All posts filed under: Theology

Celebrating 200 Years of Catholic Theology’s Oldest Journal

While scrambling to finish an article on German theology last month, I found myself rummaging for a quotation from the inaugural, 1819 issue of the Theologische Quartalschrift, the house journal for the Catholic faculty of theology in Tübingen. Then it struck me that the ThQ had turned two hundred, and I would be remiss if I could not find a way to fete this loyal and reliable companion. But is it decadent to care about a journal? American theologians are more likely to connect journals with prestige than with place. Few faculties properly house a journal. My own institution, Saint Louis University, housed Theology Digest from 1967–2010, but by the time I had arrived in 2007, few of the faculty published in, read, or even browsed it. The Digest seemed more an eccentric side project of one dedicated faculty member than a point of pride for the rest of us. Its loss was mostly felt in the journal swap that our library could no longer participate in. Nostalgia for journals is more likely to arise …

The Essence of African Traditional Religion

One scholar who has written extensively on African Traditional Religion is John Mbiti, a Kenyan whom many consider the dean of living African theologians. An important preoccupation of Mbiti’s work has been to show that knowledge of God and the worship of God have been staples of African life from the earliest times on the continent. In other words, he shows that the sense of the divine was not something introduced to Africa by missionaries or by anyone else; that the knowledge of God in African religion was not much different from the idea of God that Christian missionaries preached in Africa; and, more specifically to our purpose here, that belief in God engendered a moral response that for centuries before Christian arrival in Africa directed moral life and interaction on the continent and among its peoples. According to Mbiti, Africans came to believe in God by reflecting on their experience and through observation of the created universe. Specifically, by reflecting on the wonder and magnitude of the universe, they came to the conclusion that …

Justice and Rights in Europe Today

In all the ways that I have indicated earlier in this six-part series, one can readily argue that liberalism, even Kantian liberalism, is not, after all, metaphysically agnostic. To the contrary, the other aspect to its ethical minimalism is clearly a materializing and reductive ontology. This observation therefore challenges the assumption that liberal societies are really neutral as to belief or to metaphysical assertion. Perhaps such neutrality is impossible, in which case one could argue that the public and established bias ought to run towards nobler, more “ideally realist” beliefs and affirmations, likely to be more romantically inspiring. Besides, as I have already suggested (in the long-term wake of the French romantic philosophers Maine de Biran and Félix Ravaisson), the liberal conviction, which holds that our “additions” of habits to nature are not fully natural and not objectively valuable for anything more than human preference, is not really livable, and does not actually accord with our tacit assumptions, even if we claim to be agnostic or atheist. But how might all this relate to contemporary …

Maritain’s Postwar Compromise of Natural Law

Compared with Edmund Burke’s unsourced Thomism (see: previous instalment in this series) concerning natural law, Jacques Maritain’s version, from the mid 20th century, was far less authentic. Contrary to his unhelpfully ecumenical proclamations after World War II, the metaphysical and theological foundation of natural law, so well sustained by Burke, is not a matter of indifference with respect to the content and understanding of rights.[1] For without it the social will not tend to be seen as original and constitutive, and accordingly rights will be embraced on an assumption of ontological violence, which can only be channelled and newly wielded in all its arbitrariness, if the absoluteness of right is itself, paradoxically, to be upheld. For this reason all rights-based or rights-preponderant theories are pessimistic views which limit the scope of justice and in the case of the former, as with Hobbes (who remains always the arch-theorist of right, as Strauss correctly discerned), of its ultimate non-reality, save for the dismal notion that it is the established ruling fiction of God himself. For this reason, …

The Faith of Ancient Philosophy’s Fathers

Truly one of the joys of reading Dariusz Karlowicz’s Socrates and Other Saints: Early Christian Understandings of Reason and Philosophy, is its lively, engaging style. It is irresistibly beguiling and beguilingly irresistible in so many places. Consider, for example, this opening characterization of the Church Fathers: Even though they looked to the heavens, they were firmly planted on the earth. They were not in danger of falling into a cistern like stargazing Thales. They lived in their own here and now. They knew what was en vogue. They not only knew the invaluable classics, but also the most fashionable trash . . . There is nothing of the classicist streak in them (xix). But the feature of the text to which I am drawing attention here is more than just style for style’s sake, but rather a way of asking questions better than the ways in which similar questions have been asked before. As the author notes, But do the philosophers and the prophets direct our gaze toward the same goal? Does philosophy at least …

Marxism and Religion

According to Marx, religion has a dual role to play. Throughout the history of class society religion performs two essential functions: it buttresses the established order by sanctifying it and by suggesting that the political order is somehow ordained by divine authority, and it consoles the oppressed and exploited by offering them in heaven what they are denied upon earth. At the same time, by holding before them a vision of what they are denied, religion plays at least partly a progressive role in that it gives the common people some idea of what a better order would be. But when it becomes possible to realize that better order upon earth in the form of communism, then religion becomes wholly reactionary, for it distracts men from establishing a now possible good society on earth by still turning their eyes toward heaven. Its sanctification of the existing social order makes it a counter-revolutionary force. Thus in the course of building a communist society, the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in his path. …

Burke’s Romantic Restoration of Natural Law

This point (see: previous installment “The History of Natural Right”) was put supremely well by Edmund Burke: The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes, between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.[1] Burke’s argument is that what he calls “real right” depends upon this priority of the proportionately relational and reciprocal. Thus, he is by no means denying the validity of a modern universal claim right aspect to ius, but on the contrary fully re-inscribing it (beyond the limitations of early-modern scholasticism) within a traditional and essentially Aristotelian (or even Thomistic) horizon. In this spirit he declares that if civil society fulfills human nature, “the advantages for which it is made” (in other words its objective telē) also become …

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, …