Sunday, September 1, 2013

Michael Gillespie, The theological origins of modernity

My son, Christopher, just sent me an email today from New York where he lives, in which he relates (I'm quoting by permission):
I finished [Michael Allen] Gillespie's The Theological Origins of Modernitylast night. It was overall a very enjoyable read.

He turns the conventional reading of the Enlightenment (as reason overcoming religion) on its head by explaining how the humanism of Petrarch, the free-will debate between Luther and Erasmus, the scientific forays of Francis Bacon, the epistemological debate between Descarte and Hobbes, were all motivated by an underlying wrestling with the questions posed by nominalism, which dismantled the rational God-and-universe of scholasticism and introduced (by the Franciscans) a fideistic God-of-pure-will born of their concern that anything less than such would jeopardize God's omnipotence -- subsequent intellectual history is in Gillespie's reading a grappling with the questions of free will and divine determinism; Protestantism involved at its core fidiestic, denying of free will will in order to preserve God's absolute power. However, this in turn culminated in an ambivalence about salvation. If God simply wills whom to save, human action then has no real merit or significance (Luther's "sin boldly"). Gillespie's chapter on the Erasmus-Luther was among the most interesting in bringing this out. Also fascinating was his discussion of Descartes and Hobbes -- the latter usually depicted as an atheist and his philosophy as chiefly political -- as sincerely religious, and revealing the underlying metaphysical concerns behind his thought. And so Gillespie says, even in modern times, we are bequeathed with a similar wrestling with modernity's political ambitions to increasing freedom and the inability to reconcile this with science's inherent determinist worldview. Likewise, in the post-9/11/ confrontation with Islam (which makes a brief appearance at the end) we are again confronted with the pure will and absolutism of Islam which sees the West's assertion of "individual autonomy" / free will as a challenge to God's omnipotence, for whom our only response is obedience.
From his blog review, Against the Grain, Christopher quotes the fundamental thesis of Gillespie from the book:
...the apparent rejection or disappearance of religion and theology in fact conceals the continuing relevance of theological issues and commitments for the modern age. Viewed from this perspective, the process of secularization or disenchantment that has come to be seen as identical with modernity was in fact something different than it seemed, not the crushing victory of reason over infamy, to use Voltaire’s famous term, not the long drawn out death of God that Nietzsche proclaimed, and not the evermore distant withdrawal of the deus absconditus Heidegger points to, but the gradual transference of divine attributes to human beings (an infinite human will), the natural world (universal mechanical causality), social forces (the general will, the hidden hand), and history (the idea of progress, dialectical development, the cunning of reason)....

That the deemphasis, disappearance, and death of God should bring about a change in our understanding of man and nature is hardly surprising. Modernity ... originates out of a series of attempts to construct a coherent metaphysic specialis on a nominalist foundation, to reconstitute something like the comprehensive summalogical account of scholastic realism. The successful completion of this project was rendered problematic by the real ontological differences between an infinite (and radically omnipotent) God and his finite creation (including both man and nature).
Christopher cites Lee Trepanier's concise summary of the intellectual path Gillespie takes to demonstrate his thesis (University Bookman), delving into the thought of Petrarch and the significance of the debates between Luther and Erasmus, Descartes and Hobbes as they grappled with the theologic implications of nominalism.

Apart from finding the last chapter "a bit rushed and inconclusive" (the post-9/11 spectre of Islam makes a cursory appearance at the end, but isn't adequately elaborated), he calls Gillespie's revisionist intellectual history of modernity and "immensely informative" and "provocative challenge to the conventional, secular reading of history." Sounds interesting. Read more on Christopher's blog >>

Friday, November 16, 2012

Christopher Ferrara, Liberty, The God that Failed

Christopher Shannon, "A Declaration of Catholic Independence" (Crisis Magazine, October 30, 2012):
G.K. Chesterton once described America as a “nation with the soul of a church.” Many have wrongly interpreted this statement as Chesterton’s way of saying that America was a Christian nation, or that Americans were especially pious and devout people. Chesterton meant something rather different, and not especially complementary. America is like a church in the sense that it has often understood citizenship in terms of assent to a creed. One becomes an Englishman or Frenchman through history, through coming from a family that has lived in a particular place for generations. In contrast, one can theoretically become an American simply by assent to certain abstract principles, the American creed. Chesterton’s characterization of America as a creedal nation came to mind as I passed an election sign for the Romney-Ryan ticket that read, “Believe in America.” What could this possibly mean? Is America a god? What precisely are we supposed to believe in? In a word, liberty. And make no mistake about it, liberty is a god.

That, at least, is the argument that Christopher A. Ferrara makes in his important and timely new book, Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama.The title references the 1949 work The God that Failed, a famous collection of essays by ex-communists describing their disillusion with the utopian ideology of communism. Liberal and conservative American political thinkers share a common characterization of communism and fascism as irrational, secular religions against which the American political tradition stands as a model of reason and moderation. It is just such a conceit that Ferrara sets out to expose as a delusion. At a time when the American bishops are calling on Catholics to defend the American tradition of religious liberty against state coercion, Ferrara argues that religious liberty itself has been the main ideology through which the modern state has sought to redefine and control religion. This is a difficult and challenging argument, one that goes against the common sense of American political thinking. It is an argument based on a very different kind of common sense that comes from traditional Catholic understandings of the public nature of Church authority.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Origin's doctrine of the soul

A comprehensive analysis of the
theological anthropology of one of
the early church's finest theologians

Become Like the Angels
Origin's Doctrine of the Soul

Benjamin P. Blosser

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-245), a catechist, presbyter, and confessor of the ancient Church was a foundational figure in the establishment of early Christian theology. Today he is commonly referred to as "the first Christian theologian" and is widely known as a master of biblical exegesis, rational inquiry, and spiritual formation. Yet his legacy remains somewhat ambiguous in part because of the posthumous condemnation of certain propositions from his works. Become Like the Angels explores Origen's legacy and, in particular, his teachings about the origin, nature, and destiny of the human person. By way of a historical critical approach, Benjamin P. Blosser discusses the influence of Middle Platonic philosophy on the human soul and then compares it with Origen's teaching.

This study finds that, while Origen was highly aware of Middle Platonic speculations on the soul and does borrow extensively from their vocabulary, he never accepts their underlying, philosophical assumptions and is in fact subtly critical of Middle Platonic theories of the soul. His anthropology remains from first to last a biblical, Christian, and even mystical one, the fruit of a remarkable effort to synthesize faith and reason in the ancient Church.
“An ambitious and very well researched book on the way in which Origen deals with a fundamental issue in ancient philosophy—the position, state, and function of the soul in a living being. It is a topic at the core of all anthropological and cosmological thinking in Late Antiquity. In elegant, lucid prose, Blosser takes the reader gently through the minefield of previous scholarship and presents a very clear and skillful exposition of Origen as religious philosopher.”
—John A. McGuckin, professor of Byzantine church history, Columbia University, and editor of The Westminster Handbook to Origen of Alexandria

Benjamin P. Blosser is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College where he teaches courses in church history, ecclesiology, and New Testament studies.  He received his Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"The Devil Knows Latin"

Don't you just love that quote from Monsignor Ronald Knox? You know, the one made famous by E. Christian Kopff in his delightful book, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition(2001):
Ronald Knox, a wise and witty Catholic priest, when asked to perform a baptism in the vernacular, responded with what his biographer Evelyn Waugh described as “uncharacteristic acerbity”: “The baby does not understand English and the Devil knows Latin” (Kopff xv).
The background story, of course, is that a minor exorcism is part of the traditional Catholic baptismal ritual, involving not only holy water, but exorcised salt and holy chrism oil. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. AD 313 – 386) gives a detailed description of baptismal exorcism (in Procatechesis 14). Hence Msgr. Knox's statement: "The Devil Knows Latin."

Most of Kopff's message about the joys of Latin and importance of classical education in this book will be greeted by your average American run-of-the-shopping-mall philistines with about as much joy as an invitation to attend the Traditional Latin Mass. But never mind the philistines, what matters is whether the claim is true. I remember reading some biographies of 19th-century and early 20th-century British writers about ten years after I began teaching college, and feeling sorely deprived educationally, even with a doctorate in hand. These guys were studying Greek and Latin and reading Virgil's Aeneid and Plutarch's Lives in the original when they were junior high school age.

It may well be true that we don't need to know Latin or have a classical education to be saints; but it may not only help us stave off the barbarous philistinism of our blithely high-tech yet historically oblivious new dark age, but may even help us along the path to sanctity if it happened to help us discover the abundant legacy of the Church's saints, resources for growth in holiness, and rich spiritual heritage of Mater Ecclesia. I would even argue that a classical education has considerable value in itself as a protoevangelium or praeparatio evangelium. Certainly St. Augustine found it so, who, in his Confessions, attests to the help provided him by the Neo-Platonists in overcoming the obstacles to faith produced by his earlier Manichaeism. Further still, Plato's dialogues provide some of the finest rebuttals of the kind of sophomoric relativism that thrives in the postmodernist environments around most contemporary universities. You can't be a relativist and be open to the Gospel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism

Christopher Oleson reviews Thaddeus Kozinski, The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It

To the typical inhabitant of a modern liberal democracy, the title of Thaddeus Kozinski's intriguing new book will probably sound a little puzzling, inasmuch as, within contemporary democractic culture, religious pluralism is not generally understood to be a "political problem." On the contrary, for the democratic soul, religious pluralism seems to be more a positive good, something to be protected and celebrated, rather than "solved" or overcome. One's religious commitments would have to be "extreme" and thus "anti-democratic" to take issue with liberalism's positive affirmation of religious diversity, for it is one of democratic modernity's greatest achievements to have crafted institutional arrangements that allow for the easy co-existence of various religious groups both with one another and with the overarching liberal political order.

* * * * * * *
Secular democratic modernity can only claim not to have a religious pluralism problem because it has already implicitly solved this problem by subtly emasculating traditional religious identity

* * * * * * *

One of the many insights of Thaddeus Kozinski's valuable contribution to the on-going conversation about the relationship between Faith and politics is to articulate with precision how secular democratic modernity can only claim not to have a religious pluralism problem because it has already implicitly solved this problem by subtly emasculating traditional religious identity and establishing, under the false veil of political neutrality, institutional arrangements charged with theological and metaphysical significance.

Thus, only by becoming enculturated to re-interpret religious belief in such a way that it can have no substantive implications for the social and political order, and correspondingly, by becoming miseducated to not notice the tacit establishment of a quite partisan sense of the good, freedom, and selfhood, do the citizens of secular democracies think that they have a neutral social order that need not view religious pluralism as politically problematic. For those whose religious creed is not merely an emotional accoutrement, this situation is obviously deeply troublesome, for the logic of secular liberalism, as Kozinski makes clear, would force the believer to treat his Faith commitments as merely therapeutic preferences of an autonomous self.

Clarifying this situation and working towards articulating a solution to it which is at once both honest about its principles, coherent in working them out, and politically expressive of the truth and ultimate happiness of man is the task that Kozinski sets himself in his book. He does this by successively engaging the thought of three influential and progressively illuminating political philosophers. John Rawls, Jacques Maritain, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Rawls serves as the quintessential philosophical voice of secular democratic liberalism, Maritain as the exponent of a Catholic hybridization of Thomistic political philosophy and modern democratic ideals, and MacIntyre as the most penetrating philosophical critic of liberal modernity and advocate of a local Thomistic politics of the common good against the bureaucratic nation-state.

Of the three, Kozinski is by far the most sympathetic to MacIntyre. Nevertheless, even his proposal falls short in Kozinski's eyes, for MacIntyre's vision of small communities of virtue does not quite attain to the level of truly political existence, remaining as it does, Kozinski claims, too local in its aspirations. More importantly for Kozinski, MacIntyre's thought problematically remains at the level of mere philosophy. Studiously avoiding the role of theologian, MacIntyre deprives himself of the resources of political theology, and thereby fails to affirm the necessity of a public recognition of divine revelation and Magisterial teaching as the most propitious conditions for a stable and morally healthy political state. As Kozinski's subtitle indicates, philosophy as such can offer little or no light on how to move a community of seriously diverse worldviews to a unified political order of virtue and human happiness. Only the eventual achievement of a confessionally Catholic state, Kozinski concludes, can overcome the limitations of political philosophy in general, and liberal modernity in particular.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Liturgy and personality

I remember reading somewhere how Dietrich von Hildebrand, after converting to the Catholic Faith, used to run enthusiastically down the street, coattails flying, to be on time for daily Mass. He loved everything about his newfound religion. As much as anything else, he loved its liturgy.

In fact, he even wrote a book entitled Liturgy and Personality,about the “healing power of formal prayer” -- the power of liturgy to profoundly form and positively shape personality. Far from furnishing us with mere training wheels until we "mature" into more personal and spontaneous prayers "from the heart," formal liturgical prayer is actually the superior form of prayer, according to von Hildebrand. The key is to enter into the prayer of the Church, to make it one's own, to "pray the Mass," as St. Pope Pius X used to say, and to live it.

Formal liturgy -- so staid and “impersonal,” and even “oppressive” in the eyes of so many today -- is actually set forth in its proper meaning as the “source and summit” of our prayer life as Catholics, the place where we encounter our Lord and our God, see where we belong in His Kingdom and, in the process, learn who we are meant to be. In coming to know our God through the Church's liturgy, we come to know ourselves.

An Editor’s note in the latest edition of the book states that "Liturgy and Personality concerns the essence of the liturgy rather than the details of any particular liturgy,” and so urges the reader “to use von Hildebrand’s numerous liturgical examples to discover the gist of his arguments demonstrating the personality-forming power of the Liturgy,” so that these points can then “be related, where appropriate, to comparable elements in today’s Liturgy.”

It is no small point, however, that Liturgy and Personality was first published in 1932 in German: the Mass von Hildebrand loved, and through which he encountered the Lord, was the traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Rite -- the one most Catholics and others today would experience as something prima facie alien, if not alienating, including its "impersonal" Latin and the priest's "back turned to the people." This is the Mass -- this one -- to which he would fly down the street with his open coat billowing behind him!

It's enough to make any sane person wonder, is it not? But then, what is sanity, liturgically speaking? Is it the product of liturgical committees? Remember the joke about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with the terrorist.

First and foremost, von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher, and his books on ethics and value-theory are substantial and profound. In the latter half of his life, however, after moving to the United States and after the Second World War, he increasingly turned the attention of his formidable mind to matters of the Church. For him, these were matters of the heart; and he was especially concerned with developments in the Church in the modern post-war world. Many of these developments he found troubling -- modernism, secularism, relativism, dissent, immorality -- and, above all, some of the experiments and innovations he lived to see in the Church's sacred liturgy.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Michael Davies: Book Review of Pope Paul's New Mass

Tridentine Community News (November 21, 2010):
Now that the stream of newsworthy events from the last several weeks is slowing down, we can return to the topic of pioneering Extraordinary Form apologist Michael Davies. [For Part I, see "Michael Davies - Part 1 of 2 - Background," Musings, September 26, 2010]

First published in 1980, Pope Paul's New Mass is part of a trilogy of books, the others being Pope John's Council and Cranmer's Godly Order. Its 663 pages are written in much the same style as, and share some of the content of, other Davies works. It is thus a good starting point for understanding his point of view. “PPNM” was one of the first books to detail the step-by-step liturgical changes that were enacted between 1964-69, the transition period between the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo. It contains chapters describing the evolution of various practices which have been well-documented elsewhere and which will not be rehashed here. More uniquely, PPNM discusses Vatican documents which eliminated the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, established the abbreviated formula for distributing Holy Communion, the option to receive Communion under Both Kinds, Concelebration, Children’s Masses, and so forth. It is enlightening to realize that the continual stream of liturgical change conditioned the faithful for the most major change yet to come, the imposition of the significantly modified New Rite of Mass in 1969. Approximately 40 documents not frequently discussed nowadays are analyzed, such as 1967’s Tres Abhinc Annos abolishing many of the genuflections and signs of the Cross in the Mass. In some cases, the entire document text is provided in an appendix.

Davies provides ample evidence that intense lobbying and electioneering by a handful of prelates from Germany and France, along with Vatican-designated point man for liturgical reform Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, pushed through these changes and particularly the creation and adoption of the Novus Ordo. This is popular knowledge among those interested in liturgical history, but Davies provides quotes from Bugnini and others proving that was actually the case. Davies also provides numerous quotes from bishops of the era, from the United States and England in particular, who had misgivings about the effect the changes would have on the faith lives of their flocks. The atmosphere was far from one of unanimity.

Davies cites evidence that the reduction, and in some cases the elimination, of language referring to the Holy Mass as a sacrifice was due to a push to make the Mass more palatable to Protestants. He presents a detailed analysis of Eucharistic Prayer II, the Offertory, and other reworded prayers and rubrics as examples of intentionally ambiguous language which can be viewed with acceptance by Protestants as well as Catholics. In conjunction he points out the vocabulary changes (e.g.: “celebrant” to “presider”) and the elimination of “negative” sentences within Scripture passages employed in the readings at Mass.

A chapter is devoted to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and its follow-on Foreword, the rubrics for and introductory section to the altar missal. There was a surprising amount of dissension over its language, resulting in significant modifications having to be made between the 1969 and 1970 versions. As Davies writes, “What precedent is there in the history of the Church for a sacramental rite needing to have a Foreword written to justify its orthodoxy within one year of its publication?” (p. 306)

The book is filled with memorable snippets such as the following: “The police did not need to be called to Catholic churches each Sunday to hold back the hordes of lapsed Catholics whose faith had been rekindled at the prospect of saying the ConfĂ­teor in English.” (p. 92) Nevertheless, PPNM should be judged primarily on the basis of the thought-provoking facts it presents. Regardless of one’s liturgical proclivities, PPNM’s plethora of quotes from Vatican documents, articles, and interviews, amply footnoted, make the reader wonder just what the actual motivations were to impose the changes. Was it true scholarship? This seems unlikely considering all of the changes imposed in such a brief period of time, in an era before electronic communication made collaboration and discussion feasible. Was it a power play to control the liturgy by pushy individuals in an era (the 1960s) where change of all sorts appeared good? Why was making the Mass more appealing to Protestants more important than, for example, appealing to the Orthodox? One is left with the impression that the liturgical changes, and especially their vernacular translations, were rushed through because a door was open that might not be open much longer. Consider how quickly the first English translation of the Ordinary Form appeared in 1969. A mere seven years earlier, Vatican II had not yet even begun. The same thing would be far less likely to happen today, when the Internet would make such a process, and its principal actors and motivations, public knowledge rapidly. Consider that the new English translation of the Ordinary Form has been under the public microscope throughout its entire, over-seven-year process of creation.

There is much to say about the Extraordinary Form that is positive in nature, and our editorial philosophy has been to draw that attractiveness to the fore. Pope Paul’s New Mass admittedly covers some controversial territory with a more negative tone than we like. However, we believe that knowledge of Michael Davies’ significant contributions to the repopularization of the Extraordinary Form, as well as his historical assertions, is an important part of arriving at an intellectually full understanding of the Tridentine Mass as it is celebrated in the world today.

Tridentine Masses This Coming Week

Mon. 11/22 7:00 PM: Low Mass at St. Josaphat (St. Cecilia, Virgin & Martyr)

Tue. 11/23 7:00 PM: Low Mass at Assumption-Windsor (St. Clement I, Pope & Martyr)
[Comments? Please e-mail Previous columns are available at This edition of Tridentine Community News, with minor editions, is from the St. Josaphat bulletin insert for November 21, 2010. Hat tip to A.B.]