Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler

By Gerard Noel, 256 pages, Continuum Books.

This book has just enough going for it to keep a reader going until the end, when Gerard Noel punishes the faithful reader with ridiculous, condescending reflections on this pontiff. Catholics deserve a few good renditions of this complicated pope, but Noel, a writer and a journalist, ends up going way beyond his abilities of psychoanalysis.

His last few thoughts paint the pope as a pitiful, nutty old man with no critical self-awareness. The following words about the pope properly describe Hitler or Napoleon rather than Pius: “As time went on, Pacelli, monumentally conscious of his position as a man sent by God to save a deeply troubled world, came gradually but increasingly to inhabit a fantasy world. More and more, he feasted upon the image of himself as a demigod; a man above other men, the supreme arbiter of events. He was a sort of spiritual megalomaniac, and he was ever supremely conscious of himself as a man of destiny.”

Noel then decides in the next paragraph that he is going to save the late pontiff's reputation with his own psychologizing. The pope was a good man who didn't know what he was doing; Pius wasn't grounded in reality:

“Pacelli took his every action with the purest and loftiest of intentions. He was at no moment aware of himself as other than the divinely appointed guardian of the world's most precious heritage, being sometimes forced into terrible, heart-rending decisions for the greater good.”

As if the pope didn't have severe self-doubt and regrets. Pacelli for decades was in an impossible position. He was papal nuncio to Bavaria and Germany in the scary, unstable interwar period, and then as pope faced a bevy of dictators in Europe, from Franco and Salazar to Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. The Brits were weak, the French were wimps, and the Americans were distant and self-absorbed.

Noel plants ridiculous or rude thoughts about Pope Pius XII throughout The Hound of Hitler, but balances this with excellent research and knowledge about the intricacies of the papal curia. This often good writing, in addition to the mesmerizing, evil politics at the time, make this a book that can't be put down, even with Noel's failures.

For example, the interactions of the strong-headed personalities at the top of the Church are fascinating. While recuperating from stress-induced illness at Rorschach, Switzerland, the future Pope Pius was nursed back to physical and psychological health by a Bavarian nun who had taken the name of Pasqulina, often referred to as La Popessa.

She followed him back to Munich, where he was papal nuncio to Bavaria, and shaped up his household. She stayed with him throughout his diplomatic career, later arranging the parties in Berlin when all of Germany's elite and not-so-elite called on him. She became a powerful though unofficial figure at the Vatican after his election as pope, and stood up to the most powerful cardinals when she saw fit.

The Hound of Hitler is an eccentric read, as it has many good and many bad points, but its coverage of the evil politics of the twentieth century does add to our understanding of that topic.

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

By William T. Cavanaugh, 100 pages, Eerdmans.

Global capitalism destroys the lives and environment of factory workers in the developing world. They are sometimes literally worked to death, and must breathe noxious factory fumes, work 16 hour days 6 days a week, drink polluted water, put up with harassment and no rights at their workplace. Usually, the companies responsible are from the developed world, and the products are shipped back to rich countries.

Consumerism is therefore a pillar of this unjust system. Cavanaugh uses the writings of St. Augustine to show just how sinful and soulless consumerism has become. Marketing, through the branding of various products, gives a kind of enchantment or soul-like quality to goods that are, in the Augustinian view, literally nothing.

He makes some insightful, if surprising observations about consumerism and its relationship to gluttony and false asceticism: “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.”

We are not like Scooge, hoarding and counting our money and acquired things. Having is not the main prize; shopping is because we like the merry-go-round of buying new things, of course only to discover soon that the new products are as meaningless as any other acquired products. “Buying,” Cavanaugh notes, “brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism.”

This restlessness is actually a spirituality. Marketing, and global capitalism itself, are spiritual ways of looking at the world, where we define who we are by our consumerism. People in North America are working the treadmill so that they can acquire meaningless goods, made in the shocking conditions that the author briefly though powerfully describes.

Consumerism “is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people,” Cavanaugh notes.

Yet the system is so entrenched that even when people realize that this is not an authentic way to live, and they know something about the way people are treated in Asian or Central American factories and how animals in North America are treated before they become food products, they still don't know what to do.

Thankfully, Cavanaugh doesn't call for yet another political revolution. The Western world has had enough of those. He calls for grassroots Christian change in the economic system. Christians can start this by finding out the relationships between the things we buy and where they come from. We have to re-establish the connection between producer and buyer, and see how we are responsible for the dire working conditions in so many countries.

Again, Being Consumed turns to good old fashioned Catholic theology: “A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God's good creation, potential signs of the glory of God, things become less disposable, more filled with meaning.” A sacramental view rejects the superficiality of consumerism, in other words.

Christians need to reverse the trend championed by the World Trade Organization that gives more power to corporations and less and less to workers.

Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to His Theological Vision

By Thomas P. Rausch, Paulist Press.

At the end of this demanding investigation of the theological teaching of the current pontiff, author Thomas Rausch acknowledges his still unanswered questions: “Is Pope Benedict's thinking really characterized by historical consciousness, or does it represent a closed hermeneutical circle constituted by the teachings of scripture, the fathers of the church, and the magisterium? Is his thinking truly open to historical development, to new experience, and to the knowledge that comes from experience? When all is said and done, these questions remain.”

Rausch is not as tough or adversarial towards Pope Benedict XVI as these above words suggest. In fact, his discussion of Benedict's dogmatic theology, interpretation of scripture, and teachings on the nature of Christ (Christology), the Church (Ecclesiology), and the liturgy are well-balanced.

The one major contention Rausch has with Benedict concerns the meaning and interpretation of Vatican II, at which the pope played a role as a theological assistant (peritus) to the then Bishop of Munich. The author does a good job of placing Joseph Ratzinger in the middle of the theologically tumultuous twentieth century, when controversial new theories of, for instance, the way to interpret scripture, hit the young Ratzinger square on. Before the Council, he attended and then taught at seminaries and universities that had some of the most controversial thinkers of the Church.

By the time Vatican II happened, Ratzinger had cast himself in the same block as the great French Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Dissatisfied with the legalistic, spiritually dry neo-scholastic theology of the seminaries of the time, de Lubac called for a “return to the sources,” in French rassourcement.

Along with aggionamento (“bringing up to date”), rassourcement was one of the twin pillars of Vatican II. Much of the shenanigans of the Council, as well as later interpretations of what went on, revolve around which of the pillars a given thinker followed. Throughout his career, Ratzinger has advocated a return to the Bible, the Church Fathers, and liturgy – rassourcement - which is explained quite well in Pope Benedict XVI. To understand Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Rausch shows, demands that one understand this journey to the sources.

Thus the current pope has never let go of the pre-Vatican Church's view of humans, which was centred around Saint Augustine's notion of original sin. Grace, in this viewpoint, is everything. Humans could never build the kingdom of God on earth; the kingdom, represented by the coming of Jesus Christ, could only be brought about by God. Rausch makes the invaluable point that, as an Augustinian more than a Thomist, Benedict is closer to the reformers, especially Calvin and Luther, in his thinking on grace and the nature of human beings. In fact, Rausch notes that Benedict likes Luther and often cites him in his own writings.

Reflecting an Augustinian viewpoint, Benedict avoids great change. Not only has he always denied that Vatican II broke with the past, but he has also lamented Pope Paul VI's rejection of a place for the Latin Mass in the post-conciliar Church.

Rausch's discussion on the philosophical basis to Augustine, and therefore to Benedict XVI's thought, is concise and useful. It enables the reader to see why the media and countless onlookers often regard Benedict as stubborn and unable to change. Following Platonism, Benedict believes in the existence of an intelligible, unchanging, ahistorical truth: “[L]ike Plato, Ratzinger locates the true and the good beyond the world of experience, in the spiritual.”

Thus Ratzinger instinctively opposes the moral and intellectual relativism of contemporary Western society, asserting that Plato's sense of wisdom is the antidote to such thinking. Rausch explains that if in the 1980s Ratzinger was opposed to Marxism and liberation theology because of its subjectivism and attempts to build the kingdom of God on earth (not to mention its rejection of ecclesiastical hierarchy), he began to turn his attention to the “dictatorship of reason” in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of Eastern European communism.

Ratzinger believes that experience of God does indeed bring knowledge of God, but that this is not the subjective theology of American Pentecostals. Rather, the experience of a personal God happens most authentically within the context of the hierarchical, apostolic, Eucharistic Church and its liturgy.

His sense of liturgy, as part of the return to the sources, and his reliance on Platonism and Augustinian theology, informs Ratzinger's opposition to secular salvation narratives such as Marxism, liberation theology, radical feminism, or relativism and skepticism. This Platonism anchors his assertion of, in Rausch's words, “the primacy of the idea.” Rausch defines this as “a 'principle of reception,' with the emphasis always on what is received in its givenness, rather than on what develops or changes in the world of time and experience.” This reflects an already-defined (that is, a priori) schema in the pope's thinking.

Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction clearly shows the roots to the current pontiff's remarkably coherent, precise, and consistent theology. Rausch's discussion is, unfortunately, incomplete, as the book feels fragmented at times, as we move among widely different topics. Also, Rausch's brief criticism's of the pontiff's thinking are rushed and too brief. Perhaps these shortcomings reflect the depth and breadth of Benedict's thought, which is hard to grasp in its entirety, than any shortcomings on Rausch's part.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

By Raniero Cantalamessa, 144 pages, Servant Books.

Cantalamessa takes a holistic, sophisticated view of Jesus' transfiguration, surveying a great deal of spiritual and theological experience and reflection. He introduces the reader to the much-neglected debate between the 2 Christological traditions of ancient Christianity from the ancient Christian centres of Antioch and Alexandria, Egypt.

Briefly, Antioch tended towards a more Pauline interpretation, focused on the passion and resurrection of Jesus, while the Alexandrians emphasized the Gospel of John's theology of the incarnation, whereby the very fact of Jesus as God incarnate is the centre and transformative event of human history. St. Paul saw the great transformative event in the resurrection. Both, of course, are right, and each school realized the importance of the other viewpoint.

Cantalamessa's discussion tries to unite different points of interest and spiritual practices. He notes that up to today, the Greek, Eastern Orthodox Churches tend towards the incarnational approach of St. John, whereas the Latin Church has emphasized St. Paul's focus on Christ's resurrection. Echoing Pope John Paul II's call for the re-united Church of East and West that breathes with 2 lungs, Cantalamessa writes that we need the Antiochene (and therefore Latin) focus on Jesus' humanity, and the Alexandrian (therefore Greek and Eastern) locus on the divinity of Christ.

In this preoccupation with both perspectives and the richness from their unity, The Mystery of the Transfiguration takes a place in ecumenism, which of late has itself become a neglected feature of Christian life at a time when secular society keeps pushing Judeo-Christian values out of sight.

Cantalamessa takes the reader on a fruitful, richly spiritual journey through the New Testament and Christian spirituality. He starts with a close reading of the 3 synoptic gospels' portrayals of the transfiguration, noting that “The Passion is found at the very heart of the mystery of the Transfiguration.” Both events come out of Christ's kenosis, or self-emptying. Christ serves humanity by emptying himself of his own will, accepting the will of the Father. In both events, Christ shows his power and glory by choosing the opposite of these 2 things.

But Cantalamessa also finds interesting, and less sobering features of the transfiguration, writing that it “is the most fitting mystery, with its exultation of light, to introduce us to the contemplation of beauty,” such as found, he notes, in icons.

The author also connects the transfiguration to Jesus' baptism, because of the central role of the Holy Spirit in both cases, and therefore to our own contemplation of Christ: “It is not possible to contemplate Jesus except 'in the Holy Spirit.'” The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to us.

Cantalamessa turns to the Eastern Christian emphasis on the divinization of humans through the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit “gives us not only 'adiuvante' ('helping') grace but also participation in the divine nature.”

This spiritual survey of Christian theology and history demands much from the reader, as it ties together such things as Eastern art of the Pantocrator; Eastern Holy Fools; St. Augustine's belief that humans are closer to the crucified than to the risen Christ until we pass to the next world; and the Protestant Theology of the Cross.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Personhood in Islam: Harmony in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Anthropology

By Brian Welter

Where is the holy located, in the individual or in the community? Protestants would emphasize the individual before God and the priesthood of all believers. Pre-Vatican II Catholicism would emphasize the intercessory role of the priest and the sacramental nature of the Church: extra ecclesiam nulla salvus. Certainly, Islam has traditionally located the holy in the community, the dar al Islam, the house of God. Apostates from Islam must be punished, just like the medieval and early modern Christian heretics tended to face a tough time in Christendom. But are apostates punished because the community has such a superior position viz the individual, or is apostasy such a big issue because individuals are so central to the Dar al Islam?
In Islam, what is the worth of the individual outside of the community? Does his value only consist in his adherence to the community? Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written extensively on the person and on nature, from his interpretation of Islam, and often to a Western audience that is firmly ensconced in a tradition of individual rights and the diminishment of collective identity, rights, and traditions. Yet how well does Seyyed Hossein Nasr represent Islam? Each chapter will discuss the basic arguments offered by Nasr, interwoven with possible objections by contemporary or twentieth-century Islamic thinkers such as Muhammed and Seyyed Qutub, Tariq Ramadan, and others. This will offer some possible assessments of Nasr's teaching from within Islam?
The “harmony” part of the study examines how Nasr's view of man and woman, following an Islamic view, distances itself from the Western feminist view of men and women being the same and therefore equal, to a view of women and men in harmony with each other, in accordance with Islamic tradition and the rights that it holds. This study will explore how, for Nasr, Islamic society envisions harmony rather than extreme democracy and freedom as exemplified in Western democracies today. In fact, unity, harmony, and the carrying on of tradition seem to be the focal point of Nasr's writing, the story behind the story. Likewise, Nasr's view of science, knowledge, and nature invoke harmony. Rather than dominating nature, science and knowledge should bring us into closer contact with God. Islamic science should be a spiritual science. The Islamic economy should bring about harmony rather than fierce, profit-making competition. It should build family and community rather than destroy the centuries-old human ecology and traditions, as Western-influenced capitalism is presently doing.
This study will, as much as possible, avoid references to Western or Christian thinkers in the attempt to understand Nasr within the Muslim world of thought. In his writings, it is this world of thought that Nasr tries to communicate to his Western audience. Despite this preoccupation with his Western readers, one cannot judge Nasr as a Muslim scholar except from within this Islamic tradition. How, then, does Nasr transmit his religious tradition of harmony to this West and the wider world?

Ch. 1. Dignity and Rights: Psychology and Spirituality
Nasr avoids an entitlement view of rights for the individual. He finds human dignity by locating God in the heart of the person. The Sufi mystic ultimately sees the world with God's eyes. Yet this comes through the arduous spiritual journey.
Nasr's Islamic approach parallels the Christian belief that human dignity rises from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, though Nasr does not indicate that this dignity also follows from the fact that we are made in the image of God, which is a cornerstone of Jewish and Christian anthropology: “The grandeur of the human state is not in that human beings can make complicated machines or conceptualize complex theories, but in that men and women are worthy of being addressed by God and being considered worthy of receiving His revelation and grace.”1 In a nutshell, Nasr's Islamic viewpoint does follow the Christian understanding that human dignity comes from the nature of God and the nature of human-divine relations: “To be human is to be capable of hearing the Word of God and being led back to Him.”2 Nasr pinpoints the individual's priestly function as being particularly noteworthy and full of dignity: “The fact that in the Islamic rites each Muslim – man and woman – stands directly before God in the daily prayers without any intermediary indicates from the Sufi point of view not only that each Muslim has a priestly function but also that there is a nexus linking each soul directly to God.”3


Ch. 2. Male and Female; Sexuality
Rather than equality-through-sameness, Nasr offers a traditional Islamic vision of the dignity of women and men that encourages harmony in the household and in society.

Certainly, Nasr follows the traditional Islamic teachings on sexuality.

Ch. 3.The Economy, Work and Leisure



Ch. 4. Community and Hierarchy
For Nasr, the world is necessarily hierarchical. God created the universe, and humans and spiritual beings, as well as animals and minerals and all else. God is the supreme ruler of all, and humans occupy a special place.

Ch. 5. Creation

“Esoterically speaking, all things by virtue of their existence, which is ultimately the Divine Breath, praise God, as the Quran asserts. They speak in silence of the mystery of existence, but most of us do not have the necessary power of hearing to grasp their silent words.”4

For Nasr, creation and humans, and God, who created the first two, are all linked through the dynamic mystery of God: “Although from one point of view creation is old, from another it is fresh and new. God's act of existentiation is ever present, and in fact existence is not so much a state as an act, as the existentiating command of God, 'Be!' This doctrine is of great significance not only for cosmology but also for the spiritual life.”5 Creation's youth is caused by the truth that God constantly sustains it, keeping creation in existence. Without this support, creation would cease to exist. This enchanted view of the universe, while not necessarily excluding the laws of Western science, demands something more than laws of physics and Darwinian evolution. Physics itself is an expression of God's support. Physics and the laws Western scientists have discovered depend on divine sustenance. Evolution too depends on God's sustenance; it exists because God wills it to exist. God is prior to and independent of physics and biology, and the laws discovered therein. This is the Islamic or at least Sufi re-enchantment of the world. God's generosity to creation is immediate and intimate: “In a deeper sense, every tree that we observe in the garden comes freshly from God's creative act.”6 Education is a spiritual journey, and the teacher is therefore a life teacher, a teacher of wisdom. This evokes the meaning of the Catholic terms “spiritual formation,” and lectio divina, both of which place spiritual growth above the need for a heavily critical outlook on life and the literary or religious canon and tradition. Education, for Nasr, is the guardian and transmitter of tradition, of spiritual and communal life, rather than about new discovery or revolutionary, radical thinking. This follows from his depiction of Islam as the middle way, something he also admires in the Greeks.

Ch. 6. Philosophy as Wisdom
The wisdom and teachings of the Quran govern what is valuable and not valuable knowledge. Knowledge foremost brings the believer closer to God. As such, knowledge is a lifestyle aid. It gives us the knowledge of the heart. Nasr writes at length about the intellect, which he situates in the heart. The knowledge of the heart – spiritual knowledge in keeping with Islam – governs the knowledge of the head. Science, in other words, falls under the knowledge hierarchy. Knowledge is subject to hierarch; otherwise, it would not lead to wisdom, but to the chaos of modern Western science and technology, which, Nasr repeatedly observes, is killing the planet, as well as the human traditions that dwell on it.


Ch.7. Science, and Knowledge

“Since in Islam the revelation came in the form of a sacred book, many Muslim sages have looked upon nature as a book of God...”7
Nasr portrays Islamic science and knowledge as holistic and unified around the oneness of the religion, a practice personified in the hakim. This knowledge strives for wisdom rather than for the Western-based need for advancement and the domination of the material world. Since Islamic knowledge is really a spiritual striving with God always on the mind, education and knowledge play a central role in the sacred. Knowledge in Islam is sacred, and the hakim is a kind of sacred man.8

Nasr highlights the spiritual and interpersonal nature of Islamic education, which does not seek to cultivate, above all, freedom of thought and a hyper-critical outlook, but which instead emphasizes the human dimensions of community, teacher-student relations, and knowledge itself. Knowledge builds community: “The transmission of knowledge has always had a highly personal aspect, in that the student has sought a particular master rather than an institution, and has submitted himself to that chosen teacher wholeheartedly. The relation that has always existed between the teacher and the student has been a highly intimate one, in which the student reveres the teacher as a father and obeys him, even in personal matters not connected with his formal studies. The atmosphere of these schools has been very relaxed and informal, without there being any great academic or financial pressure upon the student.”9 Nasr then ends this train of thought by gently though forcefully criticizing the modern, Western path: “Nor has there ever been the strong incentive to receive a diploma and then seek to benefit from its social and economic advantages, prevalent in so many modern educational institutions.”10 Education, for Nasr, is a sacred, personal endeavor, the goals of which are spiritual growth and community bonds: “That is why a person may often remain a student all his life, mastering one subject after another and going from one teacher to the next.”11

Ch. 8. God and Being / Ontology
Natural law: an Islamic natural law, or one too in debt to Christian law. Aristotle plays a big role in Nasr's philosophy. He is unafraid to borrow at length from the Greeks in general.

Nasr links God to the person. The individual is nothing without God: “Human beings qua human beings cannot enter the Divine sanctuary, but there is within us a reality that is already Divine. To be fully human is to realize our perfect servitude and to remove the veil of separative existence through spiritual practice so that God, transcendent and immanent within us, can utter 'I'.'”12

“The great mystery of existence is that it veils God by what is none other than Him... This truth is explicitly stated in the Quran.”13 Tells a Sufi story to illustrate: “...The moral of this story is that the in-depth understanding of the truth that God veils Himself by what is none other than God can come only from spiritual realization.”14

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