All posts filed under: Articles

What Mary Oliver Knows About Death and Beauty

Like many of her devoted readers, I spent the months after Mary Oliver’s death re-reading her poems. Her books boast the most worn spines on my bookshelf, but I have to admit that they have seen some neglect since I started an MFA program in poetry two years ago. Mary Oliver is not the kind of poet you are supposed to talk about in class, especially when you are asked to talk about poets that inspire and challenge you (I learned this the hard way on about the third day of class). I get it: her poems do not have an overt political edge, they do not do anything shocking in terms of form, and they do not seem to be scared of being sentimental. One of my favorite poetry professors, a sharp editor, once critiqued a poem I wrote for a workshop: too much wonder in too small of a space. He would hate reading Mary Oliver. I stopped mentioning Mary Oliver on the first day of workshops, when we would customarily introduce ourselves …

Gabriel Marcel and the Discovery of Fatherhood

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) wrote about the meaning of the family beginning in 1927 with his earliest Metaphysical Journal right through to his latest autobiographical text, Awakenings (1971) and in dialogues with Paul Ricoeur and others in 1973 about his plays. As a philosopher of the “concrete,” Marcel was fascinated by the intimate relations and identities of family members. The unfolding of his philosophical thinking about the family can be divided into three phases: first, autobiographical reflections on the family he was born into and brought up by; second, the preparation for teaching a course on Fatherhood in Lyons; and third, autobiographical reflections on the family he participated in as husband and father. Throughout these three phases Marcel also created over 20 dramatic plays, in many of which he developed consequences of distorted family experiences and of grace of conversion in the midst of what he called “the broken world.” I. The Family as a Mystery or a Problem In “Concrete Approaches to Investigating the Ontological Mystery,” Marcel offered his well-known distinction between a problem and …

Integralism and the Logic of the Cross

I. Timothy Troutner’s Objections to Integralism Catholic integralism is the position that politics should be ordered to the common good of human life, both temporal and spiritual, and that temporal and spiritual authority ought therefore to have an ordered relation. As a consequence, it rejects modern liberal understandings of freedom. Timothy Troutner, in a recent article, strongly objects to the integralist position. Troutner argues that integralists in reacting to liberalism become liberalism’s mirror image. Liberalism, he claims, is understandable as a reaction to real errors in Christendom, and promoted, though in a distorted way, the precious Christian truths of the goodness of liberty and equality that Christendom had forgotten. In simply rejecting liberalism as a deception of the Anti-Christ, Troutner argues, integralists end up defending indefensible crimes of Christendom, and condemning important truths associated with liberalism. Integralists commit a fatal error, Troutner thinks, in attempting to attain spiritual ends by means of coercive, temporal power. In this, he suggests they play the role of the devil. Just as the devil tempted Christ in the desert …

What Will a Future with Androids Among Us Look Like?

What will it be like when we have robot assistants and companions, that we own, that are not human, and yet that activate all of our instinctive empathy toward humans? Shall we have to unlearn this empathy? Or will we account for that empathy by instinctively redefining humanity in terms of behavior without any sense of inner life? And what would that do to us? We live in a wondrous time, in which artificial intelligence is increasingly and impressively a part of our daily lives. As an informed observer, I expect that contemporary techniques will eventually yield humanoid robots that—in professional interactions, casual conversations, and even shallow romantic relationships—will seem persuasively human. That is, even if they do not look quite like us, their movements, appearance, and conversation will evoke from us all the empathy that a three-year-old can bestow on a motionless toy bear and that adults habitually reserve for fellow humans. What we see now is just the beginning. Concerning a future of pervasive and persuasive robots, we must ask two questions: What …

A Knight in St. Patrick’s Purgatory

Each year St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent and the question arises how should we observe his feast during the penitential season? If it falls on a Friday will there be special dispensations for corned beef? If you give up alcohol for Lent can you celebrate with a glass of whiskey on March 17th? St. Patrick’s Day festivities are a welcome break in the somber 40 days, but there is actually a connection between the popular saint and taking on surprisingly severe penance. In a medieval tale, a young knight named Owen journeys into a portal to the Otherworld to voluntarily take on an extreme penance to cleanse him of the sin of cruelty. The place of purgation he enters is called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and the island of Lough Derg connected to the legend draws pilgrims even today. The first Old French version of the tale, the Espurgatoire seint Patriz (c. 1190) was penned by a 12th century authoress who calls herself Marie. Marie wrote popular stories of love and chivalry, fables, and possibly …

The (Video) Game Is On

The remarkable growth of various forms of electronic gaming in our culture may strike us as an ambiguous phenomenon. Yet, it must be admitted that video games are worth taking seriously as an influential popular art form. Even non-gamers like myself can appreciate their visual design, narrative intricacies, and other distinctive qualities. Artists in other media have paid homage to the allure of video games. The AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire nodded to the creativity of early game designers and programmers. Steven Spielberg’s recent film Ready Player One showcased the excitement and power of games. A live-action television series based on the celebrated game Halo is on Spielberg’s production docket. My own interest in popular culture has been an asset to my work in campus ministry. Movies, television, music, advertising, fashion, sports—all of these have currency in young adult culture, and carry the potential for serious reflection. They provide opportunities to explore personal and social issues, or to delve into philosophical and theological questions. A personal case in point involved a college student …

Facing Lent Discouragement

This week’s liner notes unpack the second half of the contemporary/secular portion of the playlist, in which many of the songs touch upon themes of journeying, of seeking out light in the midst of darkness, of the hope of transformation. Many people—myself included—begin Lent in a spirit of zeal, energetically embracing practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that have been thoughtfully discerned and chosen. However, by the second or third week, the energy around these practices often begins to lag, and it is not unusual for minor slip-ups or major falls to occur, which, in turn, can lead to a sense of discouragement in the face of one’s own limitations. When failure occurs, the easy thing to do is to give in to discouragement: to wallow in self-pity or self-loathing, to rationalize, justify, excuse, whatever the case may be. Such is the way of pride, for it curves us inward and keeps the focus on the self, rather than on God, who is the only possible source of healing and strength. Humility provides the only …

Can Justice Demand Prison Abolition?

Ihave been thinking, writing, and teaching about punishment and prisons for a while now. That is because I have spent time, on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, with incarcerated men and women for the better part of the last 20 years. Sometimes I am there as an educator, but more often I am ministering as a lay Catholic volunteer. For several years in graduate school, I served as the Catholic chaplain in a facility in Boston. Honestly, I am not sure when I became a prison abolitionist. I did not start that way, but I arrived there. People of faith, especially Christians, have a special responsibility to respond to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States. Yet, reform is not enough. I came to believe that an authentic Christian account of mercy and justice demands nothing short of abolition. There is much about the modern prison that opposes dignity and hope, but the special responsibility of Christians to address the prison also arises from the extensive Christian heritage of the institution itself. The …

Political Theology’s Haunting of Contemporary Politics

Erik Peterson’s Thought Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt had met as early as 1919 but became better acquainted in 1924 when Peterson took a Church History and New Testament chair at the University of Bonn. This was a period of development for Peterson’s thought and he would eventually cross the Tiber in 1930 at great personal expense. The road to Catholicism was not a short one for Peterson and his relationship with Schmitt was significant in multiple ways. They were friends who commonly shared ideas and spoke highly of each other. Not the least significant of these shared ideas was that in Peterson’s own study of the New Testament he discovered that it was rife with legal terms. Thus, according to Peterson’s astute biographer Barbra Nichtwieß, the friendship between Schmitt and Peterson led to certain parallel insights in their respective disciplines as well.[1] Both thinkers are apocalyptic, but whereas Schmitt’s apocalyptic identifies a particular political crisis and emphasizes the importance of political decision, Peterson’s focuses on the cosmic and revelatory transformation that has occurred through …

The Integralist Mirroring of Liberal Ideals

I. A quarter century after Francis Fukuyama proclaimed liberalism “the end of history,” it is nearly impossible to avoid stumbling across rumors of its demise. With increasing populist dissent from the post-war global order, liberalism—not American left-wing politics but a combination of economic, legal, and social arrangements and their philosophical underpinnings—has received new scrutiny, especially among Catholics. Often attributed to John Locke, this system of free markets, free speech, and freedom of religion seeks to accommodate pluralism and avoid violence by focusing on procedures for getting along, rather than by legislating a vision of the good life. Although strains of liberalism differ, liberalisms typically claim to provide a neutral space for the exercise of freedom, which is construed as the highly individual project of self-creation. Among the most outspoken of liberalism’s critics are “Catholic integralists.” Although the term “integralist” has a complex history, this essay focuses on the contemporary, predominantly American variety, which alleges that liberalism’s maintenance of neutrality inevitably clashes with Catholic efforts to shape society according to Christian notions of the common good. …