Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Immanentizing Evil to Religion and Creating a Secondary Ideology Against the Venom

One thing I keep thinking about is the kind of constellation of thought that keeps cropping up out there that suggests that religion is the root of all evil and that people need to be proactive and ruthless in rooting it out of the human psyche. On the one hand I see this lining up with the description of self-deception T.S. Eliot aptly and wryly gave. How convenient, he muses in one passage, to find all evil embodied in another group. There is nothing like it to put a spring in your step. But it is self-deceptive and Christians should not partake of it. But when faced with others bigotry, when they begin to regard what you stand for as the embodiment of evil, there is a temptation to counter with the same. And who knows what group started the cycle. Against the blind venom of ideological rigidity, one is tempted to form a “secondary ideology”, a defensive and despising militancy. But this is the great test of the Christian faith. Will we love our enemies as Christ loved us when we were His enemies (and as He does when we act like His enemies)? (Some seem to think the test is whether we hate ourselves for the sake of our enemies until well, Christ gets the shaft, and we rage with the nations against the Son of God).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cardinal Newman Resists the Fracture of the University

It is interesting to me to learn that John Henry Cardinal Newman during his first years as a fellow at Oriel in Oxford was initially greatly influenced by the friendly guidance of two Seniors, one of whom would later become archly opposed to him for his stance that teachers ought, at the then ostensibly Christian Oxford university, to not merely teach but also watch over the religious life of their pupils.

“It was the powerful minds of two friendly seniors that really shaped him, in these first Oriel years, Richard Whately and Edward Hawkins. And the Oriel ‘spirit of moderation and comprehension’, wrought very powerfully, in these years to lessen that morbid sensibility and irritability of mind’, in religious matters, against which, as a characteristic weakness of his early manhood, his father had once gravely warned him.”

Several years later, in 1828, Hawkins would become Provost of Oriel in 1828 and Newman and he would come into head on collision.

“The subject of the dispute was the contention of Newman and his fellow tutors that their duties were not merely to teach but to watch over the religious life of their pupils.”

As Provost, Hawkins responded to Newman’s disagreement by ceasing to assign him any more students after 1830. Newman reflected later that had he not been deprived of his tutorship, the Tract movement (the Oxford theological movement which among other things would influence the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous) would never, humanly speaking, have occurred. The hardship was the necessary precursor to a fruitful movement.

What I find especially interesting is the point of dispute between Hawkins and Newman, a point of dispute that one might say is also between the modern university and Newman’s idea of the university. The neat, arbitrary, paralyzing and neutering divisions of modernity which cut the cords between knowledge, morality and beauty were eschewed by Newman who insisted on the synthesis even to the point of being censured and persecuted.

It may be necessary to mention that Newman at this time had been from 1822-1833 Vice-principal of a small college, the acting pastor of St. Clement’s parish in Oxford, one of the four Public Tutors in his college, and as a dean, he had “played a prominent part in taming a rowdy, hard-drinking set of undergraduates and in restoring long-relaxed college discipline.” There is more, but the point I drew from it is that he was a preacher and a spiritual man who could not and would not divorce the spiritual from the intellectual. Indeed, as he points out in his book The Idea of the University, the original idea of the university was to be versed in multiple fields of knowledge that were all ultimately unified. Modern man on the other hand lives with fracture and tends to hallow it as normal, inured to even a longing for the unified whole, and impaired in his thinking by his complacent divisions.

Last there is this note about this formative time in Newman’s life: And of all the varied forces that worked on him in the ten years since he went to Oriel, none had effected him so powerfully, by 1833, as the systematic study of these early Christian writers, Greek and Latin, whom we call the Fathers. ‘In the long Vacation of 1828 I set about to read them chronologically.”

* Quotes taken from an introduction to the Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Philip Hughes in an Image Book copy (1956), pgs. 16-18.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Golgotha Undiscerned: Philosophy's Fatality

"In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight- three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, 'It's disgusting the way the mob enjoys such things. Why can't the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?' Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the true, the good and the beautiful." -W.H. Auden, 'Meditation on Good Friday' in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (Faber, 1971), qtd. in Richard Harries' Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding, (Continuum, 1993).