All posts filed under: Blog Posts

Vaporwave and Simone Weil’s Void

It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams —Don DeLillo, Americana Covetousness has always felt like a dreamscape. You are from moment to moment trapped inside of an experience which evades real contact. Being just a simulacrum of a universe, how can it not? The problem is most obvious in consumerist escapism, where the profound disappointment of not being able to have your cake and eat it too is transmuted into the urge to simply buy another a cake. And another. And so on. One disappointed fantasy leading to the next. Look to the Pacific Garbage Patch to see where the material bric-a-brac of our thwarted fantasies eventually end up. A life-destroying gyre aimlessly churning. An inorganic wound on the world. Simone Weil addressed this feedback loop of desire and consumption in her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God”, writing that: The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, …

The Search for the Holy Grail of a Conservative Socialism

With the ghost of the visionary William Morris hovering somewhere in the background, The Politics of Virtue is nothing short of a brilliant, sometimes quirky, compendium of political, economic, and theological perceptions and insights. It is perhaps something only gifted artists such as John Milbank and Adrian Pabst could have produced. As a former classicist and something of a Dorothy Day Catholic, I am drawn by instinct to visions such as this. Even as I have some mental reservations. Divided into five major sections (Politics, Economy, Polity, Culture, and World), the book reads something like an extended position paper for a human-scale future utopia. Not that the authors’ two-part thesis cannot be summarized fairly quickly. First, they assert that post-Cold War notions of the end of history and the supposed universality of liberalism have been shaken by two developments: the extra-civilizational challenge of Islamism after 2001 and the intra-civilizational financial and civil breakdown after 2008. Moreover, the exposure of the role in these events of the social-cultural liberalism of the left since the 1960’s, and …

A Painful Look Back at Saint Augustine and the Donatist Schism

In the West we learned from St. Augustine to despise schism, or at least we should have. If we sufficiently understand it in its ecclesiological and Christological import, we should take it for what it is: the rending of Christ’s body. We have Augustine to thank for this stark diagnosis, just as we have him to thank for a remedial understanding of the Church’s unity, grounded as it is in Christ’s action in the sacraments. But as we celebrate his feast day once again, it is perhaps useful to think carefully about that diagnosis in full. At the moment, the Church spread across the orbis terrarum, as he liked to denote it, appears to careen haplessly from one scandalous revelation to the next. And no one version of the ever-growing series of charges need be true to justify the pain felt by so many. Pain. Some of us who study the events and texts of the early Church can easily overlook the fact that it likely occasioned the controversy that took its name from an …

The Point Where the Ugliness of Our Individual and Communal Lives Is Transfigured

Throughout its long history, theology has certainly seemed more comfortable understanding itself through its claim to truth or goodness than to beauty. It is not that the connection between theology and beauty has never been notarized. One simply has to recall the early Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Dionysian tradition to realize that this is not true—even if beginning with Tertullian and proceeding through the iconoclasm controversy and on to the Reformation, faith in the Cross made it difficult to think of theology and beauty being anything other than bitter rivals, when it came to allure and existential pledge. Of course, throughout the long histories of Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant theologies, there have been internal corrections. The Catholic theologian Matthias Scheeben might  represent a correction within the late nineteenth-century form of Neo-Scholasticism, with its forged alliance between propositionalism and moralism. And, of course, in the Reform tradition no theologian showed a greater openness to beauty than Jonathan Edwards, without succumbing in the slightest to the emerging temptation to elevate beauty while essentially dethroning God. Pace …

A Case for Change: Reform and Church Teaching

Among the most intriguing figures in the ancient Greek world are the two pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus’s famous saying about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice encapsulates one of his central teachings: The world is always fluctuating and the only constant is change itself. Parmenides, on the other hand, envisioned a world which was equally extreme, though in the opposite respect. For Parmenides, change is impossible. As his disciple Zeno argued, we may imagine ourselves to observe many things—arrows, tortoises, and athletes—undergoing changes. However, reason is more reliable than observation, Parmenides held, and change, which requires things to “pop” spontaneously in and out of existence, is eminently unreasonable. If it is new, where was it before? If it was there before, how is it new? As bizarre as these outlooks sound, they left an immense impression on the Western world that would follow. The most illustrious ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, each grappled with Parmenides and the possibility of change in their own unique ways. Plato famously distinguished between …

Unlearning Is the New Learning: A Neuroscientific and Theological Case for How and Why to See the World Differently

Learning, as it turns out, was the easy part. Anyone who has observed a young child mimic the behavior of others knows how naturally children learn from their environment. Unlearning, on the other hand, takes maturity, discipline, and equal parts courage and humility. Unlearning, as discussed here, requires conscious effort to reflect on past learning to create the possibility of new future learning that goes beyond our passively formulated, yet operative, mental constructs that undergird how we understand the world and the people around us. Unlearning is the imperative of a maturing mind which recognizes the perennial importance of seeing things rightly. If unlearning is the new learning, so to speak, how does one go about unlearning and what difference does it make? Bike riding offers a good illustration of the vexing mechanics of unlearning. The logic behind the commonplace phrase “it’s like riding a bike” suggests a resilience and durability to human learning, which can be a double-edged sword. It is relatively easy to learn—and then remember how—to ride a bike. That is good, …

Why Does Beauty Arouse Joy Even Among Suffering?

After rough treatment at the hands of its “cultured despisers” in the thick of the 20th century, beauty made a steady return to a place of prominence in academic discourse, especially in the field of theology, in the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the current century.[1] Now a mainstay in theological conversation, the discussion of beauty tends to cluster around the series of issues surrounding beauty’s status as a transcendental and its consequent relation to God, on the one hand, and the beauty of creatures and creaturely making, or aesthetics, on the other. More neglected in this new frenzy of activity are the issues surrounding the individual’s experience of beauty. It is not difficult to see why this question would be neglected, as it stands under suspicion for its association with unsavory elements of a past intellectual hegemony. After all, ever since Kant we have been taught to ask about questions of beauty by looking internally, to the experiencing subject, and this had the result of reducing beauty to the eye …

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 …

St. Augustine: The Patron Saint of Suspicion on Draining the Cesspit of Corruption

Does this title actually mean anything? I have my suspicions, and perhaps you do too, but we will have to put them on hold for now, laying aside a hermeneutic of suspicion—which, after all, is never to be applied to the one making claim to it—and replace it with a hermeneutic of trust, until the appropriate time. I am actually going to discuss the meaning of life. Yes, I am actually going to reveal the meaning of life, in a simple, declaratory sentence, without any admission fee, tuition, or other compensation. Perhaps you are suspicious of that claim! Both the claim that I can reveal the meaning of life in one simple sentence, and also the claim that I am doing it for no compensation at all. Perhaps you are thinking, true, he is not charging admission or looking to be paid, but perhaps he is hoping we will praise him, clap for him, cheer and acclaim him for such an accomplishment. After all, just as it is not every lecture series that is an …

The Postmodern Search for a Noble Simplicity in Church Architecture

Last summer I went on a trip to Central Europe with some students and young adults from Salt Lake City and Seattle. We visited Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Croatia. We saw and prayed in churches of various styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Gothic, and modern. During the whole trip I kept asking the students which church was their favorite. To my surprise, it was not the very well preserved Romanesque church in Ják in Hungary—which was both my favorite and the favorite of my fellow Dominican, Father Łukasz—nor any of the grandiose Gothic or Baroque churches. Instead, it was the Matthias Church. Even though this church’s origins go back to XIII century, its present form is late XIX century Neo-Gothic. It is a very beautiful church to be sure, but nothing breathtaking, or so I thought. Another interesting observation was that our young Americans did not much value the Baroque churches, or even disliked them. A similar sentiment was expressed by the young prior of the Dominican community in Vienna, Father Martin. He …