I’ve been MIA on the blog for some time now (though, on the plus side, I have managed to finish my dissertation prospectus, and I’m halfway through a draft of chapter 1!). But while I’ve been neglecting my writing, I’ve not been neglecting my reading. Thought I’d use this Quick Takes to share with you a few of the quotes that have been most haunting me over the past couple of months. I leave it to you, dear Reader, to trace their connections and inhabit their tensions.
Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is short (the text runs a little shy of 40 pages), but still completely worth purchasing because, like O’Connor’s short stories, it packs a big punch in a short space. The following is one of its most powerful moments:
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
I’m in the process of reading Thomas Pfau‘s polemical but mind-blowing Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. Pfau is a prominent romanticist so I was already rather familiar with his earlier work, but I was shocked to find him so explicitly locating himself—in this magisterial study of modernity—in the camp of Alasdair MacIntyre, Brad Gregory, and other contemporary intellectuals engaged in a critique of modernity’s “anemic” understanding of truth and knowledge. In introducing his project, Pfau highlights this quote from Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman:
The present is a text, and the past its interpretation.
Also from Pfau’s book:
[I]t appears that yet another change wrought by the age of the “world picture” concerns a thoroughgoing shift in the form, function, and scope of narrative. The structure of narrative mutates from the mnemonic to the emancipatory, from the genre of epic to that of utopia, and from an evolving, deepening, and transformative engagement with received concepts and meanings to the methodical cultivation of a detached and critically objectifying stance whose principal concern lies with overcoming the past. Despite their critique of modernity from diametrically opposed points of view, both Schopenhauer and Coleridge recognize that what impels and legitimates modernity’s changed concept of narrative is a deep-seated fear of error, be it as a result of the constant possibility of deception perpetrated by Descartes’s specter of a dieu trompeur or because of our supposed propensity to become mired in the past, a habit that for Descartes spells more stasis and mindless repetition; hence modernity’s preoccupation with both remembering and overcoming the past, which accounts for the modern era’s simultaneous cultivation of vigilance and forgetfulness.
We are too readily interested in merely holding on to and reinforcing the opinions we already have about things, especially some things more than others. More precisely, we are inclined to remain bound to the opinions we already have about the meaning of things and to attempt to justify our attachment. […] Applying this to the field of knowledge, this is the moral rule: Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, one could say, “love the truth more than yourself.”
I”m still not sure what to do with the centrality of “presence” in Guissani’s ouvre, but I’ve been much struck by Jean-Luc Marion‘s accomplished refutation of the argument that the doctrine of transubstantiation necessarily rests upon a “metaphysics of presence” or is a form of idolatry (critiques that amount to essentially the same thing).
It was inevitable that I’d become a Marion fangirl. Marion—student of Derrida, an immortel of the Académie française, Catholic theologian, and an editor of the French edition of Communio—combines my love of deconstruction, the inspired excesses of French intellectual and cultural traditions, and rigorous Catholic theology into one package.
Here’s an excerpt of that defense of transubstantiation from his chapter-length treatment of the Eucharist in God Without Being. I think one can speak here of a certain love of the truth of an object:
[C]an the eucharistic presence of Christ as consecrated bread and wine determine, starting from itself and itself alone, the conditions of its reality, the dimensions of its temporality and the dispositions of its approach? […] And, first, of what presence is it a question? Not first of a privileged temporalization of time (the here and now of the present) but of the present, that is to say of the gift. Eucharistic presence must be understood starting most certainly from the present, but the present must be understood first as a gift that is given. One must measure the dimensions of the eucharistic presence against the fullness of this gift. The principal weakness of reductionistic interpretations stems precisely from their exclusively anthropological, hence metaphysical, treatment of the Eucharist. They never undertake to think presence starting from the gift that, theologically, constitutes presence in the present. For the dimensions of the gift can be determined, at least in outline, according to a strictly theological approach. The rigor of the gift must order the dimensions of the temporality where the present is made gift. Now it happens that the eucharistic gift, which Christ makes of himself under the species of the consecrated Bread and Wine, includes the fundamental terms of a temporality of the gift. This temporality is in way added here by the artifice of an indiscreetly apologetic zeal. It springs from the most concrete analyses that exegesis can give us. The present of eucharistic gift is not at all temporalized starting from the here and now but as memorial (temporalization starting from the past), then as eschatological announcment (temporalization starting from the future), and finally, and only finally, as dailyness and viaticum (temporalization starting from the present). As opposed to the metaphysical concept of time, the present here does not order the analysis of temporality as a whole, but results from it. This reversal, which remains for us to retrace, implies that we will understand the eucharistic presence less in the way of an available permanence than as a new sort of advent.
And, for good measure, a bit more Marion from a recent Communio article (available in full for free on its website), entitled “The Universality of the University”:
[T]eaching to learn what one does not know: not to claim to know everything, but to know also what we do not know and can never know, and to know why we can never know it. It is necessary to be educated also in how to manage our ignorance. Students: when you enter the university, you will learn many things, but nothing so decisive as the immensity of what you will not know and what your instructors also do not know. You will have the leisure to experience this ignorance only for a time, paradoxically the time of your studies. You will discover that the books that we shall not read are as important as the ones that we shall have read, provided that we know their titles, have some inkling of their greatness, and sense their presence around us. The library, above all, contains some books whose very existence we know nothing of, and others that we will leaf through without having the time or courage to read them, but knowing that from now on they are with us. Once the years of university studies are past, you will know, at least you ought to know or to act as though you knew; society will forcibly transform you into subjects who are supposed to know, and you will no longer have the freedom to learn, nor the liberty to know what you will never know.
Last, but most certainly not least, I’ve been bowled over and deeply challenged by the Holy Father’s recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
It’s long but absolutely worth reading in full—indeed, its “whole cloth” approach to evangelization and church teaching really demands that it be read in full to be properly understood. Nonetheless, I will risk a very brief excerpt, which gives us something to keep in mind as we accompany one another on the journey of faith:
A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!