Sunday, March 18, 2007

Letter to Editor of First Things

Country Club Catholics like George Weigel have often criticized "cafeteria Catholics" for their attitudes regarding the Church's teaching on sexual conduct. But the Country-Clubbers are merely insouciant over different issues. Weigel's essay on the Just War teachings of the Church is a case in point. (FT, April 2007)

First, one looks in vain for an acknowledgement that both Pope Benedict XVI and his illustrious predecessor condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq. JPII worked tirelessly to convince leaders on the UN Security Council to oppose the Bush war resolution on Iraq - earning worldwide admiration. But in Weigel's [piece, the Catholic dissent is merely glossed in a reference to the "Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America."

Second, Weigel blurs the intellectual rigor of Catholic Just War teachings in his long preamble about James Turner Johnson's "right intention." Besides paving the road to hell, "right intention" undermines the entire purpose of Just War theory. It removes the focus from submission to objective criteria to the realm of subjective wishes.

Weigel's piece continues this declension from rationality to rationalization. His paragraphs are loaded with slogans - "democracy, freedom and prosperity" (out side) or "wrath, victimization and false pretenders" (their side). Weigel, after pausing to acknowledge the strategic, military and bureaucratic blunders of the United States in Iraq, launches into the real heart of his piece: that is, blame Iraq and the Middle East. Thus he condemns the region for its unstable, corrupt and unresponsible governments, while at the same time comparing it to the "ideological enemy with global ambitions" of the 1940's.

It's called having it both ways. Weigel's toadying to Caesarism is a livid reminder of why the Gospel is important (cf esp Matt 6:24 and 7:4) and why Just War teaching is necessary. This Gospel and this Just War teaching - along with the constraints of international law which American aggression has done so much to undermine - are truly the 'Last Things.'

Now must the 'Last Things' be raised against 'First Things' - in witness against the terrible deterioration of reason and empathy exhibited by this piece, and against the Trojan Horse of neoconservatism which Pastor Neuhaus and George Weigel have brought into the Catholic Church.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Tears of Things




This post is a continuation of the dialogue that began on this site and has continued, at a tangent, on Henry's blog in reference to what could be called “the general will to life among Western Euro people.” The dialogue was sparked by Henry’s post “The Seeking of Asylum,” in which he writes: “I wish to speak about the propensity of the brightest and most capable young people of my generation to seek their place overseas and in other cultures.” He concludes:

“Perhaps the distant cultures are a refuge from the guilt-mongering, anti-vitality, anti-masculine, anti-culture nature of our present country. After all, we live in the most unnatural of conditions right now, where men are disparaged or simply poked fun at (have you seen how almost every single television commercial depicts men?), where white people are under a self-inflicted, suicidal attack from their own treasonous elite. It is perhaps the only culture where we are told to feel guilt at the circumstances surrounding the very founding of our country. Our folklore is scorned or forgotten. It seems that in the context of this homogenization/demoralization, we are being compelled to do what no human can ever do; namely live without a history, community, or sense or strength. And it is from this most unnatural circumstance that our youth flee. In a strange irony of the modern world, the adoption of an utterly alien culture is the only way to have an identity which we can be proud of, and communities that are not denigrated.”

Paul (my brother and Henry’s Dad) responded by picking up a thread in reference to Toynbee:

“There is so much in it to comment upon that I hardly know where to start. I’m tempted to drag out yet again Ortega’s comment about Arnold Toynbee ---- ‘It seems as if in the heart of this man doubts have started to ferment about whether or not it makes sense to keep on being English......’ and further on ‘... we have to approach and understand with great respect this hidden spiritual state, ... because in it lies nothing less than a great secret about the future for all of us.’ I asked Caryl about this, and she replied: ‘I was aware of Ortega's judgment on Toynbee, and I discussed it with no less an authority than John Lukacs - who himself does not seem to be altogether pro-Toynbee. However, he said he thought Ortega's statements about Toynbee were ‘unfair.’”

While I do not agree with Ortega’s specific charge, I do think that there are currents in the Toynbee phenomenon taken as a whole – the life and the work - which raise questions about being Western and modern – and what being Western and modern means in relation to Christianity. These questions may be subtle, but I think they are also important, and perhaps by addressing them we can get another handle on the questions raised by Henry’s post.

The first thing to note is how frequently in his letters, and also in The Study of History, Toynbee alludes to the First World War and the fact that half of his classmates and school fellows lost their lives in that conflagration. Toynbee’s own exemption from military service was owing to an episode of dysentery he had contracted while travelling abroad. There was in Toynbee a strain of “survivor’s guilt,” of which he seemed to be aware, and which was later exacerbated during his divorce from Rosalind Murray. In a bad moment, she had accused him, on another issue, of “cowardice” – but it seemed to touch upon this former one.

Toynbee had been much in love with the aristocratic Rosalind, the daughter of Gilbert Murray, the classicist. Perhaps he had indeed treated her too much as a “goddess” – as his father-in-law once told him. Three sons were born of their union – Tony, Philip and Lawrence. Toynbee was not a “hands-on” father – if not absent, he was frequently absorbed by his work. His son Philip later wrote in a memoir: “[He] simply had no understanding of children and young people, and no great interest in them either. My two brothers and I attracted his attention largely as nuisances. How clearly, even today, I can see his head poking out of the window of his study, his face a mask of nervous irritation, as he sternly reproved us for making too much noise.” The oldest son, Tony, shot himself “in a fit of pique,” and died a few days later on 15 March 1939. Philip was devastated and considered putting an end to his own life as well. But after a youthful fling with Communism he settled down eventually into a writing career. Both sons married and produced, between the two of them, eleven grandchildren – all girls with the exception of one male grandchild.

Lawrence, the youngest, had always been Rosalind’s favorite. When she converted to Catholicism in 1932, she brought Lawrence with her into the fold. Lawrence was educated at Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine establishment. While visiting Ampleforth in 1936, Toynbee met Fr. Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk with whom he carried on a correspondence lasting for 39 years. These letters, gathered into the volume An Historian’s Conscience: The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, (Beacon Press, 1986) form an illuminating commentary on the time – full of upheavals both historical and spiritual. And by no means are all the “illuminations” solely those of Toynbee himself. Fr. Columba’s side of the correspondence addresses weaknesses in Toynbee’s philosophy as well. This loyal son of the Church was unable to convert Toynbee to Catholic Christianity but his penetrating comments helped to ensure a strong Catholic “presence” in The Study of History.

In 1937 Toynbee stated his mission: “I am trying to digest a large lump of modern knowledge and understanding of the material world which has grown up (so vigorously but yet so lopsidedly and without deep roots) during the last 250 years, and to re-place it in the Christian setting from which it has broken out.”

Fr. Columba was a great admirer of The Study of History, comparing it both to the Civitate Dei of St. Augustine and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. But, he wrote – “You have not yet made the deepest synthesis of all – that between faith and reason, and the message will be blurred.” He believed that modern humanity was “too smug” in not baptizing science as St. Thomas baptized Aristotle. He disagreed with Toynbee on the matter of “assertiveness.” Toynbee had written that “Wherever one sees self-assertiveness, one can be sure one is not in God’s presence.” Fr. Columba pointed out that “a Truth may be asserted for its own sake, or because it is your Truth. In the latter case you have pride, in the former not.” Not to assert Truth, in fact, is to “fail in charity” – for “good diffuses itself.”

Fr. Columba’s learned to appreciate Toynbee’s “ecumenical” approach to religion, but he also noted: “You are trying to be fair to all religions. One tends on those occasions to be unfair to one’s own (family) (religion).” Toynbee acknowledged the justice of this remark – “What you say about leaning over backwards from one’s own religion in trying to be fair to the others is very true.” In 1959 Toynbee confessed that the “uniqueness” of Christianity was, for him, the stumbling-block. He later wrote that “Our spiritual vocabulary is entirely analogical (e.g. spirit = breath). This is why I believe the different descriptions refer to identical experiences.” But this is just what it cannot be.

Toynbee's remark puts me in mind of something Owen Barfield once said about language - in connection with translation, what is of interest is the slightly different thing that is said. For example, tree, arbre, Baum, all refer to the same thing, but are they really the same? Where the Englishman sees primarily the trunk, the Frenchman emphasizes the boughs and the German sees the root. It is the same with spiritual language, only in this case there can be no “identical experiences” if spiritual reality concerns spiritual Being.

Fr. Columba replied along these lines, when he pointed out that the language used to describe spiritual reality refers to different “levels.” The question of the different “levels of Being” may essentially demarcate the Protestant from the Catholic sensibility. Rosalind Toynbee, in her book about her agnostic father, written after her conversion, The Good Pagan’s Failure, “… attributed the triumph of barbarism and egalitarianism in the late 1930’s to the abandonment of the Catholic view of the human and celestial hierarchy.”

Toynbee occupied a middle ground – or perhaps a no-man’s land – between a secular-academic world that criticized him for his view of faith and religious imagery [1] and a Catholic sensibility which may have felt at times that Toynbee’s religion amounted to no more than “an eradicable belief in his own religiousness.” [2]

Perhaps it is owing to the fact that The Study of History lived in this middle or no-man's land area, committed neither to one side or the other, that Toynbee himself finally saw his work as “really a myth about the meaning of history.” Yet it is just in the sense of “mythology” that I find Toynbee’s History so appealing. For what kind of mythology will become possible for mankind in the modern, modernist, and postmodern dispensation? What kind of zest for life or raison d’être is possible for us, who have lost all of our “naïve beliefs” and unself-conscious hopes and strivings? [3]

In this respect, Toynbee’s encounter with Henry Luce is revealing. Toynbee’s work was initially highly favored by Luce and Time Magazine. But the two men had their differences. Luce said: “Toynbee regarded America as simply a peripheral part of European civilization. I regarded America as a special dispensation – under Providence – and I said so. My spiritual pastors shake their heads about this view of mine. They say it tends to idolatry – to idolatry of a nation. I knew well the dangers of that sin. But I say we must have courage to face objective facts under Providence.”

So I want to conclude with two remarks. I think that Toynbee did have conflicts about being a man, a father, a Christian, and about rationalism, science, and maybe even “being English.” But believing in being what one is – English or American – is a danger when this self-belief is disconnected from the whole - which it is the task of “pastoral counsel,” of the kind to which Henry Luce alluded, to teach. I think that Ortega criticized Toynbee’s weakening of self-belief without seeing how The Study of History was an attempt to counterbalance and to overcome it. For individual self-belief cannot be sustained without the sense for the whole of which it is a part. Thus The Study of History is “pastoral counsel” in this sense. The "whole" is the sweep of history itself, in which Western man is to be reminded of his origins and also to be reminded about the nature of the historical enterprise itself. The mythos comprises the poetic language – and scholarly bulk – of the work itself. But the lesson is lacrimae rerum - the “tears of things.” It is this lesson which we Americans, in our reckless march to Empire, seem to be unable or incapable of hearing.

[1] Pieter Geyl, the Dutch historian, wrote: “God became man in Christ is to him the veritable sense of history.” The views of Hugh Trevor-Roper have been previously described in an earlier post. Toynbee said of the latter: "I was told that he [Trevor-Roper] has an almost physical horror of my attitude to life."

[2] The quote is from George Gissing’s description of an Englishman’s religion; cited by Maurice Samuels in his book, The Professor and the Fossil(1956). Toynbee’s views did not win many friends among the Jewish community because he believed that Judaism was a “fossilized” religion. Thus Samuels: "We [Jews] are here, it seems, and we have been here these two thousand years, not because we know how to live, but because we do not know how to die; or rather because, dead without knowing it, we cannot perform the act of self-burial."

[3] I suspect that Toynbee must have read Joseph de Maistre [1753-1821], who wrote: "Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because, to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems." My contention is that Toynbee attempted to transcend particularist beliefs, e.g. about being English or being Catholic, with a belief in "universal history" because he saw that in the modern age particularist beliefs could not sustain without a larger spiritual vision. The question of particularism vs. universality is an interesting one and I hope that people will take up this thread in discussion.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Para - doxa


My nephew, Henry Johnston, a senior at Grove City College, has posted an interesting reflection on "The New Physics" (March 1, 2007) on his new blog, Reroute To Remain a.k.a. Wings Are Burning.


"I have been thinking recently about the implications of the New Physics (that which has come about in the 20th century) in the realm of philosophy. Of course physics and philosophy are really just two sides of the same coin, and have no business being separated. In a recent discussion over a certain theological point with an acquaintance of mine, I invoked the findings of modern physics in countering his argument. He stared at me blankly. For him, theological Truth sits in one little box and scientific Truth sits in another, and never the two shall meet. Modern physics, however, is confirming the cliché that 'it's all connected.' I am finding that this new paradigm is guiding my thought more and more…"


Henry brings up the point that the findings in quantum physics, that the position and momentum of a subparticle cannot be determined simultaneously was, from the standpoint of classical Newtonian physics, nonsensical or paradoxical. It would seem to undermine the most cherished claim of science, which is to discover and confirm predictable patterns in nature. Unpredictability in nature confronts science with the terrifying possibility that perhaps its methodology is not the infallible key to control that it is cracked up to be.

My purpose in this post is not to explore this particular issue, but rather to zigzag to a larger question relating to the nature of paradoxes. Skeat’s Etymological dictionary defines paradox as "that which is contrary to received opinion; strange, but true." From the Greek, para, beside + doxa, opinion or notion, from dokein, to seem. We may contrast "paradox" to "orthodox," that is, "of the right faith," from orthos, upright, right, true. Skeat’s links the Greek orthos to a cognate in Latin, arduus, meaning "high," from whence we must get arduous.


Orthodoxy is indeed an arduous path for many, especially when it concerns religion. But paradoxy is also difficult, perhaps for different reasons. Orthodoxy appears to be inherently more "sociable," having to do with our membership in a believing community. Paradoxy, on the other hand, suggests that kind of uncertainty inheres to existence itself through our thinking. Paradoxy prods us not to think too much of our own thinking; orthodoxy relieves us – not from thinking – but from thinking that thinking will bring salvation.

Perhaps I have just tricked myself – or you, dear reader. I have just said that, in effect, there is not much difference between the paradox and the orthodox. This is not exactly what I intended to say. What I intend to argue is that the orthodox, -- "rightly understood" – is the true home, haven, and goal of the paradox. The purpose of the orthodox is to free us for the paradox. The purpose of the paradox is to enable us to understand the orthodox.

What a muddle! I assure you, dear reader, that despite this inauspicious beginning, that I have a goal in mind, and a purpose for this post, which goal and purpose will ultimately have a bearing on both science and religion – perhaps even to E=mc2, the Uncertainty Principle, and the Virgin Birth. Well, maybe not E=mc2 . That may be more even I can manage! But at least to the other two. But let us start with the third of these propositions, the Virgin Birth.

Readers of this site should know by now of my fervent admiration of the work of Arnold J. Toynbee, historian, and of my desire to do all that I can to further his work, elevate his reputation, and encourage people to undertake reading his unabridged Study of History –
a massive work of 12 volumes which in my opinion is the most spiritually prescient work of the 20th century and the true flower of the modern Western consciousness. Indeed, the eclipse if not sinking of Toynbee’s reputation is symptomatic of a West that has lost its bearings, its heroes, and sense of purpose. In A Study of History, the threads of all of human history and civilization were joined together into a coherent view of what constitutes human purpose and destiny. But joined-up threads do not yet make the fabric. Threads have to be pulled through the needle’s eye – the ever-difficult task of focussing vision to argument. The task involves the soul as well as the intellect, and that is what we experience as "depth." "Depth" is both personal and universal, particular and historical – the large understanding reflected in the glance of a detail.

Depth is what we are missing today in the life of Western societies. Our life today is merely intellectual – which is to say, shallow and propagandistic. But not even Toynbee was able to maintain this quality of depth in everything that he wrote. In his autobiographical book, Experiences (1969) Toynbee wrote an essay on Religion – "What I Believe and What I Disbelieve." It was for him a way of setting the record straight – that he was, despite his high estimation of religion all through A Study of History – a modern Western "agnostic." He writes – "When I was an undergraduate an Oxford I became an agnostic, and at first I concluded, from my loss of traditional Christian orthodox belief, that religion itself was an unimportant illusion. Now, more than half a century later, I am still an agnostic, as the sequel will show, but I have come to hold that religion is concerned with a reality, and that this reality is supremely important."

This essay is interesting from many points of view, but the section "My inability to pass the tests of religious orthodoxy," is curiously static – although perhaps the same could be said of some of the tenets of orthodoxy that Toynbee was unable to accept. Consider what he says of the Virgin Birth – "I reject[ed] the doctrine of the Virgin Birth because I could not reconcile it with an already established belief of mine in ‘the uniformity of Nature.’"
Given the purely physical facts of purely physical reproduction and a purely physical Nature, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth sounds absurd. It is, at the very least, a paradox – Virgin Birth, Virgin Mother.

I would like to suggest that the doctrine of Virgin Birth is a type of formulaic paradox – which, just because it was so paradoxical, had to find a home within orthodoxy if orthodoxy was to remain dynamic. Christianity, in fact, may be a religion of "formulaic paradoxes" precisely because of the momentous nature of its teaching: that is, the spiritual or the symbolical becoming actually historical. Christianity as a whole is a "Virgin Birth" in this sense.
But to begin to understand the precise doctrine of the "Virgin Birth" it is necessary to take yet another step.

We live on the physical plane; we speak and think on the symbolical plane. These two realities are so intertwined that we do not give them much thought, and the tendency of modern society for the past several hundred years has been increasingly to "collapse" the awareness of the symbolical plane into the literal dimension. We forget that, in every examination of the facts of the physical world, we are wielding symbolic concepts, judgments, living or dead metaphors, habits, assumptions and presuppositions.

The awareness of the symbolic dimension in which we think, speak, and understand, was certainly present to a much greater degree among the medieval and earlier societies. The human participation factor was part of the game. Yet it was not called the "human participation factor" – in the dry language of modern abstract thought. Rather, the world was a dynamically interconnected enterprise of spiritual agency or agencies, and human beings participated in this dynamic nexus by virtue of their cognizing consciousness. It was a world "within and without" – as the Book of Revelation puts it – and the withinness and withoutness were not so clearly marked as they are in post-Cartesian times. Thus, in the New Testament, pneuma means both "wind" (without) and "breath" (within). The dynamic principle was perceived – but it took form in both the outer as well as the inner world. The "spirit," which is yet a third meaning of this word, encompasses both the inner and outer meanings – "it goes where it wills." The Holy Spirit moves in the heart as in the world - in the inwardness of man and in the outwardness of events.

But to return to the Virgin Birth: I think that this doctrine can be accepted as "literally true" only in the symbolic, participated sense of reality. Whereas, if one sees the world in purely literal and physical terms, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth could not be understood except in a symbolic sense.

This gloss on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth may not be exactly orthodox in the strictly Catholic sense of the word – or it may be slightly to the paradoxical side of that orthodoxy. For I too understand in some sense the "agnosticism" which Toynbee confesses to be his default position. I was raised in anything but a religious environment, and the conversion to Catholicism would not have been predicted – to use that word – for one of my background. Yet, for me, accepting the truth of the Virgin Birth in its literal meaning has not been an obstacle for me – because my understanding of the world is highly charged with symbolism and participation. I have always been highly aware of words, and of the uses and senses we put to them, as well of their histories and connotations and the social and intellectual circumstances in which they came to birth, and thus I never could glide over the significance of using words to "get to" the literal truth of anything. "Literal truth" in that sense becomes a mere superstition, which is being entangled up in words without being aware of it – that is, without being aware of our own participation in them. Superstition, after all, is only the most enduring form of determinism – the view of the world with no freedom.

Science will devolve into mere superstition in the end unless scientists return to a sober study of philosophy and perhaps as well to the use of real, as distinguished from mathematical, language. There are already many dangerous signs that this regression into fatalism is occurring. The "Uncertainty Principle" may have been an early sign that modern science sensed this danger of fatalism – but in characteristically modern (i.e. nonparticipated) terms this insight was confined to the behavior of particles in the "outer" world. But of itself I do not think this is enough. The retreat into a mathematized, as distinguished from a real and participated, world, is a luxury we can no longer afford, because the effects of the mathematized science on the real and participated world have become acute, destructive and deleterious. But it only the real and participated world, and all of us who live in it, who can put some limits to the "will to power" which has become the trademark of modern science. The relationship between the will-to-power and the regression to fatalism have not been sufficiently explored – Lord Acton’s famous saying, "Power tends to corrupt" notwithstanding.

It was Toynbee’s great purpose in A Study of History to remind Western man of his religion and thus renew the possibility for new beginnings from within. It was thus he hoped to forestall what he saw as signs of sclerosis and fatalism in Western society. True, in his autobiographical essay he missed seeing the participatory-dynamic hidden within religious orthodoxy-paradoxy. But Toynbee’s failure in this instance should not cause us to allow his achievements to sink into oblivion. If anything, it should spur us to attempt to complete what even in twelve volumes he was unable to say.

We need to re-dynamize ourselves – by remembering the paradoxy in orthodoxy.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Universal Churches

A Study of History. Vol. VII Oxford, 1954.Chapter Seven: Universal ChurchesI have been reading in Arnold J. Toynbee’s magisterial A Study of History and wish to share some thoughts from his Chapter Seven, on “Universal Churches.” He argues that the four higher religions in the world today – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Mayahana Buddhism – were able to preserve the germ of life from a parent civilization in the process of collapse to the arising of a new one. He notes that in the time of his writing (~1952) all eight extant civilizations had in their background some universal church through which they were affiliated to a civilization of an older generation. After the stage of “Primitive Societies,” he names the “Primary Civilizations” (all derived from primitive societies) as the Egyptiac, Andean, Mayan, Sumeric, Indus Culture, Minoan, and Shang Culture. Secondary civilizations deriving from these are named as the Yucatec, Babylonic, Mexic, First Syriac, Hittite, Indic, Syriac-Hellenic, and Sinic.The Higher Religions created, adapted, or adopted from the "internal proletariats” (abbreviated “i.p.”; about which more later) of the Secondary Civilizations are the following:Judaism, Zoroastrianism (i.p. of the Babylonic) Hinduism (i.p. Indus)Islam (i.p. Syriac)Isis-worship, Cybele-worship, Mithraism, Christianity, Manichaeism (all of these from the i.p. of Hellenic Civilization),Neoplatonism (adapted by i.p. from philosophies of Hellenic dominant minority),Mayahana (through Hellenic i.p. via philosophy of Indus dominant minority and adopted by Sinic i.p.),Neo-Taoism (adapted by Sinic i.p. from one of the philosophies of Sinic dominant minority)The third-generation or Tertiary Civilizations derived from the chrysalis churches constructed by their internal proletariats are primarily:Hindu (derived from Indic through Hinduism)Iranic~Arabic (derived from Syriac through Islam)Western ChristianOrthodox ChristianOrthodox Russian Christian: all these derived from Hellenic through ChristianityFar Eastern, Korea, Japan: derived through Sinic through the Mayahana