Benardete on Racine and “Useless Courage”

In the interview-style book, Encounters and Reflections, the late classicist Seth Benardete recalls his time as tutor at St. John’s College, which included reading Jean Racine’s Phèdre in his French course. It is brief enough to post in full.

Seth [Benardete]: …But actually the Phèdre turned out to be rather interesting.

Ronna [Burger]: Do you remember why?

Seth: Well, I immediately realized that this was Racine’s presentation of the difference between Paganism and Christianity.

Robert [Berman]: The difference being?

Seth: He makes one slight shift in the story at the end, which is when the monster comes out of the sea to destroy Hippolytus. The narrator says,“Hippolytus faced the monster with useless courage. But everyone else took refuge in a neighboring temple.” This is Augustine’s view of ancient virtue, that it really is a claim to having a power which you don’t have in yourself, whereas everybody else relies on God. And then it turns out that what I realized must have been true, because Racine gave up writing pagan plays and went to Port Royal and wrote Jansenist plays, with Biblical stories. This was a turning point.

Kwasniewski on Vocal and Mental Prayer

Peter Kwasniewski, writing over at New Liturgical Movement, has an interesting piece up: “The Denigration of Vocal Prayer in the Name of ‘Mental Prayer’: A Recipe for Disaster.” Written primarily from a Latin perspective, Kwasniewski contrasts devotio antiqua and devotio moderna, not so much to denigrate the latter but rather vindicate the former. Without trying to repeat the author’s findings, let me say that I agree with Kwasniewski’s assessment that the Divine Office in the contemporary Roman Church “has fallen on hard times” and this despite the fact that the Liturgy of the Hours (the preferred post-Vatican II name) has been available in the vernacular in decades and is far more accessible from a cost standpoint than Breviarium Romanum ever was. It stands to reason that more lay Catholics recite at least some of the approved Office now more than at any other point in history, though typically in private. Few parishes celebrate any of the Liturgy of the Hours publicly and the 1962 office is a rara avis even in traditionalist circles. Those traditional Catholics I know who recite at least some of the old breviary do so at home.

In Byzantine circles, whether Orthodox or Greek Catholic, communal liturgical prayer is more common, but probably not as common as some profess. For Orthodox following the “Slavic tradition,” Saturday Vespers before the Sunday Divine Liturgy is commonplace; larger parishes or those attached to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) often celebrate Vigil (Vespers, Matins, and First Hour) with varying degrees of completeness. Orthodox following the “Greek tradition” typically find Sunday Matins celebrated in truncated form prior to the Divine Liturgy; many Arab Orthodox parishes follow this route as well. Greek Catholics, at least in the United States, have some catching-up to do. Thankfully, the situation has improved in recent years. (For what it is worth, when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Vespers was almost unheard of, and Matins was often reduced to a few hymns such as the Great Doxology.)

Of course, the offering of these services does not mean they are well attended. In Russian parishes, Vigil is also the time for hearing confessions, which means people will be moving in and out of church throughout the service. In those parishes I frequented that offered Saturday Vespers, it was a “good night” when 20% of those who would be at the next morning’s liturgy were there; often the percentage was between 5-10. Many Slavic parishes will also have the Third and Sixth hours recited before the Divine Liturgy, but often they are “background noise” as people arrive.

Reciting the Byzantine Office privately is a chore, but less so now than 10-20 years ago. For Greek Catholics, the Eparchy of Stamford and Eastern Christian Publications have published English-language editions of the Horologion (Chasoslov) that include as much material as practicable for reciting the daily office without additional books. For the Orthodox, Saint Ignatius Orthodox Press has done the same. Those with more ambitious budgets, whether Catholic or Orthodox, can now find a variety of translations of the Horologion, Octoechos, Menaion, Triodion, Penetcostarion, and Psalter available. However, the complexity of Byzantine rubrics and the length of the services themselves make reciting the office a daunting task for any except the most hardened liturgical nerds.

An open question, I suppose, is what (if any) impact the preference for mental over vocal prayer has had in Eastern Christianity. While the tradition of monastics reciting the Jesus Prayer repeatedly in private (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is ancient, opinions differ on its contemporary prevalence among the laity. Various rules, such as those printed in old Slavonic Psalters still used by Russian Old Ritualists, indicate how many Jesus Prayers can be recited in place of the liturgical hours, though it is unclear how many ever followed these prescriptions. Moreover, some Eastern Christians, particularly Orthodox, take a low view of Western devotio moderna and mental prayer in general, seeing it as little more than a gateway to prelest (spiritual delusion/deception). Often ignored in these polemics is the extent to which modern Western devotional works such as Thomas Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat influenced post-medieval Orthodox spirituality. That’s a quagmire to be waded into at another time, I suppose.

A Few Words on John P. Meier

John P. Meier, the Catholic priest and Biblical scholar, passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 80. His last academic post was the University of Notre Dame, though he had made a name for himself during his tenure at Catholic University of America with the publication of A Marginal Jew, a massive five-volume work on the so-called “historical Jesus” that was never completed. Meier was working on the sixth volume at the time of his repose.

I make mention of Meier’s passing for two reasons. First, his magnum opus has been on my reading list for some time and so in “honor” of his legacy, I read the first volume and am currently engaged with the second. The second, and maybe more important reason I bring this up in a brief post, is that I am increasingly perplexed at the fever-pitched hostility many of my coreligionists have for that field which may generally be called “critical-historical studies.” Granted, much work on the “historical Jesus,” particularly in the 19th century, was animated by an “Enlightenment spirit” that often carried deep anti-Catholic, to say nothing of anti-Christian, prejudices. (Old Testament scholarship during this period and on into the 20th century exhibited strong anti-Jewish biases as well.) As Meier notes throughout the first volume of A Marginal Jew, “historical Jesus” studies in the early-to-mid 20th century were colored by existentialist philosophy and no doubt Meier’s own work, and the work of his contemporaries, carry ideological baggage. What is refreshing about Meier’s study is how open he is about all of this. With more than a touch of humor and engaging stylistic flourishes that are sorely missed in academic prose, Meier makes his case for a plausible, but always tentative portrait of Jesus of Nazareth based on the limited, but not insubstantial, sources available to us. As Meier routinely reminds readers, the “historic Jesus” of A Marginal Jew (or any other critical-historical work) is not and cannot be the “real Jesus,” that is, Jesus as He actually was in all facets of His life on earth. And just in case you were wondering, Meier does not, and adamantly maintains he cannot, say anything for or against the “Jesus of faith,” that is, the Anointed One of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

So, what value does a work like Meier’s have for a professing Christian, particularly a professing Catholic? Before I answer that question in detail in future posts, let me “warn” anyone thinking of engaging with Meier’s work that they are apt to uncover some “impieties” to the extent that Meier rests his often-tentative case on what the limited historical record may show us. Several cornerstone elements of the Gospels, such as the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, are not, by Meier’s lights, historically reliable and therefore cannot adequately demonstrate that Jesus was born outside of Nazareth. Similarly, the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters indicate that they were His biological siblings—a conclusion that runs up against the Church’s longstanding profession of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Alongside these revelations, which may startle some, are needful refreshers such as the fact Jesus’ skillset almost certainly included more than working with wood; that His mundane vocation required him to be physically robust; and that while He came from an obscure backwater town, Jesus was likely literate and probably even knew enough Greek to engage in commerce.

Nobody has to believe any of this, of course. Meier tells what I would call a “good story” backed up by a defensible methodology conservatively applied to a particular set of texts and secondary material. It would be foolish for anyone to take Meier’s learned word as gospel truth, rejecting along the way the vivid image the Gospels portray of the Son of God. Meier is not out to challenge the Faith even if what he concludes can, at times, be challenging for those reared on a form of Biblical literalism that is less defensible than the pious but unlikely theory that Matthew, not Mark, was the first Gospel written. Certainly, Meier’s work, like the work of most critical-historical scholars, is open for misinterpretation and abuse. Meier does a better job than many trying to undercut that opportunity, but he could only control what he could control. What readers can and ought to manage is their own expectations for what Meier’s works can tell us while tempering any temptation to overact against a fascinating though necessarily imperfect academic undertaking.

Oh, “Spirituality”

I rarely write on anything of a “spiritual nature” for the simple fact that I do not consider myself a spiritual person or, rather, I find my “spirituality” (however narrowly or broadly defined) tepid. This has never been truer since I started to (re-)attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) after a long period away. I was never convinced that I needed AA and a significant part of me resists it even now. Were it not for my sponsor, an eminently sensible veteran of the program who effectively blends good humor with a serious commitment to sobriety, I would have left (again). Having dipped my toes in other “recovery”/sobriety programs (I dislike the word “recovery” for alcoholism, but I’ll save that for another time), none have struck me as immediately superior to AA’s 12-step approach and all of them share some commonalities with it. Even when I was attending an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for alcoholism, I found a good deal of overlap between it and AA. In private therapy sessions I was encouraged to add AA onto the 10 plus hours of IOP. There was to be no quick turnaround that would allow me to avoid AA.

I do not intend here to be critical of AA despite still harboring reservations. There may come a time and a place to say more about the program, but now is not that time. I would never discourage any soul from attending AA if they believed they needed it. In fact, I have started to believe that those who claim they do not need it or any other program are the ones who could receive considerable benefit from not merely going to meetings, but actively engaging in the Twelve Steps. As I am fond of telling newcomers at so-called “First Step” meetings (i.e., the “initiation meeting” where a first-time attendee is directly spoken to by other members about their experiences with the program), “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” There are good meetings, bad meetings, and in-between meetings. Some people like to use meetings to tell “war stories” about how drunk they got one night or have a good laugh at themselves or others over drunken follies. There are some where people routinely shed tears and even a few where almost nobody talks at all. At almost every meeting I have attended, I have heard at least one thing that stuck with me and more than a few that have helped me turn away from the liquor store entrance. That also means I have encountered plenty of excuses, faux wisdom, self-justificatory rhetoric, and outright lies. Afflicted as I am with a tendency to “make faces” when I hear raw nonsense, AA compels disciplined listening; I rarely like it, but I imagine I am better for it.

Circling back to the beginning, the reason I mention spirituality and AA is because the program is shot through with “spirituality,” albeit of a mundane sort that should be unrecognizable to most devout Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. AA’s “spirituality” can (and I would argue should) be enhanced by the true spirituality available only through faith in God. While God is mentioned throughout AA’s Twelve Steps and its attendant literature, it is typically “[g]od as we [i.e., individual AA members] understood [h]im.” On one hand, this is a harmless formulation insofar as it acknowledges that different AA members have different religious backgrounds. On the other, it risks (and often leads to) making God out to be little more than an “imaginary friend” who is there to give members a boost when the going gets tough. Any “spirituality” that emanates from such a low point is not one I care to be associated with and yet it surrounds me day in and day out. I find my current incapacity to transcend it to be indicative of a grave pneumatic defect that has yet to be corrected.

Maybe things have not gotten so bad as to render me “a-spiritual,” but judging by my recent reading habits, which include everything from the Russian classic The Way of the Pilgrim to Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises to a number of anthologies of other spiritual traditions, it is possible I am showing signs of desperation—but I am far from being without hope. If my current trajectory has taught me anything, it is the simple fact, obvious to many but too often lost on me, that I cannot will myself to be more than a shadow Christian; I must trust in God. If someone were to tell me that sounds impossible, especially today in this “worst of all possible worlds” (Elon Musk now owns Twitter!), I would be tempted to agree. Many things that are not tied up with a joyless consumer-driven existence fueled by incessant feelings of anger, fear, and inadequacy probably do sound impossible. God’s love, from which all authentic hope flows, seems like the most impossible thing of all.

And yet it is unfathomably true.

Jacob Taubes

I stand before the universe a less embarrassed man today. For it appears that I am in good company among those temporarily fascinated, if not intellectually seduced, by the late Jacob Taubes. Having first gleaned he was an academic charlatan from comments made by Seth Benardete in his book-length interview, Encounters and Reflections, I stopped paying Taubes much mind over a decade ago. Not that there is much to mind. His dissertation, Occidental Eschatology, is the only book he published in his lifetime; a volume of fragments under the title From Cult to Culture is also available in English, as are his late-life lectures on St. Paul’s political theology. To his credit, Taubes had interesting things to say on a variety of topics, though it appears that several them belonged to other people. He made enemies throughout academia during his lifetime, yet somehow managed to temporarily teach at some of the most prestigious schools in the world. Skilled in the art of self-promotion, Taubes got extraordinarily far while accomplishing very little, which is why he has long been ripe for biographical treatment in the form of Jerry Z. Muller’s Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes (Princeton University Press 2022).

At first blush, it may seem strange that Muller dedicates over 600 pages to an intellectual who never bothered to pen nearly that much in his lifetime. Taubes’s few ideas, cobbled together as they were from the superior works of thinkers such as Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Gershom Scholem, probably don’t deserve extensive treatment, but Muller gives them all a sympathetic read while never losing sight of where Taubes lifted them from. Muller also spends a great deal of time examining Taubes’s bountiful shortcomings as a human being. A notorious philanderer who had no problem spreading vicious gossip while stabbing his modest circle of friends in the back, one of the most puzzling aspects of Taubes’s career is how relatively successful it was despite his destructive behavior. As Scholem observed, Taubes lacked both academic and moral self-discipline, yet he somehow managed to draw devoted students up until his death in 1987. Muller’s book provides ample material for those interested in unlocking this mystery.

It is probably not possible for someone like Taubes to exist today. The dictate to “publish or perish” is substantially stronger today than it was half-a-century ago. With the advent of social media and electronic databases, it is relatively easy to pin down plagiarism and unmask phonies. What Taubes had going for him, namely an encyclopedic recall of variegated subjects across disciplines, is less impactful today than it once was. Were Taubes operating at the height of his powers in 2022, he would make for a fun person to follow at Twitter and have around at parties to stir the pot, but probably not much else. As for his atrocious reputation for womanizing and betrayal, no doubt Taubes would be ripe for cancellation in the contemporary world.

At the same time, there are still lessons to be drawn from Taubes’s life. It remains disturbingly easy for self-professed intellectuals, regardless of ideological stripes, to present themselves as radically more than they are. Jordan Peterson comes to mind. So, too, does Rod Dreher. On the lower-rungs of the success ladder rest any number of online Catholic grifters, and among the left, the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post are flooded with pop analysts whose hyperbolic ravings about the “end of democracy” and a well-orchestrated (as opposed to painfully inept and embarrassing) conservative conspiracy to rid every one of their rights pass for critical commentary. Few of these folks ever achieve great success in academic, but why bother when clicks, re-tweets, podcasts, and books bound for the bargain bin can keep one plied with white wine and oysters until the cows come home. Certainly Jacob Taubes could appreciate that.

Hart on Theological Education

I told myself (mostly in private) that I would not fall into the habit of turning this web-log or anything else I write into marginalia on David Bentley Hart, that cantankerous theologian who revels in being one of the most polarizing figures in contemporary Christianity. However, I cannot help but repeat this morsel from his Substack, Leaves in the Wind, wherein he captures an opinion I first heard expressed by Owen “The Ochlophobist” White many years ago:

While my next article (just a few days hence) will indeed, as promised, concern allegorical readings of biblical myths, it will not be followed by a reflection on the dismal state of current theological education. The reason for my change of mind is simple enough: it was a boring idea. And I can sum up the argument here in very few words: the erstwhile “Queen of the Sciences,” who demanded of her subjects that they undergo a thorough training in multiple languages (ancient and modern), as well as philosophy, history, biblical scholarship and hermeneutics, and any number of other disciplines before they could enter her service, has now become a dithering, doting, indulgent grandmother, handing out degrees with blithe wantonness, like molasses cookies she’s just baked for her visiting grandchildren.

Leaving to the side the fact that White is a critic of the “cult of Hart,” the observation that theological education means radically less today than what it may have meant 50-100 years ago still seems lost on most people. I cannot speak for what goes on in Protestant haunts, but around the Catholic watercooler stands a cadre of professional grifters who compose social-media posts, online articles, and podcasts that are as needless as they are vapid. The only amusement that may be drawn from this deplorable reality is when these “defenders of the Faith” turn on each other over the silliest minutiae involving peripheral theological points that mean next-to-nothing to their readership. And these poor readers…many of whom, I suspect, are understandably confused, dejected, and hurt by the ongoing crisis (crises?) in the Catholic Church, are left to sift through this morass of mediocrity in search of answers that are simply not there. The temptation to learn all that is allegedly worth knowing through sound bites quickly replaces any zeal for thoroughgoing research.

A Critique of Integralist Thinking Worth Reading

Originalist legal scholars William Baudes and Stephen E Sachs have issued a scathing critique of administrative law scholar-turned-integralist guru Adrian Vermeule’s recent book, Common Good Constitutionalism. The review, which is slated to appear in the Harvard Law Review, is available in draft form from SSRN here. Though lengthy, the article is well worth reading both for the detailed way it takes apart Vermeule’s flimsy constitutional theory and how it (perhaps unwittingly) exposes larger problems with (neo-)integralist thinking generally. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

[W]hile [Vermeule’s] forceful writing will win him wide readership and some applause, it also keeps him from engaging carefully with alternative views or recognizing potentially shared ground. Opposing views are composed of “myths,” “shibboleths,” “chatter,” “horror,” and “panicky, bewildered outrage” (pp. 18, 34, 62, 67), while his own views are pugnaciously, though inconsistently, expressed. A rhetorical pose in which common good constitutionalism must always be victorious, its enemies always cringing and pitiful, lends itself more to political than to intellectual advance.

Some readers might not mind. They might favor common good constitutionalism for the outcomes it promises to license, or even just for the combative posture it lets them take. We have little to say to these readers: one doesn’t need to read a book to lobby for preferred outcomes or to start fights online.

As another critic of integralism recently told me, much of online integralism (which is the only “place” it seems to actually function) is little more than rhetorical posturing with critics tarred n’ feathered as “liberals” who, in the integralist imagination, are unrepentant enemies of God’s Holy Church. Integralists may at times try to present their positions as cogent, sane, and supported by the clear and unambiguous magisterium of the Catholic Church, but a disproportionate amount of their already thin intellectual resources is directed to ridiculing their opponents rather than developing a positive program for socio-political reform. To the extent Vermeule’s book is intended to remedy this lacunae, it must be adjudged a failure, not only for the reasons articulated by Baude and Sachs, but the numerous others presented by the work’s numerous critics. At the end the day, the “common good” (at least in integralist hands) remains a conceptual empty vessel into which its proponents may pour in any number of policy positions ostensibly backed by divine and natural law. It is telling that few if any Catholics outside of the narrow integralist circle have come to Vermeule’s defense.