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The History of Natural Law

Ultimately, one can only attain to such a perspective (see: the series introduction for context) by invoking both the contrast and the continuity of natural right with natural law. The latter notion is generally misunderstood. It has a double historical origin. First, it can be mainly located in the works of Philo Judaeus as a coming together of Hebrew notions of the cosmos as subject to an omnipotent personal rule, with a Greek metaphysical discourse concerning the structures of being. In terms of this strand, natural law is thoroughly Biblical in origin, and indeed Philo thinks of the revealed law of the Hebrew Bible as alone fully proclaiming the natural law, even if the world constitutes a kind of megalopolis with one law and one constitution, to which the constitutions of cities are dubious “additions,” allegorically symbolized by Joseph in terms of the supposed etymology of his name and his coat of many colors. The Decalogue is a saving deliverance from this addition: thus it was proclaimed far from cities in the “deep desert,” and unlike …

The Sham Practice of Christmas

As one of the great festivals of Christianity approaches, the malls are decked with holly, sales, and “Santa Baby.” Human beings are wired for festivity but could most of us even define what a festival truly is? And does our commercialized bastardization of Christmas still qualify as one? When I picked up 20th century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, I realized this seemingly familiar idea of festival was more elusive than I expected. Did I not know what festivity was? Apparently not. The short treatise begins with a quote from St. John Chrysostom: “Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivas” or “where love rejoices, there is festivity.” Like “love,” a word that we often use and yet may struggle to define, festivity is an idea we have trouble getting to the heart of. In addition to Pieper, I would like to recruit a well-known guide for us in our search for the meaning of festivity: the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner” turned grateful philanthropist, …

Hildegard of Bingen’s Vital Contribution to the Concept of Woman

When I was an undergraduate at an Evangelical university and beginning to think more deeply about gender, there were two basic paradigms on offer: egalitarianism and so-called complementarity. In those days—the early 2000’s—the pop-Christian livre de jour was a book called Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul by Jon Eldredge. This bestseller, ubiquitous in evangelical circles, provided a dizzying mash-up of fairy tale tropes, pop culture references, and bible verses, in order to unlock the hidden mysteries of the masculine heart. The basic premise of Eldredge’s book is that God creates men to be chivalrous Beasts with a hunger for adventure, a need to fight battles and rescue a Beauty. And a woman’s telos, conversely, is to be that Beauty who is rescued and swept up in the man’s heroic adventure. Eldredge presents men and women as two partial reflections of God: “There is a masculine heart, and a feminine heart, which in their own ways reflect or portray to the world God’s heart.”[1] These two “hearts” are not so much …

Dostoevsky on the Demonic Decimation of a Shareable World

One way of thinking of the modern demonic is that it is marked by an otherness viewed not as a threatening outside, but a shocking inside contributing to the doubling of a self that cannot find ballast and thereby becomes capable of intentional forms of evil far beyond the circumscription of the human flesh and psyche. Given this definition, my proposal is that the literary figure who is most penetrating and expansive on the topic is Fyodor Dostoevsky. There are other writers with plausible claims to this mantle, perhaps one of the French trio of André Gide, Georges Bataille, and Jean Genet, maybe even William Golding who unerringly exposes our collective illusions regarding sympathy and fraternity throughout his oeuvre and not simply in Lord of the Flies. Needless to say, under scrutiny the bona fides of Golding as the connoisseur of the modern demonic do not hold up. As a writer Golding is more focused on the return of the repressed than on the endlessly spiraling reflection that is the ground of acts of evil …

A Revisionist Account of Natural Law and Natural Right

Discussions of natural law and natural right inevitably include accounts of their historical genesis, and where they do not, then often a fictive genesis is assumed, in such a way as vitiates the substantive claims for either law or right that are being made. This is most evidently the case for modern natural right, since this manifestly has an origin—it has been asserted always in particular circumstances and within a particular conceptuality that help to determine the sense of the notion. But it is also the case for natural law, because any attempt to ignore its origins in the Classical and Medieval past, and especially its links to theology and metaphysics, inevitably denature it and produce a novel, modern doctrine that is often much more reducible to a modern natural rights doctrine than its proponents imagine.[1] Therefore I will attempt, in this essay, to sketch in short compass an account of the historical development of natural right in relation to the older notion of natural law. My contention will be that the latter notion has, …

Lonergan’s Communal Novum Organon

For a certain generation of those who studied theology, Bernard Lonergan’s Method in Theology (1972) was a book that was constantly referenced. For my generation of theologians, when one mentions the text, it is all too often looked at askance. For many, Lonergan is neither fish nor fowl. For some, he is not sufficiently radical enough, considered too indebted to Tradition. To others, his thought is considered not sufficiently Thomistic, far too eclectic. And still, there are others who point to him as the one providing the blueprint for the philosophy behind a relativistic theology of pluralism with his development of the concept of historical consciousness. I have been asked if my interest in Lonergan is merely a historical curiosity, a desire to look into a period of time in Catholic theology that has since passed. I have been asked, continually in some circles, if Lonergan has really anything to offer in an all-too fractured theological world. My response to those who want to know specifically what Lonergan can offer theology today is to examine …

Solovyov’s Russia and the Catholic Church

Vladimir Solovyov’s thought and writings dominated the literary, philosophical, and theological currents of late 19th century Russia. His death in 1900 did not put an end to this influence.  In 2003, the Ukrainian Catholic University held a conference on the theme of his book Russia and the Universal Church. This commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Solovyov’s birth prompted Pope John Paul II to herald the participants of this conference with a Vatican address wherein he noted the significance of this man and his work. John Paul II considered Solovyov to be a giant in terms of moral and political philosophy, theology and spirituality—a view he had also expressed five years earlier in the encyclical Fides et Ratio. Since Solovyov’s life was indelibly marked by the thirst for divine wisdom, it is no surprise that he also desired to see that wisdom most perfectly embodied in the world. This was the deepest motivation for his lifelong attempt to bring the Eastern and Western churches back into full union. As John Paul II stated in his …

Derrida, Politics, and the Little Way

So this is a permanent Stimmung: I am a prophet without a prophecy, a prophet without being a prophet. —Jacques Derrida[1] Christianity has embraced the apophatic, and perhaps even deconstructive, since its inception.[2] But the place of the apophatic in Christianity is rather difficult to discern as it introduces something of a free radical. Does the apophatic relativize all discourse about God or just check some of it? Does the Word of God prescribe a certain manner of speaking and of silence? How does this deferral to mystery correlate with philosophy? For the past century there has been a growing awareness of how philosophy, whether in its idealist and/or political forms (insofar as these can be separated), has appropriated and mimicked Christian discourse. The philosophy of Jacques Derrida operates uniquely in this regard for here is someone who works similarly to certain expressions of apophatic theology even as Derrida disavows being an apophatic theologian. But what does it mean for Derrida the philosopher to continually perform contradiction and confusion in texts? If Derrida attempts to …

Spirits, Souls… Tunics?

I do not pretend to have any firm conviction regarding the argument I intend to advance here; but I do find myself haunted by a curious suspicion I find it impossible not to confess.  I have complained with monotonous regularity over the past year or so (including in this very journal) that certain established conventions of biblical translation have often had the effect of entirely hiding from view two vital conceptual oppositions that pervade the books of the New Testament: that between flesh and spirit, and that between the psychical and the spiritual. They do this in a number of quite predictable but also quite effective ways. At certain crucial junctures, for instance, words having to do with the principle of soul—ψυχή or ψυχικός—are rendered in vague and misleading fashions, as references to nature or natural life, or as describing sensual and irrational characters, or something else of the sort. In certain intrusively tendentious translations, like the NIV, words related to flesh—σάρξ or σαρκικός—become references to sinful nature or carnal-mindedness or something like that. And, …

Dostoevsky’s Literary Burden of Representing Saints

Perhaps no one in the history of modern literature was as conscious as Dostoevsky regarding the literary burden taken on when it came to presenting or representing an unassailably good person. Such a depiction was weighed down with representational disadvantages: it took talent but was not impossible to depict a great sinner who undergoes conversion or is capable of such; it took a unique talent, someone of Dostoevsky’s psychological acuity, to lay bare the psyche of the person alienated from others, self, and God and free-falling into incoherence. But how to depict a truly good man, indeed, a man who is nothing short of a saint, someone who has died to self and made himself available to others, was a task for which Dostoevsky was unsure that his or indeed anyone’s literary gifts were a match. Hagiography is a genre of long-standing, but no modern writer confuses it with literature, which requires characters that are not only believable in the modern world, but show the capacity to negotiate and transcend it. But just such a …