08 October 2015

"Rolling Back Vatican II"

The 20th century was philosophy's linguistic century, just like the 19th century was its historical century.  Objectively, these claims have little actual meaning.  There were innumerable important thinkers and writers in the 19th century whose works are not bound up with the idea of the historical process, and there were likewise (even more innumerably) innumerable writers and thinkers in the 20th century whose works are not bound up with reflection on language as the medium of human thought and communication.

In any case, even if these truisms about the character, or "turn", or angle of "Philosophy's" 19th and 20th centuries are false (or, more precisely, so excessively broad as to be meaningless), we like them nonetheless.  Why do we like them?  Because they create a mental substrate to which we can tack a bunch of associated works and groups of thinkers and chains of influence.  It makes the story easier to tell, and the individual cases easier to understand.

Anyway, the point of all this is that, as one might have observed in the—linguistically inclined—20th century, it is language which serves as the medium of communication, and in the set of standard expressions in language (any language, the language of any particular society or discursive community) we find the habitual structures which normalize thought and provide, as it were, the substrate, the thing that no one needs to mention because it is always being mentioned, to which all expressed content, all the non-obvious features of thought, are tacked.

And this observation is useful and interesting, because, if we can stop for a moment and listen to the speech patterns of our own discursive communities, we can discover the unmentioned-but-ever-mentioned metaphorical structures which form the background of our thought—the space of the obvious, which, by being obvious, creates a context and contrast for everything that is not obvious.

Nietzsche—the great Nietzsche, that bitter pill who believed, at the end of Germany's extremely history-driven 19th century, that history was progressively un-doing the excellence of man—Nietzsche described this brilliantly, in a passage I have returned to repeatedly in my short intellectual life.  He spoke of
...metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.
and while Nietzsche said that all truths fit this description, I would prefer to limit its application to those habitual structures which normalize communication, and make it easy to express and understand common ideas and experiences within a given discursive community.  At some point, any given metaphorical structure or analogical way of speaking was invented.  Someone made the connection necessary to point to X and describe it as "Y" (≠X), and by this means captured by a conceptual shorthand an otherwise finicky and difficult to describe aspect of the thing.  The weightiness of a situation.  The tension in her voice.  The light in his eyes.  And so on.

The metaphors and analogies which form that unmentioned-but-ever-mentioned reference point by which we describe and understand things tell us something about the discursive community.  They give us a clue about what is so intelligible on average to the members of this community of speakers that it does not ever generally need to be explained.

This is not a reliably generalizable claim—oftentimes idioms and figures of speech lose their original intelligibility, which was based on the common experience of a group of people at a particular time and in a particular place.  Perhaps today most people don't understand the underlying metaphor of "cast from the same mold", and perhaps tomorrow they will not understand what the idea behind "someone's talents" is, even if both of these expressions stay in use.

But in particular cases—which cases?—the rule can be safely applied.  Or, to be more precise, its application gives us a more focused image of the discursive community in which the figure of speech or unmentioned-but-ever-mentioned metaphor is used.

One of these cases is the phrase "Rolling Back Vatican II".  Rolling back has behind it a complex set of associations.  In American English, the phrase suggests some sort of imposed fiscal decrease.  Rolling back prices, or interest rates, or taxes, etc.  But in this case it suggests an undoing, and as such is probably best understood as the opposite expression to rolling out, which refers (with reference to the emergence of a new aircraft model from its hangar, according to the OED) to the emergence of something new, something updated.  In this case it is "Vatican II" which was rolled out, and now it is "Vatican II" which people want to roll back.

But assuming Vatican II was something new, the great sin of wanting to roll it back amounts to what?  A crime against the progressive tide of history, clearly.  The skies of humanity are open and waiting for the new liberty brought about by the flexibility and cutting-edge design of this Vatican II.  And someone wants to scrap the whole thing.  Don't they know that the people are waiting?  Isn't it clear that improvements must be made?  This seems to me to be the underlying pattern of thought, the unmentioned-because-ever-mentioned idea behind "rolling back Vatican II".

Oh, but that may be incorrect—as I said, the expression has several associations.  It's not only wheels that roll, but also tides, and currents.  The tide rolls in as the water rises, and rolls back out as the water falls.  I confess, I don't see immediately how this idea would apply to such a thing as Vatican II, but my mind may simply lack the breadth necessary to understand.

In any case, before the 19th century—the century of the historical process, remember—no one in the Church ever thought of a council this way—as the progressive introduction of an updated version of things—so far as I know.  No one ever spoke of canonical acts of ecclesiastical assemblies or popes as the rolling out or rolling back of anything.  Why not?  Because before everyone got all excited about the forces of history, and the tides of change (aha! perhaps we have our metaphor there!) and the modern world, with its radical discontinuities and irreversible trends, everyone understood that the Gospel was established by Christ and taught to his Disciples in the 1st century (which was, we hardly need to mention, not philosophy's historical century), and everyone understood that the ecclesiastical authorities were there to preserve unchanged this thing, this deposit which Christ left with them, and not to tinker with it or destroy it, but to care for it, lest he return and find them glutting themselves on the fruits of his vineyard as if it belonged to them.

So what I want to say, before I conclude this highly italicized post, is that if the people who speak of "Rolling Back Vatican II" are right, in supposing that "Vatican II", whatever it is, was "rolled out", like a new model of aircraft designed and engineered by humans, then it would be reasonable for us to suppose that—whatever this engineered thing that was "rolled out" in the 1960s and 70s is—it is not the deposit which no one ever engineered, but which was delivered to the Apostles by Christ.  And if it is not that, then, in the words of Flannery O'Connor, to hell with it.

Let the people who want to taste the comfort and flexibility of modern aircraft fly off in their "Vatican II" (whatever they mean by it).  The rest of us should not be deceived by the pretense that Christ commissioned the apostles to re-design the Gospel of our redemption to accommodate each new social trend or wave of technological convenience.