genres with which she is apparently competent, but I’ve not actually read her work.

I’m distinguishing in my head between philosophical stylists as defined above and rhetorically effective philosophers, or philosophers who are especially enjoyable to read. Feel free to contest my definition.

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