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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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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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Recent uprisings: some theological thoughts

February 19, 2011 2 comments

The theological significance of the recent events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa can hardly be predicted.  Nevertheless, from afar, and with only the knowledge that is available on mainstream U.S. media sources (NPR, the New York Times, etc.), I have found myself beginning to ponder this question.  I offer here only a few hesitant and inchoate thoughts:

1.) Political revolution is not a thing of the past.  It remains, in many regions of the world, a focal point of practical consideration and collective action.  To the extent, therefore, that those of us working in theology employ, from time to time, a sort of revolutionary rhetoric–e.g., by invoking a radical disruption in or transformation of history–the recent events (reverberating from Tunisia) might remind us that these tropes do not only function as intellectually sexy fictions of postmodernity but also pertain to very real, in some respects deeply ambiguous, and yet nevertheless hope-filled events, affecting countless lives, for better or worse.

2.) There is a question of secularization.  On the one hand, this process has been bemoaned by many Christian thinkers in the West, who would like to revive some sort of theo-political synthesis, whether this is best represented by medieval Christendom or by pre-Constantian forms of Christian society.  On the other hand, however, there is a persistent–to some extent orientalist, racialized,  overgeneralized, and to that extent unjust, but not for all that entirely groundless–fear of Islam, which seems no less prevalent among Christians than non-Christians in the North Atlantic world.  For those who would desire a closer alignment of theology and politics, the Middle Eastern and North African context could prove difficult to assess.  There is the possibility of thinking revolution as a profoundly Jewish and Christian idea (stemming from the prophetic, messianic, and apocalyptic themes in scripture).  Nevertheless, at some level, there could be a choice to make between greater fidelity to a religious political culture (largely shaped by Islam) and a secularizing vision of pluralistic democracy.

3.) The poor are still with us.  Jesus’ words (Mt 26:11) should not be consoling.  That they constitute an accurate prediction does nothing to exonerate centuries of greed and indifference.  The question, though, is how best theology can serve the poor, whose misery remains a powerful motivation for political upheaval.  This is the question which gave rise to various movements of liberation theology in the twentieth-century.  To what will it give rise in the present?

A Letter from Karl Barth to Karl Rahner

February 18, 2011 3 comments

I was using the Karl Barth Digital Archive this morning and decided to search for “Karl Rahner” out of curiosity. I came across this letter (I only wish I could listen to the sermon or see Rahner’s reply if he made one):

To Prof. Karl Rahner
Münster, Westphalia
Basel, 16 March 1968

Dear Colleague,
Last Sunday I heard you on radio Beromünster, at first with pleasure, expressing by lively gestures to those listening with me my approval of individual statements. In the end and on the whole, however, I was completely stunned. You spoke much and very well about the “little flock,” but I did not hear a single “Baa” which was in fact authentically and dominatingly the voice of one of the little sheep of this flock, let alone could I hear the voice of the shepherd of this flock. Instead, the basic note was that of religious sociology and the other favorite songs of what is supposed to be the world of modern culture. In the way you are speaking now, so some fifty years ago Troeltsch was speaking of the future of the church and theology. Get me right: I am not speaking a word against the seriousness of your personal faith and what I write is not even remotely meant to be an anathema. But take it from me, our Neo-Protestants were and are in their own way pious and even churchly people. To spend a few hundred years in eternity with their father Schleiermacher (whom I never think of as excluded from the communion of saints) would please me very much should I myself get to heaven—so long as I could have a few thousand years with Mozart first. But with such addresses as that you gave on Sunday, which lack spiritual salt—or “spirituality” as you like to say in Catholic terminology— you are not building up the church in time and on earth, as is our common task, nor building up “the church for the world.”
With sincere and fraternal greetings,

Karl Barth

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“Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame” – Mary

February 13, 2011 4 comments

I am not sure how we got there, but at one point this morning at Church the priest made a passing comment that every reference to Wisdom in the Wisdom Lit can be understood as a reference to Mary. Much of this literature was obviously key in christological controversies and is drawn upon in Wisdom-Christologies today. The figure of Wisdom is sometimes linked by Christians with the Holy Spirit as well. Mary typology is common with the opening of Genesis, Revelation, and probably others where she could be seen as the fulfillment of the faith of Israel – but is it common with the Wisdom Lit as a whole? Perhaps it is just another sign of my impoverished Catholic education. But then again, I am also writing a dissertation on Balthasar and do not recall seeing this.

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The Ethics of Human Sacrifice – And a New Blog

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the most fascinating moments in the long history of Bartolomé de las Casas’ defense of natives in the Americas on the question on human sacrifice (along with cannibalism).

Many reasons are given in the 16th century to justify the wars against and subsequent slavery and servitude of the natives: their idolatry, their inferior status, Aristotle’s notion of “natural slaves,” support for evangelization, the political rights of the Crown, etc. Las Casas, of course, argues powerfully against these justifications.  Throughout his life one of Las Casas’ most fundamental principles is that the purpose of the Spanish presence in the Americas is evangelization and this must be done without coercion or violence; indeed, Christian actions were seen as the fundamental impediment to evangelization. In one chilling passage he says “the name of Christian is so abhorrent that they would rather go to hell, reasoning that there will be no Christians to associate with there, than to paradise, where they would have to be with them” (Gutiérrez, Las Casas, 75). Thus, the best thing the Spanish could do to pursue this goal would be to leave (except for some preachers, of course).

The opponents of Las Casas, in addition to sheer political and economic power and social prejudice, had another argument against him: if we are to care for the victims of this world and love our neighbor, what about the many victims of human sacrifice? Don’t these religious practices among the natives violate natural law and offend God? Don’t Christians have the duty to care for their neighbor and extend their solidarity to these innocent victims? Taking the final step, many argued that love of neighbor made conquest a duty. Las Casas’ response to this line of questions is complex, appealing to various scholastic teachings (such as Aquinas on following an erroneous conscience) and to the concrete circumstances of his time. Las Casas is clear from the beginning on a couple of points: first, the elimination of human sacrifice was not the reasons for the Spanish conquest. This is simply an attempt to justify what has occurred in the Americas after the fact. Second, many more people have died due to the idolatrous actions of the Europeans than the in the sacrificial cults of natives (against the inflated numbers thrown about in Spain). Any fear of native return to these traditions does not outweigh the destruction caused by the continued presence of the Spanish and the system of encomienda.

Nevertheless, he pushes further and mounts a defense of the sacrificial traditions themselves. He cannot appeal to the idea of “invincible ignorance” since we are dealing, in part, with natural law (which is accessible to all). Thus, Las Casas makes a bold assertion that the sacrifice of human beings to a god is not contrary to the natural law. He argues first that by natural law all people are obliged to honor God as best they can and offer their best to God in sacrifice: “it is a duty in natural law to offer sacrifice to the true God or to the one regarded as such” (180). However, Las Casas says it is left to human or “positive” law to determine what is to be sacrificed to God. In the absence of a positive law to the contrary and in the presence of an authoritative religious tradition, he goes so far as to say that human sacrifice could be considered a “moral duty” for the natives since we are obliged to offer to God what is most precious. In all of this Las Casas sees a profound religious sense within the native religious traditions.

This short presentation of Las’ Casas defense does not do justice to his reasoning and his call for toleration; nor does it answer the many questions raised by such analysis. He does not argue that these practices are good. Indeed, he says quite explicitly that they are not. His point is that the religious customs of the natives are reasonable for those without revelation rather than a sign of moral and natural inferiority.

 *** A fellow Notre Dame doctoral student who is in Spain for the semester just started a blog which engages this material as part of his dissertation research into Las Casas and the School of Salamanca. For those interested in this period of Christian history, check it out!

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