Guest Post: Anonymous and Utterly Silent Christians

I read Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence many years ago,  when I was about 16 or 17 years old. At the time I thought it scandalous. I wonder if I would have a different impression reading it today. When my friend Ludovicus sent me the following review of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel, it made think that my younger self’s judgement was probably sound. Continue reading

Von Balthasar and Benedict XVI on Anti-Semitism

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lordvol 5, pp. 579-580:

In his insatiable and hateful polemic against the Old Testament, Hegel pursues the one element for which he has no use in his otherwise all-reconciling system: the sovereign and lordly elevation of God above the world, who acts, elects and rejects in complete freedom of will; and thus he has no use either for the distinctively Old Testament form of the divine glory: the Kabod. It was precisely this kind of anti-semitism which necessarily had to appear at the end of our history of the Spirit in which the elevation of God above the world—first in terms of classical antiquity and then of Christianity—is reduced step by step until it becomes a structure of implication and explication.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 28 May, 2006:

The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone – to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.

A Commanding Rhythm

In an excerpt from an introduction to a forthcoming collection of David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis, John Jeremiah Sullivan, points out an analogy between Wallace’s own achievements as a writer and the achievements of Roger Federer as a tennis-player that Wallace described in his most famous tennis article, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (originally published with the title “Federer as Religious Experience”). Just as Federer had the genius to overcome the apparently “final” form of tennis in the “power baseline” style, and recover “an all-court style” and “art,” so Wallace “working in a form that is also (perpetually?) said to be at the end of its evolution […] when at his best, showed new ways forward.”

I think that Sullivan is right about that analogy, but I think he misses another, seemingly more obvious analogy between Wallace’s art and tennis. In discussing Wallace’s argument in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” that the inability of great athletes to describe what it feels like to have such greatness follows immediately from the essence of their greatness, which is a lack of self-consciousness allowing them to be entirely present in the moment, Sullivan writes “The writer, existing only in reflection, is of all beings most excluded from the highest realms.” This seems to me wrong. The writer’s gift is much more analogous to the athlete’s than Sullivan lets on. Wallace describes Tracy Austin’s “technē” as, “that state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves.” But this could just as well serve as a description of the achievement of a great writer such as Wallace himself. At first glance it seems true that Wallace’s technē does not have the same element of lack of self-consciousness that is essential to Austin’s, but even Wallace often remarked that when the writing was going well he could not feel his rear end in his chair.

Of Austin Wallace writes that on the court she shares “the particular divinity she’s given her life for” and allows her spectators a kind of transcendence, a view of “transient instantiations of a grace that for most of us remains abstract and immanent.” But Wallace is to my mind doing the very same thing— even in the Austin piece itself.

Sullivan is probably right to call the Federer essay is “possibly Wallace’s finest tennis piece,” but“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is my favorite. It is an astonishingly great piece of prose. While it lacks some of the maximalist descriptions of the other pieces, the Austin piece has a crystal clarity and a sort of concentrated overall unity: it is a single, relentless movement from the first to the last syllable. To be fully appreciated one ought to read it aloud, or listen to Wallace’s own (highly impressive) reading:

Listening to Wallace read that piece reminds me of something Maurice Baring says about Sarah Bernhardt’s performance of Racine’s Phédre: “her movements and her gestures, her explosions of fury and her outbursts of passion, were subservient to a commanding rhythm.” The beauty of Wallace’s prose rhythm, like all great artistic beauty, is full of sadness, and it is the very sadness that he finds in Tracy Austin’s achievements: the sadness of the transient, mortal character of an aesthetic transcendence that seems to demand eternity and immortality. I am reminded of a passage of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord:

In the experience of worldly beauty the moment is eternity. The form, containing eternity, of the beautiful object communicates something of its supratemporality to the condition of the person who experiences it in contemplation. Nevertheless, the ‘sorrow of the gods’ (Göttertrauer) wafts about the beautiful form, for it must die, and the state of being blissfully enraptured always includes a knowledge of its tragic contradiction: both the act and the object contain within themselves the death that contradicts their very content.

If Balthasar’s words can be applied to Wallace’s non-fiction, they apply even more to his fiction— especially in the darkest parts. Even the darkest and superficially ugliest parts of Oblivion or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are beautiful, and it is a beauty that intentionally heightens the contradiction to which Balthasar alludes. To quote Balthasar again:

even worldly aesthetics cannot exclude the element of the ugly, of the tragically fragmented, of the demonic, but must come to terms with these. Every aesthetic which simply seeks to ignore these nocturnal sides of existence can itself from the outset be ignored as a sort of aestheticism. It is not only the limitation and precariousness of all beautiful form which intimately belongs to the phenomenon of beauty, but also fragmentation itself, because it is only through being fragmented that the beautiful really reveals the meaning of the eschatological promise it contains.

In Wallace the “eschatological promise” is only ever faintly and hesitatingly suggested, never unequivocally affirmed, but it is always there.

We Have Seen His Glory: a Response to a Certain Philosophical Rejection of the Christian Faith

In a guest post on Artur Rosman’s blog last year, I wrote that I could no more abandon Catholicism than I could “kill my parents with my bare hands and eat their flesh.” But of course “let him who thinks he is standing see to it that he does not fall.” There is nothing absolutely impossible about my falling away from the Faith. Perseverance in the theological virtue of faith is an unmerited grace that can be lost.

An example of such a possibility is the anonymous author of the blog Entirely Uselesswho was a Catholic from a milieu similar to my own, but has through philosophical reflections come to the conclusion that the Catholic faith (and indeed “religion in general” [whatever that might mean]) is not true. In a recent post he makes some personal remarks on his path. I want to say at the outset that I think our anonymous friend is entirely sincere in his thinking. Philosophy is a difficult enterprise for embodied intellects, and the sources of error are numerous. I do not think that he is “foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons,” and I am sorry that such insults have been thrown at him. I even find something to admire in the courage with which he has followed the logic of his positions even though they have led to “serious negative consequences for [his] social and personal life,” since he is now seen by many of his friends and relatives as a traitor.

I do, however, want to question one claim that he makes by applying it to my own case. Entirely Useless quotes Gregory Dawes about a ‘ministerial’ use of reason, in which philosophical arguments are used to assist the faith, but are considered a priori not to be able to threaten the truths of the faith. In a previous post he had quoted Dawes at greater length to argue that such a use of reason is unserious:

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology. There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.

Now, there are two points that I would like to make about this. The first has to do with what exactly it means for philosophy to be the handmaid of theology. I certainly hold that she is, but in a slightly different sense from the one expounded by Dawes. Dawes (apparently following a certain interpretation of Luther) thinks that it means that reason an sich is to be the servant of an irrational (or at any rate non-rational) interior testimony of the Spirit. But I would see it rather as unaided reason serving reason aided by grace. The difference may seem to be small, but I think it is actually quite great. On my account faith is a strengthening of the intellectual faculty in us, allowing us to come to some truth that we could not attain without such strengthening (even though the attainment lacks something of the perfection of knowledge in the strict sense). I do not see anything contrary to the dignity of reason for its natural use to be subordinated to its supernatural use.

The second point that I would make would be on Dawes’s claim that to do philosophy seriously one must follow arguments wherever they lead. In a certain sense this is obviously true. But in another sense it is false. As the author of Entirely Useless very well knows, philosophical argument ought to proceed from what is more known to what is less known. It ought to unfold and explain what is contained in our first common conceptions of reality that are the most certain, but at the same time the most vague and confused of the things we know. It ought not to explain them away by means of more distinct, but less certain, secondary conceptions. Thus, for example, Aristotle in the Physics certainly takes the arguments of Melissus and Parmenides on the unity and immobility of being seriously in the sense that he carefully examines their evidence, and tries to see what led them to think thus. But he does not take them seriously in Dawes’s sense. That is, he is not open to being persuaded by their conclusion. And the reason is that the reality of plurality and motion in the world is more known to us than any of the abstract premises from which Parmenides and Melissus are working. There is nothing unserious about Aristotle’s approach. On the contrary there would be something unserious about approaching the question with an agnostic attitude toward the reality of plurality and motion. Similarly, there is something profoundly unserious about Descartes’s project of universal doubt, because it effectively takes certain abstract secondary conceptions as being more known to us than our common experience of the sensible world.

But what about the Christian faith? In one sense the Christian faith is certainly not “more known” than the truths that we know by natural reason. Indeed, in the strict sense of Aristotelian ἐπιστήμη it is not knowledge at all. Nevertheless, it has a property of ἐπιστήμη namely certitude. Whence comes this certitude? Entirely Useless has a great many posts on two kinds of evidence for the Faith: 1) preambles of the faith, that is demonstrations from natural reason for the existence and attributes of God, and 2) external signs of the credibility of Christian revelation, such as miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, consistency throughout the ages etc. Now both of these kinds of evidence are important. The preambles help us to understand the contents of Faith, and have also led certain persons to embrace the Faith (Edward Feser, for instance, was led to his conversion by a consideration of the preambula). External signs of credibility are also important— many persons have been converted or strengthened in their faith by witnessing miracles, for example. But neither of these is the primary source of the certitude of the faith for those who believe.

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal. It enables us to “see His glory.”

Speaking for myself, my certitude rests on having “seen,” that glory. That is— on an encounter with the witness that is of such a kind as of itself to make His witness entirely credible. I know that the author of Entirely Useless has never been much of a disciple of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I disagree with Balthasar on many things myself. But Balthasar’s theological aesthetics seem to me to be quite true and profound on this point (even if sometimes slightly overstated). In vol. 1 of The Glory of the Lord Balthasar refers to a line from the Christmas Preface:

For through the mystery [or sacrament] of the Word made flesh a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in Him God made visible, we may be caught up [rapiamur] through Him in love of things invisible.

To see the glory of Christ is to be moved by that light to love the invisible realities of God, and to believe in them with an overwhelming certitude. Such certitude exceeds the natural power of reason, but it is not therefore irrational, it is the pinnacle of reason in this earthly life, and the faint inchoatio of the eternal vision of God in beatitude.

The glory of Christ is “visible” not only to those who saw Him in His earthly life, but also to those who encounter Him in His Church, through the written testimony of scripture, and even more through the unwritten reflection of His glory in the life, preaching, and sacraments of the Church.

You have not seen him but you love him, and now, not seeing him but believing in him, rejoice, with a joy which is inexpressible and glorious, as you win what is the end of faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have watched and our hands have felt, concern­ing the word of life; and the life was revealed, and we have seen and attest and announce to you the life ever­lasting which was with the Father and was revealed to us; what we have seen and heard we announce to you also, so that you also may share it with us; and our sharing is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. And we write you this so that your joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

It is no longer because of your talk that we be­lieve; we ourselves have heard, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world. (John 4:42)

Looking at my own life, I can see how easy it would be to consider my approach to these questions “unserious;” as determined not by the evidence, but by my loyalty to my community, as tainted by what I called “confirmation bias.” But to me (as I tried to explain in my Cosmos The In Lost piece), the opposite seems evident. It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the Faith. Presumably the author of Entirely Useless will disagree. But perhaps we can at least agree on this much: neither of us is “foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons.”

Fanaticism vs. Devotion

In a comment on my last post Michael Bolin does a good job of defending the Newman passage that I used to show that one should not be for moderation in religion, even in false religion. Nevertheless, I think Samantha Cohoe is right that the passage is not applicable to the case of St Paul before his conversion. Even after one has dismissed the bogus moderate/extreme distinction in religion one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Jeremy Holmes provided the following distinction on Facebook (quoted with permission): Continue reading

Per Evangelica Dicta

How are we to understand the silent prayer after the Gospel at Mass: “Per evangelica dicta, deleantur nostra delicta: By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out”? How does the reading of the Gospel blot out our sins? The brilliant German novelist Martin Mosebach in one of the essays in his rather idiosyncratic book on the Liturgy uses this prayer as an argument for having the Gospel read in Latin: the reading of the Gospel is much more than proclamation; in it Christ becomes present, and it thus as the character of a sacramental an efficacious, sin-forgiving blessing. (Häresie der Formlosigkeit, 2nd. ed. 135) I have no problem with reading the Gospel in Latin, but I think that Mosebach’s argument tends to muddle the distinction between sacramental and sacrament a bit. We say a sacrament is efficacious “ex opere operato,” from the work done, but a sacramental “ex opere operantis,” from the work of the doer. Mosebach seems to be wanting the sacramental to work like a sacrament: as if it were irrelevant whether one understood the words of the Gospel for them to have their effect. In the case of a sacrament this is clear; Ronald Knox famously remarked, on being asked to use the vernacular for a Baptism, “the baby doesn’t understand English and the Devil knows Latin.” But in the case of a sacramental this is not at all clear.

Although the subtitle of Mosebach’s book is “On the Roman Liturgy and its Enemy” its spirit is rather Byzantine than Roman. I think this is manifest in many parts of the book, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the place just cited. For Byzantine theology does not distinguish between sacraments and sacramentals. There is an old Russian story which gives gives a kind of exaggerated version of what Mosebach seems to be thinking: A monk gives a drunkard a copy of the Gospel in Church Slavonic, and advises him to read it whenever he wants a drink, but the man assures the monk that he does not understand Church Slavonic and the book can be of no use to him.

But the monk went on to assure me that in the very words of the Gospel there lay a gracious power, for in them was written what God himself has spoken. ‘It does not matter very much if at first you do not understand. […] If you do not understand the Word of God, the devils understand what you are reading and tremble […] St. John Chrysostom writes that even a room in which a copy of the Gospels is kept holds the spirits of darkness at bay and becomes an unpromising field for their wiles.’

Now, I don’t want to deny that there might be something to all this, Chrysostom  is a strong authority, but it is hardly likely that this typically Byzantine enthusiasm is what the Roman Liturgy is referring to with “per evangelica dicta…” The Roman tradition places great emphasis on attention to the liturgically proclaimed word, “ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae” (Regula Benedicti XIX,7). Even one of the most Byzantine-spirited Latin theologians, the “Origen of the 20th century,” H. U. von Balthasar, is very Roman when it comes to this question. Like Origen himself Balthasar occasionally makes a really good point:

It is essential to listen [to the word] obediently and with full attention, not least as a means of purification and preparation for holy communion (“You are made clean by the word which I have spoken to you” [Jn 15:3]; “Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). This attention is therefore necessary as a liturgical act, i.e., an act pertaining to the worship of the whole Church. Consequently it is wrong to isolate this act, which can only be a personal act, and as such makes ready for the sacramental act of holy communion, and to sacramentalize it, ascribing to it a kind of ex opere operato effect which is totally foreign.

The contact which we have with the Word in the Gospel is a preparation for the union which we will have with Him in through the Sacrament, which is itself a foretaste of the union which we will have with Him in the Beatific Vision.

The contact with him in the Gospel is the contact of faith. Blessed Columba Marmion’s Christ the Life of the Soul is largely concerned with how the contact that we have with Christ through faith is the foundation of the spiritual life and our adoption as sons. Thus when the Gospel is proclaimed in we come into real contact with the Light of the world, who reveals to us our sin and blots it out on condition that we believe:

For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. He that believeth in him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:16-21)