Francis’s Radical Realism: Performance v. Ideology

Sam Rocha writing at Ethika Politika makes an interesting point about Pope Francis as the first “American” pope. While Rocha’s argument is not above criticism, I think his central point–that as

…since the pragmatism of William James (and the pragmaticism of C.S. Pierce), there has been a distinct sense of concreteness to the original philosophical ideas produced on this continent. Yet, in a more direct way, the geopolitical situation in Latin America over the past hundred years has produced a sense of the concrete that is more than purely philosophical in nature. The comparative political history of modernity in Europe and the Americas makes this very clear. Whereas the European story is driven by an intellectual progression of ideas (e.g., rationalism, empiricism, idealism, and so on), the Latin American version is a postcolonial response to political situations.

He goes on to argue, as he says in the concluding paragraphs, that the real importance of Pope Francis for the Catholic Church (and indeed the Christian community in general and the wider culture is his “radical realism. What Rocha means by this is the tendency of Francis

…to treat the Word as an incarnate thing, as a reality to be shown more than it is said, to let its proclamation live in the performance of its witness, to be captured in pictures of tenderness, embrace, ordinary living. A kiss. Acts such as these are immune to the ideological trap of Western ideas that has turned so much of the reality of the Gospel into intellectual history, moral theology, and dogmatic ideals. A real Gospel cannot be a philosophy or even a philosophical theology. A philosophical Catholicism is what Francis seems to be avoiding, and for good reason.

This kind of “radical realism,” incarnated especially in ascetical struggle and liturgical worship, is the reason for the surprising success of Eastern Orthodox among not only American Evangelical Protestants but also the unchurched. What Pope Francis brings to the conversation about–or maybe better, the practice of– radical Christian realism is a spontaneous and warm openness to, well, everybody. While this hospitality (xenophilia) is not uncommon among Orthodox Christians, it is too often obscured by the heaviness with which we approach our theological tradition and our ethical cultures (including American). Continue reading

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The Four Lies

Culture-Wars-Web-300x270David French, Senior Counsel at the American Center of Law and Justice, lists what he calls the “four quite seductive lies [that] play to our innate selfishness while convincing us that we’re also somehow brave and selfless.” He concludes by arguing that “The conservative project to reclaim culture – a far more important project than reclaiming the White House – has to relentlessly and creatively expose these lies while also demonstrating the attractiveness of true virtue. I fear we’re better at the former than the latter and thus succeed mainly in making people feel bad, not in inspiring them to do good.”

So what are these four lies? Take a look: Continue reading

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Natural Law and Human Reason

An interesting observation that  those Orthodox Christians who reject natural law in any form might want to consider:

By rejecting Hellinization, or Greek Philosophy, fundamentalist Islam denies the validity of reason, and therefore also denies the existence of natural law. Reilly argues that without reason and natural law it is impossible to develop the sort of constitutional systems that are prevalent in the West. He further traces the problem back in history and explains that a divide arose in “9th century in Baghdad between those who wished to give primacy to reason and those who wished to give primacy to pure will and power. So you had, on one side, the first theological school in Islam that said, ‘God is rationality and justice,’ and the other side which said: ‘No, God is pure will and power. Rationality has nothing to do with Him and whatever He does is incomprehensible to us and He cannot be confined to what is thought to be reasonable or unreasonable.’”The latter view ultimately prevailed, as Reilly points that even today the majority theological school believes “that God is the first and only cause of everything and there cannot be secondary causes (such as natural law) because that would be a challenge to God’s omnipotence. So for God to be omnipotent, nothing else can be even so much as potent. Therefore, gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. Fire doesn’t burn cotton; God does.”

As a result there is a:

…rejection of reason in fundamentalist Islam leads to the belief that “the mind is incapable of knowing good and evil from moral philosophy because there is nothing to be known, because things have no nature and are therefore neither good nor evil in themselves, [it is only because] God says so.”

And the practical conclusion?

The Church cannot expect to have any meaningful dialogue with either the secularists or the fundamentalists until both have been re-Hellenized. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD,” but such an invitation can only be accepted by a man who would say “I desire only to know the truth, and to live as well as I can.”

You can read the rest here: The Re-Hellenization of Islam.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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A Mixed Blessing is Still A Blessing

Nothing has shaped the modern world more powerfully than capitalism, destroying as it has millennia-old patterns of economic, social, and political life. Over the centuries it has destroyed feudalism and monarchism with their emphasis on bloodlines and birth. It has created an independent class of businesspeople who owe little to the state and who are now the dominant force in every advanced society in the world. It has made made change and dynamism – rather than order and tradition – the governing philosophy of the modern age. Capitalism created a new world, utterly different from the one that had existed for millennia.

Fareed Zakaria (2003), The Future of Freedom, pp. 45-46

h/t: Cafe Hayek.

Like the Enlightenment, capitalism (or maybe better, the free market) has been a mixed blessing for the Church. Together with the loss of the social structures of “feudalism and monarchism” that Zakaria mentions, there has also been a more general loss of deference to hierarchy and tradition. The Church can no longer assume (much less presume) that even its own faithful will accept as true traditional Christian teach or see traditional Christian practice and moral prescription as wholesome and in the service of human flourishing. The independence of businesspeople to pursue profit as they see fit and of consumers to judge the relative value of different products and services has now become a cultural norm in all areas of life including religion.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Both I think. Yes, the Church has lost some the status and authority that it once in the culture and in people’s lives. But this loss of power also allows the Church corporately and Christians personally to more close imitate the poverty of Jesus Christ. This poverty was not primarily material but personal. In becoming man, the Son of God embraced a poverty of status, authority and power that–paradoxically–made His ministry all that more credible and effective. Or this at least is how St Paul understood the matter:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:5-11).

The cultural changes that Zakaria mentions are a challenge to the Church and to individual Christians no question about it. But if we look beyond the momentary discomfort they bring we can see that they also represent an opportunity for the Church to be purified and strengthened. Just as in our own spiritual life there are times of purification that teach us to depend more fully on God and less on the gifts He’s given us, so too for the Church. While the loss of cultural status is hard and is costly it brings with it the opportunity for Christians to strengthen our personal and corporate commitment to live as disciples of Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

 

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Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience

Dylan Pahman,a research associate at the Acton Institute, has an interesting contribution to the contemporary understanding and application of natural law over at Ethika Politika where he is a contributing editor. What makes the essay (Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience: An Orthodox Response to David Bentley Hart) even more interesting is that Pahman, like Hart, is an Orthodox Christian and so it is from within that tradition that he engages the debate.

Please take a moment to go over to Ethika Politika and read the essay and maybe even join the discussion. For those who might be interested, here’s my response to Dylan’s essay.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

First of all, well said Dylan! As do you, I admire Hart’s writing, the elegance of his language and the intricacy of his thought are breath taking. Above all, however, is his command of the sources, Christian and non-Christian, ancient, medieval, modern and post-modern. This makes the absence of any treatment of conscience in his critique of natural law all the more glaring. That individuals, and even whole communities, are often wrong about the Good, the True, the Just  and the Beautiful (see Philippians 4:8) doesn’t mean these aren’t “really real” as my intro to philosophy professor would often remind us. In its own way, error testifies to the existence of the truth, even as evil does to good, injustice to justice and the ugly to the beautiful.

A careful attention to my own experience reveals that I am often mistaken about what is morally good through simple, and even innocent, ignorance. But on only slightly closer inspection I also realize that there are times when I am not so much mistaken about the good as I am indifferent and even hostile to it. While divine grace makes clear to me that I am forgiven, I need only minimal self-knowledge to know that I fall short of what it means to be fully and distinctively human. While Freud and the other advocates of a hermeneutic of suspicion have helped us fill in the details of our myriad moral failures, they didn’t discover that the human heart can be stone hard or that we often fail to be our best selves.

This brings me to Fr. David’s observation. Like him, I worry we have “reached that point where conscience has become so coarsened that rational discourse in the public square is becoming more and more difficult.” This is certainly the case in the larger culture—of greater concern to me, however, is that this seems also to be the case within the Christian community. For all his eloquence and command of the sources, Hart is arguing not simply against natural law but (as you imply) against human reason’s ability to know, however incompletely, moral truth.

In my own ministry as an Orthodox priest I have found that this denigration of reason’s ability to know what is, and isn’t, morally good common not only among the laity but even among the clergy. For this reason I find myself in fundamental agreement with Fr David when he says that the “very understanding of conscience has been so distorted that I think it perhaps has gone beyond a nearsightedness or color-blindedness.” Like their Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, many Orthodox Christians hold views on matters such as abortion or same-sex marriage that are at odds with the Tradition.

Given the rather thin cultural understanding of reason, I think an re-evangelization of Christians—to say nothing of the culture—will likely not “take place as people imagine … primarily through realm of ideas and arguments or education programs,” though these will have their place, “but rather through witnessing to the cross through word and deed – the ascetical life and self sacrifice.” To Father’s observation I would add the witness of liturgy and the philanthropic ministry of the Church (which I think is probably implied by “self-sacrifice”).

Again, well done!

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“All men are equal”

Quote

Chesterton-Face-281x300For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King. This fact has been quite insufficiently observed in the study of religious heroes. Piety produces intellectual greatness precisely because piety in itself is quite indifferent to intellectual greatness. The strength of Cromwell was that he cared for religion. But the strength of religion was that it did not care for Cromwell; did not care for him, that is, any more than for anybody else. He and his footman were equally welcomed to warm places in the hospitality of hell. It has often been said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.

G.K. Chesterton (1906), Charles Dickens.

h/t:The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

 

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Kolakowski On Natural Law

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Source: Mirror of Justice.

From Leszek Kolakowski‘s 2001 essay “On Natural Law” (included in the recently released collection of essays entitled Is
God Happy?
),:

“…Moral intuition is also a kind of experience, different from sense perception – and neither of them infallible.

Our belief in natural law is not impaired by the fact that the results of this intuition are not necessarily identical in everyone’s mind, always and everywhere, nor by the fact that centuries were needed before people recognized the good and evil of their various actions and institutions – before they admitted, for example, that torture is evil and equality before the law good.  This has also been the case with many discoveries in empirical science: it took centuries before people realized that their ordinary intuitions were wrong: that the sun does not revolve around the earth, or that a force is not necessary to cause movement, or that events are never absolutely simultaneous.  All these erroneous beliefs were natural and understandable.  So why should we not accept that the principles and norms of natural law reveal themselves to us
gradually: that we must go through a process of growth before we understand certain moral truths and laws and recognize them as such?  (Although it should be said that since antiquity there have been people who preached those principles and norms with full conviction – without, however, gaining universal approval.)

******

There is no reason to accept the nihilistic doctrine that because various contradictory norms have been accepted and applied at various times and in various places, they are all, in terms of Reason, equally justified, which is to say equally groundless.  While belief in natural law does not – I repeat – require belief in the existence of God as a necessary premise, it does require the belief in something that one might call the moral (in addition to the physical) constitution of Being – a constitution that converges with the rule of Reason in the universe.

All the evils of the human world, its endless stupidity and suffering, cannot
impair our belief in natural law in this sense.  Two other realms of
intuition – perception and mathematics – also require suppositions that cannot be proved but are indispensable for the knowledge we acquire by these intuitions.  Our life as rational creatures occurs in a realm that is
constructed with the aid of various non-empirical but fundamental courts of
appeal, among them truth and goodness.  Nor need our belief in natural law
be impaired by the fact that it is not universally observed.  This fact
was well known to Seneca and Cicero, to Gratian and Suarez, to Grotius and
Kant, but it did not weaken their conviction that the rules of natural law are
valid, no matter how often they are violated.

 

 

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