Verklärte Nacht

30 04 2010

Newman among the partisans

29 04 2010

I recently found a couple of articles on Newman that sparked again some thoughts on this significant figure of modern Catholicism. They can be found here and here. I have to give credit to the Renegade Trads blog for one of these articles. My own opinion is that Newman’s reputation is both over-inflated and paradigmatic. While I think he was a great prose-writer, I believe as well that he perpetuated many of the scholarly prejudices that have blossomed into the facile Catholicism that we know today. In terms of modern English Catholic prose, he can be compared to St. Augustine in the Latin tongue. He was the first major Protestant intellectual to convert, and his body of work was almost equally extensive. I suppose that it would thus seem fitting that people would want to canonize him. He is an icon of a certain group in the Anglophone world shaking off the prejudices of the Reformation and joining the body of the new “enlightened” Catholicism.

The two articles cited above, however, paint a more complicated picture. Both essays seem to want to exalt the idea of Newman “the liberal”, and do this with rather mixed results. Whether or not one agrees with the slant that these authors take regarding Newman’s legacy, what is abundantly clear and indisputable is that Newman was far from an uncontroversial figure in life. He made many enemies, and played in some dangerous intellectual sandboxes. While, when made a cardinal, he told Leo XIII that he had always fought liberalism, the written record seems to be far more ambiguous.

Indeed, over the course of my life, I have read of liberal avatars of Newman, and conservative avatars of Newman, and portraits of Newman that made him seem like a forerunner to the militant anti-modernists of the early 20th century. Indeed, he must be all of these things and none of them. Some might contest that he was above the fray of these simplistic disputes; that his theological and rhetorical genius is too difficult for most mere mortals to grasp. In medio stat virtus, is the rejoinder often heard in these cases. But, as I have said before, many times what is in the middle is not virtue, but muddledness.

But all of this does speak of a complex figure, one perhaps not captured in the partisan bickering into which modern Christianity has descended. John Cornwell says this towards the end of his essay:

Newman’s legacy hardly sits comfortably with the conservatism of Pope Benedict. It is entirely possible, in fact, that his beatification signals an attempt to sanitise his legacy rather than adopt those aspects that are critical of Rome, which he once compared to a swamp. Just a month ago Benedict cited Newman, without proper quotation, as an enemy to all Catholic dissidents; but no one was more critical than Newman of the Vatican, wrongful assumptions about papal infallibility, and Rome’s over-centralisation.

I think that this is a fair assessment, perhaps not of Newman the man, but at least of his body of work. For Newman could attack the nascent modernism that would be condemned twenty years after his death, and rhetorically enable such dissent with his infamous “toast to conscience”. It could be that of all the people who would rent Dr. Newman’s mantle to take it as their own, none of them are truly faithful to Newman’s ethos of a “loyal opposition”. While the right makes him a crusader for obedience, and the left makes him a long-suffering martyr of conscience, perhaps the real Newman remains elusive.

Your daily dose of syncretism

28 04 2010

This time from Cuba.

Somewhat related to my latest article for Inside Catholic


28 04 2010

Hay palabras que tienen sombra de árbol
otras que tienen atmósfera de astros
Hay vocablos que tienen fuego de rayos
Y que incendian donde caen
Otros que se congelan en la lengua y se rompen al salir
Como esos cristales alados y fatídicos
Hay palabras como imanes
que atraen los tesoros del abismo
Otras que se descargan como vagones sobre el alma
Altazor desconfía de las palabras
Desconfía del ardid ceremonioso
Y de la poesía
Trampas de luz y cascadas lujosas
Trampas de perla y de lámpara acuática
Anda como los ciegos con sus ojos de piedra
Presintiendo el abismo a todo paso

-Vicente Huidobro, del primer canto de su poema, Altazaor
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27 04 2010

One of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth century was the emergence of “population” as an economic and political problem: population as wealth, population as manpower or labor capacity, population balanced between its own growth and the resources it commanded. Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a “people”, but with a “population”, with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation…At the heart of this economic and political problem was sex: it was necessary to analyze the birthrate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the ways of making them fertile or sterile… Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less, a whole web of discourses, special knowledge, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it.

-Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I

I once asked one of my mentors what a Father of the Church would think if you brought a birth control pill to him and explained to him what it was. He thought my question silly, because he said that, for them, sex was disgusting and not worth discussing at all. Aside from a very few exceptions, I have largely seen this view as correct.

That is why there was such a dearth of “spiritual reading material” for the married person qua married person. Sure, a married person could read, for example, the Imitation of Christ, but even there the presumption is that the reader is a monastic or a priest. The same goes for most Christian spiritual literature up to very recently. Sex was not a correct topic of conversation, and it was far from spiritual things.

The fact that we are more “open” towards “sexuality” now in the religious context has nothing to do with seeing the light or recovering a more consistently “incarnational” approach towards these questions, but rather is part of a modern technocratic trend of power to bring sexuality, that simultaneously creative and destructive force, under subjection. Sex is money, sex is power, sex is the discourse of modernity. Since man no longer fears the transcendent, he must deify the most powerful natural force: the procreative one and all that surrounds it.

It is thus through Foucault’s glasses that I see the new “theology of the laity”, “theology of the body”, and the continued complaint by Catholic and other Christian clergy that people need to have “more babies”. Of course, there is an element of supernatural care in it all, but I don’t think it easily separated from the very modern tendency of thinking of sex as power.

Ex opere operato

26 04 2010

Thoughts on Voudoun and worship

A collective religion cannot depend on vagaries of individual aptitude and persuasion; on the contrary, it must stabilize these vagaries and protect participants against their own weaknesses, failures, and inadequacies. It must provide the generally uncreative, often distracted individual with a prescribed movement and attitude, the very performance of which involves and perhaps inspires him… The tradition must support the individuals, give them security beyond personal indecision, lift them beyond their own individual creative powers…. It does not rise from their grace, their power, their knowledge. It confers these upon them.

-Maya Deren, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Deren in her book is perceptive in terms of analyzing the very “objective” concerns of Voudoun serviteurs and religious practice. For Deren, in these there is no room for virtuosity, just as there is no room to take it upon oneself to serve the lwa. All of these are phenomena the laws of which originate in another world. It is that other world’s virtuosity, its creativity, that must manifest itself in ritual, not our own.

The West has long ago abandoned this sense of the connection between worship and cosmos, at least on the fundamental level. What is important is not the cycle of the universe but history; what matters is the commemoration of events, not archetypes. The most modern scholarship is keen to point out the difference between the Christian and non-Christian visions of space, time, and eternity. How the seminal events manifest themselves in the present is a question of commemoration and not invocation; it is fundamentally an action haunted by the fear of idolatry. What matters most is history and not cosmos; moral action and not theurgical performance.
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El Corte Kalé

25 04 2010

For my Spanish-speaking readers, a documentary found on-line about the popular canonization of Robin Hood-like thugs in modern Venezuela:

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Javanese gamelan

23 04 2010

The Rise and Fall of Neo-Thomism – part III

22 04 2010

Personal Neoplatonism and when tradition really isn’t tradition

We left off yesterday with the dissolution of Thomism as the “official” philosophy of the Church. In McCool’s telling of the story, Thomism collapsed under its own scholarly weight. Either people were too concerned with dialoguing with modern philosophers (Marechal and Rousselot) or they wanted to make Thomism into a bulwark of liberal modernity (Maritain), or they were too concerned with finding “real Thomism” (Gilson), for all of this to last as a monolithic system. Even though Thomas is still respected, he is far from the sole source of Catholic philosophy and theology.

I suppose the personal lesson that I took away from McCool’s book is that there is really no such thing as “Thomism”. Even in the time of Aquinas, philosophy was too fluid for one approach to be defined as “the” correct approach. Of course, this type of realization has come to me at many points in my life. As a Marxist, once I began to dig more in depth into revolutionary theory, I found that what was at its heart was vulgar authoritarianism. Once you begin to peal the Thomist onion, you will find a hodge-podge of Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, and Patristic concerns. Simply put, Thomas did not know that he was a Thomist; he was not obsessed with the epistemological and theological concerns that plague Catholics in the context of postmodernity.
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La Isla de las Muñecas

21 04 2010

One of the odder sites in the area of Mexico City, in the floating gardens of Xochimilco, this is the former habitation of a man who collected dolls to defend himself from the ghost of a small girl who had drowned there. It has now been converted into a tourist spot, because Mexicans like to hustle like that…

Anyway, the most interesting part of the video above is around the four minute mark when the caretaker describes the “Miraculous Doll” that people bring gifts for in exchange for favors and miracles. She apparently has a following.

As we have written before, such fetishism was not uncommon in much of the Catholic world, as sacred wells, holy dirt, and other phenomena attest.