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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The bewitched automobile

29 09 2010

Well, now, I’ll tell a story what happened to an old lady and her husband down close Hanover. They decided they’d buy themselves a new car – so they did. Well, when Saturday evening come, why, the old gentleman said to his wife, “Now, let’s take a ride in the new car, this evening.” “All right.” They started off and they got in as fer as Hanover. And right at the square in Hanover the care stopped. Nobody could start it. They done everything they knowed, got garage fellows there to look at it, nobody could find anything wrong. Car wouldn’t move. Somebody said, “Well, you go out to Mrs. K. and tell her about this.”

Went out to Mrs. K and told her, and Mrs. K said, “Well, I’ll write you a piece of paper here and you don’t – you’re not to read it. You take it back to the car and put it on the starter and put your foot on this paper, on the starter, and,” she said, “your car will go.” And so they did. Went back a whole crowd around the car. They put this piece of paper on the starter and he put his foot on it, and the car started right off, and away they went. Didn’t have no more trouble that evening with the car.

So the next morning some time, why, they got someone come and said, “Well, the neighbor woman over there is awful sick.” “Well,” they said, “what’s wrong with her?” Said, “She’s in bed, she’s jist that sick she can’t be up.” And this was the woman that put the spell on the automobile. And Mrs. K. fixed her business fer her that she didn’t bother nobody around there fer awhile.

-Text from Don Yoder, “Witch tales from Adams County”, from south-central Pennsylvannia, found in Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States.

The fount of philosophy

23 08 2010

Souls cannot ascend without music.


The common intellectual history of the West, especially since the Enlightenment, has stated that philosophical thought grew out of a rejection of the old mythologies that had come before it. The Greeks were the first “Europeans”: those who truly began to question the ungodly superstitions of the Egyptians and Babylonians, as well as their own. The evident skepticism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle is thought to be at the very least inimical to the interests of classical Greek religion. Philosophy is thus seen as the beginning of the death of myth, and the prelude to the rational world in which we inhabit today.

It is a very reassuring story, but it is not necessarily the real one. Recent scholars have begun to dig into the roots of ancient philosophy, and are finding more continuity than rupture; more sympathy with “ancient superstition” than an inveterate form of rationalist positivism. There was of course the hubbub of a couple of months back when a scholar came up with evidence that the Platonic dialogues were embedded with Pythagorean musical scales. There came forth the idea, quite foreign to modern people used to the “data in, discourse out” model of philosophizing, that the text has more in it than words and ideas. It is a sort of divine play in itself: a representation of the eternal cosmogony. On the other hand, many scholars are seeing at the root of the philosophical enterprise an ancient method of inner transformation that is quite distant from our own ideas of philosophy. Philosophy was more tied to ritual and religion than it is in contemporary practice. What philosophy was trying to do initially was not break free from the “mythology” that came before it, but radically return to its source.
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The saints vs. the locusts

12 08 2010

Or: What the Doctors of the Church are really for

The doctors of the Church were considered to have special power over insects and other agricultural pests. In Socuéllamos (Ciudad Real) a lottery was held among the doctors of the Church to choose the saint for a vow against locusts and vine worms. In other towns St. Ambrose and St. Thomas Aquinas were used. Perhaps the theologian saints can be explained by the custom of ritual excommunication of grasshoppers and insect pests. In ecclesiastical trial what lawyer could present a more convincing case than a doctor of the Church?

-William Christian, Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain

To clarify, what is being spoken of consistently here is not some favoring of “local religion” as the manifestation of the pure faith of the noble savage. That does not tell the whole story, nor is it fair to either the “experts” or the “plebs”. To the experts, since it is from them that much of what is “exotic” in “folk religion” originates. Often “popular religion” is really just the remnant of philosophical beliefs left behind by cultural elites in favor of a newer, more enlightened religion. Arguably, this is the case regarding such things as the evil eye in much of the Catholic world and the “dragging of the tongue” in Italy that was initially introduced to the populace by missionary friars. On the other hand, such a patronizing attitude excludes the cultural agency of the populace. The laity understood many complex theological concepts better than many would give them credit, and often better than those who sought to educate them regarding these doctrines. In some ways, they could grasp things more intuitively than many educated, ideologically driven pedagogues.

It is the existence of this “intuitive Catholicism” that seems to throw many of my readers off. I should repeat here that it is not some sort of straightfoward exchange. What we really have is a continual struggle over symbols and what they mean; ideas and how we interpret them. For the Spanish town dweller around the time of the Counter-Reformation, the office of Doctor of the Church was not primarily one of the teacher of abstract doctrines. While such duties were important to some, the average Catholic there sought to incorporate the saint into the basic cosmovision of survival and patronage. In this case, the best way to get rid of locusts and other pests was to try them in an ecclesiastical court, and invoke the “smartest” saints to be the prosecution.

It is that sense of “organic” religiosity, the very ground of belief, that I seek to study. In doing this, I hope to avoid all ideological posturing. In the trials of the locusts by the saints, we have a perfect harmony between the “high” and “low” religiosities often contrasted on this blog. In the end, they need each other, though in my estimation it is best if they remain distinct.

above: Miguel Jacinto Melendez’s St. Augustine conjuring a plague of locusts

Resplendent bodies

17 05 2010

Cuerpos Resplandecientes: Santos Populares Argentinos by Rosa Lojo

Over the years in Latin America, the idea of the “santo pagano”, “santo popular”, or “santo informal” has been the subject of many studies and literary pursuits. From regional folklore, the figure of the folk saint has often become a figure of class resistance, the assertion of plebian pride, and a national symbol. This is due a great deal to the general secularization of Latin America in the the last fifty years, the subsequent decline of the power of the Catholic Church over cultural affairs, and the feeling of exclusion that large parts of these societies feel towards the general cultural discourse. In the face of the modernization of religion, people feel that they need to carve out a niche for their own saints, their own intercessors, who defend them from the same institutions that the mainstream Church seeks to uphold.
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A sum of disunities

15 04 2010

The dynamic of eighteenth century French society, what Cobban meant by the “sum” of disunities, is somewhat more difficult to explain. But it is important to understand, for it is what constituted the French social ethos and set it off from that of England. Disunites, remnants of medievalism, plagued early modern European states generally. Individuals moved with a high degree of freedom and security within their corporate group, protected by its rights, but the groups themselves were often at odds with one another… Eli Heckscher put it succinctly when he said that for mercantilists the collective entity was not “a nation unified by common race, speech, and customs” but “the state,” which is to say, the crown and the territory and the populations it governed. In most cases, early modern states included many varied social and ethnic groupings, with which the crown authorities, particularly in France, were willing to “deal tolerantly so long as they did not conflict with the interests of the state.”

Jerah Johnson, found in the collection of essays, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization

This is a very rich passage in terms of dissecting the transition of societies in modernity. The pre-modern model was very much focused on the local for necessary reasons. The idea of the nation-state being a dominant force in determining your identity was not possible because the means of mass communication simply were not there to create such cohesion. A Frenchman in the 18th century probably had no idea that he was French, especially if he spoke Occitan or a dialect of German. The nobility probably had a sense of being “French” only insofar as they wanted to imitate the habits and customs practiced at the court of Versailles. It is arguable, however, that the homogenization of all peoples within a political boundary into “one nation” did not take place until the nineteenth century.

Modernity in its highest phase thus equals the death of the local. Local accents die, local foods die, local tales are cast into the oblivion of anthropological scholarship. They either die, or they are assimilated into the “national whole”, just as foods and language are changed to “fit into” the ethos of the dominant culture. (American “Italian” or “Chinese” food for example.) This is not so much a “tragic” thing, as an inevitable thing. I am not one to be reactionary for reaction’s sake, nor “localist” just for the sake of romanticist provincialism. After all, every time honored tradition is at bottom an adaptation of something else that has its origin in a not so pristine past.

But neither should we overlook the dangers of this drive to unify everything. Especially in our deepest philosophical and theological beliefs, we cannot disregard the fact that we function under a daily regime where difference is to be stamped out in the name of societal harmony. Even in the most “postmodern”, politically correct acceptances of “diversity”, there is a subtext of totalizing liberalism: it’s okay to be diverse, as long as you are diverse “like us”.

For me, when I look at such institutions like the Catholic Church, for example, I cannot help but see the dangers of homogenization being at the heart of all things that I fear. We must sing the same songs, use the same ceremonies, have the exact same points of view. It is not that I am arguing for the “liberal” pluralism that I despise. I more argue for a Catholicism where “difference” is tolerated, if only under the table, in an unspoken agreement that maybe some Catholics are “better” than others, but we are all in the same boat. Perhaps it is a pipe dream on my part, but I dream of being Catholic in the context in which perfection does not equal conformity. That is not at all clear, but I hope at least some of you know what I am talking about.

Italian American Folklore

8 04 2010

Coming from a family that immigrated to this country, assimilation has always been a subject on my mind. For those who live or grow up in ethnic enclaves, the question always arises as to how one becomes integrally connected to the societal whole. This is not a question of “if”, but a question of “when” and “how”. Perhaps most interestingly to me, I have always wondered what the process was of making a specific ethnic group, such as the Italians, into your basic run-of-the-mill WASP’s that have last names ending in vowels.

Frances Malpezzi and William Clements wrote a book entitled Italian American Folklore: Proverbs, Songs, Games, Folktales, Foodways, Superstitions, Folk Remedies, and More. The title pretty much sums up the book. In a lot of ways, the book is unique in that it shows “Old World” traditions in the state of transition and decline. How does a culture that has existed unchanged for centuries alter itself when faced with a new language, a new political order, and a new societal ethos? And do such conditions in the end lead to the inevitable decline of that cultural identity?
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On the love of God

31 03 2010

A spiritual creature can love God more than himself because the relation of a creature to God is the relation of the part to the whole. A part can love the whole on which it depends for its existence more than it loves itself. The hand moves instinctively to sacrifice itself in protecting the body whose part it is. The citizen willingly gives up his life for the community of which he is a member. So the creature can love the God on whom he depends even more than he loves himself- more so indeed than the hand or citizen in the examples cited. For the creature’s relation to God is no ordinary relation of part to whole. It is a relation of participation, the relation of a participant to the Infinite Existence in whose plenitude it shares. The creature depends on God for everything he is and does. God dwells in the creature through His creative action. In a way God is the creature while transcending it because creature and God are one through the unity of participation. As the ever-present creative source of creature’s being, God is the creature’s good more than the creature himself is. If therefore a spiritual creature loves his own good truly, he must love God more than he loves himself.

-Gerald A. McCool, S.J., From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism

On man and beast

10 03 2010

Let me now bring this letter to an end, but may I first remind you of this one thing, which clearly we should bear in mind: if the wild beasts within us are many, it is not surprising that according to Plato souls are transmigrating from men to beasts. Certainly, we have within us, from the beginning, fuel for desire and something of an animal nature. When we have heedlessly nourished these for a long time, reason is either in some way lulled to sleep, or else it is awake under the cloak of passion and desire. Wherefore, under the human skin, the man himself seems to have been transformed into beasts. Hence Socrates says in Phaedrus, “Indeed I examine myself, Phaedrus. Am I a monster with more heads than Typhon, more full of fire and fury? Or am I a simpler and calmer being, sharing in some divine and favorable destiny, partaking in a quiet understanding?”

-Marsilio Ficino, found in Meditations on the Soul

On the inherent superiority of Western culture

4 02 2010

Greek wisdom and Roman law were divine gifts that prepared the fullness of time for the coming of the Savior. Only this cultural treasure, after centuries of theological discussions and conciliar definitions, allowed the great Christian dogmas to be formulated with precision. And since they [the neo-modernists] like to speak of the “incarnation”: Just as only the most pure flesh of the Virgin Mary was capable of receiving the Word of God, thus only the “flesh” of Greco-Roman culture was sufficently healthy enough to be animated by the wisdom of the Gospel, and to build the cathedral of Christian cultural, the highest spire of which is the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas. But for the mentality that has today invaded the Church, we have just blasphemed: in Africa, India, and America we have to begin anew. And since there has been a cultural revolution in the Christian West, we have a new task for the next millenium: “A new mobilization is imposed on the Church, in order to confront the task of inculturation of the Gospel in the modern world. In this matter we should embrace the concern of John Paul II: ‘From the beginning of my pontificate I have considered the dialogue of the Church with the cultures of our time an important field of work in which the fate of the world at the end of the 20th century is at play’.”

-Fr. Álvaro Calderón, La Lámpara bajo el Celemín: Cuestión disputada sobre la autoridad doctrinal del Magisterio eclesiástico desde el Concilio Vaticano II, my translation

In spite of my perennialist tendencies, my impulse to post Hindu kirtans and videos of Vodou rituals, I agree 100% with Fr. Calderon’s assessment. Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion. If there were any way to get around that, I would have found it by now. But the fact that the Gospel was written in Greek using concepts such as “logos” that had been in formation in the Greek mind for centuries is no mere accident of history. God could have been incarnated in the context of another culture, just as He “could have” been incarnated in a pearl or an ass. But He did not do that; He came into this world at a very specific time and a very specific place, as did His Body, the Church. Even the Fathers of the Church saw this, and there will always be a superiority of the Greek and Latin tongues to all others, just as the Muslims consider Koranic Arabic sacred, or the Jews Hebrew.

That being said, I think that it is profitable to study other forms of religiosity and cultures, since I do think (good crypto-perennialist that I am) that in them are embodied foreshadowing echoes of the Word of God. They also teach us concepts that we, in our sanitized, modern mentality, once understood but some time ago forgot. But this always has to be done in the mind frame of historical hierarchy. God chose to express Himself this way, and we are obligated to keep to that way as much as possible.

As for inculturation itself, it is not an easy process, and it takes centuries to happen legitimately, and not without many setbacks. I have long defended on this blog the idea that even the more “exotic” aspects of Mexican “folk Catholicism” are just as “Western” as the Pope and the Summa. Only after centuries, and not a little violence, did Catholicism become not just the religion of the State, but of the hearts and minds of even the simplest people. Indeed, if you mentioned to me the persistence of indigenous religion outside of remote parts of Yucatan and Chiapas, I would laugh in your face, as would most Mexicans, save the random New Age-style shaman trying to perform a limpia on you in the Zocalo in Mexico City. Catholicism, in its Spanish flavor with a few alterations, is the indigenous religion of Mexico, as much as that frustrates intellectual radicals who would return us to the pristine religion of “Aztlan” and the “Mexicas”.