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.

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.

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.

Five Paragraphs in “Honor” of the Web-Log Being Back

During the few days this web-log was down, I had drafted several posts. Now I cannot find them (though I suspect I loaded them to one of the many cloud services I never thought I needed). Maybe that is for the best. Whenever I spend significant times pulling together posting material, I invariably lose steam. Moreover, the topics (which I will touch on below) probably do not demand their own treatment, at least not right now. Still, a few words shouldn’t hurt.

First, almost a year ago I gave a talk on Catholicism and race. Now I find out the philosopher/polemicist Ed Feser has penned a book on the subject for Ignatius Press. Naturally, I ordered a copy, but it has yet to arrive. Given Feser’s intellectual and political proclivities, the work is likely to be very informative or epically cringy. (It could be a mix of both, I suppose.) When I spoke on the topic, I relied heavily on Eric Voegelin’s The History of the Race Idea and Race and State, with only a handful of references to the Church’s magisterium. As time has ticked on, several folks offered me critiques of Voegelin’s work, which according to some is dated and maybe even “racist” (though I am not convinced). Where Voegelin is most helpful is tracing the development of race ideology; his examination of racialist politics is more timebound, but not entirely inapposite. When giving the talk, I had thought—naively—that no serious Catholic still accepted race categories as “natural.” It appears I was not paying attention since the reduction of human beings to biology alone is as acceptable to a disturbing number of Catholics as it is to other corners of the population uninhibited by Christian anthropology. I await Feser’s thoughts even if I am worried he lacks any appreciable understanding of what drives race-focused social movements like Black Lives Matter, and so forth.

Second, and sticking with the topic of race, I have been deep diving into the problem the Marxist social critic Adolph Reed, Jr. calls “race reductionism.” According to Reed, “[r]ace reductionism is ultimately a couple of things,” namely the “presumption that race as a category can explain social phenomena” and “that every grievance, injustice, beef that in any way affects a person of color, or a person of non-color, can be reduced to race, or can be reduced causally to race or to racism.” Those miffed at Reed accuse him of “class reductionism.” However, even a cursory glance at Reed’s works, including his recent book The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, reveals his dynamic approach to socio-political problems. Reed takes race seriously, but it is not his idol—and for that he is castigated unfairly by those who should be most interested in aligning with him.

Third, if you enjoy the Dune serious, you should acquire the ongoing graphic-novel adaption of the original book. The second of three volumes came out last week. Although their vision of the novel differs at points from what was presented in Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film, there are striking convergences as well.

Last, having recently finished Harnack’s monograph Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, I find myself down a Marcionite rabbit hole with Dieter T. Roth’s The Text of Marcion’s Gospel and Sebastian Moll’s The Arch-Heretic Marcion. These works, in addition to a collection of articles I have picked up, carry on—and in some substantial ways modify—Harnack’s sympathetic portrait of the second-century dissenter whose intellectual efforts, though lost to the sands of time, still offer, via scholarly reconstruction, a fascinating window into early Christianity and the formation of the Christian Biblical canon. Harnack’s appreciation of Marcion’s religiosity is more than a bit infectious. Recent popular attempts to rehabilitate Marcion and the so-called Marcionite Christian Church are less impressive. It is altogether easy to praise Marcion’s portrait of a loving, redeeming God; it is exponentially harder to accept Marcion’s theology and its brutally ascetical implications.

Ukrainian Catholic Catechism Now Available


I know I am a bit tardy with the announcement, but the official English translation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s catechism, Christ Our Pascha, is finally available. The St. Josaphat Eparchy currently has the book on sale for $24.95 (which includes shipping) here. I received my copy in the mail yesterday and will post a more comprehensive review in due course. Although no catechism is perfect, an English-edition of this book is long overdue. I pray it has the intended effect of strengthening not just Ukrainian Greek Catholics, but all Catholics, in the Faith.

Review: Christ’s Descent into Hell

Some time ago, when I found it necessary to wrestle with the theological debate over natura pura (the “Ur-debate” in Catholic theology, as one social-media acquaintance put it), I advanced the point that contemporary Catholics had moved from the question, “Was Henri de Lubac right?” (about pure nature and an assortment of other things) to, “Lubac can’t be wrong.” I have seen on more than one occasion Catholics treat the suggestion that Lubac failed to properly understand St. Thomas Aquinas and his Scholastic interpreters as treasonous, even quasi-heretical. Why? Because, as the story goes, popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI thought well of Lubac and even cited him in both their formal papal statements and private theological works. A similar tactic has been employed to defend another “new theologian,” Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Alyssa (Lyra) Pitstick’s Light in Darkness (Eerdmans) hit the academic shelves in 2007, it set off a tidal-wave of hyperbolic criticism against Pitstick and anyone who dared agree with her that Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s Descent into hell was, well, defective. Perhaps no one led the charge against Pitstick with greater fury—and less charity—than the late Fr. Edward Oakes, though in the end neither he nor his intellectual cohorts managed to rehabilitate Balthasar’s twisted account of Christ’s infernal suffering. And so instead Pitstick’s critics threw John Paul II and Benedict XVI against her, and by doing so attempted to create the impression that Pitstick was little more than a retrograde, reactive theologian whose own thinking may be incongruent with the Catholic Faith.

More From Lilla on France (and Manent)

A couple of weeks back I linked to a New York Review of Books article by Mark Lilla on France’s decline. He has now returned with a follow-up piece, “How the French Face Terror,” which is actually a review of four recent publications on the problem of Islam and terrorism in France. (For what it is worth, I also offered a few remarks on Lilla’s forthcoming book on political reaction here.) One of the books under review, Pierre Manent’s Situation de la France, comes under fire from Lilla for its apparent nostalgia and schadenfreude. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

Review: Bringing Back the Saints

While I plan to devote several posts to aspects of Michael Petrowycz’s 2005 thesis, Bringing Back the Saints: The Contribution of the Roman Edition of the Ruthenian Liturgical Books to the Commemoration of Slavic Saints in the Ukrainian Catholic Church (available online for free from the University of Ottawa here), I did want to call attention to this important and fascinating work which serves a dual function as both a history of the (Slavic) Greek-Catholic reclamation of its authentic patrimony and a challenge to the Latin-dominated model of sainthood in the universal Church. As some are no doubt aware, recent decades have seen Greek Catholics of all stripes chipping away centuries-old layers of inorganic Latinizations and Roman-centric impositions in an effort to fulfill one of the central promises of the historic unia, namely the right to be both fully Eastern and fully Catholic. Part of that reclamation process has been to discard petty Western-based fears that drawing eastward in liturgy, spirituality, and theology meant a slide toward schism, though there is some distance to go. What Petrowycz’s thesis shows is that the origins of this project began well before the Second Vatican Council, when the Eastern Slavic churches, in concert with Roman authorities, sought to restore their traditions in full, including recognizing the heroic saints of the ancient Kyivan Church who, for largely political reasons, had been ejected from Greek-Catholic calendars beginning in the early 18th C.