Tim O’Malley on Contemplation

Very thankful for Tim O’Malley’s article this morning.

The middle paragraphs on contemplation are extremely well-stated: terms such as “marinate” and “takes time” are deeply satisfying to me.

Of course, even Plato’s Line (end of Bk VI of the Republic) makes it clear that nous (intellectus) is distinct from dianoia (ratio), and this has huge implications for Christian contemplation. CS Lewis has a good section on this in The Discarded Image. (The good strains of 20th-century philosophical hermeneutics are allies here, IMO, especially the likes of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricouer, who emphasize meaning over scientific rationality.) Augustine’s portrayal of the time-laden process of reading a Psalm (Confessions XI), further, shows the Christian emphasis on textual (possibly even narratival) “dianoia” (moving through one element at a time, in the spirit of Thomas’ componendo et dividendo), an aspect to which O’Malley alludes.

Good stuff. Thanks be to God!

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Coakley, Theology, & Wigan Pier

I find Sarah Coakley’s program of theologie totalé scintillating and encouraging. Her emphasis on the necessity of ascetic contemplation for theology, together with her sober admission of the validity of various modern, secular critiques is just what is needed for theology to remain vital and credible today.

And yet I do have a couple of questions, which emerge from chapter two of God, Sexuality, and the Self. In particular I have qualms about her schematization of three theological positions which she aims to criticize: from most “conservative” to most “revisionist,” they are represented by Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul) and Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a., Joseph Ratzinger); John Milbank; and Sallie McFague (see 74 n. 6).

Coakley thinks that these three theological approaches are like the Wigan Pier near Manchester, England (derided by Goerge Orwell), in that they are, to put it simply, fake. They try to ignore the receding of the “sea of faith” away from the shores of culture, heralded by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem Dover Beach, promoting themselves are “the real deal.” Just as Wigan Pier is a false sea-side resort, then, these three theological approaches are mere imitations of real spirituality, implies Coakley.

Coakley associates the first two positions in their purportedly blind rejection of modern, secular philosophy and the sociology upon which it is built. (This “post-Kantianism” agrees with Kant that God cannot be known “speculatively in a ‘scientific’ metaphysics” [77 n. 8].) While Coakley herself is not simply a proponent of McFague’s (third) approach or indeed the post-Kantianism upon which it relies, she does take the first two positions (above) to task in their (purported) blunt denial of secular critique, the first on the basis of anti-relativism (a moral objection) and the latter on the basis of more intellectual criticisms. Coakley thinks that this shared posture results in a refusal to acknowledge the often embarrassing “messy entanglements and detritus” of the lived experience of actual religious communities, in which oppression occurs, often in the name of normative “orthodoxy.”

Yet I have two qualms with–or at least questions about–Coakley’s categorization: one regarding Radical Orthodoxy (the second position) and the other with respect to Ressourcement theology (with which Ratzinger, a figure head for Coakley’s first position, is closely allied).

Consider Graham Ward’s essay, “The Displaced Body of Christ” in Radical Orthodoxy, published in 1999. I will not here describe that essay, but Ward’s emphasis on the transient suffering and abuse of the poorest of the poor–with whom, argues Ward, Christ identifies–surely strikes a chord distinct from Coakley’s characterization of RO. Or again, what of William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, with its extended and harrowing exposé of the ecclesiastically sanctioned Pinochet regime in Chile? True, Cavanaugh is no liberation theologian, but his description is surely not guilty of turning a blind eye to the suffering and the “lived experience” of those wounded by Pinochet’s evil hypocrisy.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Coakley seems to forget the fact that, as Milbank states in the introduction to Theology and Social Theory, RO speaks with the voice of Nietzsche. Coakley suggests that RO is deaf to the hermeneutics of suspicion, yet Nietzsche–arguably the inventor of such criticism–is a chief muse of this movement!

For these reasons Coakley’s characterization of Radical Orthodoxy fails to persuade me, despite my profound respect for her overall project.

My second qualm concerns Benedict XVI, who has been shown to have close ties to the Ressourcement movement of such luminaries as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthassar. This connection is clear among other ways in the common involvement in the founding of the Communio journal on the part of all three 20th-century theologians. Further, does Coakley think that these Ressourcement architects of Vatican II are so fearful of moral relativism that the resulting stance is one of obscurantism? (Such a claim would be odd, since during the Vatican II discussions, many accused these thinkers themselves of relativism.) If not, then it would appear that Ratzinger is vindicated, since he himself threw in his lot with them (see Ayers, Kelly, and Humphries, “Benedict XVI: a Ressourcement Theologian?, in Flynn and Murray, eds., Ressourcement: a Movement for Renewed Twentieth-century Catholic Theology).

In short, I support Coakley’s vision, especially with its passionate insistence on the necessity of contemplation. I even admit that RO needs to hear and heed this call. Yet in her attempt to provide foils against which to perceive her own stance, I fear that she has painted with too broad a brush.

(One final thought: I’d suggest that the posture of Ratzinger, de Lubac, Balthassar, and Milbank, in their attitudes toward post-Kantian secular critique of tradition is infinessimally alined with someone like Paul Ricouer, himself a hair’s breadth, I’d argue from Gadamer. Would Coakley be critical of him in the same way she is critical of the former thinkers? I see that she cites Ricoeur twice later in her book. Thus to this issue I will plan later to return.)

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