All posts tagged: Catholic imagination

The Most Important Religious Event Since the Reformation

Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918—the year World War I ended. His musical West Side Story premiered in 1957. On 9 August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Its Cathedral of St. Mary was annihilated instantaneously. On August 15, the Japanese surrendered, ushering in the end World War II. On 1 November 1950 Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption. Carl Jung called this declaration “the most important religious event since the Reformation.” West Side Story The 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth has occasioned numerous performances of West Side Story, easily his most popular work. It places the traditional Romeo and Juliet story in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, where the white Jets fight the Puerto Rican Sharks for neighborhood territory. The Jet Tony falls for Maria, sister of the Sharks’ gang leader. Performances and program notes in 2018 have noted the continuing American struggle of immigration and racial integration decades after the musical’s performance and its 1961 transformation into an Academy Award-winning film. Perhaps West Side Story relates …

The Catholic Imaginings of Jimmy Buffett

This little song sort of combines a hangover cure and fourteen years of Catholic education into a song; it’s a little bit weird, but it sort of works out.[1] Jimmy Buffett, the king of “drunk Caribbean rock and roll music,” may seem like an unlikely person to be an example of the Catholic imagination. In his music, merchandise, restaurants, and resorts, Buffett revels in escapism and pleasure, giving license to hedonsim and letting it run amok. He has accrued a tremendous amount of wealth through these endeavors and cultivated a devoted following, known as Parrotheads. Indeed, he would seem to be the Evangelist for just the kind of leisure recently criticized by Paul Griffiths. Buffett peddles the side of leisure (otium) decried by St. Augustine too in his City of God as delight in “lazy inactivity” (iners vacatio).[2] Buffett’s incredible success, however, bespeaks in his fans an instinctual dissatisfaction with the demands of modern work and a desire to get away, to escape and have a good time, to have fun. Jimmy Buffett has been …

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: …