All posts tagged: philosophy

Kant and de Sade: The Modern Recalibration of the Monstrous and the Demonic

Demons and Monsters With regard to the imagining of who we are, and who we could become, 1794 was no ordinary year. This was the year in which the ever-reliable Immanuel Kant, whose walks in Konigsberg were such that you could set your watch by them, wrote a strange and spectral book called Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone, a book that seemed at once to recall the thinker of a few years earlier while also presenting a stranger who was more familiar with evil than anyone—including his erstwhile self—might have guessed. If Kant surprised himself by feeling compelled to write about “radical evil” in book 1, he shocked Goethe who, feeling betrayed, decried what he judged to be an inexplicable regression to the hateful Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Goethe was only somewhat right in linking Kant’s view of radical evil to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and if right at all perhaps only by accident in that certainly Kant intended to debunk Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and any of its …

Joseph Ratzinger Is Not a Platonist

The sacramental theology of Joseph Ratzinger is categorized by the Belgian systematic theologian Lieven Boeve as a pre-modern “neo-Platonic Augustinian vision of the world.”[1] According to Boeve, Ratzinger remains dependent on a metaphysics characterized by a distinction between the visible and the invisible. In Boeve’s narrative, Ratzinger is uncritically attached to an eternal grounding that is outside of the rite itself, a transcendence that brackets materiality and the particularity of existence in the world. The way forward in sacramental theology for Boeve is a postmodern dialectic of interruption between transcendence and immanence: “The sacramentality of life, clarified and celebrated in the sacraments, is no longer considered as participation in a divine being . . . but as being involved in the tension arising from the irruption of the divine Other into our human narratives, to which the Christian narrative testifies from of old.”[2] The sacramental structure of Christian existence is not entrance into some eternal world outside of time but an interruption of divine Otherness into the present. For Boeve, as he argues elsewhere, this …

The Method for Avoiding Cheap Success in Apologetics

The condemnation of Modernism in 1907 with Pascendi Dominici Gregis armed certain Roman theologians with the tools necessary to suffocate their intellectual opponents. Men such as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange saw the condemnation of Modernism as a carte blanche for neo-Scholastic theologians in Rome to condemn, with an almost intellectual violence, anyone who did not agree with their narrow worldview. One of the targets of this intellectual persecution from Roman theologians was the French philosopher Maurice Blondel. Many of them saw the publication of Pascendi as a tacit condemnation of Blondel and his “method of immanence.” The document makes a direct attack against a version of this method, a method which Blondel claims as his own. However, strangely enough, Pope Pius X later wrote the Archbishop of Aix to communicate through him to Blondel that Blondel was actually not a target of the encyclical and encouraged Blondel’s philosophical work. Blondel’s work would later blossom in the thought and project of Henri de Lubac, the French Jesuit who was silenced in the 50’s and later served as a peritus …

Embrace Negativity or Risk Never Being Happy

Today I opened my inbox to an exciting offer from an American mega-corporation. The body of this digital communique announced its magical power loud and clear: “Making Your Inbox Happy.” The content of this happiness? I might be able to save up to 25% on future furniture purchases from their online store. My joy—or more correctly the joy of my digital inbox—is supposed to be savings offered by a corporate behemoth, rewarding me for a recent purchase of off-gray sheets for a twin-size bed. Happiness is not even a click away; it is already here. Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that such an offer of happiness is depression in disguise. He ties our constant and overriding desire for positivity to our increased instances of ADHD and our ever-increasing diagnoses of anxiety and depression. In 2015’s The Burnout Society, Han writes that “The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates, it does not exclude, it exhausts.” (7). Everything tells us to enjoy, to just keep looking on the bright side. If we keep believing, if …

Job and the Problem of Evil Versus the Tribunal of History

Introduction: Beyond the Tribunal of History—Beyond Is For some, for many, maybe even most, it is difficult to shower history with the ethical compliments of “good,” “just,” “fair.” Not that the temptation does not exist: our own—often  momentary—well-being and prosperity, or the well-being and prosperity of our little group, often urges us to extrapolate such a contingency onto the face of history itself. We do so almost by reflex, and such an extrapolation probably represents our instinct to keep our life simple, evade the threat we peripherally sense. But even when we have reduced the scope of our vision to ourselves and/or immediate family and close friends one would have to be extremely fortunate not to come up against the shadowside of illness, death, malice, brokenness, incompleteness. Continuing to deny the reality of evil in general, undeserved suffering in particular, in the face of what encroaches in one’s own life betrays a hysteria to keep the world ordered at all cost. If there is trust here in pattern and meaning, this trust is evasive and …

Modernity’s Marginalization of Philosophy Makes the Practice of Everyday Life Unintelligible

We are sitting with friends at a diner or standing in line to buy tickets for a movie, chatting idly, when suddenly one of us, unable to contain himself in the face of our trivialities, bursts out with some existential question which we might later on paraphrase in polite terms as “What is it to live a human life well or badly?” or one which we might paraphrase as “What law, if any, has authority over us?” . . . And the response by those who hear both the questions and the emotions expressed through them is likely to be deep embarrassment, a strong wish to change the subject, a will to behave as if the questions had not been asked. We think: what can have got into him to talk like that? Is he perhaps having a break-down?[1] Commentators have often failed to realize the extent to which University of Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre breaks with Aristotle concerning the superiority of the vita contemplative vis-à-vis the vita activa. In his Politics (8.3), Aristotle famously said that “the first principle of …

The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients

I f I seem to take N.T. Wright as an antagonist in what follows, he functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies—one that occasionally so distorts the picture of the intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church as effectively to create an entirely fictional early Christianity. Naturally, this also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish …

The Resplendent Completion of the Liberal Arts

Prolegomena of Meaning We live in a world mediated by meaning.[1] I begin with a well-worn phrase, one that you may never have seen worn thin, and one that cannot be immediately understood. I know that you read it and wonder what on earth I mean by it. Still, you know it is meaningful somehow. At the least you know that I mean something by it, whatever that might be. In other words, in reading it, you know and do not know. This is how the first minutes of the day strike each of us: there, already somehow present to our bleary-eyed consciousness, brimming with an unannounced something. I cannot say what. I can say only that I am awake, and that the morning is not nothing to me. We live in a world mediated by meaning. I begin here and I will explain what it means, though I know it is not readily apparent. I begin here in part because “knowing is not like taking a good look,”[2] is not like staring and seeing, …

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: …