All posts filed under: Blog Posts

Desanitizing Christianity After St. Benedict and After Virtue

It has been a year or so since Rod Dreher published the much debated book The Benedict Option.[1] St. Benedict Reconsidered Since first hearing the term “Benedict Option” bandied about on social media, I had the impression it was based upon a reading of MacIntyre’s concluding salvo in After Virtue. Whether that reading is fruitful or pernicious I leave to the judgment of others and to that of history—though I suspect, as with most things, it is neither simply the one nor the other. It has been noted recently[2], that we can read MacIntyre’s concluding observation as either a prophecy destined to go unfulfilled or an exhortation to be heeded. In the first case, he is not unlike Cassandra of ancient Troy—given the gift of prophetic sight only to be condemned to a see and speak in a world incapable of hearing and believing.[3] If we read it in the second sense, it is closer to a call to arms, a call that has been met over the past year by proposals from figures like …

Justice Kennedy, Judge Kavanaugh, and Our Two Supreme Courts

As many people now know, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton insisted, in one of his famous essays urging his fellow New Yorkers to embrace the proposed Constitution of the United States, that the Supreme Court “is beyond comparison the weakest” of the national government’s three branches. After all, the other two branches “dispense[] the honors,” “hold[] the sword,” “command[] the purse,” and “prescribe[] the rules.” But the Supreme Court? It has “neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment” and is, therefore, the government’s “least dangerous branch.” Things have changed. For a variety of reasons—including the “rights revolution” of the 1960’s and Congress’s inability, or unwillingness, to legislate—the Court’s role in the country’s policies, politics, culture, and imagination has ballooned. Every summer, as the Court’s term comes to an end and the high-profile, hot-button decisions are released, judicial junkies are glued to their screens and the SCOTUSblog website like MCU fans waiting for the new Avengers trailer to drop. Each new much-anticipated, 5-4 ruling prompts howls and hosannas, grim pronouncements that doom is near and …

Byung-Chul Han and the Subversive Power of Contemplation

“Avita contemplativa without acting is blind, a vita activa without contemplation is empty,” writes the rising star of the German philosophical scene in his book The Scent of Time. Byung-Chul Han draws a nuanced account of “lingering with God in loving attentiveness” as a spur to action from the writings of Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart. He then defends the mystical tradition from his own spiritual master, Martin Heidegger.[1] The late Heidegger began to turn his philosophical attention to the path of contemplation, but it is at the heart of Han’s project from the start. He shows us how contemplation creates the time and space for meaningful action in a breathless, frantic, and networked modern society. Han’s next book, The Burnout Society, was a smash hit in Germany and his native South Korea that will soon be translated into 13 other languages. Unexpectedly, a meditation on the importance of contemplation, including prayerful contemplation, now animates debates about the future of the global Left,[2] the legacy of Foucault, and the direction of contemporary …

Alexander Schmemann’s Rejection of Orthodoxism

Alexander Schmemann’s writing is responsible for the structure of my discussion. I do not mean he spoke to me in my sleep or met me over the Ouija board, I mean that I have long wished to explore one of his clearer statements about what liturgical theology is, and am grateful to this forum for the opportunity to do so. I began by re-immersing myself in his thought by reading articles I had not previously read when I was more narrowly focused on my dissertation topic. It was a risk to return to an author who was so important to me over three decades ago—will I find him passé? Will my interests have moved on? I am happy to report that Schmemann is as stimulating and fruitful as he ever was. Schmemann tells us himself that the most characteristic thing about his thinking is the reunification of liturgy, theology, and piety. When the latter two are divorced from the former one, then theology “is imprisoned in its own ‘data’ and ‘propositions,’ and having eyes does …

Josef Pieper’s Critique of Western Civ

On February 1, 1950, just in time for Commencement Day, the eminent German philosopher Josef Pieper arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus. It was his first visit to the U.S., having finally been recruited by Waldemar Gurian (founder of the University’s notable Review of Politics) to teach for the spring semester. The speaker for the day’s ceremony, as Pieper notes in the recently published second volume of his memoirs, Not Yet the Twilight, was the young Congressman John F. Kennedy, whom he thought somewhat resembled Charles Lindbergh. In fact, two years before, Gurian had asked a Notre Dame colleague travelling in Germany to meet briefly with Pieper in hopes of encouraging him to come to South Bend. He got a message back saying “Nice man but doesn’t speak English.” Two years later, Pieper was successfully—if sometimes haltingly—lecturing to his American students in English. Before his arrival, however, Pieper had been cautioned by Gurian: “Theology, above all, is missing at this University; there is hardly any real philosophizing, and there is nothing of the …

The Digital Displacement of Transcendence at Concerts

Not too long ago I attended a concert put on by some Latin music stars I enjoy (and some I do not) at a massive stadium in South Florida. I had a general idea of what to expect: I had been to large concerts before, and I knew how crazed fans can become at these shows. After all, they adore these artists, these stars: absorbing their lyrics, studying their personal lives, following the gossip, and playing their music as the soundtrack to sundry events in their lives. Being a fan myself, I was quite excited at the opportunity to see some of them live. But the show did not meet my expectations because the stars I expected did not fully appear. I do not mean physically—the performers were there, of course, in the flesh. Yet that flesh—once so sacrosanct in that most religiously charged of secular gatherings, the music concert—seemed unable to carry the weight of glory that it used to. It now had to share that glory with digital representations carried on the sea …

The Patron Saint of Media Studies

When WIRED magazine christened the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan its “patron saint” on the original masthead in 1992, it seemed like a fitting honor. After all, the new tech culture magazine was the self-proclaimed authority on where the world was headed in the digital age. So tagging McLuhan, the late English professor turned media philosopher, added some prophetic pomp. His popular slogans like “the medium is the message” sounded like Zen koans written by an ad man, perfect for a Silicon Valley culture fixated on spreading the gospel of techno-utopianism. Here is something you will not find in WIRED magazine: “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”[1] A theological take on “the medium is the message.” This is also McLuhan. Whether McLuhan coined his famous phrase while looking at a television or a crucifix is of little importance. What is interesting is how McLuhan applied …

Prayer Begins in Pointlessness and Stupidity

A friend of mine, a young mother, recently wrote me to ask me a question about prayer. Are not most of our prayers stupid and pointless? She recounted how she had locked her keys and children in the car, and found herself praying, “God, please may my husband be able come quickly so I can take care of the screaming baby.” But of course he did not come any quicker than the car and speed of traffic and nature of mobile bodies etc. determined. So why ask God about this at all? Is this not just useless chatter? How should one respond to such a question? Certainly, I think that there can be a great deal of stupidity in prayer. Prayer begins in pointlessness and stupidity, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26). But prayer is a path, the stupidity and pointlessness can be a step toward a deeper kind of prayer.  Aquinas compares asking things of other human beings and praying to God (Compendium of Theology II,2). When we …

The Unimaginable

“No one has ever seen God,” the Prologue to John’s Gospel concludes, and the reverberations of that statement are registered in 1 John 4:20. For though the epistle opens with the assertion about God incarnate being heard, seen and touched (1 John 1:1), Christian life is pitched in realms where the seen and the unseen intersect. And even though the relationship with Christ is the basis for any Christian identification, Christians live (unlike those first witnesses to the historical Jesus) in the modulations of presence and absence announced by the angels outside the empty tomb: “He is not here” (Matt 28:6). So any scriptural pronouncements about the nature of the material revelation of God in Jesus Christ are stippled with invisibility. They are mediated, interpreted, and wrestled with through texts. Jesus Christ, as the historical revelation of God, is available only in modes in which visibility and invisibility cohere amidst the drifting clouds of unknowing. In the scriptures and the sacraments (most significantly, the Eucharist) we treat what we don’t fully understand and cannot grasp. …