Reality for the sake of theory

11 04 2011

Notes on Hegel’s Philosophy of History

The premise of Hegel’s work can be summarized, oddly enough, in a very simple phrase: “the Eastern world knew that one is free; the Greek world knew that some are free; and the German world knows that all are free”. The movement of the Spirit through history is manifested through man’s increasing separation from Nature. Spirit, simply put, is freedom, and modernity is the realization of that freedom that has been developing through the centuries. Hegel uses the figure of the Egyptian Sphinx, the human face climbing out of the animal body, to show this emergence of the free from the primeval muck of nature.
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Notes on Hegel on Africa

21 03 2011

These are some of the infamous passages by G.F.W. Hegel in his Philosophy of History in which he writes the following:

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture…

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.
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On 19th century Thomism

14 03 2011

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The book is Gerald McCool’s book, Nineteenth Century Scholasticism: The Search for a Unitary Method. I reviewed the sequel to this book, From Unity to Pluralism, previously on this blog.

The book is about the process of how neo-Thomist scholasticism became the “official philosophy” of the Church from the publication of Leo XIII’s encyclical, Aeterni Patris, in 1879, to the opening sessions of Vatican II in the 1960’s. In the process of describing how scholasticism became once again dominant in the Catholic Church, McCool describes the historical circumstances and rival philosophical approaches that scholasticism sought to replace. In this rare survey of Catholic thought in the 19th century, the author concludes, as in his sequel, that scholasticism ultimately unraveled due to its inability to analyze categories of thought within their proper historical context. In the end, neo- scholasticism could not be unified because the original scholasticism never was. Even the esteemed Baroque commentators on St. Thomas had deviated from their master on such key issues of the nature of being, knowledge, and grace.
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Secularism and its discontents

22 03 2010

This past March 17th, AG and I went to a talk at Loyola University here in New Orleans given by Fr. Joseph Tetlow S.J. entitled “American Culture, Religion, and Spirituality”. This was part of the Sacred Word / Sacred Music series, and true to its name, the talk was interpolated with verses from popular Protestant hymns sung by the audience. The subject of the talk was the rise of secularism in the American context, and what we can do to defend ourselves from it. While I agreed with many of his arguments, and was surprised by the radical nature of some of his proposed solutions, I found them not convincing since they appealed to a sense of non-confessional “religious decency” that tends to paralyze cultural thought in this country. In my opinion, if any collective action is to be taken against the “secular menace”, its foundation must lie in truth and ideas, not in vague sentiments of “needing a god” to uphold the social order.

Much of Fr. Tetlow’s talk consisted of a catalogue of the attacks by militant secularists against any public manifestation of religion, and the historical background of the role of religion in public life dating to the colonial era. He described how militant atheist groups are striving to strike such phrases as “one nation, under God” and “in God we trust” from use in various places in the public sphere. For him, this has nothing to do with “freedom of religion” or violations of the establishment clause, but is a direct persecution of believing Christians in public discourse. This of course has accompanied the general decline of religious practice in the last fifty years, and Father provided all of the statistics with which all of you I am sure are now familiar.
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On the margins of theology – IV

16 11 2009

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The curious case of St. Guinefort

For those who fancy themselves cultured and somewhat versed in the more bizarre points of history, the case of St. Guinefort is perhaps one of the more exotic and colorful stories at which to gawk. For those few who do not yet know the story, it begins in the castle of a nobleman whose name is now lost to the erosion of time and lore. Upon returning from a trip, he hastily killed his loyal greyhound after thinking that it had mauled his newborn child to death in his crib. After finding a dead snake and the child safe and sound, the nobleman realized what had really happened: the dog had once again presented itself as “man’s best friend”, having ferociously killed the snake that was stalking the bed of the newborn. The nobleman buried the dog and planted a tree at its burial site to commemorate its heroic actions. The castle itself was eventually leveled, the family departed, and a grove of trees came up in its place. But the locals did not forget the “martyrdom” of that greyhound, and little by little, the tree at which it was buried became the site of pilgrimage, particularly for mothers with sick young children.

This was the state in which the devoted Dominican, Stephen of Bourbon, found this area of the world in the 1200′s. Hot on the trail of heresy and witchcraft, the educated city dweller entered the countryside looking for anything that did not cohere with the “orthodoxy” that was triumphantly established in the great cathedrals and universities of the age. When through much prodding the friar found out that the local saint was a dog commemorated at a sacred grove, he began a campaign to eradicate the blasphemy from the region. He preached against the “rites” performed by the mothers there who would bring their sick children as a “sacrifice” to the fauns, passing them through the trunks of trees and leaving them exposed to the elements. Finally, he preached at the place itself, and had the bones of the dog dug up and burnt, and leveled the place to the ground. Unforunately here as well, Holy Mother Church was not able to eradicate completely the superstitions of the local “cafeteria” Catholics, and the cultus to St. Guinefort lasted well into the early 20th century.
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More on faith and culture

5 11 2009

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The following is a slightly edited version of an essay I originally posted here.

Rather than attempting to build Christianity upon the natural virtues of Inca religion in the Andes, the Jesuits in Juli had come to see Andean customs and beliefs as a serious hinderance to the faith of Christ. The sixteenth-century emphasis on the interior experience of Christianity, which created much higher standards for native converts than had existed in preceding centuries, meant that the Jesuit’s disillusionment with the native potential for Christian evangelization would be experienced throughout the Peruvian church. Eventually, the conviction that they native peoples were not truly “Christian” would lead to episcopal campaigns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to extirpate idolatry, as well as to modern notions that Andean peoples are “cryptopagans” even when they profess a belief in Christ.

Dr. Sabine Hyland wrote a book a few years back entitled, The Jesuit and the Incas, on one of the first mestizo clergy in Peru, Fr. Blas Valera. A son of one of the conquistadores and an Inca noblewoman, he was one of the first scholars to do a comparison of ancient Incan civilization with the European classical world, and created a world view quite favorable to the conquered empire. It was Fr. Valera’s contention that Inca religion was quite close to Christianity, down to an almost Christian idea of an incarnate God named Viracocha, and an absolute creator god named Illa Tecce. Valera wanted the Spanish clergy to begin to use these names for the Christian God and Jesus Christ, but to no avail. In the end, Fr. Valera was framed on charges of fornication and imprisoned by the Jesuit order for four years. Scholars now believe that he was really imprisoned for syncretic heresy. Only through the intervention of some influential Jesuits was he finally freed and sent to Spain, where he died in a pirate assault on Cadiz in 1597.
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The laity and the Church

2 11 2009

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Once upon a time, there was a Church that didn’t need the laity. Well, it knew that it was there, but it wasn’t like it mattered or anything. The only non-clergy who actually mattered were the ones who had the swords and the guns; as long as they were on the clergy’s side, the Church could basically do whatever it wanted. Thus, the liturgy remained in the same language for sixteen hundred years, even if the people had long stopped speaking that language. Ceremonies were basically performed in a whisper, or in a rushing series of clerical incantations to which most of the people in the church were completely oblivious. Meanwhile, the laity had to “fend for themselves”, taking what the clergy told them and trying to fit it into how they perceived and lived their daily lives. Sometimes, the clergy themselves assumed many of the popular beliefs of the people (after all, clergymen in that Church didn’t just bud out of other clergymen like hydras), and sometimes they had to go to scold the people for their “superstition” when they found certain practices objectionable. But the point was that the clergy had a captive audience, and the laity had to accept whatever it said, like it or not.
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On the abuse of ecclesiastical power

16 07 2009

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Or: Things that happen when clergymen get too enthusiastic

Pope Paul IV when he was a cardinal was in charge of the Roman Inquisition: one of his first acts as a pope was to increase the powers of this institution and the penalties associated with heresy: even some cardinals were charged with heresy and Cardinal Morone was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo as a hidden Lutheran. The pope imposed on the Romans a very austere lifestyle, but allowed his nephew Carlo Carafa to profit from his position to enrich himself and, according to widespread rumours, to behave badly from a moral viewpoint. He forced the Jews of the Papal State to live in two ghettos in Rome and Ancona: he built walls around an area of Rione Sant’Angelo which was subject to floods: the Jews were not allowed to live elsewhere and during the day had to go about wearing a distinctive sign… Pope Paul IV died in August 1559: the Romans reacted to the news by setting fire to the Inquisition palace and by destroying all the coats of arms of the pope: his statue in Campidoglio was beheaded and the head was rolled down the cordonata.

Source
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On Christian Conscience

26 02 2009

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As a seminarian, I first read the text of the trial of St. Maximus Confessor, and it always struck me as a very challenging text. As you may know, the context of the trial is that St. Maximus is being accused in the trial of treason since he refuses to sign on to the doctrine that there is only one will or energy in Christ. At one point, the saint is asked some very pointed questions. I here produce the relavent excerpts:

Will you [Maximus] be saved and all others be lost?” To which he replied, “The three young men who did not adore the idol when all others adored it did not condemn anyone. They did not attend to what belonged to others but attended to this, that they did not lapse from true worship. Likewise, Daniel, when thrown in the lion’s den, did not condemn anyone who did not pray to God in accordance with the decree of Darius, but attended to what was his own role, and he preferred to die and not offend God than to be afflicted by his own conscience over the transgression of the laws of nature. Thus it is with me as well; may God grant that I neither condemn anyone nor say that I alone am saved. But I prefer to die rather than to have on my conscience that I in any way at all have been deficient in what concerns faith in God.

I think we have to realize that in the end we will be responsible only for ourselves. Many times, our preoccupation with matters of ecclesiastical importance is a useless distraction: worrying about things that are not really our business anyway. I think this should be kept in mind first and foremost when discussing Church matters.





On Historical Imagination

16 11 2008

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When modern people tend to think of history, they tend to imagine themselves as rubbing shoulders with great men. When they become nostalgic for the “simpler” times, the “golden age”, the glorious past now lost, they tend to picture themselves in the castles, cathedrals, and palaces of the mighty and powerful. The problem is, so few actually had access to these monuments of human achievement. Most were treading dung in a pit to slather it on their house. And they never ventured more than ten miles from where they were born. Vanitas vanitatum…

I am trying to perform an exercise of imagining what it would have been to live in my family a hundred years ago, in the harsh deserts of northern Mexico: growing and picking cotton and anything else that could grow in the rocky soil and experiencing death at a young and tender age. Of all ideas in the world, Christianity is least suited to the idolizing of great men. The Gospel itself seems to be a deconstruction of such myths. A humble stable, a smelly fishing boat, a barren hill of execution outside the walls of Jerusalem… all these seem to speak of something far removed from the realms of great men. How easily we forget.

Connected to this is the idea of “tradition” as a set of approved written texts. The Church rose and fell last century on how certain very smart men read some very old texts, and how these texts seemed to tell a story different from their childhoods of rosy-cheeked Madonnas, Infants of Prague, and a hurried if meticulous muttered Mass in fiddle back chausable. But what if some smart men two thousand years from now try to piece together our way of life from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and editorials in the New York Times? What would they find out? How much would they read us out of it and read themselves into it? That is why I am skeptical of the whole “Patristics resourcement” in general. The game is being played with loaded die. I don’t buy any of it for a second.








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