All posts filed under: Blog Posts

Alexander Schmemann’s Rejection of Orthodoxism

Alexander Schmemann’s writing is responsible for the structure of my discussion. I do not mean he spoke to me in my sleep or met me over the Ouija board, I mean that I have long wished to explore one of his clearer statements about what liturgical theology is, and am grateful to this forum for the opportunity to do so. I began by re-immersing myself in his thought by reading articles I had not previously read when I was more narrowly focused on my dissertation topic. It was a risk to return to an author who was so important to me over three decades ago—will I find him passé? Will my interests have moved on? I am happy to report that Schmemann is as stimulating and fruitful as he ever was. Schmemann tells us himself that the most characteristic thing about his thinking is the reunification of liturgy, theology, and piety. When the latter two are divorced from the former one, then theology “is imprisoned in its own ‘data’ and ‘propositions,’ and having eyes does …

Josef Pieper’s Critique of Western Civ

On February 1, 1950, just in time for Commencement Day, the eminent German philosopher Josef Pieper arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus. It was his first visit to the U.S., having finally been recruited by Waldemar Gurian (founder of the University’s notable Review of Politics) to teach for the spring semester. The speaker for the day’s ceremony, as Pieper notes in the recently published second volume of his memoirs, Not Yet the Twilight, was the young Congressman John F. Kennedy, whom he thought somewhat resembled Charles Lindbergh. In fact, two years before, Gurian had asked a Notre Dame colleague travelling in Germany to meet briefly with Pieper in hopes of encouraging him to come to South Bend. He got a message back saying “Nice man but doesn’t speak English.” Two years later, Pieper was successfully—if sometimes haltingly—lecturing to his American students in English. Before his arrival, however, Pieper had been cautioned by Gurian: “Theology, above all, is missing at this University; there is hardly any real philosophizing, and there is nothing of the …

The Digital Displacement of Transcendence at Concerts

Not too long ago I attended a concert put on by some Latin music stars I enjoy (and some I do not) at a massive stadium in South Florida. I had a general idea of what to expect: I had been to large concerts before, and I knew how crazed fans can become at these shows. After all, they adore these artists, these stars: absorbing their lyrics, studying their personal lives, following the gossip, and playing their music as the soundtrack to sundry events in their lives. Being a fan myself, I was quite excited at the opportunity to see some of them live. But the show did not meet my expectations because the stars I expected did not fully appear. I do not mean physically—the performers were there, of course, in the flesh. Yet that flesh—once so sacrosanct in that most religiously charged of secular gatherings, the music concert—seemed unable to carry the weight of glory that it used to. It now had to share that glory with digital representations carried on the sea …

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. …

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: …

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 …

Alasdair MacIntyre Reads Jane Austen Reading Her Late Modern Reader

“You must hear this story,” a friend told me. “As a devoted Janeite, you will love it!” Apparently, renowned philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre was attending a panel on Jane Austen’s novels at the Notre Dame Fall Conference. MacIntyre asked a quaking undergraduate panelist, “Who is the best of all Austen’s heroines?” The panelist shuffled her papers nervously and, in her hesitation, MacIntyre stood and bellowed “Fanny Price!” The shocked panelist fell to the floor in a faint worthy of Marianne Dashwood. I realized halfway through the story that I had been there! In fact, I was a participant in the panel described. But the story had taken on a life of its own, which is why I did not immediately recognize the tale. The real events involved a fellow undergraduate panelist feeling lightheaded while giving her paper on Jane Austen’s view of proper pride with MacIntyre and the Center’s founding director, Dr. David Solomon, in the audience. After she put her feet up for a few minutes, MacIntyre inquired whether she was quite ready to continue …