Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Sunday Reflection . . .

Thanks to Hans Urs von Balthasar, we have a new subtitle for this blog. In von Balthasar's book on the German theologian Romano Guardini, he points out that Guardini felt it to be the responsibility of the laity in the Church to minister to the world precisely by "healing the schizophrenic division between worldliness and piety." Now there is a task worthy of our efforts. Thus our new theme:

Healing the Schizophrenic Division
Between Worldliness and Piety

Those who have attended any of my talks on the mystery of the person have heard me quote Guardini to the effect that: "The knowledge of what it means to be a person is inextricably bound up with the Faith of Christianity. An affirmation and a cultivation of the personal can endure for a time perhaps after Faith has been extinguished, but gradually they too will be lost."

Von Balthasar quotes that same passage -- in a slightly different English translation -- but he also quotes something I have not seen in the available English translations of Guardini before, something just as audacious:

"Nonbelievers are incapable of properly administering the world."

What! That sounds like the Taliban. But, wait, hear Guardini out:
Forces that would be strong enough to keep one's power in check derive neither from science nor from technology. They do not emerge from the autonomous ethics of a specific individual or from the sovereign wisdom of the State. . . . The truly salvific possibilities lie in the consciences of human beings who are connected to God in a living way.
Note: what's crucial and what Christians should bring to the task of administering the world -- as J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings shows -- is the capacity to resist the lure and seduction of power. This, Guardini argues, is what Christ teaches his disciples to do. To the extent that we have been made immune to the appeal of power, we can, perhaps, help heal the schizophrenic division between worldliness and piety.


John said...


Your post is apt, coming as it does on the heels of Christmas and on the threshold of Lent.

In Luke 2:1, we hear of the ultimate exercise of worldly power-the power to require the “whole world” to be counted so it could be better taxed, better conscripted to serve the ends of the state and better controlled in all ways(Sounds kind of familiar, no?): “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.” And it was in unquestioning obedience to that order that Mary and Joseph made the arduous journey to Bethlehem notwithstanding the imminence of the birth of Jesus.

In sharp contrast to this worldly exercise of power, we then hear of the entry into the world of a new and very different form of power: “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke2:6-7)

While the worldy king was ensconced on the Palatine Hill, protected by the world’s most feared soldiers and being fed the most luxurious foods, the new king, by whose birth God truly spoke Truth(Word) to power, was born in a cave. He was welcomed not by the beautiful people but by the marginalized of society and attended not by soldiers but by a heavenly host. And he came not to be fed but to be food for the world.

And these kings eventually met—at the cross. The worldly power did what it always does—it sought to assert its control and eliminate a rival. Jesus was tortured and hung up to die publicly so that there would be no mistaking which king had prevailed. And, to really make sure the passersby got it, a sign was hung announcing that the crucifed one was “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”.

But, as we know, it was in that event, and, of course, in the Resurrection, that the true power was revealed. The bankruptcy of the power of the world was exposed and the power of death was defeated.

However, as you often point out, we are fallen creatures who are always being lured by the false power of “the world”. We must remain always vigilant to the “schizophrenic” battle raging within us.(“What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” Romans 7:15). We must gaze upon the Crucified One in order that we are reminded of our call to personhood which is driven by self-donation not self-assertion. We must strive always to abide in Christ, in communion with God and our neighbors. Thus, your post this morning, reminding us that we must develop “the capacity to resist the lure and seduction of power”, and muster the courage to do so in the face of the ever-increasing “NO” of the world, is much appreciated and ever timely.

Thanks, Gil

Robert said...

Great Post Gil and John as well. In Evangelli Nuntiandi, Paul VI says: 18. For the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new: "Now I am making the whole of creation new."[46] But there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by Baptism[47] and by lives lived according to the Gospel.[48] The purpose of evangelization is therefore precisely this interior change...

This is our challenge, for us who call ourselves Christian to act much more like it than we do. The Atheist writers who rail against Christianity are railing against Christian fundamentalists and their overreaching. That is what they see. We do not exhibit a visible enough face for these writers to notice.

Doughlas Remy said...

"Nonbelievers are incapable of properly administering the world."

What! That sounds like the Taliban.

Yes, indeed it does. Guardini's elaboration of this principle did nothing to mitigate either its extremism or its absurdity. What he wrote could have been written by an Islamicist.

Leaving aside the fact that Jesus was not interested in "administering the world," those of his followers who have tried have had less than a sterling record. I would caution anyone from swallowing this lure before they have examined the historical evidence.

Looking around our world, we see nations that are predominantly Christian (e.g., in Latin America and Africa), and others that are predominantly secular (Japan, Sweden, etc.). If you see any evidence that believers are more capable of "properly administering the world" than non-believers, I wish you would share it with me.

Gil Bailie said...

Guardini didn't say "Christian" nations (as if there has ever been one). He said Christians. Where Christians have influenced national cultures, they have -- by and large -- been more humane cultures. That's why so many people who live in cultures under other religious influences are trying to get into societies where Christianity has left its mark and almost no one is eager to move in the other direction. But it has little to do with nations as such. Especially is that the case today, when societies formerly under Christian influence are "going native" with breathtaking speed.

John said...

This coutesDoughlas,

Call me a dinosaur but, by postmodern standards, I'm one of those gullible relics who believes that we are called to stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us in order that we might glimpse truths that would otherwise be beyond our view. Therefore, I tend to approach the works of such people, among whose ranks Von Balthasar and Guardini are clearly numbered, with a high degree of deference. While this does not mean that I agree with everything I read or hear, it does mean that I temper my disagreements with a healthy dollop of humility. You, on the other hand, apparently do not. You are sure-based upon nothing more than a few moments of reflection on a snippet of thought from Von Balthasar/Guardini-that the truth which Guardini was considering is both extreme and absurd!

I know, I know, you may counter that it is your "right" to express your opinion, that I must be a closed-minded Neanderthal for pointing out your hubris, and that the "marketplace of ideas" is a hallowed place where all are welcome, etc. And to a point, you would be right, except for the Neanderthal part. But as I read your post, I was reminded of the gazillion times that I made some fairly innocuous, and in my experience, fairly unassailable observation about life in general to one or the other of my teenage children only to be dismissed out of hand with that ubiquitous catchall: "you just don't get it". (Of course, if one of their equally inexperienced peers offered a similar view, it was received as if offered from on high. And I'm willing to bet, though I have absolutely no way of knowing, that there are voices in your life which are accorded similar deference)

In any event, let me offer a couple of thoughts in closing. First, I am very leery of arguments based on what Jesus was or was not interested in, or would or would not do in a particular situation. I not only find such arguments incredibly presumptuous, and often silly, but, more important, they usually seem to be offered in support of a position against which Jesus would probably recoil. Second, arguments about the relative efficacy of "Christian" versus "secular" or "non-Christian" cultures usually involves a classic straw man and is intellectually dishonest. It goes without saying that even those cultures which have been blessed to come under the Christian influence are "administered" by fallen, weak and sinful human beings. Therefore, it is not hard to demonstrate that even "Christian" cultures full woefully short of living out their Christian vocation in complete fidelity to the Gospel. There are simply no Christian utopias. But, if you believe that living in a world "administered" by the Taliban would not be different, to grossly understate the point, from a world "administered” by believing Christians, warts and all, you are simply not paying attention.

Finally, in Gil's post, he points out that the Guardini quote must be considered in light of Guardini's further "definition" of believers, to wit: "human beings who are connected to God in a living way". Unlike you, I do not believe it to be absurd to suggest that such persons would be far more capable of administering anything than those who are not similarly connected. In fact, the fact that such connected persons are not, by and large, doing the administering is probably the root of most of our problems.

Doughlas Remy said...

Gil, Christians have influenced national cultures in very some positive ways, but so have secularists, Buddhists, Confucians, and others. This is why the assertion that "nonbelievers are incapable of properly administering the world" is facially absurd. Japan is full of non-believers, and they are by most accounts doing a splendid job of administering their society. Nor do I think many of them would care to emigrate to the U.S., Europe, or anywhere else for that matter. They're quite happy where they are.

Christians have certainly left their mark in western societies--for good and for ill--but so have secularists, Jews, and others. It seems more than a little arrogant for Christians to claim the credit for all the successes. In fact, it sounds very imperialistic, like something British expatriates living in India might have said about the Empire before Independence: "Only the British are capable of administering the world."

I am judging Guardini's assertion on its face. To a person who is not Christian, it seems to be saying, "Your only rightful place in your society is as one who is governed," and "Only Christians are qualified to govern you." In our multicultural and pluralistic society, such messages can only be inflammatory and divisive. Everyone--whatever their religion or lack of it--needs to be brought into the fold of democratic governance. Let's leave tribal thinking behind and advance into the modern world.

Jonathan said...

Some thoughts,
I think that with all the comments we must first look ever deeper into the original quote "Nonbelievers are incapable of properly administering the world." I think the difficulty is what the word "properly" should mean. We can take it at many different extremes. On the one side properly could just mean "makes the world a better place to live" or on the other hand it could mean "the absolute epitome of how the world could be run (aka as run by God in the New Jerusalem)." As well as all the many points in between and probably some other interpretations I can't think of off the top of my mind. So it would seem that any discussion must first begin by defining this simple word "properly". My first take was that it be that it would be my latter extreme due to having read some other von Balthasar (Love alone is Credible), but on reading comments I see that this is not how you my fellow searchers for Truth think it should be read.
Not knowing much about the specific topic, I will first say a few things about stuff of which I know a little. In Von Balthasar's book Love Alone is Credible he basically says that "Only Christians are able to Love" This again is one of the same kind of absolute statement as Guardini's, and again can be taken at the same extremes. On reading more of the book you see that the Love he is talking about is one that Christians have a hard time coming to, yet still it is after which they strive. It is not saying that Non-Christians are unable to have something called love, but that True Christian Love is entirely something different and better, but yet it is rarely reached by us in this present age.
In this manner do I think we should take Guardini and Von Balthasar. In a similar way, recently I was reading Thomas More's Utopia and in the book he seem to suggest that even the best worldly utopia would not and could not compare with the Christian Heavenly Utopia, though he still says that there are some ideas of the worldly utopia that could be valid. More also agrees with his secular interlocetur that the very Christian England has many problems that need to be addressed. It is the Christian who can most easily say we have problems too, more than any of the other rationalized people of the world. And in that humility, and desire for humility do we see that Christians might be able to "administer the world properly".
Still I very much agree the Christian track record is both greatly encouraging and discouraging. We in our faith can more fully follow the way of humility. It is Frodo the hobbit who takes the ring to Mordor, but of his own power he could not destroy it. So to we struggle.

I like the new subtitle, It makes me wonder simply at the schizophrenic character of our accelerated age, how we can ever achieve piety with the world ever rushing past us and consuming us. Having read much Hegel and Nietzsche I know that so very much of life is lived in the struggle for power whether we recognize it or not. For the Christian it is not a simple task. One thing I have been pondering through of late is how a Christian in a world consumed with power can, even humbling themself, not come to take up power itself. I know I am apt to take up the power that comes to me. It is easier said than done.
Fare Forward all,


Doughlas Remy said...

John, I apparently do not value deference as much as you do. I tend to challenge assumptions if I can spot them, because I believe that is a good way to steer clear of falsehood and error. Reading Girard and Oughourlian helped me understand what a powerful mimetic force some people exert on others, almost like the gravitational dynamic between large planets and their moons. In human terms, this is a relation of mediated desire, and we experience it as a reciprocal relation of influence and suggestibility. This is, for example, the relationship between the football hero and the co-ed, between the hypnotist and his subject, or between a great and respected thinker and his admiring audience. (Oughourlian’s latest book, The Genesis of Desire--which, by the strangest of coincidences, I received in the mail about two minutes after typing his name just now—appears to investigate this relation in some depth.)

The study of how people achieve and hold influence is to me as fascinating as the study of what makes people so susceptible to such influence at times. As I am not in Guardini’s orbit, it feels perfectly natural to me to question any assertion of his that appears patently absurd to me. His claim seems far from “innocuous” or “fairly unassailable” (your terms). Rather, it is just flat wrong and misleading when weighed against the available evidence, and it leads to certain pretensions that people of other traditions may find threatening.

Regarding your point about the Taliban: To refute Guardini’s assertion that “nonbelievers are incapable of properly administering the world” is a far cry from asserting that “anyone is capable of properly administering the world.” The Taliban, obviously, is incapable of administering anything much more than munitions depots. I think it would be truer to assert that “people from many traditions of belief and non-belief are capable of administering the world.”

Finally, regarding your final paragraph, Guardini’s further “definition” of believers as “human beings who are connected to God in a living way” does nothing to mitigate the impact or the truth value of his assertion. Those who accept the assertion at face value are, of course, people of faith for whom truth value need have nothing to do with observable reality. Opinions will suffice.

Doughlas Remy said...

“Nonbelievers are incapable of properly administering the world.” (Guardini)
“Only Christians are able to love.” (von Balthasar, paraphrased by Jonathan)
“True Christian love is entirely something different and better...” (Jonathan)
“There is no salvation outside the Church.” (Catholic teaching)

I’m sorry, folks, but this is presumptuous and arrogant nonsense, and the pious phrasing in which it is couched is sickening. Even if you think these things, deep down inside, you have got to realize how hurtful, insulting, and divisive they can sound to people who have not drunk the kool-aid. I will give you an example.

An atheist woman of my acquaintance had been raised by Christian fundamentalist parents who never forgave her for leaving their faith. When she had a son, they all tried to smooth over the differences for the boy’s sake so that he would have a stable family environment. The grandmother, however, wanted to take the boy to church when he visited her, and the mother allowed this.

The mother discovered one day that her own mother had been telling her son the following: “No one—not even your mother—can love you the way Christians do.”

This is just jaw-dropping. She was telling her grandson that his mother’s love for him was flawed and inferior and that the only place he would ever receive “true” love was in the bosom of the church. And apparently she really believed it.

I’ll leave it to you to speculate about the damage such an idea could do to a boy’s relationship with his mother. Such poisonous messages can only create sickness and strife in our world—and all so that we can feel “morally superior” to others.

Doughlas Remy said...

Some of you may remember this scene from the film "Hearts and Minds."

(My thanks to Nade for locating this clip.)

Jonathan said...

In regards to my comments, I feel you have stripped the context from what I said making my words equivocate. You have made me into a sound bite rather than an argument. But in this I do not blame you, because I know that I also am culpable in committing the same error with you.
We speak from two different worlds, language is such that nuance is exceptionally difficult to convey in person much less through the written word. I tried to preface what I said with nuance because only with good nuance will we ever be able to understand one another so that we can have a good arguement, rather than simply shouting at one another. which is not what I want to do, and from your posts it seems to me that you do not want it either. But I know I might be mistaken. To quote Monty Python "Argument isn't just contradiction".
So now to clarify my argument more.

On Balthasar it has been a while since I have read his book, so I am basing it on memory rather than text. if you would like, I will find the most apt text so that I do not shame him, by misquoting. I think some of the misunderstanding has to do with what love is. while I am not an expert on the topic, I have always been a person to use the word only in the most exceptional of circumstances. For example I do not say that "I loved ____ movie" or "I would love an Ice Cream cone". The places I do use the word are for my family a couple friends and for God. I do not want to cheapen its use. I define love as something essentially centered in God, and coming from him. From God's love for me and for/in creation is where I see love coming from. In the way that God has made us. In all acts of genuine love I see coming from God. Not that a Christian necessarily is the only one can commit any act of love, but that Christians in recognizing the love of God have a closer connection to the one from whom all love flows. Still, very very few if any Christian's possess what I termed as true Christian Love. I have only ever seen tiny glimpses of it, such that I cannot well define it but I know that it is something present.

As to your example, I agree that the grandmother was very unloving, and I think it was arrogance and pride to think that. I think we/Christians do need to do a lot better job of showing love, and living with humility. We also need to see and commend others/non Christians for their acts of love. But still I stick to my point that Christian Love is entirely different, though I do not claim to possess any more than a sliver of it.

I think that the Christian should more than any one else reject any moral superiority to anyone else, because it is the Christian who should most know that they are the most wretched of sinners. (This is something I know that the all Christians struggle with whether they realize it or not).

I applaud you for you choice to challenge assumptions, I think we need more people like you in the world. Though I hope that you then also turn your pistol on yourself and question your own assumptions, (particularly on why you always question assumptions) I am very like you in this, I have come to know that the question can always be asked (once you begin you must take the path of infinite regress).

Such is all I shall say at present

Fare Forward,

Robert said...

All this talk about Christian love being different, well, it is, but it is not limited to Christians. The best definition of Christian love I know of is in Mt 25:31-46, the final judgement description. "...For I was hungry and you gave me food..." To do what is described of the upright in that section of Matthew is Christian love. Not that one has to be Christian to love that way. The ones Jesus judges upright in this passage did not know that they had done it for him. A few qualifications not made explicit there, but clear from elsewhere from Jesus are necessary as well. One is to do these things for others, not out of fear of punishment if they don't, not out of a sense of obligation, rather out of the joy of being grateful for a good life, for trusting life and compassion for those in need. And such a person, I would say is connected to God in a living way by virtue of doing God's will.

We Christians would characterize the reason for doing those things the joy of being grateful to God for all he has done for us and compassion for those in need that we learned from Jesus. But it is the same thing whether you see God and Jesus in the motivation or not. It is the doing what we Christians and other theists call God's will is the necessary thing, not the knowing that it is God's will.

And I would say to have a good leader who will lead justly and honestly for the good of all, one who could properly administer the world, is to have one who would be in the upright category in the passage from Matthew. Such a person would have to have excellent leadership and communication skills, among others, but these in the service of the Christian love within which he lives and moves and has his/her being. But such a person wouldn't have to be aware of being connected to God in a living way.

Besides, the best values of Christian life were wisely appropriated by secular humanism in The Enlightenment. So it should not be a surprise to anyone that atheists and agnostics bristle when told they aren't and can't be good enough morally/ethically. They think, pretty much rightly, that their values are as good as ours are. Sure, they probably think we have a lot of unnecessary baggage with that, and we probably do have some. What they lack is a structure –for us, the Church– which nurtures and forms us in those values. I don't know about you Doughlas, but I find western culture to be a seductive siren (and our worst export) and, now that I am an adult, am glad for all the reminding and reinforcing I can get to help me resist it.

As to what secular humanism took from Christianity in The Enlightenment, things like our dogged valuing of human life, weren't so prominent back then and maybe didn't it across. Unfortunate, for sure, if I am right about that. I am not a historian.