All posts filed under: Theology

Renewing Nouvelle Théologie

There was a depression over the Atlantic. It was travelling eastwards, towards an area of high pressure over Russia, and still showed no tendency to move northward around it. The isotherms and isotheres were fulfilling their functions. The atmospheric temperature was in proper relation to the average annual temperature, the temperature of the coldest as well as of the hottest month, and the a-periodic monthly variation in temperature. The rising and setting of the sun and of the moon, the phases of the moon, Venus and Saturn’s rings, and many other important phenomena, were in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The vapour in the air was at its highest tension, and the moisture in the air was at its lowest. In short, to use an expression that describes the facts pretty satisfactorily, even though it is somewhat old-fashioned: it was a fine August day in the year 1913.  —Robert Musil Robert Musil, the early 20th century Austrian novelist, begins his multi-volume classic The Man Without Qualities (1930-1943) with a meteorological report about …

The History of Natural Right

Given this revisionary account of the development of natural law (click for previous instalment in this series) in western intellectual history, how does it relate to the story of natural rights? In the case of Aquinas, as with many other medieval theologians, and the canon law itself, the Christian exaltation of individual uniqueness and liberty led to a greater recognition of subjective rights in the sense of both claim and exercise rights than had previously been the case. However, the claims generally remained claims upon others to exercise their more primary duties, while exercise rights were attached to social roles whose duties were derived from justice as distribution.[1] Later, in the 16th century, in the case of both Catholic and Calvinist thought, there was a greater development of the idea of “rights” as attaching to human beings as such, especially with respect to life, freedom and ownership. Thus for example, Suarez no longer, like Aquinas, defined ius as id quod iustum est, or as the equitable, but as “a kind of facultas which every man …

The Darkness of Hope

Recalling Mark 10 or its synoptic correlates,[1] we are often told to relate our faith to that of a child, surrendering our attempt at autonomy and resting in the security of being loved as the kind of creatures we are—namely, finite beings dependent on God for the beginning, continuation, and end of our existence. The model of a child has much to commend it. It contains not merely the virtues of unconditional love and trust but also the qualities of unflagging curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for repetition. Without discounting the attachment of this description to the virtue of faith, French author and poet Charles Péguy offers another suggestion for our imagination in his poems, where the personification of hope is the one who enlivens all with her childlike enthusiasm and with the simplicity of her dependence. Hope becomes the “rest” of the child, and Péguy links this virtue explicitly to the Resurrection, arguing that Christian salvation from the consequences of sin must, if it is to truly be the new life of the risen Christ, …

The Anti-Catholicism of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks

The publication in the last few years of several volumes of the Black Notebooks (Schwarze Hefte)—consisting of Heidegger’s unedited ruminations from the early 1930’s to the early 1940’s on Being, human being, destiny, religion, ethics, and politics—has had about it the character of a sensation. It was thought that if we are to find beneath the complexities and opacities of Heidegger’s expression regarding his basic attitudes towards contemporary culture and political events, then here in these journals or notebooks, which Heidegger expressly forbade to be published in his lifetime, one can finally gain clarity in real time of the views Heidegger held during the fateful years of the Third Reich. The Notebooks, we are told, provide the raw and unfiltered versions of Heidegger’s attitude towards things of which he best provides notices in his published works. The Black Notebooks are understood to be the ultimate exposé, the smoking gun that was needed to put the nail in the coffin for a colluder masquerading as a thinker. The genre of the advertising for the Black Notebooks …

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 …

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 …

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, …

What Is Integralism Today?

In the Catholic Church old debates that might seem to have been left behind are constantly returning. Thus, the debate in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between “liberal” Catholics and their opponents, sometimes called “integralists,” has recently given signs of revival. One such sign is a seminar offered this semester at Harvard Law School entitled “Law and Catholic Thought: Liberalism and Integralism.” The seminar’s co-teachers can be seen as representing liberalism (Princeton University’s Professor Robert P. George) and integralism (Harvard’s own Professor Adrian Vermeule) respectively. George is certainly not a “liberal” Catholic in the sense in which that term is opposed to “conservative”—he is indeed one of the standard bearers of conservatism in the American Catholic Church. But he is a liberal as opposed to an integralist, because he thinks that political authority exists for the sake of the protection of individual rights, that one of the most important of those rights is the right of religious liberty, and that political authority should therefore not officially favor one religious confession more than others. Vermeule, …