Again, on the Catholic 19th century

4 07 2020

It’s a bit strange that I continue to write on Catholic themes, considering my actual beliefs at this point. But I swim in a very Catholic milieu, and I still deal with the ghost of previous beliefs. So anything I state here should probably be taken with a grain of salt by actual believers, if not disregarded entirely. I don’t feel particularly bound by the rules of the contemporary Magisterial discourse for obvious reasons. I am merely commenting on the consistency and inner logic of various ideas from the perspective of a struggling God-conscious person. It’s an outsider-looking-in dynamic, but not so much from the the outside.

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A question

3 05 2020

Someone asked in the comments:

If anything, I’d just like to ask you a question (which you might have addressed in earlier entries, so sorry for redundancy): do you think Christianity necessarily leads to our secular age? In your engagement and critique of Christianity, you’ve always traced the “crisis” of the Catholic Church and Western spirituality to its roots, i.e., the materialism and laxity of today are almost the system developing naturally. Do you think that needs to be the case, or is there a way to avoid those pitfalls of Christianity while retaining the “core” (whatever that is)?

I stated recently that I don’t believe in smoking guns. Nothing leads inevitably to anything else. You’re not breaking into the mind of God and stealing its secrets. On the other hand, one can question the radical break between religion and secularism as it manifests itself in the life of the common person. At least at a very superficial level, we still have a god, we still have magic, and we still deal with forces we don’t understand. It’s just different is all. One reason why I gave up writing for a time other than just being really, really busy, was that my attempt to merge folk Catholicism and Neoplatonism hit a dead end at the beginning of last decade. I ran out of things to say, started some projects and jettisoned those as well, etc. Only recently have I developed the intellectual and moral clarity to say something again. I am not sure how long this will last. Read the rest of this entry »

God of History vs. God as History?

24 04 2019

One of the great influences of my youth was a Russian Orthodox monk who was a Catholic convert. According to a biographical essay written by one of his disciples, he was converted by the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky. Having read Florovsky myself, I can attest that he is one of the only Orthodox writers worth a damn. Aside from his obvious mastery of Patristics and Church history, his more theoretical impact was clear and to the point: Christianity is a religion of history. That is, in contrast to Nietzsche’s attempt to revive the eternal return, Christianity is based firmly on the concept of linear time. Things happen once, and not over and over again. Humans are historic persons with their own unique substance, and not just masks for an eternal repeating energy flow. For instance, this is the main difference between Christian liturgy and pagan ritual in spite of any superficial similarities and appropriations. Liturgy can only commemorate historical events and not eternal cycles of seasons and movements of nature. It could be said that the latter only have meaning in light of the former. Read the rest of this entry »

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

image credit

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


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


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


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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