Saturday, December 14, 2013

Writing Sacrifice into Postmodern Culture

In a recent video presentation on The Eucharist as Sacrifice, Fr. Robert Barron contextualizes 'sacrifice' within the culture of 1st century Palestine. He underscores how the biblical language of sacrifice is received in the religious communities of early Christianity. He also laments the results of his survey of Catholics who largely interpret the Lamb of God as a metaphor for Jesus' gentleness and meekness. He therefore puts in the strong corrective, that, for Jesus's contemporaries, the image of the Lamb could only mean the immolation of Jesus as a sacrifice unto the remission of sins through the agency of His own priesthood.

In colloquial English, 'sacrifice' has many meanings and usages: we can observe a sacrifice fly in baseball, the sacrifice of lab rats that prepares them  for study, the sacrifices some make to achieve their goals, the sacrifices parents might make to benefit their (usually ungrateful) children, the Lenten sacrifices of stuff that's probably not good for us anyway, the sacrifice of soldiers serving abroad during the holidays, and the ultimate sacrifice they might someday make. Sacrality eludes some of these metaphorical usages of 'sacrifice," others are perhaps more in step with it. Few Americans, upon hearing the term, think of the sacrifice on Calvary some 2000 years ago, and what that might have meant then or what that might mean today.

The postmodern turn often dislodges meaning from signs, and signifers from signifieds. This slippage is fundamental to the tenuousness of meaning in contemporary culture (I mean this in a purely descriptive way, and not at all prescriptively). Meanings are lost, found, altered, renewed, rebuilt. Meaning is as unreliable as the culture that creates it. But this postmodern fluidity is more akin to premodern sensibility than to modernism, which always pretends to certainty. It is fascinating that the earliest iconographic sign system of Jesus is not of his crucifixion, but that of a shepherd. In these images, Jesus is the first Christopher, as he bears his symbolic self on his own shoulders, the burden of his sacrificial destiny. It is perhaps ultimately the Johannine Jesus depicted here, the 'good shepherd' of Jn. 10. He is shepherd and lamb, God and man (cf. Ps. 23). I find it hopeful that the hypostatic union cannot be deconstructed, as the sign is uncannily irreducible, its signifier unfloatable.

The Divine Liturgy and Sacrifice of the Mass certainly is, as Scott Hahn has noted, the supper of the lamb. It is the sacred meal of the lamb, for the lamb, of the shepherd, for his flock. All the meanings of 'sacrifice' perichoretically mingle, without confusion, as those at the banquet sacrifice their embrace of all the petty evils that distance them from God, placing them on the shoulders of the lamb, who takes them away. The liturgical and sacramental re-presentation of the event at Calvary has many effects, but one of its more profound effects is the transhistorical sweeping of those participating to the foot of the Cross. The victim is the same, as is the event, as is its finality: one sacrifice, once and for all.  It is a violent effect, perhaps nearly lethal: this very disruption of history unravels the modern insistence on the possibility of history itself, and modernism's own metanarrative. This deconstruction of history and its metanarrative parses the postmodern world, which asymptotically approaches its premodern antecedents,  reinventing the sacred, and sacrifice.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Matter of Irksome Emphasis

Fr. Barron’s wonderfully titled screed on Pope Francis’s becoming Time magazine’s Person of the Year, “Time’s Kantian Wedge” in Real Clear Religion (Dec. 12, 2013), focuses attention on the phenomenon of emphasis. As is his rhetorical wont, Fr. Barron gives his assent to many of the general observations of the current papacy; but then, characteristically (and I might add, effectively) slams on the brakes in hope of awakening a lulled public. Something about the media’s presentation of the pope has irked him.

 He decries the “tendency to distinguish radically between this lovely Franciscan emphasis on mercy and love for the poor and the apparently far less than lovely emphasis on doctrine so characteristic of the Papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is actually a good deal of dangerous silliness in this way of characterizing things.” While I am uncertain of just what a radical distinction is, or what is precisely undergoing this kind of distinguishing, certainly it has to do with the manner in which the secular press tries to embrace something about the pope’s message, while not embracing other aspects of the message---the religious stuff, the fundamentally Christian stuff. But what can the secular press embrace but the timeless humanism given a new face by the pope? The pope is evangelizing, not proselytizing: certainly Fr. Barron cannot have any real expectations of the secular press gettin’ religion. So, the secular press sticks to the secular; I don’t see that as an especially bad thing.

 Fr. Barron is also irked by the Kantian turn---the reduction of religion to ethics, especially as such a reduction sometimes reduces further to indifferentism: “ it doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you are a good person.” It is perhaps a bit unfair to trace all that is lukewarm in contemporary culture to Kant, but I concur with the general point that people of good will need not collapse all they hold true into a false irenicism. Authentic religion certainly matters, and differences are to be respected and understood in authentic dialogue, not dissolved by political expediency into distinctions without differences. Fr. Barron will be glad to know that contemporary philosophers have critically engaged the Kantian turn, in their various versions of object oriented ontology and speculative realism, especially in their dressing down of correlationism.

Kant never meant to be ignorant of history, and his philosphy is the antithesis of indifferentism, yet culture tends to have its way with its giants. And history is always more complicated than the episteme that generates it. Truth be told it sometimes irks me when my co-religionists see Vatican II as erasing Trent, only to be shocked that the Church still celebrates the Communion of Saints, or when my fellow Christians view this pope as espousing fundamentals of Catholic doctrine somehow different from his predecessors, yet are dumbfounded by ‘liberal’ pronouncements on the idolatry of money  that have been in  the magisterium for a hundred years. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sympathy, Empathy and Being-for-Others

As a palliative medicine specialist, I am often asked to comment on the human qualities of sympathy and empathy. In particular, the question is often how can we ‘teach’ those charged with caring for the seriously ill and dying to be more sympathetic, empathetic, or at least how to have these workers seem to be sympathetic, empathetic. There is the potential for great benefits here, benefits for all, especially if we work from a system in which we are most truly who we are as humans when we are being for the ‘other.’


First, I should define my terms: by sympathy I mean that human quality that enables us to participate compassionately in the feelings or suffering of another, to allow those feelings and suffering to resonate within and  between ourselves and the other person; by empathy, I mean that rather extraordinary human quality that enables us to experience the feelings or suffering of another. I do not wish to commit psychology here, but these terms cannot be synonymous, even though they both involve compassion and the ability to form a response to the suffering of ‘the other’. Further, making distinctions among the types of sympathy and empathy (e.g., affective and cognitive empathy), or discussing psycho-pathologies that eradicate the capacity for sympathy and empathy, are tasks for another place and time.


All human beings who are psychologically and spiritually intact are capable of sympathy and empathy, and these qualities are likely hard-wired into humanness itself. Still, unsympathetic and un-empathetic behaviors often come into play, and in clinical situations, can be detrimental to the well-being of patients, their families and co-workers. Certainly, when such behaviors occur during the care of the gravely ill and dying, the stakes are even higher, as time tends to subvert recovery. These behaviors often result from misapprehending the situation, poor prioritization of needs, and a shift away from the other to the self. Workers who display such behaviors are not psychologically ill or otherwise pathological, but often preoccupied with a distorted hierarchy of needs.


Apart from educating professional and family care-givers caring for the seriously ill and dying (hospice patients, for example) in a patient-centered value system, and prioritizing the needs of the sufferer other over and against the needs of a beleaguered worker who simply has to get to the next patient, what else can be done to bring such caregivers in touch with their innate capabilities to sympathize and empathize?


Permit me to borrow a concept from early Christian literature: kenosis. From the Christological hymn in Philippians 2, the concept is one of self-emptying; moreover, it is a directed self-emptying, an emptying whose purpose is to take on another nature. A brief consideration of the text would be helpful:


Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. [NIV, Phl 2:3-8]

The phrase, ‘made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant’ captures the concept of kenosis nicely. Theologically, of course, the passage cannot be read as an exchange of the divine for the human, but rather as a divine accommodation of another nature. The Christological and soteriological richness notwithstanding, the process of kenosis can be utilized, at least metaphorically, to bring people in touch with their own capacity for sympathy and empathy.

So, then, can sympathy, empathy and compassion be taught? Perhaps: to the extent that a caregiver can participate in the metaphor of kenosis, he can conceptualize his own self-emptying to allow room for the participation in the feelings, emotions and suffering of the ‘other;’ more specifically, to make room for those feelings of the ‘other’ within himself. Through this confrontation with the suffering of the other within himself, an appropriate response can be formulated and expressed as a sympathetic/empathetic gesture or word. Thought of in this way, sympathy and empathy can be related by degree, or on a continuum, rather than by essence: the greater the emptying, the likelier it becomes to move from compassionate participation and well-wishing to actual experience of and responding to the suffering in the ‘other’. In this way, the move from sympathy to empathy is less paradigmatic, and more syntagmatic, less a change of scene, and more an extended viewing along the horizon. This process is of course easier to state than implement, but considering the task before caregivers and the needs of the seriously ill and dying, the process is well-worth the attempt.

 Coda: For non-religious caregivers, no theological point need be made, but rather a participation in the celebration of the wonder and beauty of being human. For religious caregivers, and perhaps especially for Christian caregivers, the theological, Christological and soteriological depths of this kind of imitatio Christi can be fulfilling beyond the joy of humanism. Indeed, self-actualization, emotional and spiritual growth, and participation in individual and collective humanity are merely the surfaces of being ourselves and being true to ourselves by being for others.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Daughter of the Vain

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” [Judges 11:30-31,NIV]

Some have felt compelled to soften Jephthah’s vow to contain an ‘either/or’ clause, allowing it contain some kind of a choice: so the sense of the vow is something like, I will either dedicate it to the Lord or sacrifice it. No serious translation permits that kind of manipulation. The Hebrew idiom is crystal clear, and the Greek and Latin translations are equally clear and faithful to the original Hebrew. The NIV has it just about right, and retains the sense of the original and the best translations. Whatever or whoever emerges from the door of Jephthah’s house will yield its life to a vow of a burnt offering.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter.  When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”
“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.” [Judges 11:34-36, NIV]

The nameless, only child of Jephthah emerges from his door, his only daughter, his only progeny, his only posterity. The text allows for the daughter to learn about the vow at the moment the father utters his first words on his arrival, but there seems to be additional knowledge in the daughter’s reply: she knows about the victory over the Ammonites (Jephthah passes through Mizpah on the way to fight the Ammonites but does not make his vow until he is about to face them). It is doubtful that news arrives at Mizpah prior to Jephthah’s  return in person. Moreover, she seems to know the content of the vow as well, hence her request for a period of mourning.

The defeat of the Ammonites is essentially a foregone conclusion. Jephthah and his ruthless band of the vain roll over their enemy in a blitzkrieg. Who is Jephthah, and who are his fellow warriors?

His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. [Judges 11:1-3, NIV]

“Scoundrels” is a reasonable word selection in English for the Hebrew  reyq, in its sense of worthless, wicked and morally impoverished. It would appear that Gilead’s legitimate heirs are thinking of these qualities of their half-brother and his comitatus when they enlist his services in their defense. The calculating Jephthah now has his opportunity to restore what he believes to be his birthright, and closes the deal with his estranged and distracted family:

…when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel,  the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”
Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”
The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.”
Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?”
 The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.”  So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. [Judges 11:4-11, NIV].

The Gileadites offer lordship to Jephthah, who confirms their commitment ; they in turn make Jephthah their head and commander; and the restoration of his birthright will be ratified by his victory over the Ammonites and the blood of his daughter.

The “Lord” is remarkably silent in Judges 11. The Gileadites simply acknowledge the ‘witness’ of the Lord, and Jephthah’s vow is rather unilateral. Is the victory over the Ammonites the response of the “Lord” or the result of bloodlust on the battlefield and in the home? The disenfranchised Jephthah, cast off by his family, finds his way in the company of the wicked: he becomes the leader of the worthless and violent, and apparently gains some notoriety for becoming a ruthless warrior, and the master of ruthless warriors. His vows are as vain as his company of men, and beget only more blood. What can the Gileadites expect from Jephthah, now without heir by his own doing. In the beginning his posterity was ripped from him by the sons of Gilead’s wife, in the end his posterity bleeds to death by his own hand.

A story about rightful restoration and righteous vows carried out, easily becomes a story of a lost man who loses everything twice. Traditional readings sometimes yield to readings that approach from the edges of narrative. The only righteous story, the story of Israel, goes unheeded by the Ammonites, who also are feeling somewhat disenfranchised. They share their end with their vanquisher.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Truth and the Common Good

While reading Pope Francis's first encylical, I was reminded of Chris Carter's admonition: 'the truth is out there.' The thematic angst that unified his series The X-files is akin to the fear of a totalizing truth that informs free and democratic peoples and governments. Lumen Fidei drives to the heart of the unspoken hermeneutic of suspicion brought to bear on 'the truth:'

Truth nowadays is often reduced to the subjective authenticity of the individual, valid only for the life of the individual. A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems. But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. Since it is born of love, it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman. Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all [II, 34].

Francis speaks of a truth that is not arrived, has not yet been received: a truth in potentiality. Such a truth is poised to embrace the 'common good' in its availability to the 'encounter with the Other.' The pope inverts the relationship between truth and the individual as it resides in contemporary discouse by relocating it outside the subjectivity of the individual.

This truth is what faith is made of. In explicating Is. 7 [II, 23ff], the pope describes King Ahaz's dilemma.  Isaiah advises the king that faith in God, not an alliance with the Assyrians, will secure his interests. By grounding Ahaz in the memory of a trustworthy and faithful God, Isaiah prepares the king for a living faith buttressed by knowledge and truth. And so we moderns too are challenged and admonished to stand in faith, or, perhaps not stand at all.

In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings. Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, yet these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good. But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion [II, 25].

Modernism loves its meta-narrative. Science and technology are its gods, and its methods and products are its religions. The truth is whatever works; were it to stop working, another truth will take its place. Apart from the immense practically of such an applied pragmatism, the resultant relativism of any idea of a 'common good' astonishes even the most complacent among us. Most cynically, the common good is whatever the economic and political currents determine it to be. Modernism cannot finally look to an overarching human project, just the many projects that emerge from time to time in election cycles or corporate strategic planning, even as technology, seeking meaningful application, sometimes provides little more than bland palliation.

Lumen Fidei seeks to contextualize radical faith not within any given culture but within authentic truth and knowledge. Indeed, faith without both is not salvific, but merely sentiment. Moreover, the encyclical grounds faith, knowledge and truth in memory as an antidote for a certain collective amnesia of the past, of tradition, of God's breaking into the created order, God's entering into history. Indeed, this document presents an invitation to ways of knowing beyond pure empiricism and pure reason.

My purpose in this post cannot be to comment completely on the systematic development that structures Lumen Fidei. Rather, I mentioned a few of its observations and exhortations. Much will be said of the encyclical, for it is the nexus between two papacies (I see no reason to doubt the assertions that Benedict had a palpable hand in this document, continuing as it does in the style and themes of Deus Caritas Est ), and it is so very pastoral in its message.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Postmodernism and the Marginalization of Causes

Fr. Barron ingeniously traces the dilemmas in modern art and ethics to the marginalization of the Aristotelian formal and final causes ( The 'modern turn' so 'hyper-stress[ed]' the remaining material and efficient causes that, outside the sciences where such emphases resulted in astonishing progress, art and ethics (=morality) could not sustain the greatness of their pasts, but were left no other course but decline.

While it is unclear exactly what kind of esthetic is brought to bear in Fr. Barron's discussion, he seems to be pointing to a kind of disfigurement that has enthralled art and ethics since the 17th century. Moreover, it appears that such disfigurement is informed by caricature: it's not that objectivity of form is eradicated, but shifted to the objectification of subjectivity; it's not that freedom is embraced, but freedom becomes indiscriminate license.

The postmodern turn looks to the margins. Though the contemporary mind seems not to think in Aristotelian categories,  it certainly can understand them: so, too, with causes. The category of 'artist' must have political import indeed if art is 'whatever the artist spits out.' Still, there is good and poor art, just as there are good and poor artists.

Whether the artist has lost faith in art as an imitation of nature, or has become suspicious of objective form, or lost confidence in such forms to convey the novel emotions/emotional contexts driven by the discoveries of modernism, seem inconsequential to the persistence of the artistic desire for, and gesture of, creation.  Perhaps it is here, in the creative impulse,  in the desire to create, where all artists of all times meet, and where contemporary art meets formal and final causes. Here, at the margins, the essential structures are found not out there but in here, the finality not radiant and harmonious but tentative and discordant.

Ethical issues can certainly become fractured when the meanings of finalities are contextual only---tentative, even discordant in competing values and senses of the good. The Catholic certainly values freedom, but of a different stripe than mere license. For the Catholic, freedom is only authentic and radical when it is oriented to its source and shaped by radical responsibility. Freedom reduced to license is hopelessly fettered by seeking the nearest good---immediate gratification, without recourse to conscience. Freedom raised to responsibility is love in actions performed by moral agents.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fr. Barron's Small Interpretive Universe

In  the daunting task of evangelizing the culture, even Fr. Barron gets called out on strikes from time to time. His uncharacteristically supercilious dismissal of Episcopal Bishop Katherine Jefferts Shori's recent sermon on Acts 16 betrays a surprisingly small interpretive universe. Coming from perhaps a feminist perspective, the bishop searches the margins of the text to deconstruct Paul's exasperation, an interesting technique that shifts the focus from a traditional reading of the story to something edgy and disconcerting. Whether the bishop is a systematic feminist or not is really not the question here: rather, Fr. Barron's reading comes to the fore, particularly the liberties he himself takes with the text.

Perhaps Fr. Barron's reading hinges on one point: his translation/interpretation of the slave girl's 'spirit.' Though he asserts this spirit to be evil, a 'demon', the text is spectacularly unclear about this: Luke gives us a "spirit of divination" (pneuma pythona): the term pythona, though a hapax legomenon in the Greek New Testament, is used rather casually here, and given Luke's available diction, not charged with evil, demonic possession, even though it very likely suggests pagan cult. The text gives no particular reason to associate this spirit with other evil spirits of possession elsewhere in Luke-Acts, or for that matter, in the NT. The ambiguity inherent in this single occurrence of pythona opens the door to Shori's use of the text, while it underscores Fr. Barron's rather stingy critique of "beggar[ing] belief."

I am less interested in the bishop's approach and assertions in her 'loopy' sermon than in Fr. Barron's missed opportunity to really engage the culture here. Here was an entry into postmodern thinking, a road not taken. Why not look on the margins of the text, on the margins of biblical society: Jesus seems to do that all the time. While I would not play with the loaded gun of Jesus's anachronistic feminism, I would note that love does indeed seek out the margins. And while the bishop's remarks might be over the top, I see no reason to beat her over the head with her own sermon. Sermons are like that: ephemeral, plastic, contextual.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Predicates of God

As is painfully obvious, the God discussion, especially as it pertains to the 'new atheism' (or even the real atheism), rarely gets off the ground before the problems of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology and religion can be sorted out. The ungenerous, and often crass remarks that ensue when, for example, Fr. Barron addresses the 'flying spaghetti monster' underscore the lack of patience some have when 'being itself' is substituted into religious gestures, such as prayer and other forms of worship. Fr. Barron must at some time make the connections for the atheists: that is the religious sense of all the data, but I digress...

Believers have no such difficulties with the predicates of God. Why should that be? Certainly this cannot be the moment for revisiting notions of the elect, so what is the operative difference between how believers and atheists hear this kind of language?

I would suggest that it is a matter of resources: the believer taps into the capacity for transcendence, and the atheist taps into logical positivism. Speaking for myself only, I hear the predicates of God through my experience of the transcendent: a moment of an experience of the abyss, in which one either meets The Absolute, or its opposite. Because I am psychiatrically intact, and confident that I am not mad, I deem that experience as 'true.' Is this my 'invisible friend'? No, it is that existential moment when I am at my most human: psychologically, physiologically, evolutionarily, genetically, spiritually human.

So what can then be 'its opposite'? I suppose something like 'the big nothing' which leaves no safe space other than the likes of positivism. Because postitivism denies any other way of knowing beyond its borders, it simply asserts that there is nothing beyond its borders. That seems at best intellectually dishonest.