The Green Table

31 12 2010

Notes on Maritain on Luther

30 12 2010

As insinuated previously, I have been re-reading Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers. I first read this work over ten years ago now as an impressionable college student, and now one can only blush at the easy polemical points that Maritain tries to score against his long-dead adversaries. The three reformers are, of course, Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau, who Maritain thinks are the three founding figures of decadent modernity.
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Alaba los ojos negros de Julia

29 12 2010

¿Eva era rubia? No. Con negros ojos
vio la manzana del jardín: con labios
rojos probó su miel; con labios rojos
que saben hoy más ciencia que los sabios.

Venus tuvo el azur en sus pupilas,
pero su hijo no. Negros y fieros,
encienden a las tórtolas tranquilas
los dos ojos de Eros.

Los ojos de las reinas fabulosas,
de las reinas magníficas y fuertes,
tenían las pupilas tenebrosas
que daban los amores y las muertes.

Pentesilea, reina de amazonas;
Judith, espada y fuerza de Betulia;
Cleopatra, encantadora de coronas,
la luz tuvieron de tus ojos, Julia.

La negra, que es más luz que la luz blanca
del sol, y las azules de los cielos.
Luz que el más rojo resplandor arranca
al diamante terrible de los celos.

Luz negra, luz divina, luz que alegra
la luz meridional, luz de las niñas,
de las grandes ojeras, ¡oh luz negra
que hace cantar a Pan bajo las viñas!

-Rubén Darío
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Mandatory Christmas post

28 12 2010

Merry Christmas, all you people I don’t know. But that sort of virtual greeting is all too common in this cyber-echo chamber. I have bumped into recently some more conservative voices talking about how we should insist on saying, “Merry Christmas”, we should resist the assault on Christmas, and so forth. My own thoughts, to be quite curt, is that I don’t mind the secularization at all. True, there is something quite ridiculous about walking through a mall two days before Christmas at seven in the morning, half the stores already open, while over the loudspeakers is being piped a song with the line, “all I want for Christmas is YOU!” Ain’t that sweet. However, some people who want to put more religiosity back into the holidays are a bunch of stuck-up killjoys who would give the nosy church lady a run for her money. Really, who wants less fun?
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Notes on personhood

27 12 2010

In his book Three Reformers, Maritain summarizes the Thomist view of the human person by saying that as an individual, man is subject of the stars, but as a person, he is their master. It is a good summary. In the traditional cosmology, man is a microcosm who has both reason and free will. Not only does he move, but he knows why he moves and can control movement, unlike plants and animals. In traditional metaphysics, then, man is the crown of creation since he has independent volition and understanding, while combining both the material and spiritual worlds.

That is the argument as far as it goes. To problematize it, one has to cite that many of the ancients, including many Christians, believed that the stars themselves were alive and with reason. That is why they were deemed to be perfect and could indicate the path of our fate, since they moved in a perfect circle. That is a superficial objection. The real one stems precisely from the critique of the cosmological view itself. We know now that our universe is not necessarily governed by a harmonious cosmic order, but by a series of accidents and apocalyptic catastrophes. Nature isn’t some goddess who dances in a completely rational pattern, but rather a monster that determines the life and death of entire worlds due to some very random pattern. The disadvantage of intelligent design arguments in this sense is how they ignore the radical factor of contingency in the development of things. Stuff just happens sometimes.

In this sense, we can take Maritain’s explanation and problematize it even more. The stars are nowhere near us. They are balls of gas floating millions of miles away. But their random formation and movement reflect the contingency of our actions and even our foundational identity. We think we are practicing complete autonomy, when we are really subject to forces we do not understand. Perhaps the real dilemma of our society in the ethical realm is that in the past ethics were imposed by force. Never has there been a time in history when people did things simply because they thought they were the right thing to do.

Perhaps “personhood” is the only legitimate metaphysical basis for Christianity, but that does not necessarily remove the problems from such a concept. It can still be used to alienate those who are not deemed to be acting in conformity with “authentic personhood”. It also does not make the question of the relationship between the common good and the person any easier to answer. Also, it does not answer the question as to how much coercion should be used to make the inviolable human person act virtuously. Nor does it give any real sense of what the relationship is between body and soul, consciousness, the State, and so on. Perhaps what is in the interior of man is not the celestial order of the Maritain dictum but the protean chaos of modern science, and if this is the case, what does this do to Personhood?

Exit through the gift shop

21 12 2010

AG and I really enjoyed this film. I think one of its strongest angles was showing the relationship between art and hype. The story follows an eccentric French ex-pat who goes from being a filmmaker documenting a new popular art movement to being a dilettante impresario/artist himself. Questions arise as to the aesthetic originality and value of the original movement, the relationship between fame and artistic expression, and the role of art in the public space.

Off-the-cuff comments on Catholic philosophy

20 12 2010

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a Thomist. That didn’t work out. It didn’t help that I read Descartes and Sartre in middle school, but even if one could conclude that their epistemological skepticism is a non-issue, an invented game with an agenda, one cannot escape having to address that method of philosophizing. If you read the popular Thomists of last century, they get bogged down in those questions, and it didn’t help that many of them were sympathetic to Husserl and Co., even if they tried to use phenomenology to break out of le songe de Descartes. John Paul II, for all of his pretend orthodoxy, was just as much a child of this philosophy as Heidegger or Derrida. These epistemological questions are an issue because even their opponents have made them an issue.
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For a truly subversive Newman?

16 12 2010

From Eamon Duffy:

But if Cornwell absolves the Vatican of trying to conceal the potentially embarrassing sexuality of a candidate for sainthood, he is inclined to think that the beatification of Newman may nevertheless represent an attempt by an authoritarian church to tame a troublesome and unconventional intellect, and to neutralize Newman’s usefulness to critics of current Vatican policy. Newman was, by nineteenth-century Catholic standards, a deeply unconventional theologian. Soaked in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, he disliked the rigidly scholastic cast of mind that cramped the Catholic theology of his day. He was one of the first theologians to grasp the historical contingency of all theological formulations. Accordingly, he resisted doctrinaire demands for unquestioning obedience to contemporary Church formulae as if they were timeless truths. He was an ardent defender of the legitimate autonomy of the theologian and of the dignity of the laity as custodians of the faith of the Church. He was scathingly critical of the authoritarian papacy of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), who held the office between 1846 and 1878, and he opposed the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 as an unnecessary and inappropriate burden on consciences. “We have come to a climax of tyranny,” he wrote. “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years…. He becomes a god, [and] has no one to contradict him”…

To resolve this apparent contradiction between a religion of objectively revealed truth and the flux of Christian doctrines and practices, Newman wrote at Littlemore a theological masterpiece, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Its central claim is that the concepts and intuitions that shape human history are dynamic, not inert. Great ideas interact with changing times and cultures, retaining their distinctive thrust and direction, yet adapting so as to preserve and develop that energy in different circumstances. Truth is a plant, evolving from a seed into the mature tree, not a baton passed unchanging from hand to hand. Ideas must unfold in the historical process before we can appropriate all that they contain. So beliefs evolve, but they do so to preserve their essence in the flux of history: they change, that is, in order to remain the same. “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I used to make the intellectual mistake of thinking that the Hegelian dialectic, in the triad “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, was prone to the worst form of institutional crony idealism. The position of the current hegemonic institution is the teleological resting point toward which all of history is driven. That is not a fair reading. Really, the process is not about how the Ideal emerges from the purely contingent, but how the contingent becomes the Ideal. Or rather, how the Ideal is the contingent merely viewed after a process of double negation.
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Maria Lionza and the future of religion

15 12 2010

Many thanks to this blog for linking to one of my articles on Maria Lionza, the nationalist syncretic cult of Venezuela. And thanks to its further research, I found two more links to be taken into consideration regarding this phenomenon:

A Blood-Spattered Interview with a Viking

The Cult of Maria Lionza: Summoning the Spirit of Venezuela

Both center on the bloody happenings at Sorte Mountain, the legendary home of the indigenous mother goddess, Maria Lionza. The most fascinating thing I learned was concerning the strangest group in the pantheon of this modern religion: the Viking Court. Apparently, there was a Viking-oriented television show in Venezuela in the 1970’s, and in a sort of cargo-cult transformation, these Vikings, including Erik the Red, regularly take possession of mediums to cure people and expel their demons. (This is somewhat similar to the possession of mediums by Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in the 1950’s, who would regularly expel demons by shouting obscenities at them.) The cult to the Vikings is by far the most bloody, resembling the painful bloody rituals of Voudoun and of various holy places of India. It is also indicative of my positing of the divine as completely contingent. “Incarnation” is not the Ideal manifesting itself in the contingency of history, but the means by which the contingent becomes the Ideal. In this process, a head of garlic, a statue of the Grim Reaper, a card game, or a television program can become the center of the sacred; the embodiment of god itself. More on that a little later.
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Anti-ultramontanist quote of the week

14 12 2010

Found via Vox Nova:

I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute for teaching proclamation construed as command. As Yves Congar said, it is impossible to make the function of teaching an integral element of jurisdiction because it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite another to obey an order: “Autre chose est agréer une doctrine, autre chose obéir à un ordre”…

According to the church historian Eamon Duffy, John Paul II, like Pius XII before him, “saw the pope as first and foremost a teacher, an oracle.” However accurate the image of particular popes as “oracles” may be as a description, it remains the case that any pope who behaves within the church as an oracle misunderstands his office. The image of the oracle is of one who brings fresh messages from God. This no pope can do, for the church he serves as its chief bishop has already heard the Word and lives by that faith, which is its God-given response. It is the duty of those who hold teaching office in the church to articulate, to express, to clarify the faith by which we live.

I particularly like the note on the word, “dissent”. I don’t know how, but the institutional “Counter-Reformed” notion of truth as institutional obedience somehow seeped into the minds of Catholic talking heads. The purpose of all discourse is to bring about ideological homogeneity within the ranks. People who have a hard time with a certain idea necessarily do so out of malice, and so on. First of all, one must perceive distinctions in degrees of obedience. Even parish priests are not under vows of obedience, and a layperson cannot be excluded from the Church without a canonical procedure. Even the measure of not giving Communion because of a latae sententiae penalty does not per se judge a person to be objectively out of the Church in the sense that it cannot read the subjective circumstances behind the supposed act of disobedience. In other words, the institutional church has never reserved for itself the idea that it has a direct pipeline to the Holy Ghost. The existence of the law is the best indication of this. To try to overcome the law with charisma is not only untraditional, but foolish.