((released 2012-05-01) (handle mh-114-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 114: Susan Cain, on how the twentieth-century displacement of character by “personality” encouraged Americans to sell themselves (and marginalize introverts); Brad S. Gregory, on the danger of assuming that previous epochs of history have no lasting influence, and how unintended consequences of the Reformation shrunk Christian cultural influence; David Sehat, on why the story of religious liberty in America is more complicated than is often acknowledged; Augustine Thompson, O.P., on the myths and realities of St. Francis of Assisi; Gerald R. McDermott, on how love and beauty are more fundamental in the thought of Jonathan Edwards than the image of an angry God; and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, on lessons in The Scarlet Letter about wise ways of reading complex texts.
“When we hit the culture of personality, all of a sudden the ads started focusing on [communicating] ‘Use our product, use this shaving cream and you will become a great salesman, you will become socially attractive.’”
Author Susan Cain talks about the social and economic factors in the twentieth century that led to a culture that celebrated and encouraged extroversion and de-valued introversion. Cain argues that the rise of big business and urbanization at the turn of the century drew larger and larger numbers of young people out of small towns away into big cities where the business was. What began to matter more than the inner person and character that was known over time was personality, salesmanship and the first impression because those were the criteria that success in big cities would be based on. In the new culture of personality, selling yourself and your business well were the crucial capacities people would aspire to.
“Religion is not something separate from the rest of life in the late Middle Ages or in the Reformation era. It becomes something separate and separable as a long-term, difficult, painful process because of the disagreements and concrete conflicts of the Reformation era.”
Historian Brad Gregory discusses the unintended consequences of the Reformation, consequences which continue to this very day in the hyperpluralism and polarization of the public sphere, the unsustainable consumerism of the developed world, and the marginalization of truth in human morality and culture. He begins by articulating the problems with a "supersessionist" view of history, the idea that later epochs completely displaced earlier periods of time so that the concerns of earlier periods effectively evaporate. Among these problems is the forced homogeneity this view imposes on what really is a very heterogenous mix of persons, perspectives, and lives in modern society. Gregory then explains how the disagreements and conflicts of the Reformation era between various Protestant and Catholics communities led to institutional solutions that first created a category of private religion and then removed that religion from the domain of public life. Ironically, this development would not have been acceptable from any of the Reformation-era parties, all of whom insisted Christianity ordered all of life, but nonetheless their inability to unite led to the secularization of the world. Gregory ends with a discussion of religious liberty and how the modern State controls the religious lives of individuals as much if not more than civil or ecclesiastical authorities in the medieval period.
“When we don’t acknowledge the complexity of the past, we end of simplifying and betraying what’s at stake.”
David Sehat explains how his book on religious liberty in America emerged out of his observations that most contemporary people discussing religious liberty had false views about the past that (mis)informed discussion. He elaborates on how his readings of early American documents challenged his preexisting view, typical of modern progressive liberals, that church and state was clearly separated in the founding of America, and that religious conservatives were trying to undo the genius of the Founding Fathers. But his reading also disproved the typical religious conservative view that church and state had a simple, conflict-free relationship. Rather, the actual history is characterized as much by incoherence, inconsistency, dissent and disagreement as any temporary agreements, and by loud, passionate public discussion of the place and significance of religious belief in matters of social and political order. Finally, Sehat described a more nuanced three-fold manner in which religion can be established, used by John Witte, Jr. The first manner is when the state financially supports the church directly. The second manner is the ceremonial establishment of religion, where religious language is used in official functions and ceremonial processes of the State. The third manner is the importation and propagation of religious ideas into law and policy. Sehat argues that while religious establishment in the first manner largely went away by the 1830s, Protestant Christianity continued to be largely established in the second and third manners leading to many conflicts in American history to this day.
“His encounter of God is an encounter of an enfleshed God who died for us: so physical things matter.”
—Augustine Thompson, O. P.
Augustine Thompson reflects on the origins of the notion of the bohemian hippie St. Francis of Assisi in the searches for the historical Francis than began in the late nineteenth century. Thompson discusses how certain documents were misdated as earlier than they were, and on that basis, a picture of St. Francis as an individualistic, romantic rebel, constrained in his spirituality by the corrupt church hierarchy was promulgated. He describes the historical context of St. Francis’s life and explains how the events of his conversion and spiritual life were actually not exceptional, but rather quite conventional for lay penitents of the period. Even Francis's complaints against the clergy were not what is typically thought of as Francis’s, but were about the lackadaisical manner of their care for the bodies of the congregation. One area where contemporary knowledge of St. Francis is largely accurate is his love for nature and for animals, especially the birds. Thompson concludes the interview with stories about Francis's encounter with animals and their sacramental significance to St. Francis.
“In the whole history of Christian thought — twenty centuries of Christian thinking — no one, for no thinker, not even Augustine, not even Von Balthasar in the twentieth century who came the closest, for none of these thinkers was beauty as central to their vision of God as it was for Jonathan Edwards.”
Gerald McDermott discusses the place of beauty in the thought of Jonathan Edwards. He notes that Edwards was always open in his thinking to more, deeper and greater truths that can be reached through the faculty of redeemed reason chastened by Scripture. It’s this openness to truths that makes Edwards a bridge figure for many Christian traditions, between Protestant and Catholic, Eastern and Western, liberal and conservative, and charismatic and non-charismatic traditions. Edwards’s understanding of beauty is central to how he understands conversion and what the unregenerate are capable and incapable of perceiving and loving because beauty is what the affections are concerned with, and the affections — which originate in the heart, the deepest part of the soul — are what makes humans the way they are. Creation itself, and man-made culture and objects, exist as pointers to the triune beauty of God. God himself would not be God apart from his triune beauty, and his divine laws are manifestations of that beauty for the participation of his human creatures in his life.
“So he’s constantly throwing the matter back to the reader to say: you participate in making meaning. You participate not only in discovering meaning, but in actually determining how things mean what they mean.”
—Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre explains the experimental character of The Scarlet Letter, which centers on Hawthorne’s shifting of genre in the way the narrator tells the story of the events. The narrator is highlighted in a stronger and craftier manner in the beginning, and he continues to explain the events in a way that draws out the complexity of the telling of events, self-consciously drawing the reader’s attention to the not so objective nor omniscient nature of the storyteller. It was disturbing to the readers in the same way that higher criticism began to disrupt the traditional understanding of Scripture and the Enlightenment understanding of certainty and knowledge. In this way, the book represents a reaction against the reigning rationalism and scientism of the day. Even allegory that determines only a single meaning for texts is too restrictive compared to a symbolism which can provide space for multiple meanings. This line of thinking is under much discussion in artistic, literary, and biblical scholarship circles because the issues surrounding authorial intent, the sufficiency of texts, and the place of personal and communal experience and judgment. McEntyre concludes with comments regarding Hawthorne’s views of individual judgment and his religious life.