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.