Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Politics and Presidential Passion

James K.A. Smith recently blogged about Mark Lilla'  NYT article regarding Obama's overly intellectualized engagement with the world.  As Smith summarizes, Obama and others "lapse into the rationalist whine about people being governed by their passions and keep hoping they'll be be "rational" like us (we're not)." Instead, Obama and the democratic party need to understand that the way to lead is "to harness, direct, and channel the passions."

I want to make two quick comments.  First, Lilla criticizes Obama for having the wrong "underlying assumption about human nature."  For Lilla, the problem is ultimately intellectual:  if Obama had the correct intellectual understanding of human nature, he would engage in politics differently (meaning correctly, like us).  Thus, Lilla's critique ends up performing the same mistake he criticizes:  he tacitly assumes that core force behind Obama's "intellectualism" is intellectual (and even provides an intellectual history of the mistaken idea).  No attempt is made to consider why Obama might resort to a detached,  intellectualized description of the democratic losses.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Silencing Speech, Speaking in Tongues: Bonhoeffer and the Beginning of Theology

"Teaching about Christ begins in silence."  D. Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer begins his lectures--transcribed and formed into the book Christ the Center--with these words on the silent beginning of theology.  It's a complicated opening.

The silence that precedes "teaching about Christ" cannot be discerned before this teaching actually commences.  Not all silences are this silent beginning:  the silent foreground of teaching "has nothing to do with the silence of the mystics, who in the their dumbness chatter away secretly in their soul by themselves" (27).  The only way to distinguish "proper silence" (27) from this silent "chatter" is to refer to what follows this silence (teaching about Christ or self-enclosed chatter).  It thus seems that theology has no beginning, for its proper beginning--silence--is constituted only after theology is already under way; and its commencement (teaching) can only begin properly, as real theology and not empty chatter, out of a proper silence (which is absent when it begins, or is its absent beginning).  "To speak of Christ means to keep silent; to keep silent about Christ means to speak.  When the Church speaks rightly out of a proper silence, then Christ is proclaimed" (27).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Promise and Failure of "the Secular"

One of the strange features in the Milbank article discussed in my previous post was his mention of the necessity to physically defend "the physical space" of the church "in the name of secular justice."  This surprising endorsement of "the secular" reminded me of a working document released a little while ago by the Roman Catholic Church, on the Church in the Middle East.  This document laments the lack of the separation of religion from politics in the Middle East and proposes the necessity of a secular government (modeled on European forms of religion, secularity, and government of course).  It seems a surprising move coming at a time when the pope is encouraging Europe to reconstitute itself through a return to Christian roots and the abandonment of secularism.