Month: April 2014

Christ is Risen!

This is the culmination of the Gospel, it is the Good News par excellence: Jesus, who was crucified, is risen! This event is the basis of our faith and our hope. If Christ were not raised, Christianity would lose its very meaning; the whole mission of the Church would lose its impulse, for this is the point from which it first set out and continues to set out ever anew. The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.

That is why we tell everyone: “Come and see!” In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.

With this joyful certainty in our hearts, today we turn to you, risen Lord!

Pope Francis, Urbi Et Orbi Easter 2014.

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"An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America"


An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum. Image Books (February 11, 2014)

We live in a profoundly spiritual age–but in a very strange way, different from every other moment of our history. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand on the side of morality–to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

Or so Joseph Bottum argues in An Anxious Age, an account of modern America as a morality tale, formed by its spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.

Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber’s sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies in contemporary social class, adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave it meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls “The Poster Children,” Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old Mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors’ Christianity. Turning to “The Swallows of Capistrano,” the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories–and later defeats–of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in public life.

Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

Interviews and Presentations

Reviews and Discussion

  • Book Review of Joseph Bottum, ‘An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America’, by Todd Zywicki. The Volokh Conspiracy 12/02/14:

    [T]here is one thesis that [Bottum] doesn’t consider that I think contributes much of the explanation of the decline of the importance of the Protestant Mainline, which is the thesis developed by Shelby Steele is his great book “White Guilt.” I think Steele’s argument provides the key to unlocking not only the decline of the Protestant Mainline but also the timing, and why the decline of the Protestant Mainline has been so much more precipitous than Evangelicals and Catholics, as well as why anti-Evangelical and anti-Catholic bigotry is so socially acceptable among liberal elites. …

  • Book Review: An Anxious Age, by Jonathan Bishop. Ethika Politika 09/09/14. “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America is a dark and disturbing book, one that has more in common with the final chapter of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions — a recognition that the relativistic and post-Christian forces are in control and will be for conceivably quite some time.”
  • The Puritans Among Us, by Mary Eberstadt. National Review 04/21/14:

    An Anxious Age abounds in logic and clarification (and for that reason among others, it was derelict of the book’s publisher to omit footnotes and an index, both of which would have helped to signal its scholarly nature). Even so, it is the book’s metaphors that will haunt the reader after he puts it down. Who else would describe Protestantism in the United States as “our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape”? Likely no one — but the image brings to vivid and unexpected life a thousand Pew Research reports on declining attendance and the rise in “nones.” Similarly, the author’s unspooling of the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano as a metaphor for explaining what has happened to Catholicism in America is not only arresting but convincing, succeeding both as religious sociology and as literary trope.

  • Book Review: An Anxious Age by Geraldo Russo. Washington Times 04/01/14. “As Tocqueville and others have recognized, American religion and American exceptionalism have proceeded together. Now that they have been sundered, other choices present themselves. “An Anxious Age” explains how we can make the best of what confronts us.”
  • The Rise of Secular Religion, by David P. Goldman. The American Interest 03/17/14:

    This is a work of deep pessimism, albeit mitigated by faith in divine intervention, and its author reveals his innermost thoughts only in parable. It is a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike. It is to be hoped that its dark tone will not discourage those who are more likely to seek encouragement than instruction.

  • An Anxious Author, by Greg Forster. The Public Discourse 03/31/14:

    Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age is a bad book with a good book trapped inside it, struggling to get out. Bottum offers insightful observations that challenge prevailing assumptions about the nature and history of secular progressivism in America. Unfortunately, his main arguments are underdeveloped and disorganized, and the book’s appeal is limited by its prejudice against Protestantism. But the greatest disappointment is Bottum’s failure to practice the Christian virtue of hope.

    • American Hope: Don’t Conflate Political Culture and Christianity, by Joseph Bottum. [Reply to Greg Forster] The Public Discourse 04/10/14. “… a forced smile and a Mrs. Rogers optimism about Americanist politics: I just don’t feel enough anxiety to fake it. A calm hope in Christ Jesus and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin seems enough to be going on with.”
  • Rise of the Poster Children, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The University Bookman Spring 2014:

    An Anxious Age incorporates a number of separately published articles and essays, and sometimes the seams are visible. The reader most likely will not mind the digressions and set pieces that don’t relate to the overall argument, however, since the writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters, and his conclusion that the Pope was “the freest man in the twentieth century” is both satisfying and earned. His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey, and effectively underscores Bottum’s argument that today’s Catholic intellectuals are at a disadvantage without the culture that could be taken for granted in the past. The book’s detours into figures such as Rauschenbusch, Max Weber, James Pike, and Avery Dulles are also fascinating.

  • An Anxious Age—and an Antagonistic Future?, by Christopher White. Catholic World Report April 13, 2014:

    Bottum’s work is primarily descriptive in nature and does not offer any hard predictions for what the future might hold from here. There is indeed the possibility that we might hope to begin toreintegrate the public square with a religious language where the poster children of post-Protestant America are convinced by the Catholic converts—or are at least hospitable to their convictions. But that remains unresolved. Considering the widespread skepticism and even hostility in which religious expression is viewed in America, it’s seemingly unlikely. And if this, indeed, the future that awaits us, it’s highly probably that this anxious age in which we live will give rise to an antagonistic one to follow.

  • The End of Exceptionalism, by Eric Jackson. Thoughts and Ideas 3/28/14:

    As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap. America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so. Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.

  • The Social Gospel Paradox Divest This:

    for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough. Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins [“bigotry, arrogance of power, corruption of justice for personal gain, mob madness and violence, militarism and class contempt”]. In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

    Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ. And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

    An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm. For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

  • Reviewed by Matt McCullough 9Marks 3/25/14:

    Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.

    Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway.

  • A conservative who was right about Occupy, by Nathan Schneider. WagingNonviolence.com. 02/15/14:

    That a critic like Bottum, most at home in conservative quarters, credits Occupy for inspiring his book is to me a reminder of why the movement caught hold of me and so many others so fiercely at the outset: it had the potential to recenter our politics and our discourse and our spectrum. Its failures were less failures of aspiration than of accomplishment — that it wasn’t diverse enough, or empowering enough, or transformative enough to live up to its own transcendental ambitions.

Cessario on Cajetan and the Communio School

The Communio school of theology, taken globally, and not as it plays out under the influence of the American edition, is more difficult to define than Thomism. Thomists are those who read Aquinas, and so may be distinguished from those who read and adhere to other major Christian thinkers such as Scotus or St. Bonaventure or Ockham. Partisans of the Communio school, on the other hand, study many authors; their return to the sources embraces a wide range of both ancient and recent theologians and philosophers, and even includes consulting social scientists.

[Tracey] Rowland identifies many of these figures in her chapters. Suffice it to remark that a common feature of Communio school theology is that its adherents subscribe without hesitation to a viewpoint that lately has been set forth by Nicholas M. Healy in his Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life: “In his commentary on the Summa theologiae, Cajetan so separates nature from grace that humanity now has two ends, natural and supernatural. . . .” Healy of course repeats an assertion that was set forth with remarkable success in the twentieth century by Jesuit Father Henri de Lubac, later Cardinal of the Roman Church.

It has always struck me as odd that so many good-willed theologians accept the view that a twentieth-century French Jesuit whose intellectual interests were wide-ranging occupied a better position to understand what St.Thomas Aquinas taught about the finalities of the human person than did a sixteenth-century Italian humanist, who had represented Catholic doctrine in person to no less imposing a figure than Martin Luther and whose commentary on the entire Summa theologiae appears by order of Pope Leo XIII in the critical edition of Aquinas’s opera omnia that bears that Pope’s name, the still incomplete Leonine edition. But they do. Many sincere people, including Tracey Rowland, accept the proposition that de Lubac laid bare a huge historical mistake about how to construe the relationship between nature and grace, and they seemingly consider his critique of Cardinal Cajetan and the Thomists who follow him a non-gainsayable principle of all future Catholic theology. What Cajetan obscured, de Lubac grasped with clarté. Nicholas Healy illustrates this conviction:“[T]he influence of the two-tier conception of reality became widespread and was understood by many theologians as a reasonable development of Thomas’s thought.” One could infer from remarks such as these that Tommaso De Vio, Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534) should be known as the great betrayer of Aquinas instead of his papal approved interpreter. Prima facie, the proposition seems primitive.

Those who want to understand more about this golden apple of twentieth-century theological discord should consult the work of Professor Steven A. Long. His essays on topics such as the obediential potency and other related theological theses repay careful study. Long’s articles reveal the way that theologians have attempted to handle the difficult question of describing adequately the differentiation of finalities that the gratuitous bestowal of divine friendship on the members of the human race introduces into Catholic theology. Because of the centrality that this issue holds in the thought of many of the theologians that Rowland presents to her readers, I think it is important to alert those who will read her book, especially beginners in the discipline, that they should make up their own minds about de Lubac’s critique, and not assume that one eminent French Jesuit and 100,000 Communio followers can’t be wrong.
The fact of the matter is that the differentiation of finalities that a Catholic theologian must consider in the human person remains a topic that has been ill served during the period after the Second Vatican Council.

Let me conclude this section with a word of advice to beginners: You can embrace Gaudium et Spes 22 and still follow Cardinal Cajetan.

Romanus Cessario, OP.
Nova et Vetera Vol. 2, No. 2 (2004).

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Incidentally, today is Romanus Cessario’s 73rd birthday. You may view more of his articles online here, his full CV here.

Mulcahy on Milbank

I particularly appreciate Mulcahy’s Aquinas’s Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac for its demonstration of how De Lubac’s criticism of pure nature has, carried to its logical conclusions, culminated in the “integralist revolution” of John Milbank, leading proponent of Radical Orthodoxy.

Mulcahy begins with an examination of the political origins of Radical Orthodoxy in Marxist theory and anti-Thatcherism (its hostility refocusing on the “neoimperialist” and “relatively genocidal” United States of America post-9/11). Originally Marxist in tone, Mulcahy observes how Milbank’s vision of society has become exclusively theological — endorsing socialism as not only the creed of “all sane, rational human beings” but as the vehicle by which the peace of the Church [is going to be] mediated to and established in the entire human community.”

Maculhy also demonstrates Milbank’s increasing receptivity to theocracy — or rather “democraticed, anarchic theocracy”: small, self-sustaining communities “Eucharistic in form, with a liturgical rhythm and a spiritual motivation pervading its system of peaceful sharing.” Granted, Milbank does not pretend to know how it would be established.

Maculhy then addresses Milbank’s interpretation of De Lubac as the basis for the “integralist revolution” (the notion that Vatican II enacted a “new theology of grace”, recognizing that “in concrete, historical humanity there is no such thing as a state of ‘pure nature’. … with the consequence that one cannot analytically separate ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ contributions to this integral unity.”)

If “everything is grace”, nothing is truly secular. To regard philosophy, politics, science and culture as non-theological or possessing “autonomous and immanent secular realms” is tantamount to heresy, against which RO marshals itself in resistance via engagement in radical Christian politics. (Indeed, Milbank indicts De Lubac and Balthasar for being deficient in their “aversion to the secular order” [photographic evidence!]):

RO views any self-limiting theology—all liberal theology—as colluding in its own marginalisation. Radical Orthodoxy intends to reverse this marginalisation by proclaiming theology’s true scope, and by insisting on theology’s relevance in determining the validity of all modes of human discourse. The establishment of the commanding position of theology over all other modes of knowledge, and in regard to all other scholarly and scientific discourse, will thus be a step toward the building of a new Christian modernity. The hope of RO is that this new modernity will be one in which divine wisdom and peace reign over all.

But how, exactly, is the marginalization of theology to be countered? — for while Pope Benedict might lament the “de-Hellenization” of academia (the attempt by scholars to separate Christianity from Greek philosophical thought), RO abandons reason and objective truth altogether, relinquishing itself to the postmodern depiction of Christianity as a “communal narrative“, one among many, howbeit claiming to trump all others as “the narrative of The Word Incarnate”:

Given such an exalted Christian claim, namely, that Christian discourse alone enacts and represents the divine Word, how are this discourse’s truth claims to be recognized as true in the Christian community of faith? The idea of objective verification or falsification has, in RO’s judgement, been discredited. The answer is that Christianity “out-narrates” any rival discourse. This is to imply that the Christian story, enacted in the community of faith, has a beauty and luminosity which other discourses lack. As a result, it exerts an aesthetic appeal on those touched by it. Once the attractiveness of the divine beauty is experienced, no other arguments or evidence need be considered. Rather, the very suggestion that such other forms of evidence could be considered is a relic of epistemological naïveté. The Christian story “claims no foundation for the truth of Christianity beyond the compelling vision of the story and of the vision it sustains.”

There is no question of apologetics, of natural law, of rational persuasion, of any marriage of reason and faith — all that’s left is the aesthetic appeal of Christianity.

There is no denying that “the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of” (Pascal); that converts have been won over by the beauty of Christianity, moved by the witness of its martyrs and the lives of its saints. And I can certainly get behind people like Gregory Wolfe, and his belief that “beauty will save the world” — that art, literature and the fruits of imagination can become the wellsprings to cultural renewal, providing enrichment to public discourse and cultivating a receptiveness towards the truth where ideology and politics cannot. But Radical Orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be proclaiming just that — rather, it gives up on truth and reason altogether. Mulcahy again:

RO vigourously sets itself to reclaim a comprehensive, Christ-centred vision. But such a vision may also invite self deception. Its ostensible discrediting of correspondence theories of truth is, I would suggest, no more than apparent. Our personal vision may be tested against publicly known realities, against the truth not only of Scripture, ecclesial authority, and tradition, but also of wisdom and learning wherever these are to be found. Such an openness to truth cannot consist in collapsing everything into the doctrine of the incarnation, or into Christ’s Eucharistic presence. If it is to serve the world, and even if it is to save the world, doctrine must live with the distinctions between grace and nature, even if it refines them in new ways. If “everything is grace,” as RO would understand it, then Christianity departs for an enclave which must become ever more remote. If, on the other hand, “not everything is grace,” if there is room for the notion of pure nature, then there are vast possibilities for communication between Church and world, and between faith and all human disciplines—to the benefit of all concerned. Methodological arrogance is hardly a necessary quality of a genuinely incarnational theology.

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Returning finally to the topic of Aquinas, Radical Orthodoxy purportedly adopts and expounds upon De Lubac’s account of Thomism. However, if recent studies have indicated that De Lubac’s understanding of Aquinas was found to be wanting, this defect is apparently by no means an impediment to Radical Orthodoxy. While Maculhy finds that “Milbank has not yet written in any detailed way on the history of Thomism, nor has he been engaged in a close reading of Thomistic texts”, this has not deterred Milbank from co-authoring a book with Catherine Pitstock on Truth and Aquinas in which they expound on Aquinas’ “theory of knowledge.”

The impression is clearly given that for Mulcahy — and I would imagine for most anybody who adheres to prevailing norms of academic scholarship, rational discourse and validation — the very act of reading Milbank is itself a recipe for exasperation. Consider the following:

The word “interpretation” must be emphasised and explained when it comes to Milbank’s treatment of Aquinas. As one who rejects “accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality” and denies that truth is a correspondence between the intellect and extra-mental reality, Milbank insists that “the point [of theology] is not to represent … externality, but just to join in its occurrence; not to know, but to intervene, originate.” Accordingly, his recourse to Aquinas is not a work of exegesis, but a project of creative expression: “exegesis is easy; it is interpretation that is difficult, and Aquinas, more than most thinkers, requires interpretation.” This explains why Milbank holds that, even if the actual text of St Thomas “appear[s] incontrovertibly to refute my reading,” that reading itself should not be subjected to conventional scholarly critique.

This ostensibly post-modern approach to sources has predictably occasioned intense criticism. Informed scholars have described Radical Orthodoxy’s interpretations as “gnostic idealism,” “blithely imprecise, ideologically driven historical revisionism,” “free-floating, self-perpetuating insularity”, “opaque [sentences] drifting [in] conceptual murkiness”, “sophistical legerdemain,” “blatant misreading … that ignores the ordinary canons of scholarly enquiry,” and “[not] just wrong, [but] laughable, though not amusing.” Milbank’s vague and sometimes even inaccurate footnotes do not help his cause.

In Milbank’s defence, one can say only that RO had disclaimed the canons of scholarly objectivity and verifiable accuracy right from the beginning. Radical Orthodoxy sets itself to challenge all settled theological opinion, and pretends no dialogical relationship with other views or types of rationality. When considering Milbank’s interpretation of St Thomas, the best approach, one might suggest, is to recognise it as something akin to an interpretive dance. It displays an inherently subjective approach, and, in effect, purports to be nothing else. Scholarship of an objective kind must be sought elsewhere.