I find this discussion posted below wonderful. Neither Jordan Peterson or Slavoj Žižek are Christians, but they are both influenced deeply by classically Christian concepts. In this discussion , which was billed as a debate but turns out much better, begins with each speaking formally for 30 minutes, then each getting 10 minutes to respond to the other’s intro speeches, then it goes into a back and forth series of questions and responses. Both of these men have lively minds and that kind of humility that undergirds the search for truth. In effect what we have here is a modern version of a Platonic dialogue.

I have been somewhat of a fan of Žižek for years and more recently of Peterson — not an unqualified fan of course. In the end, at least in terms of this “debate,” they constitute, or at least lean towards, a kind of Christian balance but, I believe, without the full realization they are doing so. Peterson lays out his path, a kind of stoicism as it were, of pursuing the good life, and Žižek responds with a deep pessimism. My immediate thought was of St. Paul writing to the Romans about how he does the things he ought not to do and does not do what he ought, thus finding within himself the principle of sin acting against him. We might agree with Peterson’s path but find ourselves repeatedly incapable of staying on that path. In this sense the biggest lacuna in this particular discussion, and I believe in both men’s general work about the human condition, is a complete understanding of sin and its effects, though they both seem to have a better understanding than most. Nonetheless, this dialogue between these two original (especially Žižek) and deeply cogent (especially Peterson) thinkers is an incredible opportunity to have one’s mind creatively engaged.

Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

I’ve been on somewhat of a phenomenology kick lately. In that time I’ve come across the brilliant French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have posted several of his videos already. Here are two more. The first one below I find is quite brilliant, in which he works through the logic of giving, gift giving, receiving a gift, and the nature(s) of the gift.

If I understand his explanation of “the gift,” I can’t help but think of the following passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Martin Heidegger, before he became the 20th century’s greatest philosopher and infamous for a morally questionable life, was a devout Catholic. His father was the sexton in their parish. Martin and his brother helped. Below is taken from Rüdiger Safranski’s biography of Heidegger:

The “sexton lads,” Martin and his younger brother, Fritz, had to help with the church services. They were servers, they picked flowers to decorate the church, they ran errands for the priest, and they rang the bells. There were–as Heidegger recalls in On the Secret of the Bell Tower (Vom Geheimnis des Glockenturms)–seven bells in the tower, each with its own name, its own sound, and its own time. There was the “Four,” to be rung at four in the afternoon; the “Alarm Bell,” which roused the town’s sleepers from their slumber; and the “Three,” which was also the knell. The “Child” rang for sunday school and for rosary worship; the “Twelve” marked the end of morning lessons at the school; the “Klanei” was the bell struck by the hour hammer; and the one with the most beautiful ring was the “Big One”; it would ring on the eve and on the morning of high holidays. Between Maundy Thursday and Easter Saturday the bells were silent; instead there were rattles. A cranking handle set in motion a number of little hammers that struck against hard wood. A rattle stood in each of the four corners of the tower, and the boy bell ringers had to work the handles in turn to ensure that the harsh sound went out in all four directions of the compass The most beautiful time was Christmas. Toward half past three in the morning, the boy ringers would come to the sextion’s house, where mother Heidegger had laid the table with cakes and milky coffee. After this breakfast, lanterns were lit in the front-door passage, and everyone went out through the snow and the winter’s night to the church opposite and up into the dark bell tower to the frozen ropes and ice-covered clappers. “The mysterious fuge,” Martin Heidegger wrote, “in which the church feasts, the days of vigil, and the passage of the seasons and the morning, midday, and evening hours of each day fitted into each other, so that a continual ringing went through the young hearts, dreams, prayers, and games–it is this, probably that conceals one of the most magical, most complete, and most lasting secrets of the tower.” (Safranski 7)

That image of the boys going out into the snow around four in the morning to climb the bell tower and ring the bells is beautiful. These are the kinds of things we have lost in our frantic grasping after modernism and progress.

Cited works:
Safranski, Rüdiger. Martin Heidegger: between Good and Evil. Translated by Ewald Osers, Harvard University Press, 2002.

Recently I stumbled across the brilliant philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have been reading some philosophy lately, and my focus has been mostly on phenomenology. I studied a bit of phenomenology in college, along with structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, I now find myself diving back into these areas of thought.

Jean-Luc Marion is particularly interesting to me, in part because he is an unapologetic Catholic. I recently posted a video in which he answers the question of why he remains Catholic. I love his answers. (I guess one could say he is, in fact, apologetic because he provides an apologia for his faith.)

Below are two of his lectures. Though he is a philosopher and, therefore, brings his deeper thinking to the topics at hand, I find these talks very accessible. His very French accent is quite thick, but one gets used to it. I have now listened to each a couple of times. They are excellent.

“They believe the future is theirs. If they just hang on long enough the liberal pope they dream of will come.”

“They cannot endure the orthodoxy of the young.”

In 1993 Dr. William H. Marshner gave a two-part lecture on modernism. It is amazing how relevant these lectures are for us today. The modernists now have their liberal pope, and they are utterly perplexed by the young Catholics clamoring for orthodoxy and tradition.

modernism octopus
Fundamentalist cartoon: “The Octopus”, by E. J. Pace.

Postmodernism has been a common term for at least three decades. Because of that fact the term modernism may seem to refer to a thing of the past. Modernism has also been used to describe certain concrete developments in the history of art, architecture, literature, and other areas of human creativity. Thus we can speak of modernism in architecture with specific start and end dates, preceded by pre-modern architecture and followed by postmodern architecture. But in the area of ideas it is different, especially in relation to theology and Church history.

Modernism began before the industrial revolution, really earlier with the Protestant Reformers and the embracing of nominalism, and it continues today. In fact, it is so pervasive that one can fairly say modernism is the defacto set of beliefs held by most people, including most Christians. Sadly, I am a modernist in many ways, not because I want to be so, but because it is the ocean in which I swim and its tenets and presuppositions have become second nature to me. In fact, I don’t really see them, and when they are made evident to me I am often surprised. Thus, I have been digging into modernism with the purpose of eradicating it from my life and faith.

I also believe it can be argued that, for the most part, when we look at the Church today what we see is largely a modernist institution rather than a truly Catholic one. Whether that argument can be adequately countered I do not know, but I do think Catholics are very often unaware of modernism and its effects, and thus, because of modernism’s allure and its malleable nature, we are inclined to accept its ideas into their understanding of the faith. In short, modernism appeals to the natural “bent” of human nature, and is thus appealing to all of us if we are not on our guard.

Fundamentalist cartoon: “The Descent of the Modernists”, by E. J. Pace, first appearing in his book Christian Cartoons, published in 1922.

Below are some excellent lectures and discussions on the topic of modernism. Each covers much of the same territory and terms, but each is also different and together they help form a complete picture. For those who love the Traditional Latin Mass, the first video is especially excellent.

Although understanding modernism, including where it came from, what it is, and how it has affected the Church, is an important task, Catholics are then faced with the question of what to do now? How does one combat the leaven of modernism within the Church?

Question: If modernism, the synthesis of all heresies, was significantly at play during Vatican II, and if it clearly influenced the formation of the Novus Ordo Mass, and if the so-called spirit of Vatican II is better called the spirit of modernism dressed in Catholic garb, and if the papacy of Pope Francis seems to be a thoroughly modernist papacy, then what are orthodox Catholics to do?

John Vennari was the editor of Catholic Family News from 1994 until his death by cancer in 2017. Here is one of his last lectures before he died. According to his obituary, “John Vennari’s single mission was to teach people how to recognize and resist the pernicious errors of Modernism, especially since Vatican II.”

I found in this lecture a great overview of the history from a Catholic traditionalist perspective of how we got to where we are today, and providing key insights as to how we should understand Pope Francis’ papacy past, present, and future. I’m am very curious about the traditionalist perspective. I don’t really know where I stand on all of it, but it is fascinating. As you will see, Vennari was no fan of Pope Francis. However, this really isn’t about the current Holy Father, rather it’s a much bigger story, in which Pope Francis plays one part of many. You may agree or disagree, but I hope you are encouraged by considering the complex and rich way the history of ideas has played out, for better or for worse, and how your prayers can become that much more focused.

The video is presented by the Society of Saint Pius X, a group that has a complicated relationship with Rome, and with which I am not associated. Increasingly I find myself having strong traditionalist sympathies, but I don’t (yet) consider myself a full-blown traditionalist, and I have mixed feelings about the SSPX. But I do pray every day they may become fully reconciled with the Church. Until then I keep them at a distance. Nonetheless, I appreciate this lecture and others they have made available.

Many art critics have religious leanings. Many artists have religious leanings. Many works of art deal with religious themes. However, there would seem to be an unspoken pact among art critics (and art teachers) that religion and theological concerns will not be seriously considered as a topic or approach to thinking and writing about art. This is not a great situation for either artists or anyone who would appreciate art.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, critic, and professor, and author of the book: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Studies in Theology and the Arts). In this lecture below he surveys and addresses this lack of theology in art criticism, and why it matters — not merely because he’s a Christian, but because theology can help all of us better understand works of art.

Anderson mention James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Here is a lecture Elkins gave on that topic a decade ago:

This is one of the most interesting and intense conversations I have ever witnessed. Jordan Peterson has received a significant amount of attention of late for his views, and in particular for an interview he did on television. Camille Paglia has been well known for years and is frequently outspoken on a number of topics. Both are absolutely brilliant and provocative. This video is easily worth its nearly two hours running time.


Charles S. Peirce wrote the following in the late 1890’s:

I have often occasion to walk at night, for about a mile, over an entirely untravelled road, much of it between open fields without a house in sight. The circumstances are not favorable to severe study, but are so to calm meditation. If the sky is clear, I look at the stars in the silence, thinking how each successive increase in the aperture of a telescope makes many more of them visible than all that had been visible before. The fact that the heavens do not show a sheet of light proves that there are vastly more dark bodies, say planets, than there are suns. They must be inhabited, and most likely millions of them with beings much more intelligent than we are. For on the whole, the solar system seems one of the simplest; and presumably under more complicated phenomena greater intellectual power will be developed. What must be the social phenomena of such a world! How extraordinary are the minds even of the lower animals. We cannot appreciate our own powers any more than a writer can appreciate his own style, or a thinker the peculiar quality of his own thought. I don’t mean that a Dante did not know that he expressed himself with fewer words than other men do, but he could not admire himself as we admire him; nor can we wonder at human intelligence as we do at that of wasps. Let a man drink in such thoughts as come to him in contemplating the physico-psychical universe without any special purpose of his own; especially the universe of mind which coincides with the universe of matter. The idea of there being a God over it all of course will be often suggested; and the more he considers it, the more he will be enwrapt with Love of this idea. He will ask himself whether or not there really is a God. If he allows instinct to speak, and searches his own heart, he will at length find that he cannot help believing it.

Pierce is often called the father of pragmatism. Interesting.

There can be a tension between the movement of faith and the desire to grasp with the mind the essence of faith. God gave us our minds and our rationality. We bear the image of God, in part, because we are rational. And we must keep in mind that rationality is not something cold. There is no such thing as cold rationality; there is cold logic, but rationality is, if anything, a hot, passionate, totality of the person kind of thing. Thus our rationality includes our passions, our intuitions, and our logic. We often misuse our rationality for sinful purposes. One of those sins is the desire to circumscribe the essence of faith in such a way as to turn it from something given and believed to something controlled and, perhaps, created by the individual. Theology should be the study of God (to state simply) but too often it becomes an attempt to control God, to demarcate and proscribe God so that one can handle God rather than be handled by God. So it often is with studies of faith. The result is something that looks like faith but becomes, instead, a “system” of faith, or an artifact of the individual to which the individual then, naturally, claims as his own. With this in mind consider these words from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):

“Faith comes from what is heard”, says St. Paul (Rom 10:17). This might seem like a very transient factor, which can change; one might be tempted to see in it purely and simply the result of one particular sociological situation, so that one day it would be right to say instead, “Faith comes from reading” or “from reflection”. In reality it must be stated that we have here much more than the reflection of a historical period now past. The assertion “faith comes from what is heard” contains an abiding structural truth about what happens here.  It illuminates the fundamental differences between faith and mere philosophy, a difference that does not prevent faith, in its core, from setting the philosophical search for truth in motion again. One could say epigrammatically that faith does in fact come from “hearing”, not—like philosophy—from “reflection”. Its nature lies in the fact that it is not the thinking out of something that can be thought out and that at the end of the process is then at my disposal as a result of my thought. On the contrary, it is characteristic of faith that it comes from hearing, that it is the reception of something that I have not thought out, so that in the last analysis thinking in the context of faith is always a thinking over of something previously heard and received. (Ratzinger, p. 91)

The use of our minds to comprehend the Gospel is important. But the Gospel comes to us from without, unlike philosophy which emerges from within. We hear the Gospel. It is something about which we have to make a choice—do we believe it or do we reject it? Could it be, however, that in our modern world Christians have become, in a manner of speaking, “pro-choice” in all things (except abortion, which many Christians unfortunately accept as well)? Being “pro-choice” in all things is to take a smorgasbord approach to faith where any and every “Christian” option is open, any denomination or system of thought, any so-called Christian “life style” option is open, and we can all call ourselves Christians just as long as we play the game of “let’s not think about it”. In other words, as long as we consider truth as a vague, warm confidence in our general rightness surrounded by Christian-sounding language, and a love for Jesus, then all is fair game. And if all is fair game, then we can march ahead. We are a “pro-choice” culture, and Christians have helped create, and continue to support, this culture. But the Gospel comes from without. We don’t make it up. We don’t change it. We don’t merely add a little bit of it to what we already have and stir it in to make something of our own creation. Perhaps that is the sin of denominationalism, where men became too confident in their (ever so slightly reductionist) systems and began to separate themselves from each other based on those systems. Many see the problem with denominationalsim, and yet vague, warm “christiany” feelings are not the antidote. The Gospel, which comes from outside, is the antidote. And that Gospel proclaims Christ. Ratzinger continues:

[I]n faith the word takes precedence over the thought, a precedence that differentiates it structurally from the architecture of philosophy. In philosophy the thought precedes the word; it is after all a product of the reflection that one then tries to put into words; the words always remain secondary to the thought and thus in the last resort can always be replaced by other words. Faith, on the other hand, comes to man from outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it. It is—let me repeat—not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me, which hits me as something that has not been thought out and could not be thought out and lays an obligation on me. This double structure of “Do you believe?—I do believe!”, this form of the call from outside and the reply to it, is fundamental to it. It is therefore not at all abnormal if, with very few exceptions, we have to say: I did not come to believe through the private search for truth but through a process of reception that had, so to speak, already forestalled me. Faith cannot and should be a mere product of reflection. The idea that faith really ought to arise through our thinking it up for ourselves and finding it in the process of a purely private search for truth is basically the expression of a definite ideal, an attitude of mind that fails to recognize the intrinsic quality of belief, which consists precisely in being the reception of what cannot be thought out—responsible reception, it is true, in which what is heard never becomes entirely my own property, and the lead held by what is received can never be completely wiped out, but in which the goal must be to make what is received more and more my own, by handing myself over to it as the greater. (Ratzinger, pp. 91-91)

The movement of the faithful, in terms of understanding, is to hear the truth, receive it, and make it one’s own—except never entirely one’s own, for it remains outside as it dwells within. The action between the Gospel and the individual is not an interplay, it is not a synthesis where both are changed. Only the individual is changed. What appears to be change within the Gospel is, and can only be, discovery. The Gospel does not change, but one can spend time, forever perhaps, in plumbing its depths and scaling its peaks. New territories discovered only yield more beauty of what is already there. The heart and mind of faith is not unlike that of the scientist. To study the Gospel is to study the creation, what God has made and made available to all who would submit to its unequaled riches.

Work cited:
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J. R. Foster. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. (Note: First published in German in 1968)

Should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna?

This should sound like a strange question. And it does sound strange. Of course Raskolnikov should not have committed murder. But wait, does Raskolnikov exist? This is a crucial question in light of the question of transcendence. If Raskolnikov exists at one level of reality (as a character in a story) then Dostoyevsky must exist at a higher, more substantial, more transcendent level of existence. Which leads us to another question: Is Raskolnikov free of Dostoyevsky, that is, does Raskolnikov have free will, did he freely choose to kill Alyona Ivanovna? If not, should Dostoyevsky have been arrested for murder?

What strange questions. And yet they help us triangulate toward an understanding of our relationship to God. We think of God as being the author of creation. If so, then we can think of ourselves as being players in the story He is authoring−History. Raskolnikov is a real character within the world of the work we call the novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is real, but Dostoyevsky is more real. Raskolnikov’s existence, including his every choice, and even his thoughts, are contingent on his author, on Dostoyevsky. We are also contingent. We are real but God is more real. Or to put it another, more difficult to swallow way, if God is real (the standard of reality) then we are not real.

Of course, in a very critical and important sense, we cannot say we are not real, for “not real” is not the category of existence that God has given us in terms of our experience and in terms of our moral choices. We are real, for that is what we know. God may be more real, or so much more real that in comparison we seem merely like characters in a novel, but the reality we live is very real to us. Our reality is a gift of God’s creative act. We are real and we must come to terms with it. But we also must come to terms with God being more real, being our author, our creator. Or perhaps we do not “come to terms” with God, for that is a kind of negotiation. Instead we bow the knee, lie prostrate, tremble before God, who is both loving and terrifying.

God is sovereign, thus in an important sense we are not free from God, for we cannot be free from God and continue to exist. And yet, it is clear that it is God’s will that we are free to make choices, especially moral choices. Raskolnikov is not free from Dostoyevsky, and yet Raskolnikov’s choices (willed by the creative act of Dostoyevsky’s mind extending onto the page) are free and thus can be judged. He is not a puppet of his master, rather he does what he himself wills, and we read it that way even though we know an author is behind it all. We know we have free will because we experience free will. We know God is thoroughly sovereign because nothing can exist apart from God, and nothing can be counted on−including God’s promises−unless God is sovereign. But we cannot live fatalistically nor can we blame God, for we do what we will−and we know it. If we are held accountable for our free choices then we have met justice.

So, should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna? At the level of the world of the work, at the level of the story, the answer is no, and Raskolnikov should have to pay for his crime. And yet, at the level of the author, at the level of reality in which Dostoyevsky lived, the answer is yes, for it was the will of the author that it should be. This is the prerogative of all authors, and if we call God the author of creation and of our existence, then we must understand the prerogatives that are properly assigned to God, our creator, our author.

This documentary offers a critique of the modern attack on beauty, and on some of the key modern ideologies about what is art and what it means to be an artist. It is provocative and well worth the watch.

I am not sure if I agree with every part of his critique or his tastes. His argument is well considered, certainly, but I find so much in Modern Art beautiful—though much ugliness too (and I can say something similar about art from all periods, though there is more beauty in the past). I love the best of modern architecture, experimental film, and music—much, I am sure, Roger Scruton would not like. I spent a lot of time studying Modern Art years ago at university and I am probably influenced a great deal by that period in my life.

His basic argument seems to be that ugliness is bad and beauty is good, that beauty is linked with something transcendent in humans, and that all this is self-evident, which makes it less an argument more a statement of fact (if you believe it, which I do). Nonetheless, I too advocate for beauty.

The end of Modernism: The demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, 1972.

The following quotes are from Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (1993). I have to say this is a great description of the modern “situation” and the context in which we swim. The questions I have are how much am I influenced, affected, and corrupted by these things, and how much is the Church also corrupted, etc. Do we truly live our lives as though all is contingent, or do we hold fast to permanent things?

As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction. Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions. A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life—the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche—yet there was also a less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance—the question for independence, self-determination,and individualism—had indeed brought those ideals to reality in many lives; yet it had also eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered, not just in theory by a reductionist scientism, but in practice by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. (p. 388)

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s acceleration advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament. (p. 388)

Man is condemned to be free. He faced the necessity of choice and thus knew the continual burden of error. He lived in constant ignorance of his future, thrown into a finite existence bounded at each end by nothingness. The infinity of human aspiration was defeated before the finitude of human possibility. Man possessed no determining essence; only his existence was given, and existence engulfed by mortality, risk, fear, ennui, contradiction, uncertainty. No transcendent Absolute guaranteed the fulfillment of human life or history. There was not eternal design or providential purpose. Things existed simply because they existed, and not for some “higher” or “deeper” reason. God was dead, and the universe was blind to human concerns, devoid of meaning or purpose. Man was abandoned, on his own. All was contingent. (p. 389)

Will our modern/postmodern Christianity crumble like the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, as a testimony to bad policy, poor planning, and ideologically driven innovations? Are we condemned to disregard the past, to live with a constant skepticism of that which came before, of that which we have been given, and imagine we can overcome it all through sheer will and rationality? Or is there a time for going back, to seeking the wisdom of others, to digging into the pre-modern soil of ideas, and searching the assumptions of a different age when all was not contingent? I think so.