Thursday, February 21, 2008

height (concerning vertigo)

Christopher Cousins, "Unadherence" (2007)

beyond vertigo, faith is to find oneself in the grip of height and without ground. this can be confused with vertigo since, in the disorientation and fear that inevitably follows, one feels as if one might plunge into the abyss. yet vertigo is a desperate attempt to cling to self-control when in the grip of height, fearing that one may step off the edge, might lose one's footing. but beyond fear, peace will be the recognition that one was never simply one's own, and has not been plunged into the abyss. there can be, in the grip of pure height, no fall, because the height has no limit: one is actually in perfect rest. recognizing that one is at a height beyond all abyss is the constant challenge of faith. this is why there is despair even in faith: one wonders if one is not truly falling, and if one will ever truly learn to rest.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Recalling 12 September 1960

The day on which American Catholics decided they wanted to be Protestants after all.

It was the day on which JFK insisted that the separation of Church and State was not merely a legal principle found in the United States constitution, but that somehow he had so thoroughly internalized it that it had become etched on his soul and that Catholicism would have no political bearing on his life.

John Courtney Murray would provide the theoretical description and pushed for the Protestantization of Catholicism all the way to the Second Vatican Council.

And may God have mercy on our souls.

Recalling 1829

In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in the United Kingdom. In the minds of many at the time it was unconstitutional insofar as the sovereign was both the spiritual and political head of the people and as such there was no way in which Catholic's could submit fully to the crown. On the other hand, it seems more appropriate to see it as a broadening of the crown's power and a liberalization of the understanding of it's role. No longer would it be the case that English civil religion would be equated with one particular cultic form but instead the way was opened to embrace ever wider forms of cultic practice under the spiritual direction of the crown and thereby sublimate them to Englishness. In this way the law and rule of England came to be more uniformly and systematically applied to its citizens, eliminating a situation in which Catholic's existed at a lower or marginal level within the English state.

The existence of parallel courts of law at the peripheries of the English legal system is a return to the days prior to 1829 when it was recognized that there were those citizens and permanent residents of the nation who could never really be English and who did not reside within the fullness of English law. Rowan Williams, who currently has his plate full presiding over the dissolution of the Church of England, may well be presiding over the dissolution of 1829 and the liberal English state as well.


Friday, February 8, 2008

When Liberalism Loses the Courage of Its Convictions

This week the chief prelate of the Church of England, the widely respected Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that England find a way to accommodate the traditional forms of Shariah law, especially with respect to family disputes, within the legal structures of the United Kingdom. Williams is a scholar and academic with outstanding works on topics ranging widely from the Arian controversy of the 4th c. AD to the work of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov. This is hardly likely to be a spontaneous or thoughtless comment; instead it is likely to be the studied opinion of the most vocal and important spokesperson of the English government on matters of religion and faith.

In recent days I have been preparing to teach a course on world religions. It is not a task I relish since the whole discipline of world religions is a minefield of Orientalism. As a theologian, I am struck by the lack of systematic thought that has gone into the idea of dialogue with those who exist extra ecclesiam. It has sparked in me a hint of admiration for Political Liberalism insofar as it has one of the most well conceived, systematic and coherent "theologies" of religion in the West. Insisting on the private and moral nature of religion, Political Liberalism has managed to sublimate the great traditions that preceded it under its banner. Its post-Christian Protestantism insistence on the separation of faith and works allows it to leave the beliefs of the traditions "intact" while nonetheless bringing the practice of all into accordance with its vision of who humans are and the nature of a stable human community. The Secular is not so much an a-religious space, but a transreligious one with new rituals and liturgical forms that organize and interpret - and ultimately relativize - the place of other traditions in the life of its citizens.

The allowance of parallel legal institutions with the UK strikes at one of the central tenets of Politically Liberal "theology" of religions: the separation of faith and works. As a Roman Catholic the separation was never particularly appealing and it has always fascinated me the extent to which Catholics have failed to fight against it in their desire to enter into the mainstream of Liberal cultural and political life (JFK for instance had to embrace it in order to legitimize his candidacy). Nonetheless, when Liberalism begins to question the foundations of its own existence one has to wonder whether or not Liberalism has lost its faith. Is the Liberal experiment failed?

And what next from the Archbishop of Canterbury? It has been suggested that the creation of parallel religious courts will help Catholicism in such matters as adoption. Many adoption agencies in the US and the UK have run into problems as they are required, under existing law, to allow same-sex couples to adopt children (in the state of Massachusetts for instance, Catholic charities no longer arranges adoptions). But what else will be covered. Will divorces be denied to Catholic couples? What criminal charges will a husband be allowed to bring against his wife if he finds out she is using birth control? If he finds out she had an abortion - i.e., in the eyes of the Church, committed murder?

Where is Liberalism going?