From T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Reinhold Niebuhr to Richard John Neuhaus, Cornell West, and Marilynne Robinson, Jacobs narrates the short-lived tale of the Christian public intellectual.
“The lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators — familiarly known as the “Where is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” problem — has frequently been explored since Niebuhr's death in 1971. But the disappearance of the Christian intellectual is a more curious story, because it isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.”
In the September 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, literary critic and frequent guest of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Alan Jacobs, gives an account of the rise and fall of a body of Christian intellectuals that once served as cultural interpreters for a twentieth-century, democratic public. Jacobs laments both the altered social milieu of today and the absense of publically committed Christian intellectuals, who — borrowing from Karl Mannheim’s identification of the intellectual as “watchman” — are committed to and accepted as offering a critique of the social order on moral and religious grounds without somehow forfeiting their “seat at the table.” Of course, the decline of Christian intellectuals as part of a larger decline of Christianity in America is well-noted (Jacobs mentions recent accounts by Ross Douthat, Joseph Bottum, and George Marsden in particular). Jacobs’s overview, however, highlights a soft surrender by Christian intellectuals of their public voice with the dying out of one generation and the rise of a second generation a little too willing to turn a blind eye to some inherent drawbacks of democracy.
Read more in Jacobs’s The Watchmen: What became of the Christian Intellectuals?
Joseph Ratzinger on the partnership of faith and reason in the coherence of love and truth
“If the prophets ridicule man-made idols with mordant acerbicity and set the only real God in contrast to them, in the wisdom books the same spiritual movement is at work as among the pre-Socratics at the time of the early Greek enlightenment. To the extent that the prophets see in the God of Israel the primordial creative ground of all reality, it is quite clear that what is taking place is a religious critique for the sake of a correct understanding of this reality itself. Here the faith of Israel unquestionably steps beyond the limits of a single people’s peculiar worship: it puts forth a universal claim, whose universality has to do with its being rational. Without the prophetic religious critique, the universalism of Christianity would have been unthinkable. It was this critique which, in the very heart of Israel itself, prepared the synthesis of Hellas and the Bible which the Fathers labored to achieve. For this reason, it is incorrect to reduce the concepts logos and alethia, upon which John’s Gospel centers the Christian message, to a strictly Hebraic interpretation, as if logos meant ‘word’ merely in the sense of God’s speech in history, and alethia signified nothing more than ‘trustworthiness’ or ‘fidelity’. For the same reason there is no basis for the opposite accusation that John distorted biblical thought in the direction of Hellenism. On the contrary, he stands in the classical sapiential tradition. It is precisely in John’s writings that one can study, both in its origins and in its outcome, the inner movement of biblical faith in God and biblical Christology toward philosophical inquiry.
“Is the world to be understood as originating from a creative intellect or as arising out of a combination of probabilities in the realm of the absurd? Today as yesterday, this alternative is the decisive question for our contemplation of reality; it cannot be dodged. Whoever, on the other hand, would draw faith back into paradox or into a pure historical symbolism fails to perceive its unique historical position, whose defense engaged both the prophets and the apostles in equal measure. The universality of faith, which is a basic presupposition of the missionary task, is both meaningful and morally defensible only if this faith really is oriented beyond the symbolism of the religious toward an answer meant for all, an answer which also appeals to the common reason of mankind. . . .
“Faith has the right to be missionary only if it truly transcends all traditions and constitutes an appeal to reason and an orientation toward the truth itself. However, if man is made to know reality and has to conduct his life, not merely as tradition dictates, but in conformity to the truth, faith also has the positive duty to be missionary. With its missionary claim, the Christian faith sets itself apart from the other religions which have appeared in history; this claim is implicit in its philosophical critique of the religions and can be justified only on that basis. The fact that today missionary dynamism threatens to trickle away into nothing goes hand-in-hand with the deficit in philosophy which characterizes the contemporary theological scene. . . .
“Faith can wish to understand because it is moved by love for the One upon whom it has bestowed its consent. Love seeks understanding. It wishes to know even better the one whom it loves. It ‘seeks his face,’ as Augustine never tires of repeating. Love is the desire for intimate knowledge, so that the quest for intelligence can even be an inner requirement of love. Put another way, there is a coherence of love and truth which has important consequences for theology and philosophy. Christian faith can say of itself, I have found love. Yet love for Christ and of one’s neighbor for Christ’s sake can enjoy stability and consistency only of its deepest motivation is love for the truth. This adds a new aspect to the missionary element: real love of neighbor also desires to give him the deepest thing man needs, namely, knowledge and truth.”
— from Joseph Ratzinger, “Faith, Philosophy and Theology” in The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates (Ignatius Press, 1993)
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Jacques Maritain on how human societies must account for the full nature of human personhood
“The end of society is the good of the community, of the social body. But if the good of the social body is not understood to be a common good of human persons, just as the social body itself is a whole of human persons, this conception also would lead to other errors of a totalitarian type. The common good of the city is neither the mere collection of private goods, nor the proper good of a whole which, like the species with regard to its individuals or the hive with respect to its bees, relates the parts to itself alone and sacrifices them to itself. It is the good human life of the multitude, of a multitude of persons; it is their communion in good living. It is therefore common to both the whole and the parts into which it flows back and which, in turn, must benefit from it. . . .
“[T]he common good of the city or of civilization — an essentially human common good in which the whole of man is engaged — does not preserve its true nature unless it respects that which surpasses it, unless it is subordinated, not as a pure means, but as an infravalent end, to the order of eternal goods and the supra-temporal values from which human life is suspended.
“This intrinsic subordination refers above all to the supernatural beatitude to which the human person is directly ordained. It is also and already related — a fact which a philosopher cannot ignore — to everything which of itself transcends political society, because all such things belong to the order of the absolute. We have in mind the [pagebreak] natural law, the rule of justice and the requirements of fraternal love; the life of the spirit and all that which, in us, is a natural beginning of contemplation; the immaterial dignity of the truth, in all domains and all degrees however humble they may be, of theoretical knowledge, and the immaterial dignity of beauty, both of which are nobler than the things of common life and which, if curbed by it, never failed to avenge themselves. In the measure that human society attempts to free itself from this subordination and proclaim itself the supreme good, in the very same measure it perverts its own nature and that of the common good — in the same measure it destroys the common good. . . . The common good of civil life is an ultimate end, but an ultimate end in a relative sense and in a certain order. It is lost if it is closed within itself, for, of its very nature, it is intended to favor the higher ends of the human person. The human person’s vocation to goods which transcend it is embodied in the essence of the common good. To ignore these truths is to sin at the same time and by the same token against both the human person and the common good.”
— from Jacques Maritain, “The Person and Society,” in The Person and the Common Good (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947)
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Matthew Hanley on Augusto Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity.
“What emerges, perhaps above all, is that our current crisis is fundamentally metaphysical in nature. Modernity is a grand project of negation: the very order of being – as classically understood – has been shunned for theories that emphasize right praxis in time; history has become the lens through which things are assigned value. Fulfillment ‘lies in front of us, not above us,’ and whoever speaks of eternal metaphysical truths is branded a reactionary.”
— Matthew Hanley
On Volume 128 of the Journal, we interviewed mathematician Carlo Lancellotti about his translation of twentieth-century Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce's The Crisis of Modernity. Today, the column for the daily online publication, The Catholic Thing, featured a helpful and brief summary of Del Noce's work, written by Matthew Hanley, a senior fellow for the National Catholic Bioethics Center. We encourage you to take a look.
Josef Pieper on how refusing to acknowledge the spiritual core of our true nature leads to a “roaming restlessness of the spirit”
“[According] to an ancient thought of Western wisdom, . . . ‘sloth’ . . . as acedia, is habitually counted among the seven capital sins (vitia capitalia). But present-day popular understanding has perverted the original concept of ‘sloth’ as a Capital sin into nearly its opposite. In ordinary usage ‘sloth’ seems to have settled into the domain of work — understood as lack of diligence, laziness, lack of pleasure in work. But when the great masters of Western Christendom named this ‘sloth of the heart’ a sin, it was not meant to be an approval of the ceaseless activity of the capitalist work establishment. Rather, acedia means that man does not ‘collaborate’ or work together with the realization of himself; that he refuses to add his conscious contribution to his very own, truly human existence. It is not at all a question of external activity but of the full realization of the self, to which we know we are silently but unmistakably summoned. And not to accept this summons, to respond to it with ‘no’: this is precisely the essence of ‘sloth’, of acedia. Through the sloth that is sin, man barricades himself against the challenge handed to him by his own dignity. He resists being a spiritual entity endowed with the power to make decisions; he simply does not want to be that for which God lifted him up above all natural potentiality. In other words, man does not want to be what he nevertheless cannot stop being: a spiritual being, truly satisfied with nothing less than God himself; and beyond that, ‘son of God’, rightful heir to eternal life. . . .
“It was already said that sloth, acedia, was considered a capital sin in the ancient wisdom. Caput means source. Vitia capitalia are those perversions from which, as from a fountainhead, more perversions gush forth. Thus it is meaningful and necessary to speak not only of the source itself, but of the whole length of the river nourished by it. If one proceeds in this manner, from the river’s mouth to its source, to the source-sin of sloth, then its relationship to the existential mode of man in our time suddenly becomes very apparent. It is totally impossible to overlook.
“From not-wanting-to-be-oneself, from the refusal to collaborate with the completion of one’s own being, from this innermost conflict of man with himself, from this sloth (in a word), as the ancients say, springs the ‘roaming restlessness of the spirit’. He who is in conflict with himself in his inmost dwelling, who consequently does not will to be what he fundamentally is anyway, cannot dwell within himself and cannot be at home with himself. He has to make the vain experiment of breaking out from his own center — for example, into the restlessness of working for work’s sake or into the insatiable curiosity of the lustful eye, which does not really seek knowledge but only an ‘opportunity to abandon oneself to the world’ (Heidegger), which is an opportunity to avoid oneself.
“It must further be realized that both manifestations — the systematic establishment of the work ideal as absolute and the degeneration of the lustful eye — surround themselves with the immense effort of a forced optimism, of a radiating trust in life, of a noisily proclaimed ‘progress’. Everyone knows that belief in progress is declared a social duty in the world of nothing but work. It is also known that keep happy and happy end belong from the start to the basic elements of this world of illusions, in which the greedy eye has created for itself a replacement for the ‘fullness of life’.
“For all that, these optimistic attitudes provide no final meaning in the face of the despair that is their source — even though this source is safely enclosed in the innermost chamber of the heart, so that no cry of pain penetrates the outside, most likely not even to its own consciousness.”
— from Joseph Pieper, “The Obscurity of Hope and Despair,” in Josef Pieper: An Anthology (Ignatius Press, 1989)
(Click here to read an excerpt from R. J. Snell’s Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.)
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