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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, & the Trinity

A few people requested that I write something brief about my recent visit with Tanya and Wendell Berry at their farm last Sunday.  I didn't tell Wendell that I would be writing about the experience because I didn't intend on writing about it.  I'm therefore reluctant to say too much about our discussion, apart from generalities.

Tanya and Wendell were generous hosts who made myself and my two companions - Kaya Oakes and my wife Kim - feel very welcome (I arranged the meeting with Wendell Berry because Kaya shares a publisher with him, and she was in town to teach a class for the M.A. in Spirituality program, which I direct).  Our conversation revolved around the state of higher education, farming, marriage, publishing, and Kentucky.  And after I mentioned to him that I use his novel, Jayber Crow, in my introductory theology class, we ended up having what I hope was a mutually enriching conversation about the Trinity and the importance of having a truly incarnational theology.  "Are you an incarnational theologian?" he asked me, and when I said that I was, I saw a glimmer of relief in his eyes.  His concern was that I, as a theologian, might bear some resemblance to the beauty-in-the-world-denying preachers about whom he so frequently rails.  Indeed, when I was later briefly out of the room, Wendell looked over at Kim and said, "Well,  I'm enjoying this quite a bit more than I thought I would."  I was not one of those theologians!

Many others like myself understand Wendell Berry to be a theologian himself, and our conversation about the Trinity revolved around the theological insights found in Jayber Crow.  What I said to him about his book is essentially what I wrote on this blog in 2012, so I'll conclude by cutting and pasting my previous thoughts:

To me, Jayber Crow is a parable of the Kingdom of God.  It is a novel told from the viewpoint of an unmarried barber in a fictional Kentucky town called Port William.  And the account Jayber gives of the community of Port William is one of the most beautiful accounts of the meaning and purpose of community I’ve ever read.  Not everyone in the community was loving or even lovely.  Some, like Cecelia Overhold, actually refuse to accept the generosity and openness of the town.  But the community itself held together because, whether you wanted it or not, you became known.  Jayber describes Port William as a place where your business simply is the business of everyone else, with the result that the community shares in your gains as well as in your losses.  It’s a community in which a crop is harvested for a sick farmer, where cooked food goes where it is needed, where fuel is provided to those who need it, where toys go to kids who wouldn’t have any otherwise.  “This is,” Jayber tells us, “a charity that includes the church rather than the other way around.”

Berry doesn’t have many kind words for the church in Jayber Crow.  The church in Port William frequently displays a kind of anti-community sentiment, an us-against-them attitude, and a body/soul dualism that always comes up for criticism from Berry.  The town is where real community occurs, because it is in the town that real love is demonstrated.

This is most clearly and beautifully expressed in the love Jayber has for Mattie.  Jayber, upon finding out that Mattie’s husband is cheating on her, decides that she deserves to have a husband who truly loves her and is faithful to her.  Jayber takes it upon himself to be that husband.  And so, tormented by the possibility that someone as worthy of love as Mattie is not, in this world, being given the love she deserves, Jayber decides to take a vow of fidelity to her in his own mind, without her being aware of it

It is telling to me that others often give me a look of incredulity or disgust when I talk about this vow of fidelity.  There is to many a sense that such a vow is strange, and perhaps even perverted.  But I would suggest that this vow is an expression of a completely selfless love, a love that is utterly giving, a love that exists solely for the sake of love.  And it is no accident that Jayber, upon taking this step of selfless love, suddenly comes to understand something profound about the nature of God:
“I imagined that the right name [for God] might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply: the love, the compassion, the taking offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death. If love could force my own thoughts over the edge of the world and out of time, then could I not see how even divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world? Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on moral flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?
Yes. And I could imagine a Father who is yet like a mother hen spreading her wings before the storm or in the dusk before the dark night for the little ones of Port William to come in under, some of whom do, and some do not. I could imagine Port William riding its humble wave through time under the sky, its little flames of wakefulness lighting and going out, its lives passing through birth, pleasure, suffering, and death. I could imagine God looking down upon it, its lives living by His spirit, breathing by His breath, knowing by His light, but each life living also (inescapably) by its own will - His own body given to be broken."
A barber in small-town Kentucky ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") provides for us an image of true love, becomes truly a theologian with a more profound understanding of the divine than almost anything I've ever read.  And in articulating the meaning of love, Wendell Berry - through Jayber - provides a parable of true community, a community based on self-giving, generous, vulnerable, and open love.  If only the Church looked so much like paradise.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Yves Congar on Pope John XXIII

I'm gradually making my way through Yves Congar's 900+ page My Journal of the Council, and just came across his first entry after the death of Pope John XXIII.  Many compare Pope Francis to Pope St. John XXIII, and the more contemporary impressions of the latter I read, the more apt the comparison seems.

Earlier in the journal, Congar describes the vocal opposition to Pope John XXIII on the part of traditionalist Catholics - the intégristes -
and this opposition is echoed in the frustrations of some traditionalist Catholics with the present pope.  But the favourable reactions to Pope John XXIII also reverberate in the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Pope Francis since his election.

There are some who cynically argue that Francis' popularity is merely a consequence of the 'liberal media' trying to conform him to their own image.  This doesn't ring true to me.  Although some of my traditionalist friends will disagree, I think many people see something very genuine about Pope Francis; they see in him someone with whom they can truly relate.  I was and remain a supporter of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and while there were facets of his papacy I found problematic, I think he was largely misunderstood by the left in the church.  But there was also an academic and hierarchical distance to him that simply doesn't exist with Francis.

Nor, judging from Congar's assessment, did it exist with Pope John XXIII:
In the last suffering and death of John XXIII, the Church and even the world have been through an extraordinary experience.  All at once, one became aware of the immense impact this humble and good man has had.  It has become clear that he has profoundly altered the religious map and even the human map of the world, simply by being what he was.  He did not operate by great expositions of ideas, but by gestures and a certain personal style.  He did not speak in the name of the system, of its legitimacy, of its authority, but simply in the name of the intuitions and the movement of a heart which, on the one hand, was obedient to God and on the other loved all people, or rather he did both these things in a single action, and in such a way that, once again, the divine law has proved true: God alone is great; true greatness consists in being docile in the service of God in himself and in his loving plan.  God raises up the humble.  Blessed are the meek for they shall possess the land.  Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God.  Everyone had the feeling that, in John XXIII, they had lost a father, a personal friend, someone who was thinking of and loving each one of them.
Even the incredible Roman ceremonial, those endless shows, were unable to wipe out the deep impression, the sorrow and the intimate heartfelt affection.  However, what a contradiction between the courtly pomp and that utterly simple man whose funeral was the occasion of it!  The working people followed his last suffering and death as though he were the father of their own family.  'For once we had a good one...'  A sort of extraordinary unanimity had come about (304).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Brief Response to Michael Dougherty on Summorum Pontificum

Birmingham Oratory Church
Three years ago I spent a few days at the Birmingham Oratory founded by Blessed John Henry Newman.  I've long been fascinated by Newman, and the Oratorians were gracious to let me stay with them, to spend time in Newman's library, and to visit the room where he studied and said mass.  One of the highlights for me was the high mass in the Oratorian church, a mass celebrated in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form.  Beautiful liturgy is an essential part of the Oratorian charism, and the Latin mass I attended was stunning. There have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty, and this was one of them.

I write this to underline that I have a deep love for the Latin mass.  Even though I am not a traditionalist nor do I regularly attend a Latin mass, I like to think that I 'get' at least some of the concerns of my traditionalist sisters and brothers.

Michael Dougherty, senior correspondant for The Week and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, wrote an article today to commemorate the seventh anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, the document issued by Pope Benedict XVI that legitimized the Latin mass and made possible its widespread celebration.  Pope Benedict's actions regarding the Latin mass should be commended.  The years following Vatican II witnessed to an unprecedented and, in my opinion as an historical theologian, unfortunate rejection of the church's liturgical and artistic tradition.  Pope Benedict rightly noted in his letter that the Extraordinary Form was never "juridically abrogated" after Vatican II, and therefore that its usage was always permitted.  "What earlier generations held as sacred," he wrote, "remains sacred and great for us too."

In his article, Dougherty provides an aesthetic defense of Pope Benedict XVI and of the Latin mass.  He argues that by allowing for the wider celebration of the Latin mass, Pope Benedict re-opened the church's liturgical and musical treasury to the world, and as a result, Dougherty is treated at his parish "not only to Gregorian chant, but to Renaissance-era motets, and Masses composed by Morales and Monteverdi."

An aesthetic argument for the Latin mass is a good one, much better than defenses of the Latin mass I've read on some traditionalist websites.  But what bothers me about Dougherty's argument is the narrow way in which he defines beauty.  Dougherty writes that, by liberating the Latin mass, Pope Benedict XVI restored beauty to the world, as if beauty simply ceased to exist liturgically after Vatican II.  Perhaps I'm selling Michael short, but there's a sense in the article that there is very little that is aesthetically redeeming in the Novus Ordo - he refers to one contemporary hymn as "saccharine and theologically insipid" to illustrate the aesthetic vacuousness of post-Vatican II liturgy - and therefore that liturgical beauty can really only be found and experienced in the Latin Mass. 

Such a sentiment bothers me on several fronts.  The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form.  I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European.  It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation.  Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background.  An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be 'incarnated' or 'particularlized,' and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific.  I may not appreciate the "saccharine and theologically insipid" hymns so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them.  And I can't dismiss that, just as I can't dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.

I mentioned at the beginning of my response that there have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty.  The most recent time came at a small Latino parish where, under the gaze of Our Lady of Guadalupe and to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars and drums, I sang upbeat hymns in Spanish and clapped along.  For I witnessed there the profound devotion of  people whose culture was not my own, but whose expression of love for God was real and tangible.

Photo above from http://www.birminghamoratory.org.uk/photo-gallery/

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Elizabeth Johnson on Darwin & Divine Love

I finished Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love while on holidays last week.  Unfortunately, having just returned to a mountain of work, I don't have the time to provide the kind of detailed review this book deserves.  But I can't resist writing a few words about it, if only to encourage you to pick it up.

The book asks a question that, as Johnson notes, is still making its way into the consciousness of theologians: "What is the theological meaning of the natural world of life?" (xiv).  To address this question, Johnson brings two texts into seemingly unlikely conversation - Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and "the Christian story of the ineffable God of mercy and love recounted in the Nicene creed" (xv).

Ask the Beasts emerged from a faculty seminar at Fordham University that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by reading and discussing the text, and Johnson's deep admiration for the beauty both of Darwin's prose and his insights into the natural world is evident in the first four chapters.  Bringing a theologian's eye to the text, she here carefully summarizes the key tenets of Darwin's theory, discussing as well the contributions and clarifications to the theory in the years since his death (A brief excursus here: As Johnson notes on pp. 12-14, a scientific "theory" does not mean that it is simply "an untested hunch or a guess without supporting evidence." It means, rather, that it is a "well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, crafted by pulling together observed facts and known laws and interpreting them with an insightful hypothesis."  I mention this only to emphasize that Johnson fully accepts Darwin's theory as the best scientific explanation we currently possess regarding the development of life.  She has no truck with denials of evolution, and will not say "I believe in evolution" as if it were up for debate. Rather, "it would be more in keeping with the nature of evolution as a scientific theory to say only that one accepts it as demonstrated, and to reserve language about belief for precious human relationships and ultimately only for God.")  Johnson methodically lays bear the complexity of his theory as well as its explanatory power, but also brings out the beauty of Darwin's thought.  His vision highlights the explosive fecundity and creative possibilities of living things in a way that gives one a sense of wonder at the grandeur of life.  Moreover, Johnson focuses on the relational and communal dimensions of evolutionary life as Darwin describes it:
Evolution is a relational process.  The sound of mutual relationship is so pervasively present in [The Origin of Species] one might easily miss it.  The beat goes steadily on, until the book closes with its vision of the entangled bank, its elaborate form of plants, birds, insects, and worms 'so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner'.  Darwin's view of life is bent on community.  The struggle for life is contextual, each species taking from and benefiting others.  There would be no evolution without species constantly interrelating with each other in their particular environment (120).
Sound trinitarian?  It should.  And, in fact, Johnson demonstrates that The Origin of Species, far from compromising Christian theology, is a valuable conversation partner.  In the last six chapters of Ask the Beasts Johnson draws the Nicene Creed's image of a trinitarian God of love into the mix, a God who gives life to creation through the Holy Spirit and who chooses to become part of the story of life in Jesus Christ.  What emerges is a beautiful account of the freedom and independence of the created life and of God's loving interaction with it: "The ineffable holy mystery of Love creates, indwells, and empowers plants and animals, delights in their beautiful, wise, and funny ways and grieves their sufferings" (285).  However, the story of evolution is also one marked by tremendous suffering and extinction, and Johnson tackles the question of how such suffering correlates with the Christian vision of a God of love.  She is quick to emphasize that she doesn't want to engage in an exercise in theodicy, but rather wants to attend "to the cost of the origin of species in view of the cross" in order that our sense of the mystery of God's involvement with the world might deepen (192).  Her account of the suffering that is the necessary concomitant of evolutionary freedom in light of the death and resurrection of Christ - that is, in light of the witness of a God who enters into the suffering of the created order and gives hope through the resurrection - is compelling.

Her account of human destruction of creation in chapters 9 and 10 is also compelling, and more than a little convicting.  She challenges the paradigms of 'dominion' and 'stewardship' that dominate theological interpretations of human relatedness to the created order, predominantly because these paradigms place humanity above the created order in a way that continues to lead to exploitation; Johnson outlines the sheer scale of human destructiveness in startlingly stark terms.  She instead argues that humanity needs to understand its interdependence with all living things, and on the basis both of Darwin's thought and the biblical witness, Johnson argues for a 'community of creation' paradigm wherein "each member of [creation] gives and receives, being significant for one another in different ways but all grounded in absolute, universal reliance on the living God for the very breath of life" (268).  The distinctiveness of humanity isn't denied but re-envisioned so as to emphasize community and mutuality rather than domination:
[C]ommitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God's own loving intent for our corner of creation.  We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our vision must be one of flourishing for all (285).
Elizabeth Johnson is, to my mind, a theological poet whose insights rarely fail to inspire me, and her foray into ecological theology with Ask the Beasts is timely and convicting.  In a masterful way she brings the best insights of classical theology to play in an exploration of Darwin's theory of evolution, and the result is radical call to live out our mutuality with the created order, a call that is deeply grounded scientifically and theologically.  I almost want to create a new class just to find an excuse to teach it.


Photos above are from  http://www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/inside_fordham/march_24_2014/in_focus_faculty_and/on_darwin_and_religi_94782.asp