Friday, May 29, 2009

Fredericksen on the supposed anti-Semitism of the Gospels

"As for the denunciations of Jews and Jewish leaders in the Gospels, . . . Fierce rhetoric of this kind was 'one of the most unmistakably Jewish things about the Jesus movement. . . .'"

Peter Brown, reviewing (and quoting) Augustine and the Jews: a Christian defense of Jews and Judaism, by Paula Frederiksen (New York: Doubleday, 2008), New York review of books 56, no. 10 (June 11, 2009): 41, italics mine.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Aquinas on saving the appearances

"what pertains to faith is distinguished in two ways, for some are as such of the substance of faith, such that God is three and one, and the like, about which no one may licitly think otherwise. . . . Other things are only incidental to faith insofar as they are treated in Scripture, which faith holds to be promulgated under the dictation of the Holy Spirit, but which can be ignored by those who are not held to know scripture, such as many of the historical works. On such matters even the saints disagree, explaining scripture in different ways. Thus with respect to the beginning of the world something pertains to the substance of faith, namely that the world began to be by creation, and all the saints agree in this.
"But how and in what order this was done pertains to faith only incidentally insofar as it is treated in scripture, the truth of which the saints save in the different explanations they offer [(cujus veritatem diversa expositione sancti salvantes, diversa tradiderunt)]."

Thomas Aquinas, Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 12 q. 1 a. 2 co., trans. Ralph McInerny (Thomas Aquinas: selected writings, ed. and trans. with an introduction and notes by Ralph McInerny (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 91). The Latin is taken from the Parma edition of 1856, as reproduced in Corpus Thomisticum here:

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kolnai on the humanitarian approach to sexuality

"Humanity in general possesses an experience of ['the values of purity'] as of other moral values . . . and sexual immorality rests, not on a literal absence of that experience but (apart from the 'weakness of the flesh' proper which is apt to stifle it) on the intellectual counter-pressure of hedonistic ideologies. Now such a 'repression' of the moral sense by adverse ideology is particularly likely to occur in regard to sex morality. Moral 'inhibitions' in this field, more than in any other zone of natural morality, are likely to be qualified by the humanitarian critic as superstitious, obsolete, 'hostile to life,' and 'opposed to happiness.' The reason is obvious. 'Lust'--that is, inordinate sexual pleasure--typifies, in the most exemplary and characteristic manner, the concept of 'sin' as such; and the valuation of purity is the very touchstone of 'material' (essential, intrinsic, objective) ethics. In other words, 'lust' comes nearest to the idea of a material element of life--or a state of mind--'evil by itself' (the word impure is meant to express this) rather than evil on account of its impeding the gratification of more imperative needs or impinging upon more inviolable rights. . . .
"On the other hand, sex immorality--in its isolated typical forms, uncomplicated by violence or deceit--fails to involve any transgression of the 'rights of others,' or even any damage to their interests; in an immanent computation of 'human needs,' therefore, we may easily be driven to decide that those needs in their entirety are better served by disregarding certain 'needs for chastity' than by refusing gratification to certain, more or less vehement, sensual needs proscribed by religious or traditional morality. Humanitarian ethics will, without doubt, acknowledge and stress the elementary necessity of self-control and the general readiness to exercise it; but apart from this abstract and formal postulate, definite standards of purity can hardly count on any support. The individual and social 'harmfulness' of inordinate sexual pleasure as such being susceptible of a very vague and circuitous demonstration only, it will appear 'rational' to entrust its indulgence or shunning to anybody's personal taste--and more than that, to denounce any emphatic moral standpoint and terminology in these matters as intolerant, superstitious, narrow-minded, arbitrary, and obnoxious."

Aurel Kolnai, "The humanitarian versus the religious attitude," The Thomist 7, no. 4 (October 1944): 449-451. Note that "material" in quotation marks means something other than material without them. The former Kolnai associates with the religious tradition of moral reasoning, but the latter, neutral in itself, with the generation of those "needs" that "irreligious humanitarianism" is so reductively concerned to satisfy. I was especially struck by the contemporary relevance of that portion of these paragraphs beginning "The individual and social 'harmfulness' of inordinate sexual pleasure as such being susceptible of a very vague and circuitous demonstration only, . . ." (But the topic is taken up from "On the other hand, . . .")

Kolnai on the "immoralism" of humanitarianism (and its "hypermoralism," too)

"irreligious humanitarianism necessarily involves a certain bias for immoralism inasmuch as it has no room for the concept of intrinsic moral evil, and of the moral scissure in human nature. Rejecting all intrinsic discrimination between human 'needs,' and interpreting moral 'evil' merely in terms of impulses which in given conditions are likely to interfere with the fulfillment of more imperious, general, and permanent 'needs,' it is bound to profess an ethical 'positivism' cleared from all experience of 'sin,' which is tantamount to a flattening out of all moral life into a technique of the gratification of desires. . . .
"The humanitarian attitude will lean towards making the goodness or badness of any type of conduct dependent on the part it may play in a functional framework of situations; placing instincts and moods on a footing with the direction of the will, manifestations of the 'subconscious' with decisions enacted by man's central personality, deficiency in 'training' or 'development' as well as 'disease' with malice and deliberate wickedness; and substituting 'cure' or 'prevention,' 'education' or 'elimination,' for all retaliation [(retributive justice)] proper. To the humanitarian mind, Raskolnikov's 'claim' to slaying and despoiling the old usurer will probably appear 'erroneous,' but not altogether absurd . . . ; while the public authority's right to execute the murderer must obviously appear absurd and fictitious--for the infliction of death and suffering will not be made undone but merely aggravated by the consequent infliction of more death and suffering. Under humanitarianism, the judgment of crime will tend to degenerate into a mere protection of 'majority' interests: to shrink to a mere repression of the inconvenient--or again, perhaps, to expand into a suppression of whatever may be deemed inconvenient. The self-same mentality that rejects the concept of punishing the evildoer as 'superstitious' or a 'mere disguise for the primitive urge of revenge' may glibly accept the 'elimination' of the 'unfit for life' or the 'maladjusted' as an act of 'higher humanity.'"

Aurel Kolnai, "The humanitarian versus the religious attitude," The Thomist 7, no. 4 (October 1944): 444-445. This "immoralism" Kolnai proceeds to associate with what, in humanitarianism, is paradoxically its reverse, a kind of "hypermoralism": "Certainly moral values taken in any specific sense of the term seem to be engulfed and transposed here entirely in concepts of material or 'psychic' welfare; but the less content attaches to the idea of moral perfection and the less moral substance appears to be left over, the more pretentious and cocksure becomes the pursuit of the claim to a formally 'perfect' world, a morally 'waterproof' and indeed a 'foolproof' reality as it were" (446).

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hart on Julian the Apostate

"The truest sign of the [Christian] revolution's triumph was . . . the reign of Julian. Not because of his personal defeat: the old and rather nasty Christian legend of his last moments—filling his hand with the blood pouring from his wounded side, flinging it at the sun, and crying 'Thou hast conquered, Galilaean!'—is nothing more than a spiteful lie. In fact, his final hours were adorned by a moving profession of faith on his part, full of gratitude to the divine, and free of any trace of resentment or self-pity. The real proof of what the gospel wrought in its first three centuries lay in Julian himself, as he was in the full splendor of his pagan prime. From Constantine to Theodosius, the emperor most genuinely Christian in sensibility—in moral feeling, spiritual yearning, and personal temper—was Julian the Apostate. . . . It is simply one of the great ironies of history that everything Julian wanted from his chosen faith—personal liberation and purification, a united spiritual culture, a revived civilization, moral regeneration for himself and his people—was possible only through the agency in time of the religion he so frantically despised."

     David Bentley Hart, Atheist delusions: the Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 198.

Hart on the cultural contingency of charity

"Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never have arisen at all."

     David Bentley Hart, Atheist delusions: the Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 16. On p. 169 he makes the same comment about conscience, and on p. 180, about our "solicitude for human equality". But this is also, of course, the point of the entire book.  See, for example, pp. 32-33:
modernity is not simply a 'postreligious' condition; it is the state of society that has been specifically a Christian society but has 'lost the faith.'  The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity . . . are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology.  Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible.  It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things—they would never have occurred to us—had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.