Sound Thinking

27 Jan

Why theologians should be on their knees

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/27/21

John Webster on rapture and receptivity in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar 

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)

On Volume 149 of the Journal, Matthew Levering talks about his book The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Theology. In his book’s opening chapter, Levering notes that given the depth and breadth of von Balthasar’s learning and wisdom, attempting to write an introductory book to his work comes perilously close the height of foolishness. (Then again, people write introductory books to the Bible or to the history of the Church.)

As Levering introduces his own introduction, he reflects the three-fold structure of von Balthasar’s trilogy and his own book with this summary: “[T]o a modern world forgetful of God and Christ, von Balthasar wishes to proclaim the beauty of beings, the goodness of history, and the truth of love. He wishes to help us remember that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8), that God has ‘destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ in history (Eph 1:5), and that we must now live ‘according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph 4:7).”

In an 1983 article titled “Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Paschal Mystery,” John Webster (then Lecturer in Theology at St. John’s College, Durham) offered a helpful glimpse at some of the key themes in von Balthasar’s work. The three-page article includes four subheadings: Beauty; Jesus, the Form of God; Incarnation and Trinity; and The Mystery of Holy Saturday. Since the entire text is both brief and available on-line, I’ll offer here only two very short extracts.

“Von Balthasar’s whole theological enterprise could be not improperly described as an attempt to restate the centrality of the category of beauty for Christian faith and Christian theology. His work is pervaded by a conviction that the self-revelation of God is not only truth to be apprehended by the mind nor only commands to exercise the will, but also a manifestation of the sheer beauty and splendour of the being of God. And so his theology seeks ‘to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful’ (The Glory of the Lord, 9). For at the heart of the Christian faith lies the experience of being overwhelmed and mastered by the radiance of God’s glory as he shows himself to the world.

“It would be easy, but ultimately mistaken, to dismiss this unfamiliar theological starting-point as a kind of religious aestheticism. In fact, von Balthasar’s theology of beauty occupies the place which in more familiar accounts of Christian truth is occupied by the doctrine of revelation. That is to say, it is an attempt to identify the self-manifestation of God through which he communicates himself to the world. This self-manifestation is not, however, propositional: God reveals, not a message about himself but rather the splendour of his own being. This splendour is both authoritative and compelling: its claim is absolute, its sheer occurence as the irruption of God’s glory into human history commands by attracting us and taking us beyond ourselves in rapture. And out of such a confrontation with the majesty of God’s being, theology is born. . . .”

“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian's task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”

25 Jan

From enthusiasm to discernment

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/25/21

Hans Urs von Balthasar on the maturing of aesthetic taste

“At first, the science of art may appear to be a material collection of those things that generally pass for beautiful, while the subjective judgment of taste on what is beautiful seems subject to the most extreme variations. The young especially experience this subjective aspect with particular intensity and tend to generalise it. Since they have not yet acquired objective criteria for the evaluation of works of art, and because they have not yet learned to distinguish by seeing and listening, they compensate with the ‘enthusiasm’ proper to their age. They find themselves in or transport themselves to a state of mind, an interior ‘vibration’, which transfigures nature, art, friendship and love in their sight, and which communicates the experience of the beautiful like a drug whose effect, as experience shows, quickly disappears. People who cling to this view of the subjective nature of taste’s judgment have remained immature adolescents. By developing his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful, the maturing person gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful in itself. In the process of their development, the subjective elements of perception (which, doubtless, include state of mind and fantasy) more and more pass into the service of objective perception. Even in the case of a masterpiece, the mature observer of art can without difficulty give an objective and largely conceptual basis for his judgment.”

— from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I. Seeing the Form



21 Jan

The scantily clad public square

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/21/21

Reinhard Hütter on the necessity of the virtue of religion

I am heartened each time I read a remark from some pundit or other that our society suffers from a failure to take seriously “what it means to be human.” But not infrequently, my sense of encouragement is severely dampened when I see in the prose that follows an all-too slight account of the meaning of our humanity. For, when social or political life is discussed, the characteristics of the human that are typically named are those readily discernible by the social sciences without guidance from theology or philosophy. 

Perhaps I’m alert to such constricted accounts of “what it means to be human” because my own thinking about culture, society, and politics suffered for a long time from the same imposing of boundaries. I used to assume that public life could be well ordered without reference to distinctively theological claims, without deliberate engagement with the One in whom all things hold together. The term that summarized my thinking about a place account of what it means to be human was “our mere humanity,” by which I meant human existence and experience without reference to (among other things) the Trinity, the Resurrection, Pentecost, or the Second Coming. “Human flourishing” (the currently popular term) was, I believed, fully imaginable and achievable within what Charles Taylor has called the “immanent frame.” Rejecting that claim was to put oneself at odds with the ordering principles of virtually every modern institution and practice. Those distinctive, theologically described claims were fine for private life, but not in public life. I was not an advocate for a naked public square, just a scantily clad one.

In case MARS HILL AUDIO listeners haven’t noticed, I’ve changed my mind about this and, for a number of years, the guests I’ve interviewed have often been explicitly critical of what I once believed. Take, for example, Reinhard Hütter, the author of Bound for Beatitude, a guest on volume 149 of the Journal. For those who haven’t yet heard this interview, I summarized in an earlier post Hütter’s argument that “what it means to be human” is to be a creature made for fulfillment in union with the Triune Creator. As he writes, “Humanity is ordained to the gratuitous supernatural final end of union with God.”

That summary claim is from a chapter in his book called “The Preparation for Beatitude—Justice toward God: The Virtue of Religion.” Consider that final phrase “virtue of religion.” Listeners may remember my conversation with historian Peter Harrison (discussing The Territories of Science and Religion on Volume 131) who explained how the concept of “religion” has radically changed its assumed meaning. Where once it described an interior disposition, in the early modern West — concurrent with the rise of modern notions of science — it came to mean a body of propositions and the community united in affirming those beliefs. William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence (discussed on Volume 101) and elsewhere similarly argues that the conventional understanding of “religion” is a modern development, and not a neutral one: as he writes, “the [conventional] concept of religion . . . is a development of the modern liberal state; the religious-secular distinction accompanies the invention of private-public, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies.” All of which, it should be noted, expands the power of the state over every aspect of life.

Back to Hütter’s discussion of the virtue of religion, which in Aquinas’s view is (in Hütter’s summary) “absolutely central for genuine human flourishing.” The moral virtue of religion is analogous to the cardinal virtue of justice. Where justice predisposes us to render to everyone what he or she is due, the virtue of religion inclines us toward acts of honor and reverence to God. 

Early in his chapter discussing the virtue of religion, Hütter describes the modern assumption that human life can be lived quite happily without religion, in any sense of the word. Hütter insists that, in Aquinas’s view (and his own) this is a dangerous assumption: “Doing without religion constitutes a grave impediment in regard to attaining the ultimate end and places one, therefore, on a margin of human existence.”

He continues: “For the educated elites of the Western Hemisphere, doing without religion is the welcome effect of an ineluctable progress from ignorance and bigotry to enlightenment and tolerance. For them, doing without religion does not constitute at all one of the margins of human existence but, quite on the contrary, the precondition for the ultimate flourishing of the sovereign self.”

Hütter then goes on to discuss five different definitions of religion used in contemporary parlance. The first of these is political liberalism’s use of religion. “This use is so utterly influential because it is part of the conceptual matrix of a normative secularism that frames — primarily by way of the media — the public discussion in virtually all Western societies. The positive contrast of terms to this negative use of religion are ‘secular reason’ and its present instantiation, ‘secular discourse.’ ‘Religion’ stands for sets of beliefs that are presumably more or less arbitrary in nature, beliefs impossible to warrant and adjudicate rationally. Because of its inherently irrational nature — so secularist reasoning goes — ‘religion’ must establish its claims by way of more or less subtle forms of violence, ranging from psychological manipulation to open terror, torture, and religious war. In order to secure peace in the public square, a pure ‘secular’ reason and discourse must dominate the public sphere, while ‘religion’ in all shapes and forms is to be relegated to the private, or at best, social sphere.”

This paragraph continues with some important observations about how this understanding of “religion” guides the interpretation of “religious freedom” in liberal democracies. Hütter’s description deserves serious reflection, especially by those who believe that their “right to religious liberty” offers significant protection from tyrannical overreach by the State:

“While in virtually all Western societies there exists, of course, a constitutional right to religious freedom, the political and judicial powers of current Western liberal democracies interpret this religious freedom not as a constitutional human right antecedent to normative political categories of ‘public’ versus ‘private,’ but merely as a political right within them. Normatively framed in such a way, the right to religious freedom turns into a right of free exercise that pertains first and foremost to the private sphere and, under increasingly restrictive conditions, also to the social sphere. According to this by now quasi hegemonic secularist interpretation of the freedom of religion, the public sphere belongs exclusively to ‘secular’ reason and discourse. Religious belief and practice are constitutionally protected as long as they remain within the parameters of the private and social spheres.”

Later in the chapter, Hütter raises significant objections to the limits of this protection. Just as “it is according to the very nature of the virtue of justice to transcend and to encompass both the public and the private spheres,” so “the virtue of religion, rightly understood and practiced . . . resists submission to the superimposition of a political disciplinary distinction that compromises the essence of the virtue itself. . . . Being directed to the highest good, the summum bonum, reverence of and honor to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the first truth and sovereign good — in short, the triune Lord — this virtue is only practiced authentically according to its nature when it is practiced in the political public such that the political public itself is rightly ordered to the first principles of the creation and government of things.

“Now, to say the least, this is obviously not how contemporary democracies constitute themselves in the spirit of sovereign secularism. Banishing the practice of the virtue of religion from the political public is a constitutive element of their self-understanding. Of course, to force the virtue of religion into the purely private sphere is to force it to turn into its own counterfeit. . . .

“Not only does the virtue of religion suffer from the profoundly alienating imposition of its privatization, but also does the body politic suffer eventually. One of the foremost German legal philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenforde, argued famously — and persistently — that a truly just, and therefore free, democratic society lives from moral sources that transcend its scope, sources that secular liberalism per se cannot provide and replenish on its own terms, but on which a truly free and just society at the same time vitally depends. These sources are fundamentally connected with and accessed by way of the public practice of the virtue of religion. And this practice of religio, according to Böckenforde, will be ideally and preferably Christian because it is nothing but the Christian understanding of the human being that is presupposed in the tenets and the program of genuine liberalism: the human being as created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with an indelible dignity and an intrinsic orientation toward transcendence, an orientation expressed first and foremost in humanity’s universal desire for knowledge and happiness and consequently in the public practice of the virtue of religion that gives honor and reference to the first principle of the creation and government of things, the triune creator and Lord who is the fount of every good. By privatizing the virtue of religion, late modern secularist democracies cut themselves off from the transpolitical moral and spiritual roots that fund the public ethos of their own citizens. This development leads to the transformation of the citizen into the essentially private consumer of goods, the sovereign self in the order of consumption, for whom the public ‘secular discourse’ is nothing else but the interminable negotiation of the competing interests of consumers, customers, and clients.”

21 Jan

The eclipsing of happiness

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/21/21

Reinhard Hütter on the Christian recognition that happiness is only intelligible in light of the end for which we were created

Reinhard Hütter is a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal, talking about his book Bound for Beatitude. Those three words capture the boundless confidence that is the ground for the Christian understanding of human nature. Every human being is created with a desire to be happy. That is given with our nature, but we need to learn what true happiness is. As Hütter writes, “The teaching of Scripture is unequivocal: true and lasting happiness, beatitude, is found only when a person embraces the truth that God reveals, follows the path God thereby opens up to that person, and, through God’s grace, begins to participate in the divine life.” 

The subtitle to Hütter’s book is A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics. Instructed by the work of Thomas Aquinas, Hütter describes why Christian ethics — indeed all Christian theology — must be grounded in the ends for which persons (and all of Creation) were called into being. 

The culture of modernity — in the seas of which we swim — is marked by a rejection of the claim that there are ends (teloi) for which human beings exist and according to which their lives, privately and publicly, should be ordered. By contrast, the work of Aquinas, explicated in Hütter’s book, reflects the fundamental Christian affirmation of “the principle of finality,” the recognition that “every agent acts for an end,” an end (telos) established by the Creator.

Our age is emphatically anti-teleological, insists Hütter: “[O]ne of the characteristics of the modern era is the widespread rejection of the principle of finality. As it plays out in the anthropological realm, this pervasive dismissal of the principle of finality leads to a crisis in terms of the human being’s understanding of himself as a human person. Due to the widespread and erroneous dismissal of the finality of human nature, the human self-image as rational animal, as person and nature in one, collapses into the irresolvable antinomy between two contradictory and agonistically competing self-images, a neo-Gnostic angelism and a naturalistic animalism. The late modern person vacillates between the self-image of an essentially disembodied sovereign will that submits all exteriority, including the body, to its imperious dictates, and the self-image of a super-primate, a highly advanced animal, gifted or cursed with a developed consciousness that is driven by instincts, passions, and desires beyond its control and understanding into patterns of behavior for which an animal can never be held fully accountable.”

If there are no ends for which we were created — no nature that defines us— then the pursuit of happiness has no transcendent guidelines or points of reference. As Hütter observes, “a partial result of the eclipse of what it means to be human [is that] the understanding of and search for happiness has taken a radical experiential turn. The happiness now sought is the emotional state of joy, delight, and especially ecstasy as the apex of an encompassing feeling of well-being that ideally continues, fed by whatever sequence of objects, substances, and events it takes to sustain it. The a-teleological dynamic of consumption — the trademark of consumer capitalism — collapses action and its purpose to the here and now. Any remaining sense of community and conviviality is no longer based on the common good, let alone on the highest good, God, but rather on sensuality, sentiments, and transient coalitions of proximate interests. Nietzsche announced the return of the Dionysian and what has arrived is the obsession with the body and with orgiastic and analogous experiences of sensual and emotional ecstasy. The fun- and event-centered culture — the most characteristic feature of which is the collection of extraordinary, exhilarating, and possibly transgressive experiences of all sorts — is the direct result of the pervasive search for the feelings of joy, delight, and ecstasy that happiness issues in the here and now. . . .

“[G]iven this existentialist understanding of happiness as the result of the instant gratification of some desire and the resulting sensual or emotional elation, a happiness that consists in the attainment of a specific good, even the highest good, is simply meaningless.”

14 Jan

Merciless moralism bereft of moral reasons

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/14/21

Dallas Willard explores how moral passions on campuses — and elsewhere — are now immune to rational examination or critique

On volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Steven L. Porter, who was one of the scholars who completed a book left unfinished by philosopher Dallas Willard when he died in 2013. Five years later The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge was published, compiled by Porter and his colleagues from many manuscript pages that Willard had completed, along with fragments of notes, partial drafts, syllabi, class handouts, and marginalia written in the books Willard had been reading for years.

In his 1998 book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, Willard had observed that we live in a culture “that has accepted the view that what is good and right is not a subject of knowledge that can guide action and for which individuals can be held responsible.” The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge presents Willard’s thorough exploration of the social and intellectual causes of that deplorable condition, and how it might be confronted.

Much of the book displays Willard's concern that Western institutions of higher education — once significant custodians and conduits of moral knowledge — had repudiated that role and were responsible for the loss of confidence in the broader culture, that there were reasons behind claims about morality, that the Good was True. During my interview, Porter talked about how — despite this repudiation — universities remain the site of intense moral commitments. They still want their graduates to be good and do good. They simply lack the confidence that one can examine claims about what is good with the same rational rigor that one can bring to the study of chemistry, law, or history.

As Willard explains in the following paragraphs from early in his book, the tacit assumption that moral commitments are finally irrational may account for the vicious character of contemporary political disputes.

“What most deeply characterizes the discussions of moral instruction and guidance in the universities currently is failure to understand how such instruction and guidance are actually conveyed. This is largely, but not wholly, an intellectual failure: a failure to observe and understand. Such guidance is rarely conveyed by explicit instruction or anything remotely like ‘course content,’ though these certainly do play a role. Moral guidance is communicated to others, and especially to the young, by how we live with them and around them. Aristotle noted long ago that if lectures in ethics are to be of any use to hearers, ‘they must have been brought up in good habits’ of thought, feeling, and action. It was the business of the legislator, on his view, to see to it that people are well brought up. One hears lectures in ethics, he held, as a preparation to be a legislator or ‘political scientist.’ But habits are formed by living, and a very small part of living is being ‘talked at.’ During the pre-World War II period, students in higher education at all levels were talked at a great deal — and ‘in class’ to boot — along the lines of traditional morality; and university life was fairly closely regulated by that same morality. It was assumed by the general public, as well as by university and college personnel, that there was a body of moral knowledge and that traditional moral rules, virtues, and practices fell largely, not wholly, within it. The ‘talk’ was assumed by all to be of some benefit for moral understanding and practice. . . . It by and large expressed the morality in which the students had been brought up. Higher education was at the time mainly restricted to elite social groups of little diversity; and, for all their moral failures, people from these groups respected traditional morality and thought it fairly well represented ‘how things are’ in reality. They generally acted on it and held themselves and others to it without much reflection.

“Most faculty and nearly all university students today have been formed in a different world. It is a world in which the teachings and practices of traditional morality are scarcely known, and certainly are not understood to any depth. Insofar as those teachings are thought of at all, they are regarded as irrelevant to life, at best, and at worst as oppressive of various real or imagined human goods: ‘success’ or sexual gratification, for example. Indeed, those teachings and practices are often thought of as immoral now, or perhaps just silly, because they clearly do not permit people to live however they might wish — an overriding moral imperative to the contemporary mind. That moral imperative — to allow people to do what they want (so long as others aren’t ‘hurt’) — is one major component in the moral system that is taught and relentlessly enforced in the university setting, and often very blatantly, in the classroom or tutorial situation, as well as in the hallway and the ‘mixer.’ . . .

“How is this moral system taught? Like every morality, every vision of what is humanly acceptable or unacceptable, good and bad, it is mainly taught by body language, facial expressions, ‘looks,’ tones of voice and inflections, off-hand remarks about people and events; by what is presumed to be ‘automatic’ or to ‘go without saying,’ by example, by how we treat people of various types (in class, out of class, our colleagues, and overseers and underlings), by who gets rewarded or punished or dismissed in various ways in the classroom and out, and so forth. In short, it is ‘taught’ by the fine texture of how we live together in the university setting. The implicit approvals and disapprovals by teachers and other ‘authorities,’ and simply how things are arranged in campus life, are the matters most studied by students, for they know that these are the things with which they really have to come to terms. Such things cannot be hidden or fail to have significant influence on the student and others, and they function as indications of how things actually stand in moral reality. This all lies in the 'hidden curriculum,’ well known among educational theorists.

“It should be noted that what comes over in these and similar ways as ‘moral guidance’ in the university setting is never communicated as mere social acceptability or practice, nor as mere personal taste or preference. It is always conveyed, and always comes over, as well-thought out knowledge or conviction about how things really are: in short as moral wisdom and insight — as how intelligent and informed people ‘in the know’ deal with moral reality. It comes over as the considered beliefs of experienced and thoughtful persons who occupy enviable and influential positions in life and society. This is unavoidable if the individual professor or administrator manifests the competence, confidence, and authority required to do their job well and to convey intellectual leadership. They cannot help manifesting their beliefs, and belief is an indication of presumed reality. Thus, in the university context as elsewhere, people who do not follow the prescribed (even if tacit) morality are typically treated by its partisans as stupid or ignorant or ‘unenlightened,’ not just as people who happen to be ‘different.’

“Accordingly, the abundant though non-traditional moral guidance actually conveyed in the university setting . . . is conveyed as moral knowledge, or at least as responsible beliefs about moral reality. And associated with that guidance is the range of emotions, feelings, or ‘moral sentiments’ which always characterize moral judgments among human beings. There is a characteristic type of friendliness, approval, acceptance, willingness to support and reward, and desire to see prospered and imitated, that goes out toward what is perceived to be morally correct and praiseworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally good. Conversely, a peculiar sort of resentment (even disgust and anger), blame, exclusion, willingness to avoid or to punish, and desire to see frustrated and not imitated, goes out toward what is taken to be the morally wrong and blameworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally bad. The continued presence of these positive and negative moral sentiments in university life, as elsewhere, alerts any thoughtful person to the fact that we remain deeply engaged in moral guidance and moral instruction and judgment, even though we may have abandoned or reversed the traditional content and manner of such guidance and instruction.

“This heavy presence of the range of attitudes, feelings, or ‘sentiments’ peculiar to morality also lets us know that what some try to pass off as political remains stubbornly moral. That in turn casts light on why, in recent years, political processes and political discourse in this country have become so morally embittered, generating a political life dominated by contempt, anger, and even hatred. Political opposition quickly degenerates into hard core moral opprobrium. Confusion of the moral with the political, perhaps fostered in part by the intention of treating moral issues as political (or legal), actually may have backfired with the effect of making political opponents out to be immoral and hence unworthy of the generous regard and cooperation necessary to successful political interactions. . . .

“The real issue, one might think, is how to be intellectually and morally responsible for the moral guidance we cannot help but give — whether we want to or not, and whether we know it or not — by subjecting it to explicit and thorough rational scrutiny and discussion, as appropriate, in the classroom and out. Taking into consideration the official ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge is one way of understanding why we cannot purposively do this now. There is no recognized body of moral knowledge to serve as a basis for such a pedagogical practice. Or so, at least, it is now generally assumed.

“Beneath the pose of moral neutrality and non-judgementalism, a powerful moral point of view nevertheless runs free and casts an ominous shadow of mindless conformity over the campus and over much of professionalized academic life. The traditional ideal of free, honest, and thorough inquiry into moral issues is not sustained, because it is no longer seen as a part of being responsible for knowledge of how things are — knowledge of what every viewpoint must come to terms with. What is morally acceptable, by rational standards, is overshadowed by emotional and political prejudices concerning what must be good and right. The ‘right’ opinions and attitudes on a fairly narrow range of topics — sexuality, gender, race and culture, social justice, etc. — serve as touchstones of moral standing for individuals, opinions, and actions. But those opinions and attitudes are not themselves subjected to traditional standards of rationality. Indeed, such standards are often disregarded because of some association they are perceived as having with ‘improper’ opinions and attitudes on the favored issues. In any case, if knowledge in moral matters is not an option, then responsible rational critique of moral opinions and practices is not something everyone must practice, and serious inquiry into moral matters is suppressed in favor of what is ‘acceptable’ so far as social pressures (left or right) are concerned.”