9 Jun

Discerning the spirit of the age

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/09/17

Oliver O’Donovan on the difficult but essential task of reading our times

In preparing to interview moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan about his most recent book, Entering into Rest, I have been re-reading the two earlier volumes with which the new book forms a trilogy. The series is called Ethics as Theology, and in these three books O’Donovan describes how Christian Ethics is “done” — how theologically informed thought becomes action.

In the first book, Self, World, and Time (which he designates as An Induction, paving the way for further explorations), O’Donovan examines the nature of moral agency (what it means to be an ethical self), the nature of the world in which we act morally, and the temporal trajectories (both past and future, involving memory and hope) in which ethical decisions made in our present moment are situated. In the book’s Preface, O’Donovan summarizes the challenges we face when we try (as we must) to understand the characteristics of our cultural moment. Given the editorial mission of MARS HILL AUDIO, this paragraph especially caught my attention:

“That ‘late modernity’ in which we are given to live and act can never be taken as self-evident; it is a philosophical task in itself to understand it. There is a style of dealing with modernity all too knowingly. Modern ‘social conditions’ are comprised, we are told, of individualism, egalitarianism, technology, and capitalist enterprise; these are the terms on which mankind today lives, and we must either acknowledge them sensibly or be doomed to be forever criticizing them nostalgically — end of discussion! Alas, it is the doom of modernity to be bound up in an ever over-simple knowingness about itself! Our own age is the hardest of all ages to understand. It is composed of a mass of popular ideas and perceptions, often difficult to document though they are as familiar as the air we breathe, which acknowledge no duty to be consistent with each other. They may be derived from the thoughts of great thinkers, but when they are, they have lost most of what subtlety and discrimination they once had. They ration and restrict our access to thought about life and action in ways we must look hard in order to recognize. (It is not easy to think in a disciplined way through any social question outside the constraints of a would-be economic calculus which scarcely deserves the serious philosophical name of ‘utilitarianism.’) Even more cramping, they determine the way we describe the material objects of our thought, so that there are decent and gullible souls, for example, who think it ‘unscientific’ to refer to the child in the womb as ‘a person.’ Sophistry treads hard, as it has always trodden, on the heels of Ethics, but never harder than in a world of intense and overheated communications. The tramp of its boot must be heard before we can step to one side and free ourselves, recognizing where we have come and what decisions we must take. Such coming to recognition of our place and time is the condition for doing, or indeed being, anything.”

— From Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology: An Induction (Eerdmans, 2013)

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29 May

Make it louder, do it faster

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/29/17

Michael Hanby on the nihilism that drives the quest for spectacle

Michael Hanby

In my conversation with R. J. Snell about his book Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (on volume 129 of the MHA Journal), he explained how his thinking on the subject of acedia had been initially inspired by Michael Hanby’s essay, “The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy” (in Communio 31, Summer 2004). Snell said it was one of the best journal articles he had ever read. I share Snell’s enthusiasm, and recently found an occasion to re-read Hanby’s bracing diagnosis of how the modern understanding of freedom presupposes a meaningless universe (and meaningless selves), the terror of which gives rise to a restless and relentless drive to distraction. Here is a key passage:

“[I]f one considers many of the more garish artifacts of this culture — Las Vegas, Disneyworld, gnostic, digitalized forms of community and sexuality, a virtual arms race of violent spectacle and vulgar celebrity expressionism — or even the increasingly isolated character of entertainment through ever more personalized electronic devices, they seem less the expression of a celebration of the self, the pleasure principle or a will to power than the expression of an opposed and more fundamental pathology: boredom. 

“The advent of this concept of boredom coincides, tellingly, with the rise of bourgeois society and the triumph of industrialization. There is no etymological record of the word or the concept prior to the eighteenth century. Boredom differs in important ways from such antecedents as ennui or acedia. The diagnosis of these maladies traditionally contained within them a moral judgment of the subject, whose melancholy was understood as a moral and spiritual affront to a true and meaningful order of things. Boredom, by contrast, names a twofold failure of an altogether different kind: a failure of the world to be compelling to a subject ostensibly entitled to such an expectation and a failure or incapacity on the part of the subject to be compelled. In this, boredom is closely aligned with hopelessness, and there may indeed be a more profound relation between the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens of that same society to despair of social and political involvement. It is this double nullity of both subject and world, I contend, that underlies entertainment culture and the numbing array of cultural choices produced by it. The very notion of entertainment presumes the state of boredom as the norm, which means that a culture increasingly fueled by this notion assumes that our lives are innately and intrinsically meaningless without the constant stream of ‘stimulation’ and distraction, a stream inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns. This nullity on the side of the subject is matched by a similar noughting in the world, for latent in this assumption is a corollary denial of form, objective beauty, or a true order of goods that naturally and of themselves compels our interest. As a consequence, according to this cultural logic, all such choices can only be indifferently related to one another. None is intrinsically good or bad, and indeed no good approaches that of choice itself. Hence most citizens of the modern West, almost of necessity, live lives of profound fragmentation and internal contradiction, and yet these contradictions too frequently make no real competing claims on lives and loyalties and cause little pain or anguish to those who are subject to them. Yet the effect of many of these choices is less to please than to stupefy, anesthetize or distract us from the failed festivals, broken communities, and otherwise empty existence imposed by a formless goalless world. Long before the advent of tasteless fast food, fat free cream, and an array of other products offering endless consumption without much discernible pleasure, Eric Gill foresaw these developments in his criticism of the Leisure State, which incarnates ‘at best, an impossible angelism, and at worst, an impossible aestheticism, the worship of the pleasure of sensation.’

People won’t really love the “good things” they enjoy in such plenty. They won’t love them in the sense that they will see them and use them as holy things, things in which and by which God is manifest. In reality they will despise everything. Things will be made only for passing enjoyment, to be scrapped when no longer enjoyable.”

— From Michael Hanby, The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of JoyCommunio 31, Summer 2004

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10 Apr

When reason is detached from truth

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/10/17

Benedict XVI on what threatens true academic freedom 

“The idea of an integrated education, based on the unity of knowledge grounded in truth, must be regained. It serves to counteract the tendency, so evident in contemporary society, toward a fragmentation of knowledge. With the massive growth in information and technology there comes the temptation to detach reason from the pursuit of truth. Sundered from the fundamental human orientation toward truth, however, reason begins to lose direction: it withers, either under the guise of modesty, resting content with the merely partial or provisional, or under the guise of certainty, insisting on capitulation to the demands of those who indiscriminately give equal value to practically everything. The relativism that ensues provides a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk. While the period of interference from political totalitarianism has passed, is it not the case that frequently, across the globe, the exercise of reason and academic research are — subtly or not so subtly — constrained to bow to the pressures of ideological interest groups and the lure of short-term utilitarian or pragmatic goals? What will happen if our culture builds itself only on fashionable arguments, with little reference to a genuine historical intellectual tradition, or on the viewpoints that are most vociferously promoted and most heavily funded? What will happen if, in its anxiety to preserve a radical secularism, it detaches itself from its life-giving roots? Our societies will not become more reasonable or tolerant or adaptable, but rather more brittle and less inclusive, and they will increasingly struggle to recognize what is true, noble, and good.”

 — from Benedict XVI, “Address to Members of the Academic Community,” Prague, September 27, 2009, in A Reason Open to God: On Universities, Education, and Culture (Catholic University of America Press, 2013) 

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15 Feb

Fulfillment is ek-static

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/15/17

Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) on the true nature of freedom

“St Maximus demonstrates that man does not find his unity, the integration of himself or his totality within himself but by surpassing himself, by coming out of himself. Thus, also in Christ, by coming out of himself, man finds himself in God, in the Son of God. It is . . . in God alone that we find ourselves, our totality and our completeness. Hence, we see that the person who withdraws into himself is not a complete person but the person who is open, who comes out of himself, becomes complete and finds himself, finds his true humanity, precisely in the Son of God. For St Maximus, this vision did not remain a philosophical speculation; he saw it realized in Jesus’ actual life, especially in the drama of Gethsemane. In this drama of Jesus’ agony, of the anguish of death, of the opposition between the human will not to die and the divine will which offers itself to death, in this drama of Gethsemane the whole human drama is played out, the drama of our redemption. St Maximus tells us that, and we know that this is true, Adam (and we ourselves are Adam) thought that the ‘no’ was the peak of freedom. He thought that only a person who can say ‘no’ is truly free; that if he is truly to achieve his freedom, man must say ‘no’ to God; only in this way he believed he could at last be himself, that he had reached the heights of freedom. This tendency also carried within it the human nature of Christ, but went beyond it, for Jesus saw that it was not the ‘no’ that was the height of freedom. The height of freedom is the ‘yes’, in conformity with God’s will. It is only in the ‘yes’ that man truly becomes himself; only in the great openness of the ‘yes’, in the unification of his will with the divine, that man becomes immensely open, becomes ‘divine’. What Adam wanted was to be like God, that is, to be completely free. But the person who withdraws into himself is not divine, is not completely free; he is freed by emerging from himself, it is in the ‘yes’ that he becomes free; and this is the drama of Gethsemane: not my will but yours. It is by transferring the human will to the divine will that the real person is born, it is in this way that we are redeemed.”

— from Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience homily, June 22, 2008

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27 Dec

The power of images

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Eve Ruotsinoja
Published: 12/27/16

Romano Guardini on the precious potential of limited images to reveal divine realities

“The altar is the threshold to God’s immanence. Through Christ, God ceased to be the Unknown, the Inaccessible One; He turned to us, came to us, and became one of us in order that we might go to Him and become one with Him. The altar is the frontier, the border where God comes to us and we go to Him in a most special manner.

“At this point a few remarks about the images used to express sacred mysteries are in order. The images unlock the storehouse of God’s riches, and they help us to concentrate on particular aspects of divine reality with all our power. When we consider the altar as a threshold, we see one particular trait, leaving out of consideration any other, such as that expressed by the concept ‘table.’ The images used are necessarily taken from objects of our own experience. But, since we are not cut off from God and His life as is one room in a house from another, we must not put too much emphasis on the inability of images adequately to express divine realities. If we do, we lose something precious, something essential. Images are not makeshifts handy for children and the vulgar crowd, which the cultured elite, wrestling with ‘pure’ concepts, should despise. When Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, woke from his great dream, he cried: ‘How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven’ (Gen. 28:17). And St. John writes: ‘… and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the former voice, which I had heard as of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “come up hither, and I will show thee the things that must come to pass hereafter”' (Apoc. 4:1). Now if we were to say that ‘door’ is here only a figure of speech suggesting that God is invisible yet near, that no one can reach Him, but that He can draw us to Himself, we would be correct but we would fail to grasp the basic meaning of John’s words. St. John wrote ‘door’ because he meant door—and not only poetically. The intellect may attempt to express in concepts and sentences all that the image ‘door’ implies; but such concepts are mere props to the essential, not more. The truth is the other way around: it is the image that is the reality; the mind can only attempt to plumb it. The image is richer than the thought; hence the act by which we comprehend an image, gazing, is richer, more profound, vital and storeyed than the thought. People today are, if the word may be permitted, over conceptualistic. We have lost the art of reading images and parables, of enacting symbols. We could relearn some of this by encouraging and practicing the power of vision, a power which has been neglected for too long.”

— from Romano Guardini, from Meditations before Mass (Newman Press, 1956)

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