19 December 2014

Eisenhower and the Origins of Money

Following the sequence of items read over the past eighteen months, next are two books of secular history:


Eisenhower in War and Peace, by J.E. Smith — During my first year of graduate school, I embarked on a search for an honest man.  I was looking for modern men of heroic virtue.  For whatever reason, one of the first possibilities that occurred to me was Winston Churchill.  I didn't much like the sense of him I got from skimming a volume of his letters, so I searched a little more, and decided to try Eisenhower.  J.E. Smith is a very readable biographer.  After finishing his book, I think I can safely say that it was written for middle-aged men interested primarily in the facts of Ike's military and political careers and much less in the facts of his personal life or psychological development.  There is a lot of information about the former, and relatively little about the latter in this book.  One huge disappointment is the fact that Ike's childhood and adolescence are covered in only a dozen pages or so.  One has very little sense of the man's origins, and from everything said in this volume, it would seem that Ike did not have a very rich interior life.  He was an egocentric workaholic whose life was focused on getting things done in the context of the boys club that was the US Military in the first half of the 20th century.  His wife would seem to have been similarly superficial, though she clearly suffered on account of his distance and lack of care.  The man portrayed here is a highly effective bureaucrat with great management skills, little military genius, and little time for ideas.  Unfortunately, the psychological depth of Smith's account is, as mentioned, so thin, that one can't really tell what was going on in Ike's head in the meanwhile, if anything at all.

Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber — A friend had harassed me about reading this book for about two years before I finally picked it up.  I said above that it is a work of secular history, but primarily it is an anthropological analysis of the nature of monetary systems in different epochs of human history and the way the emergence and development of these systems of debt and exchange relate to the organization of power structures within society.  The title of the book does not serve it well, because it suggests a sweeping history of debt, when in fact what we find are a series of case studies combined with a very brief thematic survey of general historical developments in major world civilizations.  In the course of the book, Graeber offers a few piercing insights into the nature of exchange that illuminate the arbitrariness of things that are ordinarily, in Western society, taken as necessary facts of economics.  One example:  he points out that in the middle ages (whether in the West or elsewhere), coin was rarely used in commerce.  Instead, exchanges were made on credit and quantified using an abstract (but practically unseen, in its physical species) debt-reckoning currency.  The maintenance of credit relationships between different members of society guaranteed (and was guaranteed by) the stability of local economic communities: personal credit worked because economic exchanges were generally personal exchanges between people known to each other, whose names were at stake in the interaction.  The use of coin or actual currency in exchanges, the elimination of personal credit, coincides with the de-personalization of commerce and the atomization of society.

18 December 2014

A New Plan

I have been meaning for some time to compose reviews of several of the books I've read recently.  In each case the project seems too big to start, because for the past year most of my reading has been focused on large questions regarding the ecclesiastical history and politics of the past two centuries.  My reading is limited.  I'm only 26, and I have always been a very deliberate reader.  In order to jumpstart the process of working through the stack of things that need to be written, I am going to import a method I often use when reviewing movies: create a syllabus of recent items, summarize them in short form, and then return later on for longer discussions.  This way I should at least be able to get something down, and this easy beginning can serve as the foundation for more thorough discussions later on.


Here is the first round of short reviews.


  • History and Future of the Roman Liturgy, by Denis Crouan — I am not entirely sure what to make of Crouan's history of the liturgy.  He is committed to apologizing for the Bugnini Missal, and insists that when done well the new liturgy is wonderful.  He occupies a strange space: part traditionalist, but part critic of tradition.  He fully embraces the rhetoric about "calcifications" and "barnacles" and "private devotions" added to the Roman Rite in the older form, and supports the purification of the rite.  After having experienced the old rite more extensively over the past year, I think I disagree with him about the usefulness of removing these devotions and prayers, which seem to me to bolster the character of the liturgy and add to its integrity as a sacrifice.  However I am not yet sufficiently versed in these matters to say more, nor do I remember adequately the finer points of Crouan's analysis to be able to critique him.
  • The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann — Mann's great novel can be divided into two halves, based on the prime interlocutors.  In the first half, the focus is mainly on an Italian humanist named Settembrini and a Russian lady named Chauchat.  I read this section of the novel my second year of college, shortly after reading Buddenbrooks.  The latter was an enjoyable and easy read, whereas Magic Mountain is very intentionally a novel of "ideas".  Unfortunately the "ideas" of the first half are mostly based on secular humanism and humanistic republicanism, neither of which have much appeal to me, so I put it down for a few years.  Upon resuming the novel, I discovered that the second half is centered on a nihilistic Jesuit who uses a kind of traditionalism to critique the rationalism of Settembrini.  The second half of the novel is extraordinarily good. Naphta, the Jesuit, and Settembrini fight with each other, and are overcome by a third man, who represents Dionysian sensuality.  The implicit resolution of the battle of ideas is dissatisfying, and the ideas themselves are sometimes coarse, but it is a well-executed dialogical novel, and at many points the exchanges between the various characters are simply brilliant. 
  • Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Böll — A sprawling novel by the nobel prize winning post-War German writer.  This book uses the difficulties of a simple West German lady as the occasion for a network of stories about the experience of the average citizen during the rise of Nazism and WWII.  It has some excellent moments, and some delectable peculiarities, but by the end the novel has collapsed into self-indulgent trivialities, with the narrator eloping with a Catholic nun and the protagonist becoming a weird folk heroine.  Böll is an enlightened lapsed Catholic with ethnic sympathies for his former religion.
  • Chicago Manual of Style, Chapter II — On manuscript preparation and the editing process.
  • Livy, Book I — In his first book on the history of Rome, Livy chronicles the development of the city from its founding to the fall of the Tarquins.  The Tarquins are the most fascinating characters in this series, and Livy's discussion of the legends of early Rome tends to have an edifying flavor.
  • Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun — This novel chronicles the development of the homestead of a Norwegian man sometime around the turn of the 20th century.  It is a celebration of simplicity and hard work, which contrasts the dedication of the main character against his fickle wife, their various children, and the soft, corrupt neighbor man who attempts to live off of his wits instead of working the land.

06 December 2014

A Short Review

Since I've just passed 1000 page views on a blogpost for the first time, here's a quick review of the most read posts on this blog, along with some others that I think are worthy of attention.


Popular Posts



Other Excellent Posts
Intellectual Conversion Narrative: Part I and Part II


01 December 2014

Letter to a Friend on Ressourcement and the New Theology

[A friend of mine, a student in a very prominent graduate program in theology at a major Catholic university in the US, wrote to me recently.  In his letter he expressed confusion and dismay at the hostility to Western theology and liturgy since the Middle Ages which he has encountered among his professors, and asked me for some thoughts on the matter.  My reply to him is below.]


The first thing to be said is that you should be suspicious of criticisms that can't point to a particular error, but just cast a vague negative stereotype over vast swaths of Catholic theology without actually engaging any of it.  Granted, it's true in some sense, as you say, that saints and not scholars make the best theologians, but it's also true that a great many saints have written like and have even been scholars, and that a huge number of great saints, even when they have not themselves been scholars, have recommended scholarly theology as being a reliable tool for edification and personal sanctification.  You will hear many people criticize St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Thomas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Albert, St. Francis de Sales, (all doctors of the Church) and the members of their schools, but the people who do so never seem to be very interested in studying them or to have the humility and docility necessary to benefit from their thought.  

I've heard many times the ridiculous accusation against St. Thomas that he is a rationalist.  This is utterly absurd, as any decent reading of even a tiny fraction of the Prima Pars would reveal.  The truth is that the Scholastics were interested in two things which the new theologians don't have much concern for: clarity and truth.  In my experience, much of the new theology is focused on poetic richness instead of clarity, and "authentic" reflection instead of truth.  It would seem to count more as "good theology" to a modern theologian if someone wrote a very vague poem about the Godhead capable of any number of controversial and heretical interpretations, than if they attempted in a rigorous and straightforward fashion to settle some modest question about the nature of the Divine Essence as revealed through Scripture.  Modern theology is re-conceived as poetic experiential massage, instead of the clarification of articles of faith.

I'm going to skip railing against the nostalgia for the East and the absurdities of the Trinitarian theology you're reading, and talk a little bit about the problems with the New Theology and Resourcement generally.  As a note, if you want a history of Vatican II, I highly recommend Roberto de Mattei's Vatican II: An Unwritten Story.  It's very well-documented and was praised by Cardinal Brandmüller, who used to be head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.  I found it personally riveting and extremely illuminating.  Additionally, you ought to read Pope Pius X's encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis if you haven't already.


One of the chief difficulties today is that because of the sudden and catastrophic loss of Latin fluency among students of theology, the majority of the Catholic theological tradition has effectively been lost overnight.  What's left is for those who have the credentials and the gall to do so to make sweeping claims about the theological literature of the past 1500 years, so as to convince everyone else that (1) it is bad, theologically speaking, (2) it is intellectually stifling, (3) we must break from it, and be glad to have been rid of it.  Who are these people, and why are they suddenly so intent on upending and "liberating" us from so many centuries of theological reflection?  

The New Theology can be divided into two schools: Ressourcement and Aggiornamento.  The former is based on the notion that scholastic metaphysics and the disputative/tractative style of theological exposition are contrary to the richness and depth which belonged to theology prior to the emergence of the Schools in the high middle ages.  Patristic and Monastic theological reflection are ordered primarily toward the spiritual benefit of readers and listeners, and employ as their main form the exposition of scriptural texts.  During the middle ages the habits of exegesis and spiritual care were (supposedly) abandoned by the main figures of scholastic theology, and replaced by an extremely dry and overly-technical sifting operation of no benefit to anyone outside of university faculties.  The story goes that, as time went on, the scholastic theological systems became so refined, and reached down to such careful qualifications and distinctions, that the student of the Catholic Faith who desired to return to the sources of the tradition could no longer do so without being encumbered at every turn by the stifling jargon and nitpicking of baroque neo-scholastics.  Where were these articles, tracts, and dubia in the homilies of Chrysostom? Doesn't Nazianzen himself mock the theologians who thrive on subtle distinctions?  Isn't theology the work of the soul seeking perfection?  With indignation, the Ressourcement theologians want to turn back to the days of the Fathers, when one didn't need to worry about some neo-scholastic manualist breathing down your neck because of a vague or infelicitous phrase.  They want to set forth the faith with the newness of the kerygma present in the Greek Fathers, and to throw away all the trappings of suffocating rationalism that have burdened western theology for the past millennium.

There are several problems with this story.  First, when one reads the Fathers, one has a definite sense that they are not only not averse to the use of philosophical tools in theological reflection, but that they often struggle to develop them as a means of clarifying and exposing the faith, and combating heresy.  One finds even in the Greek Fathers early exercises in the systematic meeting of objections (cf. Justin Martyr) and systematic theological exposition (cf. John Damascene).  

Second, the standard portrait of changes in medieval theology is completely wrong.  The scholastic handbooks and Summae were developed as tools for pastors on the ground, to help them understand the mechanics of the faith and respond readily to spiritual doubts and moral quandaries.  If one wants to help a parishioner deal with some spiritual question or difficulty, the works of St. Alphonsus and St. Thomas are going to be infinitely more useful than any text by Rahner, de Lubac, or Balthasar.  The work of the scholastics was not to subordinate revealed truth to an artificial paradigm or intellectual system, but to organize and respond to common questions concerning what has been revealed so as to make the task of teaching, advising, and correcting simpler for those charged with it.  

Third, if the task of theological reflection is more "stifling" now than it was a millennium ago, this is in large part because of the clarity that has resulted from the development of the doctrine of the faith.  Where there were implicit material heresies in some of the Fathers, today we know how to eschew the offending language.  Where there were theological missteps in some of the early scholastics, today we can correct for their misplaced metaphysical assumptions or ignorance of the tradition.  These developments are advantages for those seeking to teach the faith, because we can do so, if we try, with less fear of error or confusion.  To want to be free of the constraints suggested by the scholastics is to desire to be liberated from the logic of Divine Revelation itself—this is prideful and tends toward heresy.

Fourth, the tradition of scholastic theology between Gregory VII and Pius XII abandoned neither the composition of exegetical tracts and homilies on scripture, nor the practical application of theological insights to spiritual counsel.  In the words of one religious order enamored of Scholasticism, the task of the theologian is contemplare, et contemplata aliis tradere.  If one believes that scholasticism removed the practice of theology from the ascetical necessities of the average layman's life, or divorced theological reflection from the devout reading of Scripture, one is simply ignorant.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of contrary examples.

Finally, there is an overall difficulty in the implications of the Ressourcement position for the proper approach to the Tradition as a whole.  If these new theologians are correct in claiming that the main threads of theological reflection as practiced over the past thousand years are largely fruitless and disposable, and that "authentic theology" needs to be recovered from some hidden trove where it has lain undiscovered in the writings of the Greek Fathers, then it becomes difficult to tell how one is supposed to perform this rediscovery.  Doesn't one become a kind of highly-educated protestant?  Isn't the entiref unction of the tradition between the Fathers and the Present that it has conveyed the former reliably to the latter together with all necessary clarifications and developments to render their testimony intelligible in the present time?  And what are we to make of the innumerable commendations by great Popes and Saints for this supposedly dry and barren mode of theological reflection?  Could it be that Ressourcement is just an excuse to abandon the Catholic tradition altogether, and reconstruct a new one according to one's tastes and creative inclinations?


The Ressourcement position is the worthier of criticism because it is the less obviously heretical of the two schools within the "New Theology" that have blossomed since the Council.  The other is much more disturbing because it reveals a basic lack of commitment to any sort of apostolic tradition or faith.  This is the so-called Aggiornamento school, emblematized by the journal Concilium.  (Concilium recently devoted an entire issue to the need for the destruction of "orthodoxy" in Catholic theology.)  These people are straightforward Modernists.  They generally fit St. Pius X's description of Modernist theology to the letter: immanentists about the existence and nature of God; excessive use of the historical critical method to debunk and deconstruct scripture; rejection of the real continuity of the faith across cultures and time periods; subscription to any number and variety of dogmatic and moral heresies; extreme hostility to the authority of the magisterium.  

One needn't wring one's hands about these guys, because it's clear that they are inventing a new religion which simply happens to share some key names and terminology with the one established by Christ.  The chief difficulty with them, though, is that (again, as described by Pius X) they hide their many heresies behind vague, unconventional and metaphorical descriptions of their ideas.  Rahner is an excellent example of this.  In Foundations of Christian Faith, we read a "mystical" treatise on the essence and underlying realities upon which the Christian Faith is based.  The language of this text is largely borrowed from Heidegger, and its style is full of circuitous neologisms.  Because of the sprinkling of pious phrases and variations on standard doctrinal affirmations spread throughout the text, one might be tempted to think that Rahner's analysis is simply an updating of old Thomistic theology to fit the new philosophical methods of the German phenomenologists.  Indeed, this is what Rahner is commonly described as doing!  He even has his own "school" of Thomism.  

But if you move beyond the stage of simply letting the verbiage wash over you and massage your consciousness, and try instead to get at the precise meaning of what he says, it is often extremely disturbing.  He denies the reality of the life to come, except as immanent in the present life.  He reduces God to the ground of our experience of mystery.  He identifies grace, which is supposedly co-natural with human nature, with beatitude and claims that they are one single moment in our lives.  He proposes the abolition of the traditional creeds and their replacement by certain more pluralistic and anthropocentric affirmations of commitment.  The whole business is horrifying to anyone interested in preserving the truths of the Catholic Faith, because it very clearly does away with the Faith altogether.  And to imagine that this man was held up as the chief theological hero of the Second Vatican Council!

So, to conclude, let me return to an earlier question: Why are these people so interested in escaping from the "dry" and "oppressive" network of scholastic theological analysis?  If we read the responses to their work from before the outbreak of the conciliar crisis in the Church, we can find the answer very easily: their opposition to the medieval and post-Tridentine theological tradition is based on an opposition to the traditions of the orthodox catholic faith.  And this opposition, this hostility, comes from a willful pride, which wants to free itself from the constraints of orthodoxy and the limitations of reason in order to express spontaneously an experience and a portrait of God (often shrouded in the "mystical") which is felt to be creative and personal, because it proceeds from the theologian instead of proceeding from the Word of God, and because it leads those who hear it to the feet of the theologian, instead of leading them back to Christ.