All posts tagged: Catholic imagination

The Personalist Awakening in 20th Century Catholic Moral Thought

The personalist awakening in 20th century Catholic moral thought restored the ancient and medieval priority accorded to persons—as well as to the ways of relating between them (especially friendship)—to the modern field of ethics and moral theology. Furthermore, friendship is a strong idiomatic pattern in New Testament reflections, according to which, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can once again enjoy friendship with God. Jesus related not only to the Apostles as friends, but to all who gathered around him as friends. Jesus says the following in John 15: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (12-15). Though the …

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. …

Walker Percy and the Racist Tragedy of Southern Stoicism

The life of Catholic novelist, philosopher, and essayist Walker Percy was shaped, in part, by an uneasy confrontation between Stoicism and Christianity.[1] Although Percy was raised in a noble, affluent, and prominent Southern family, his background was also marked by a family history of melancholy, depression, tragedy, and suicide.[2] As Paul Elie explains, “There was a suicide in nearly every generation. One Percy man dosed himself with laudanum; another leaped into a creek with a sugar kettle tied around his neck. John Walker Percy—Walker Percy’s grandfather—went up to the attic in 1917 and shot himself in the head.”[3] His father, Leroy Pratt Percy, committed suicide in the attic in 1929. Percy remarked, “The central mystery of my life is to figure out why my father committed suicide.” In fact, wondering if he were destined for the same fate, he often referred to himself as an “ex-suicide.”[4] Not long after the death of his father, Percy lost his mother in a tragic car accident. Committed Stoic, William Alexander Percy, Walker’s second cousin, adopted all three Percy …

The Post-Liberal Spirituality of John Rawls

The discovery and publication of John Rawls’s senior thesis can be compared to the impact of the early writings of Karl Marx. It was only with the appearance of the latter that readers could gain an appreciation of the humanist roots of Marxian thought that, in its mature formulation, was centered more narrowly on economic theory. A similar pattern applies to the ever more rigorous elaborations of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice that, despite their prolixity, never quite capture the inspiration from which his thought springs. The relatively recent publication of A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith[1] enables us to glimpse the long submerged origin in one of its most touchingly unguarded moments. We are led into the inner hidden Rawls, and begin to see a whole new way of perceiving this emblematic figure of contemporary liberal political thought. Of course this is not to suggest that the “discoverer,” Eric Gregory, or the editor, Thomas Nagel, have let us in on a secret that ought not to have seen the light …

The Birth of Scholasticism from a Series of Fortunate Mistakes

Stephen M. Metzger, in a brilliant and provocative piece, entitled “We Have Never Been Medieval,” rightly points to the unfulfilled promise of the Leonine program, which “held up the Middle Ages as its official response to the challenges and deficiencies of the modern world.” He notes the central place of Saint Thomas Aquinas in that program, brought forth by Leo XIII in fitting medieval fashion as a sort of champion to combat modernity’s thinking and ills. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of that choice and the outcome of that program—there are many Catholic scholars who believe that the almost exclusive emphasis on the thought of Thomas Aquinas in our study of the Middle Ages has narrowed and arguably even stunted our understanding of the Catholic theological tradition—Metzger’s notion that there may not be such an antinomy after all between our medieval predecessors and ourselves merits serious consideration. As a sort of sequel to that thought, it seems fitting to recall to mind a great medieval thinker who was, unlike Thomas, decidedly not a saint: …

How Am I a Hog and Me Both?

There’s no getting around it—with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s popular new exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, how suddenly hip the Catholic Imagination has become. Who knew? The short answer is: quite a few of us. The Catholic imagination, with its diverse expressions of creativity and its compassed epistemologies of receptivity, refers to the creative faculty endowed to creatures for critical, contemplative, and intellectual engagement with the living God. It is a habit of making and seeing with a long tradition to consider and continually retrieve. To follow its most articulate commentator, Hans Urs von Balthasar (who, I hasten to note, never used the term explicitly), the Catholic imagination is implicit in any theological aesthetics, taking the form in Balthasar of lay and clerical “styles”—styles of creativity in prayer, prose, and poetry inseparable from “unique divine mission” and particular “historical existence.”[1] While there are scores of styles to encounter and behold, the Catholic imagination is most penetrating and fruitful when organized around key attributes and qualities—some cultural, some critical, and others theological. …

Sex and Symbol

I was reared in the cradle of Evangelical Protestantism. I passed from girlhood to womanhood in that world, and during the tumult of puberty an increasing awareness of my unruly female body introduced me to the contested terrain of “womanhood” itself. What is a woman? What is her place? What are her gifts and limits? In an Evangelical context, such discussions and demarcations focused primarily on the concept of roles. What is it that woman is supposed to do? Or, more to the point, what is she not supposed to do? I was something of a tomboy, with bushy eyebrows and generous facial hair. I was competitive, but also tenderhearted. I anthropomorphized everything, in accordance with the stereotypes of my sex, but I enjoyed doing boyish things. I loved sports. I wanted to be fast. I wanted to win. On the sports field, there seemed to be no limits. But lines were drawn starkly in church. A woman’s role, her task, was to be a helpmeet to her husband and care for her children. The …