Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gonzalez: The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 1. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

This is a good little (429 pages) survey of the history of the Church up to the Protestant Reformation. Gonzalez's perspective is Protestant (sometimes, explicitly so), and so, it seems, is his intended audience, but his telling and interpretation are fair even if Catholic or Orthodox Christians would quibble with the latter at some points. In contrast to Johnson, he draws a sympathetic--though not un-critical--portrait of the great personalities and events of the first 1500 years of Christianity. I found little to dislike and plan to mine his suggestions for further reading for ideas.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Name's Day


Fili carissime, imprimis te doceo quod Dominum Deum tuum diligas ex toto corde tuo et ex tota virtute tua; nam sine hoc non est salus.

We celebrated my feast day in our preferred manner: a quiet evening at home with cocktails, dinner, vespers and a walk. To show off to my wife, I haltingly translated St. Louis's "Spiritual Testament" out of the Officium Lectionis. (Someone more knowledgeable than I would have to say whether the Latin text there [from the Acta Sanctorum] is the original or a translation from Old French(?). I suppose Latin would have been the language for official communication, but I'm a little uncertain of the full context of this letter. Anyway, a more capable English translation can be found at the bottom of this page.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dawson: Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

Dawson, Christopher. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Christopher Dawson seeks out an explanation for the European achievement by tracing the relationship between religion and culture through the Christianization of the barbarians, the rise of the Carolingian and Byzantine orders to the great Western movement toward reform and unity that brought about the apex of Papal power, the mendicant orders and the university.

Dawson views the dualism between cultural leadership and political power, which emerged as the Roman Empire declined in the West and the Church was left as the teacher and law-giver to the barbarian peoples, as the particular source of the dynamism and freedom that has marked European culture. This dualism of sacred and secular power created an internal tension which was a fertile source of criticism and change, leading to a series of renaissances.

Dawson sees the fullest expression of the medieval synthesis in the city life which re-emerged beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The medieval city, marked by the development of communes and guilds, is "a pattern of Christian society as we find it in Thomist theory," according to Ernst Troeltsch (Dawson, 162): a complex hierarchical organism, yet without total subordination or slavery. It was a community of communities, where liberties and rights applied equally to the whole and the parts:
For the medieval idea of liberty, which finds its highest expression in the life of the free cities, was not the right of the individual to follow his own will, but the privilege of sharing in a highly organized form of corporate life which possessed its own constitution and rights of self-government. (172-173).
At the same time, the movement toward greater unity and intellectual synthesis bore fruit in the medieval universities and the mendicant orders--both with the encouragement and direction of a Papacy allied with the movement for reform.

Due to several factors, this synthesis ultimately fell apart. The victory of the Papacy in its struggle with the Empire and its use of temporal power for the end of spiritual reform led to new temptations and problems, tarnishing its moral prestige to the point where it lost leadership of the reform movement. Simultaneously, the rise of the new monarchies threatened the international elements in European culture and the movement toward intellectual synthesis reversed itself.

Still, it is the medieval university that brought about the formation of the professional intellectual classes, which have ever since dominated Western culture, and the medieval scholastic discipline that is the source of the critical intelligence and scientific enquiry, which came to differentiate European thought. Contrary to the impression produced upon the modern mind by the Renaissance humanist and Enlightenment critique of the remnants of the medieval synthesis, it is precisely here--rather than in distant Greece or Rome--that we find the emergence of the distinctive spirit of the West.

My sense is that, since the substance of this book was first given as the Gifford Lectures of 1948-49, Dawson's broader conception of the roots of Western thought have gained some ground as the presuppositions of the Enlightenment have fallen under greater scrutiny. I found, for instance, a similar emphasis on the importance of the medieval reform in Charles Taylor's explanation of the emergence of modern secularity in A Secular Age, without, as far as I recall, any direct dependence on Dawson--Taylor seemed to be simply interacting with other prominent explanations of modernity. This still hasn't kept generations of students from being taught the history of Western civilization as the two bright lights of the ancient world and our own age separated by a mostly irrelevant interlude of ignorance and superstition. Thus, Dawson's work remains an important corrective to popular misconceptions.

My only major criticism would be that I found myself wishing that some of the threads had been a little better resolved, but this probably due to the format more than anything else, and I sense that if I had read its predecessor, Religion and Culture, which contains Dawson's lectures from the previous year, I would have had a better sense of the larger ideas he was getting at, as this volume represents, in some sense, a case study for illustrating the theories outlined in that book.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Von Balthasar, A Theology of History

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. A Theology of History. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994.

A Theology of History examines the relationship between time and eternity and between this particular and the universal in Christ. Following von Balthasar's argument was, in places, a bit difficult for me, but his insights usually make the work worthwhile.

I found the third chapter, "Christ the Norm of History", particularly good (or particularly to my theological taste, anyway). Von Balthasar discusses how the individual historical existence of Christ is universalized through the action of the Holy Spirit under three aspects: in the life of Christ himself, in relating Christ to the Church in every age, particularly through the sacraments, and in creating the missions of the Church and the individual as applications of the life of Christ. While the first and third of these aspects is personal and the second is sacramental, the three are interwoven, for
the personal in Christ can only confront the personal in the individual Christian in union with what appears to be impersonal, the Church and the sacraments. But at the same time everything in the sacramental order has to be embedded in the personal level, as mediation and encounter, as a gesture expressing personal intention, and hence it always communicates personal, historical graces and creates personal, historical situations.(83)