13 Sep

The loss of awe, the idolatry of partial thinking

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/13/20

Thaddeus J. Kozinski on reading modernity’s symptoms wisely (and wonder-fully)

“In a remarkable passage, Alasdair MacIntyre zeroes in on the essence of modernity’s peculiar disease:

“‘We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical inquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained. . . . This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.’

“What MacIntyre is saying, I think, is that the culture of modernity is a culture without wonder, and since without wonder there is no awe, as Plato taught us, modern culture tends to preclude the experience of that which is most awesome, God. What is the antidote to this? MacIntyre once said that we need a new Benedict, but I wonder if we couldn’t add Socrates to the list. Dietrich von Hildebrand describes the Socratic, questioning, wondering spirit as

“‘the inner willingness which is not closed against even the most unpleasant truth, which is really free from bias, ready to make friends with things, open to the proof of all objective existence, not looking at things through a colored lens that allows only such things to pass into the understanding as do not offend our pride and self complacency.’

“The existence of even one person with a genuine spirit of erotic, Socratic questioning, a soul with true metaphysical courage, is, I think, the most effective antidote to the suffocating, anti-questioning, partial-truth culture we live in, in both its traditionalist and modernist varieties. Those who believe themselves to have obtained answers without having first endured the existential agony of questioning the darkness, whether because they have judged that there are no answers, or because they believe themselves to be already quite securely possessed of dogmatic certitude, need to recognize in such an attitude neither a humble disposition of ignorance nor pious submission to God's word, but a type of idolatry, the idolatry of partial thinking.”

— from Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Modernity as Apocalypse: Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (Angelico Press, 2019)

8 Sep

The problem of a degenerate electorate

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/08/20

Aquinas, Augustine, and Aristotle on good government

“In the second book of the Politica we study the constitutions of the various Greek states. Thomas accepts Aristotle’s inductive bases, and will employ them in his work De regimine principum. In the nature of man he finds the origin and the necessity of a social authority, represented in varying degree by the father in the family, by the leader in the community, by the sovereign in the kingdom.
“He distinguishes, further, good government from bad. Good government has three forms: monarchical, where one alone rules, aristocratic, where several rule, democratic, where the rule is by representatives elected by the multitude. But each of these forms may degenerate: monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, democracy into mob-rule The best form of government he finds in monarchy, but, to exclude tyranny, he commends a mixed constitution, which provides, at the monarch’s side, aristocratic and democratic elements in the administration of public affairs. Yet, he adds, if monarchy in fact degenerates into tyranny, the tyranny, to avoid greater evils, should be patiently tolerated. If, however, tyranny becomes unbearable, the people may intervene, particularly in an elective monarchy. It is wrong to kill the tyrant. He must be left to the judgment of God, who, with infinite wisdom, rewards or punishes all rulers of men.
“On the evils of election by a degenerate people, where demagogues obtain the suffrages, he remarks, citing St. Augustine, that the elective power should, if it be possible, be taken from the multitude and restored to those who are good. St. Augustine’s words run thus: ‘If a people gradually becomes depraved, if it sells its votes, if it hands over the government to wicked and criminal men, then that power of conferring honors is rightly taken from such a people and restored to those few who are good.’”

— from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought (Herder, 1950)

8 Sep

Guarding our tongues

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/08/20

St. John Henry Newman on the manner of speech fitting for Christian faithfulness

“Let us guard against discontent in any shape; and as we cannot help hearing what goes on in the world, let us guard, on hearing it, against all intemperate, uncharitable feelings towards those who differ from us, or oppose us. Let us pray for our enemies; let us try to make out men to be as good as they can fairly and safely be considered; let us rejoice at any symptoms of repentance, or any marks of good principle in those who are on the side of error. Let us be forgiving. Let us try to be very humble, to understand our ignorance, and to rely constantly on the enlightening grace of our Great Teacher. Let us be ‘slow to speak, slow to wrath;’—not abandoning our principles, or shrinking from the avowal of them when seasonable, or going over to the cause of error, or fearing consequences, but acting ever from a sense of duty, not from passion, pride, jealousy, or an unbelieving dread of the future; feeling gently, even when we have reason to act severely.”

— from John Henry Newman, “Contracted Views in Religion,” a sermon on the story of the Prodigal Son, in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 3 (published 1834–42).


8 Sep

The meaning of “secularism” and its antidote

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/08/20

Alexander Schmemann on the grand modern heresy


“Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: — not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it. It is the rejection as ontologically and epistemologically ‘decisive,’ of the words which ‘always, everywhere and for all’ were the true ‘epiphany’ of man’s relation to God, to the world and to himself: ‘It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee, to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. . . .’”

“Secularism — we must again and again stress this — is a ‘stepchild’ of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world — not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. . . . But then heresy is always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ — they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of the Christian faith itself. To fight Arianism, St. Athanasius advocated the term consubstantial, which earlier, and within a different theological context, was condemned as heretical. Because of this he was violently opposed, not only by Arians but by ‘conservatives,’ who saw in him an innovator and a ‘modernist.’ Ultimately, however, it became clear that it was he who saved Orthodoxy, and the blind ‘conservatives’ consciously and unconsciously helped the Arians. Thus, if secularism is, as I am convinced, the great heresy of our own time, it requires from the Church not mere anathemas, and certainly not compromises, but above all an effort of understanding so it may ultimately be overcome by truth.”

—from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)

An audiobook edition of For the Life of the World is available from our catalog.

28 Mar

J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/28/18

Divine Glory and Human Suffering

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion was first heard during the Good Friday Vespers service at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on April 7, 1724. It was thus composed to be experienced in a liturgical setting, within a Christian congregation at worship. Today, it is much more likely heard in concert or on recordings.

In deference to the origins of the work, the 2013 recording featuring the Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, presented a reconstruction of the liturgical experience of the original performance, complete with congregational singing, liturgical chant, and the reading of a sermon (in German) originally given by Erdmann Neumeister and published in 1720. In 2017, John Butt conducted a performance of the St. John Passion at a BBC Proms concerts, in which the audience at the Royal Albert Hall sang with the choir the same Lutheran chorales that were sung during the original 1724 service. (The YouTube recording of this concert provides English subtitles for the text being sung throughout the work, a helpful addition for listeners without adequate German.)

Just last week (March 23, 2018), the Netherlands Bach Society released a video recording of their performance of the St. John Passion. It is one of many fine performances on their remarkable website, In addition to the performance, the website offers interviews with the conductor, Jos van Veldhoven, a soloist, and a member of the orchestra discussing musical and theological aspects of the work.

It is better to listen to Bach’s St. John Passion than to read about it. But the books and articles listed below might help enrich the experience of listening for you.

Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986)
    A learned theologian and Church historian situates Bach’s sacred choral music in several contexts, including the rhythm of the Church year, the musical heritage of the Reformation, and the cultural revolution of the Enlightenment. Of special interest is his essay on the Christological and soteriological emphases in the St. John Passion.

Markus Rathey, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)
    A guest on volume 135 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Dr. Rathey includes a chapter in his book on the St. John Passion, along with discussions of the St. Matthew Passion, the Magnificat, the Christmas, Easter, and Ascension oratorios, and the B-minor Mass. 

Calvin Stapert, “Christus Victor: Bach’s St. John Passion," The Reformed Journal, March 1989.
    Similar in emphasis to Pelikan’s essay in Bach among the Theologians, Dr. Stapert discusses in detail how the St. John Passion emphasizes the themes in John’s Gospel of the power and glory of Jesus the King.

Michael Steinberg, “The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245,” posted on the Bach Cantatas Website.
    This brief essay is adapted from Steinberg’s Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). In it, Steinberg offers a brief historical background to Bach’s composition of the St. John Passion, as well as some helpful points in understanding how the structure of the work establishes its meaning.

The following texts are more specialized and scholarly:

John Butt, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
    A discussion by a prominent Bach scholar and conductor of how the two extant settings of the Passion story by Bach illustrate an interplay between traditional and modern mentalities and sensibilities.

Eric Chafe, J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology: The St. John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)
    A detailed study of how the distinctive theological concerns of the Gospel of St. John are reflected in the structure of the St. John Passion.

Robin Leaver, “The mature vocal works and their theological and liturgical context,” The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
    This scholarly article includes a long section on the St. John Passion, which concludes: “Here is Bach the preacher in sound, whose purpose is not simply to relate in musical terms the great dramatic story, as if he had written a religious opera, but rather to draw the worshipper at Good Friday Vespers into the story itself and to find within it a contemporary significance.”

Michael Marissen, Bach and God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)
     Dr. Marissen discussed this book on volume 137 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.

Michael Marissen, Bach’s Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
     The literal translations of the German texts for these major works (including the St. John Passion) are explicated with citations from the Luther Bible of Bach’s own day, as well as extensive footnotes discussing theological themes addressed in the text. 

Michael Marissen, Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
     Dr. Marissen discussed this book on volume 37 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.