Discerning Before Utopia

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“The Daydreamer”, Creative Commons

This post was spurred on by two things, a class given on discernment at Campion College Australia and reading a letter in a section of the monthly journal Traces, put out by the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

In going through the contingencies of life, discerning God’s will is always hard to do. The challenge becomes particularly acute when we realise that discernment is almost always mixed with our desires and the frustrations of those desires by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Being creatures driven by the heart, as James KA Smith noted in his Desiring the Kingdom, it would be impossible to eliminate the restlessness that desire instills in us and the eagerness or anxiety that will find its way in the discernment process.

The reasons for our eagerness can be gleaned when one considers how desire operates in the context of what Graham Ward calls a “subject position” in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward suggests in that book that desire does not allow us to keep still within our subject position, which is always made up of a whole range of social and cultural factors. Rather, our desires put us onto what he calls “projects” which, as the word suggests, projects us forward, pressing us against the confines posed by the factors that make up our subject position. In many respects, our eagerness inevitably will drive us to want to break many of these confines, and urge us to strain towards “where we want to be”. This is what Ward calls in his book “utopic horizons”.

However, our eagerness is often met with frustration because, as the name “utopia” suggests, our desires very often push us towards places other than where we are now. We believe that where we are now are but obstacles to our discernment and to the fulfilling of our vocation. We want to escape where we are and what we are doing, so that the will of God can finally be done.

This desire to escape our circumstances is understandable, but it must be juxtaposed with observations by Rabbi Edward Feld and Fr. Luigi Giussani. In an essay on the 23rd Psalm, Feld noted that, though the journey in the psalm is marked by many changes and much buffeting by the circumstances of life, the sheep are nevertheless still “on the right path”. Fr. Giussani put it more succinctly, saying once that it is in the circumstances that one seeks to escape where one’s vocation, one’s call resides. Discernment thus is not dependent on an escaping of those circumstances, but by pressing against them and feeling their texture press back upon us.

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Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Catholic Social Dispatches

 

With all the intense hypervigilence and dissection of the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Letitia, and equally intense online sabre-rattling over whether the Catholic faith has been transformed beyond recognition because of it, a lot of other stories in the Catholic social media landscape have received scant attention. Deliberately or otherwise, directly or indirectly, the theme of Catholic Social Teaching has figured rather prominently in these more marginal threads.

What jumps out is the way in which ecclesiology seems to undergird these seemingly diverse nods to Catholic Social Teaching. More specifically, these stories the attempts to position the Church as a crucial waypoint between the periphary and the centre, the hospital waiting room bridging the wounded and the well, the secular and the sacred and the ladder between the transcendent ideal and the less than ideal temporal situation.

Chief among these was the Pope’s recent visit to the island of Lesbos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Both the Patriarch and the Pontiff focused their visit on those itinerant peoples who, for whatever reason, seek to relocate to Europe and found themselves stranded in that part of the European continent (other pockets of stranded are found in other parts of the Europe, mostly in the south and the east). Having concluded that visit, it was also announced that the Pontiff had also taken twelve individuals – those whose papers are in good order but remain stranded – onto the papal plane back to Italy. It is one of the more dramatic moves of a papacy characterised by highly symbolic moves.

While this story unfolded, it was also reported that the American Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, addressed a conference at the Vatican at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. His paper, “The Urgency for a Moral Economy”, can be found in full here.

A third story can be found in a story (dated 14th April), in the Jesuit magazine America, which was a write up on Solidarity Hall, a group of writers who have converged in an online space started by Elias Crim, and has slowly evolved into a publishing venture under the management of Daniel Schwindt. Solidarity Hall now features its own contribution to the Patheos platform with The Dorothy Option. In the interview with one of its authors, Mark Gordon, the article spoke of the focus of the venture’s contribution to the development of the Catholic Social tradition by negotiating a “radically Christian life in the space between the state and the market” and the “polarities of left and right”, by reclaiming the “whole teaching of the church, unalloyed by the ideologies and false identities of party, class, even nation”. As a footnote, the article also mentioned by name the Divine Wedige‘s Matthew Tan, him being an Australian voice in an otherwise dominantly American project, contributing to the Solidarity Hall website on pop culture and total war, and a chapter on the migrant in their flagship publication Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just about teaching or a space called the social, but also the bodies that occupy that space and live out the teaching. With this in mind the fourth item, a post from Rebecca Bratten Weiss of Franciscan University of Steubenville, deserves mention here. In it, Weiss draws our attention to the way in which a Church and a theology should not not only speak to and about the perfect or respectable bodies, but also those who enter its doors with bodies broken and violated from violence, illnesses or defects both intended and unintended, maladies that we try to shield our eyes from in our quest for the comfortable bourgeois Christianity. Weiss suggests that such imperfect bodies ought to be part of the story of the Body of Christ.

New Essay: Sarah Coakley and the Prayers of the Digital Body of Christ

Janice McCrandal, lecturer in theology at Trinity Theological College in Brisbane, has edited a new volume, published by Fortress Press this year. The new work focuses on the impact of the work of the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, Sarah Coakley, in the field of Systematic Theology, hence the title Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology.
The edited book grew out of a symposium on Coakley’s work, held in 2010 at the United Theological College, featuring a collage of theological voices from a number of ecclesial traditions. Coakley herself was present to respond to the presentations. 

the Divine Wedgie’s Matthew Tan was one of those who contributed to the symposium and to the volume. The chapter, entitled “Sarah Coakley and the Prayers of the Digital Body of Christ“, interfaced the use of the internet and Coakley’s work on trinitarian prayer, arguing that the practice of the internet paralleled and ultimately parodied, the practice of Christian prayer. 
Thanks is due to Dr. McCrandal and to Fortress Press for bringing this work to the light of day.

Free Theology PDFs from Syndicate Theology

The new theological project Syndicate Theology are slowly but surely attracting a growing list of avid readers. As they approach their second anniversary, Syndicate Theology have begun a special offer of their six most popular symposia in 2015, all in PDF format to readers who sign up for their weekly newsletter. Furthermore, Syndicate are offering readers refer their friends to the newsletter (using a unique link after signing up), where Syndicate offers a back issue of their print edition for each friend that signs up for the newsletter.
For the sake of full disclosure, the Divine Wedgie has made a written contribution to the symposium on John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order, which can be accessed by clicking here, and with Matthew Tan’s contribution by clicking here
To take advantage of the free PDF offer, simply click here to sign up for their newsletter. 

Syndicate Theology Symposium: Beyond Secular Order by John Milbank

While Christmas and New Year celebrations went on over the last two weeks, the folk at Syndicate Theology (mentioned in a post in 2014 – Happy New Year, by the way) were hard at work in putting together a symposium around John Milbank’s follow up to his highly anticipated and equally controversial Theology & Social Theory
This symposium on Beyond Secular Order was edited by Dr. Justin Tse of the University of Washington, who blogs at Religion. Ethnicity. Wired. The symposium provided four response essays, each of which was followed by a counter-response by John Milbank and an accompanying discussion. This symposium received the largest response by any of the books reviewed on Syndicate Theology since its inception in 2015. 
Contributors to this symposium included:
  • Justin Tse‘s editorial introduction
  • Bethany Joy Kim of the Society of Vineyard Scholars, who looked at Milbank’s take on the concept of Homo Faber from a charismatic perspective
  • Matthew Tan of Campion College Australia (and The Divine Wedgie), who examined the metaphysics of simulation and its effects on politics and pop culture
  • Jonathan Tran of Baylor University, who provided a hopeful yet critical perspective on the viability of Milbank’s larger project of Radical Orthodoxy.
  • Devin Singh of Dartmouth College, which critiqued from a postcolonial standpoint, the seeming over-romanticised and Euro-centric thesis of Milbank and
  • Eugene McCarraher, arguably the most pointed of Milbank’s critics, which builds upon Singh’s critiques and critiques what has been labelled a “Dominion Theology”, articulating many critics’ fears of theocratic goverenance arguably put forward by Milbank’s overall project, a charge which Milbank denies in a lengthy response.

Syndicate Theology have also rung in the new year with a new symposium on American Apocalypse: A Historical Of Modern Evangelicalism by Matthew Avery Sutton.

Metaphysics & Pornography

A previous post mentioned how we now live in a world where possibilities trump realities, and endless possibility becomes the secular equivalent of immortality. To put it in more medieval Thomist parlance, we now live in a world where potency trumps act, thereby inverting the medieval emphasis on actuality as the realisation of potency. In a culture of infinite possibility, realisation of possibilities is tantamount to death.
In a world carried by such a metaphysics, one victim of this is the actuality of the human body. In a world where endless possibility is a form of immortality, the actuality of the human body is now made to carry that immortality by being itself made to become an infinitely malleable entity. This is a point that was made in Herve Juvin’s The Coming of the Body, where the body, augmented by medical science and the internet, is now made to become the bearer of endless possibilities with regard to age, sex, capability and appearances.
What Juvin also noted, however, is that as human flesh is made to assume such infinite possibilites, the facticity of the body itself becomes a horrible thing to behold. In the process, actual flesh becomes not a living but a deadening of possibility, thereby making virtual bodies preferable to actual flesh. To use Juvin’s words, we are now living in a culture gripped by a “horror of the flesh”.
This preference for a virtual body over actual bodies becomes particularly apparent in the world of pornography. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that, as providers of pornography become more prevalent and more competitive for the consumer dollar, what becomes touted is not so much sex. Rather, the commodity being sold is the infinite arrays of possible sexual activity.
In the process, actual sex becomes trumped by the possibilities made available by pornography. The evidence of this can be found in testimonies in anti-porn sites such as Fight the New Drug, where actual sex and actual bodies become superceded by possibilities made available on screen, and actual sex is made to die the death that so many other actualities would suffer under the lordship of infinite potency.
We see in such testimonies a cultural outplaying of what Catherine Pickstock calls in her After Writing the “necrophilic” logic of infinite life dressed as infinite possibility.