What We're Reading

Hope for the future rests on the double certitude of man's frailty as well as his promise. These two certainties are interwoven opposites. To deny man's frailty leads to utopia. To deny his promise makes the certainty of his frailty lead to cynicism or inflexibility. A humanity that is marked by its failings can cling to hope only if it also carries within itself potentialities that are yet to be achieved. Chantal Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century

In The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity, French philosopher Chantal Delsol describes the spirit of the age, what the age has inherited from modernity, and wherein lies hope for the future. Delsol notes that modernity, the age of totalitarian regimes, has left man with little hope for the future and little hope in institutions. It has left man clinging to the certainty that individuals have dignity, but without a framework for establishing why man has dignity or in what his dignity is found. She describes why totalitarian regimes came to dominate the political and social spheres, how they have failed and what remains of their attitude towards man, and what needs to be recovered or emphasized for a new era to be born out of late modernity. She writes: "To ward off totalitarianism, it is not enough to dismiss it; totalitarianism must be replaced. The question of hope then ceases to be an academic debate. If we still have the value of personal dignity to defend, it becomes a question of responsibility: what must we become in order to safeguard that principle? Who is the person-subject, possessor of dignity, and what kind of common world can guarantee his existence?" (p. 9)

Before the age of totalitarian regimes, man found meaning for life and the cosmos in the cultures and institutions in which he was embedded. His sense of dignity came from the reality of his being distinct from other living beings, from his ability to confer meaning on the world and its happenings. Eventually, however, man rejected the idea that meaning was conveyed to him from the outside and tried, instead, to internalize it. When the weight of meaning and existence became too much to bear, man looked for help to regimes which promised to care for him, to give him meaning, and to provide hope for the future. Thus was born the age of totalitarian regimes and hope in progress for the future. These regimes, however, did not understand human nature and justice and ended up stripping man of his dignity and slaughtering their citizens by the thousands. In the wake of these regimes, man is left with no sense of hope for the future, no cultures or institutions from which to gather meaning, and a sense of dignity but no structure to support it. The time is ripe, notes Delsol, for man to grow up. To take responsibility for his circumstances, to commit to imperfect relationships even though they will be problematic, to commit to communities and cultures from which he can draw meaning, and to begin to transmit his culture to the next generation. It is time for man to acknowledge both the frailty and promise in subject-persons and to begin to nurture them for the sake of society. It is time for him to "risk being" in an objective, imperfect order, knowing that he is equipped with the tools for navigating his way. Delsol writes: "The future belongs to those who will work to promote the excellence of beings. Everything that nurtures the subject will also nurture society. The converse is no more than a farce drenched in blood." (p. 198)

The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century consists of sixteen chapters, notes, and an index. Chapter titles are: "Introduction"; "The Insularity of the Human Species"; "The Unalterable Human Form, or the Lessons of the Twentieth Century"; "Derision and Revolt"; "The Traces of a Wounded Animal"; "Insufficiency and the Human World"; "Must the Subject Be Saved?"; "The Modern Subject, or Incomplete Certitudes"; "The Figure of the Witness"; "Common Values as Language"; "Economics as Religion and the Paradoxes of Materialism"; "Human Rights, Body and Soul"; "The Universal as Promise"; "The Ubiquity of Evil"; "Interiority and Eternity"; and "Conclusion."

Delsol's emphasis on the importance of the person and his relationship to other people and institutions outside of himself resonates with the work of several scholars in an anthology edited by Wilfred McClay, titled Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Person in the American Past, published by William B. Eerdmans in 2007. Several of the writers discussed their essays on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal; guests include Eugene McCarraher, Christopher Shannon, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, and Eric Miller. The anthology studies the history of personhood and the self in America. It advocates a definition of personhood that honors individuals as subjects defined in part through their limitations and various moral obligations. The wisdom from this collection begins to answer Delsol's questions of: what sort of being is a subject-person; from whence comes his dignity; and how might he best be nurtured?

Delsol's Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century is a sequel to her earlier work Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, which ISI Books published in 2003. Icarus Fallen is a lucent and poetic description of man's condition in the modern world, which claims that meaning is not inherent in man or the cosmos, and that man can define himself as he sees fit. She writes that man in the modern world is as Icarus would have been if, instead of dying, he would have crashed back to the earth after flying too close to the sun: wounded, confused, not sure about how to go on with life in light of the fact that he cannot do or be whatever he wishes, in light of the fact that the cosmos is not his to contrive. The existence of man signifies the existence of God, she writes, and even if he denies that reality and the truth about his relationship to God and the world, those realities still exist and tug at him.

Icarus Fallen comprises a forward, a translator's preface, an author's preface to the English edition, an introduction, four parts (divided into nineteen chapters), a conclusion, notes, and an index. Part one, titled "A Condition Deprived of Meaning," consists of chapters one through four, titled: "Existence as Sign"; "The Rejection of the Figures of Existence"; "Black Markets"; and "The Danger of a Return to Essentialism." Part two, titled "The Revelations of the Devil," includes chapters five through eight, titled: "The Good without the True"; "The Morality of Complacency"; "A Morality of Emotion and Indignation"; and "The Clandestine Ideology of Our Time." Part three, titled "The Urgent Need for a New Anthropology," includes chapters nine through fourteen, titled: "Is Democracy Unsurpassable?"; "The Rejection of Worldviews"; "The Fear of Decision-Making"; "The Sacralization of Rights"; "Utopian Equality"; and "Production and Care-Giving." Part four, titled "Mastering the World in a Different Way," consists of chapters fifteen through nineteen, titled: "Fallen from the Heights"; "Fragmented Existence"; "God in Exile"; "The Return of an Uncertain World"; and "On Vigilance." [Posted March 2007, ALG]

18 Mar

Housekeeping as Liturgy

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/18/07

One of the paradoxes of contemporary life is that homes are equipped with labor-saving appliances and yet people do not have time to cook and care for the home and its members as did past generations. Work that should be (with appliances) easy to complete is often pushed aside for either the sake of time or because it does not seem important. In a lecture given recently at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia, professor Margaret Kim Peterson examines this paradox and establishes a theological framework explaining the importance and practice of keeping a home economy.

Peterson's lecture is the last in a four-part series titled "Focusing on the Family: Biblical, Sociological, and Ethical Views of Parental Authority." In her talk she discusses practicing hospitality in the home and what it means to think about the home as a sanctuary. She states that the work of the household is the most important work people could do. She also explains how to think about housekeeping in terms of litany and liturgy. Her talk—along with the others from the series—is available here. Her book on the topic is forthcoming in April 2007 from Jossey-Bass and is titled Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life.

Other MARS HILL AUDIO guests who have discussed hospitality, the economy of the home, the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and theology as a guide for living include: Christine Pohl, Miroslav Volf, Lendol Calder, Allan C. Carlson, and Dorothy Bass. Another guest who has written about the type and quality of kitchen appliances in homes is Christine Rosen; her article, "Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?" is available online. Many thanks to Amy Gilbert, Lynne Heetderks, and Elizabeth Straight (all residents of Charlottesville) for bringing the lecture to our attention. [Posted March 2007, ALG]

"Although the book may be hazardous to recent conventional 'wisdom' about the memory of wrongs, it is, I believe, good medicine for our cultural health and personal flourishing. The warning appropriate to this book isn't like the one on a life-endangering pack of cigarettes—it's like the one on a life-enhancing bottle of medicine apprising the taker of the temporary discomforts that accompany its curative effects." Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory

Theologian Miroslav Volf's disclaimer about his new book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, comes at the end of his detailed discussion of the necessity for and practice of remembering well the wrongs one has suffered. Volf, a guest on Volume 56 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal and author of Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, writes: "Freedom from guilt requires that the light of truth shine into the dark corners of our lives, whether in this life through uncoerced confession, private or public, or at the doorway to eternity during God's final judgment. The same is true in regard to the wounds caused by wrongdoing. We must name the troubling past truthfully—we must come to clarity about what happened, how we reacted to it, and how we are reacting to it now—to be freed from its destructive hold on our lives. Granted, truthful naming will not by itself heal memories of wrongs suffered; but without truthful naming, all measures we might undertake to heal such memories will remain incomplete" (p. 75). In The End of Memory, he engages the call to remember both public and private atrocities for the sake of the victims. While remembering is necessary for healing and justice, he notes that if memories are not redeemed they can actually increase suffering and injustice rather than alleviate them. Volf draws on various sources—including theologians and stories from within the Christian tradition, along with his experiences of interrogation as a Yugoslavian soldier—to establish a case for a right way of remembering. He also develops guidelines for how to remember and when to forget.

His challenging discussion is informed and accessible, peppered with stories and metaphors. The contents of the book comprise three parts and ten chapters, a postscript, afterword, acknowledgments section, and index. Part one is titled, "Remember!" and includes the chapters "Memory of Interrogations" and "Memory: Shield and Sword." Part two, "How Should We Remember?", includes the chapters "Speaking Truth, Practicing Grace"; "Wounded Self, Healed Memories"; "Frameworks of Memories"; and "Memory, the Exodus, and the Passion." Part three, "How Long Should We Remember?", includes the chapters "River of Memory, River of Forgetting"; "Defenders of Forgetting"; "Redemption: Harmonizing and Driving Out"; and "Rapt in Goodness." [Posted January 2007, ALG]

8 Jan

Thomas Hopko, Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections (Conciliar Press, 2006)

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 01/08/07

"I use the expression 'same-sex attraction' in my reflections because I find the term 'homosexuality,' except in its most general usage, not very helpful. It seems more accurate and useful to speak of persons with same-sex feelings and desires that have a wide variety of causes, forms, and expressions. I reflect on how these same-sex attractions and emotions relate to Christian faith as understood and experienced in Orthodox Christianity. And I especially try to reflect on how they relate to love, as revealed by God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church." Thomas Hopko, Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections . . .

The behavior of various churches towards clergy and others who are attracted to members of the same sex has garnered much attention in the public square particularly since the early 2000s. MARS HILL AUDIO responded to the attention through interviews with scholars and theologians who illustrate the issues at hand, along with their theological, social, and legal implications. The conversationalists are Robert Gagnon (volume 68), Stanton L. Jones (v-50), Christopher Wolfe (v-49), and Hadley Arkes (v-22). Adding a pastoral perspective to the conversation through printed word is Father Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. In Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections, Hopko offers a theologically rich but easily accessible essay in how to think faithfully about, and in how to live alongside of, people with same-sex attractions. Hopko's work, with its nugget-sized chapters, is anchored firmly in the Orthodox tradition but bears wisdom for all branches of the Church.

Before addressing the particularities of the experiences of those who have same-sex attractions, Hopko establishes the framework for his discussion. In chapter one, "Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction," he explains who Christ is. In chapter two, "Christ and the Church," he explains that Christ's body is the Church and what that means for the Church's members. In chapter three, "A Three-Dimensional Experience," he describes the threefold reality in which the Church lives, namely that God created the world and all therein as good; that it has been corrupted through human sin; and that the crucified and risen Christ redeems and sanctifies all that has been afflicted. Supported by that foundation, the following twenty-four chapters of the book explore the realities listed in their titles and how people with same-sex attractions engage, or could engage, them. The chapters note how such engagement, although it taxes these souls uniquely, is similar to that of all those who are seeking God and sanctification. Father Hopko makes applications in the chapters that are based on his theological principles; some readers may dispute the applications even while agreeing with the principles.

The chapters are titled: "Same-Sex Attraction"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Goodness"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Passion"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Sin"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Choice"; "Same-Sex Attraction and God's Will"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Sanctity"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Asceticism"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Scripture"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Blessed Mourning"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Joy"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Friendship"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Sexual Activity"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Sexual Knowing"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Children"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Civil Rights"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Death"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Theology"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Religion"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Church Community"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Sacraments"; "Same-Sex Attraction and Pastoral Care"; "Same-Sex Attraction and the Counseling Process"; and "Same-Sex Attraction and Christian Witness Today." [Posted January 2007, ALG]

17 Nov

"The Critical Distinction Between Science and Religion"

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 11/17/06

The relationship between science and religion is a popular topic on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal; guests who have contributed to the conversation include Tim Morris and Don Petcher, and John Polkinghorne. Joel James Shuman (who discusses a book about Christians and medicine on Volume 81) has also contributed to the discussion, albeit not within the context of the Journal. In 2002 Oxford University Press published Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity, in which Shuman and his co-author, Keith G. Meador, study how religion is misrepresented when it is used to measure health benefits, how faith, approached as a servant of better health, is robbed of its true meaning. For a recent article-length recognition of this idea of faith being reduced to something other than what it is, see Richard P. Sloan's "The Critical Distinction Between Science and Religion" in the November 3 issue of The Chronicle Review. [Posted November 2006, ALG]