Thursday, November 09, 2006

Getting the anthropology right ...

Due to a combination of circumstance and personal predilection, in recent years I have been trying – when and where the opportunity presented itself – to encourage Christians generally but Catholic hierarchs, clergy and theologians more specifically to recognize how indispensable René Girard’s work is if the challenges facing both the Church and Western civilization in our time are to be better assessed. In doing this, of course, I must take into account the terms of the conversations currently underway among those to whom I am appealing. Catholic Christianity is an especially cacophonous ensemble of conversations and shouting matches, but there are two somewhat interrelated discussions that are especially important and that seem most in need of Girardian collaboration: The first of these is the retrospective assessment of Vatican II that has been underway in recent years, with a special concern for the alacrity and naïveté with which its central document – Gaudium et spes – seemed to embrace the culture of modernity and its underlying anthropological presuppositions. The second conversation of special interest is the discussion now underway about the alarming decline in post-Conciliar Catholicism’s sacramental and liturgical life. In short, the conversations that are crucial today concern the need for a better understanding of culture and cult. Girard’s work is essential to each of these conversations, but there are resistances, some methodological, some doctrinal.

For centuries, Catholicism has found the periodic refurbishing of the Summa of Thomas Aquinas more fruitful than any of the available alternatives. One thing this long tradition has demonstrated is that, whatever Thomism’s limitations, it is where incipient heresies go to die, and having such a disinfectant on hand under present circumstances seems most prudent. My tone-deafness with regard to philosophy notwithstanding, I concede the greatness of the Thomistic accomplishment. The problem is that its strength is in its ability to rationally repudiate philosophical objections to Christianity, and the contemporary rejection of Christianity has nothing to do with philosophical objections.

Be that as it may, in the Catholic theological toolbox, Thomism, in one or another of its permutations, is the all-purpose appliance. Consequently, the question about the Council’s misreading of modernity is being debated between two loosely defined Thomist camps: those Michael Novak calls “Whig Thomists” – who regard modernity – with its democratic polity, market economy, and individual rights discourse – as congenial to the Christian vocation, and those (increasingly postmodern) Augustinian Thomists who see in the modern and postmodern West a gleaming but misshapen juggernaut, complete with a “latent normativity” that is homogenizing everything, sweeping everything in its path, including, conspicuously, an objective appreciation for goodness, truth and beauty and the moral lucidity that they foster and instantiate.

The names usually associated with the “Whig Thomists” (whether fairly or not, I cannot say) are Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus; while the roster of Augustinian Thomists usually includes Alasdair MacIntyre, David Schindler, and Joseph Ratzinger, the latter being highly significant of course, for the pontificate of Benedict XVI seems likely to be one during which the debate will ensue between those who find the contemporary outworking of the Liberal zeitgeist congenial to Christian evangelization and those who regard significant elements of it as subtly but devastatingly antithetical to what John Paul II called the Gospel of Life.

In her analysis of the controversy between these two schools of Thomism, Tracy Rowland assumes that the West must choose between Nietzsche and Aquinas. This is obviously where Girard’s work needs to be introduced. Beneath Rowland's choice lies the choice that Nietzsche himself highlighted between Christ and Dionysus, and only by understanding cultural processes in the light of Girardian thought can the particulars of that choice be appreciated.

Implicitly at least Rowland seems to understand that, for she acknowledges that modern liberal thought is being challenged by postmodern “genealogists,” heirs of Nietzsche, who are as dismissive of the Thomists as are the moderns. All this prompts Rowland to worry that the Thomists are fighting the last war:
In the longer term, the danger is that the Liberal discourse will itself be marginalized and displaced by the discourse of its Genealogical competitor, and the Thomists will be left fighting a battle against the Genealogists with concepts borrowed from the marginalized Liberal tradition.
Mimetic theory – which I have of late been calling “perichoretic anthropology,” much to the chagrin of its originator – is indispensable here. The problem is that it is perceived by many of its admirers and detractors to be a theory expressing a quintessentially modern liberal point of view: anti-sacrificial, critical of the cultic, favoring the “prophetic” over the “priestly” etc. etc.

Thinking Outside the Box

“Most critiques of liberalism,” writes Francisco Javier Martinez, Archbishop of Granada, Spain, have in the long run “worked in favor of the establishment of the very secular culture that was at the basis both of liberalism and of the critiques mounted against it.” The problem of “thinking outside the box” in a culture that takes “thinking outside the box” as its operating principle is a tricky business. “The dominance of the Liberal interpretation in popular discourse,” writes Tracy Rowland, “means that those whose knowledge of concepts is tacitly acquired end up thinking within a Liberal ideological framework.” Hardly a day goes by without the discomforting reminder of how “tacitly acquired” many of my own concepts have been. Paul’s admonition to be not conformed to the spirit of the age is surely among the most daunting of tasks because it requires not only prescience but humility.

Meanwhile, Martinez insists, the very success of liberalism “spells the death of all its professed ideals,” a verdict in which Rowland concurs in observing that “what secularity has most ruined and actually denied are the very things it apparently celebrated: embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience and human political community.”

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