O’Collins, “Tradition: Understanding Christian Tradition”

Not too much explanation necessary for this book note, in light of our long-standing 9780198830306interest here at the Center for Law and Religion in the subject of tradition and its relationship to law, politics, culture, and religion. This book studies the nature of tradition as a source of interpretation and authority in Christianity specifically: Tradition: Understanding Christian Tradition (OUP) by Gerald O’Collins, S.J. The way that the title is phrased makes me wonder whether Oxford is planning a series of volumes about tradition in different religious contexts. At any rate, here is the description.

A 1963 report on tradition from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches signalled a substantial convergence between the churches over Christian tradition and its relationship to Scripture. However, since the 1960s theologians have regularly ignored the theme of tradition. The few who have discussed this theme have not used the help provided by some sociologists towards understanding the role of tradition in human and religious life: for instance, as being all-pervasive and as shaping the identity of various societies and groups. The process and presence of Christian tradition embrace baptism and other sacraments, Bible, creeds and other doctrines, art, architecture, hymns, pilgrimages, literature, the celebration of Christmas, Easter and other feasts, and much else besides. Particular traditions can call for scrutiny and reform. Tradition: Understanding Christian Tradition proposes various criteria (e.g. the message of the Scriptures and spiritual experience) for discerning and evaluating specific traditions. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the risen Christ himself is the central Tradition (upper case) at the heart of all Christian traditions. The Spirit remains the primary bearer of the Church’s tradition; the secondary agents of tradition include not only ordained ministers but also all the baptized faithful. In the history of Christianity, tradition has interpreted and actualized the Scriptures, but has also been interpreted and challenged by them. An appendix explains the insights coming from specialists in the study of collective memory; their work also sheds light on the workings of Christian tradition.

McLendon, “The Psychology of Inequality”

I am not a scholar of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but what little I know and have read by Rousseau persuades me that he is a very helpful philosopher for understanding our own time and place in 21st century America. His account in the Discourse on the Origins and Basis of Inequality (as well as Emile) of amour-propre–or love of self, sometimes rendered loosely as the need for recognition or validation–is one feature of his thought that offers great insight for our own controversies about identity politics, tribalism, and many other political problems of contemporary political life in liberal democracies.

Here is a new book that focuses on some of these features of Rousseau’s thought and is 15896well worth checking out for the Rousseau novice: The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau’s “Amour-Propre” (U Penn Press), by Michael Locke McLendon.

In The Psychology of Inequality, Michael Locke McLendon looks to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought for insight into the personal and social pathologies that plague commercial and democratic societies. He emphasizes the way Rousseau appropriated and modified the notion of self-love, or amour-propre, found in Augustine and various early modern thinkers. McLendon traces the concept in Rousseau’s work and reveals it to be a form of selfish vanity that mimics aspects of Homeric honor culture and, in the modern world, shapes the outlook of the wealthy and powerful as well as the underlying assumptions of meritocratic ideals.

According to McLendon, Rousseau’s elucidation of amour-propre describes a desire for glory and preeminence that can be dangerously antisocial, as those who believe themselves superior derive pleasure from dominating and even harming those they consider beneath them. Drawing on Rousseau’s insights, McLendon asserts that certain forms of inequality, especially those associated with classical aristocracy and modern-day meritocracy, can corrupt the mindsets and personalities of people in socially disruptive ways.

The Psychology of Inequality shows how amour-propre can be transformed into the demand for praise, whether or not one displays praiseworthy qualities, and demonstrates the ways in which this pathology continues to play a leading role in the psychology and politics of modern liberal democracies.

“America and the Just War Tradition” (Hall & Charles, eds.)

The Just War tradition–an umbrella term for a set of ideas and customs concerning the9780268105266 circumstances in which nations may take military action in their own defense or on behalf of others–draws on a rich history of religious justifications for, objections to, and arguments about war. Here is a new collection of essays concerning its application in American law and politics: America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts (Notre Dame Press), edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles.

America and the Just War Tradition examines and evaluates each of America’s major wars from a just war perspective. Using moral analysis that is anchored in the just war tradition, the contributors provide careful historical analysis evaluating individual conflicts.

Each chapter explores the causes of a particular war, the degree to which the justice of the conflict was a subject of debate at the time, and the extent to which the war measured up to traditional ad bellum and in bello criteria. Where appropriate, contributors offer post bellum considerations, insofar as justice is concerned with helping to offer a better peace and end result than what had existed prior to the conflict.

This fascinating exploration offers policy guidance for the use of force in the world today, and will be of keen interest to historians, political scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as policy makers and the general reading public.

New paper: “The Sickness Unto Death of the First Amendment”

I’ve posted a new draft, forthcoming in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy: The Sickness Unto Death of the First Amendment. Here is the abstract.

The sickness unto death, in Søren Kierkegaard’s work of the same name, is the anxiety and despair an individual experiences in recognizing that the self is separated from what is collective, extrinsic, or transcendent. Something like this condition now afflicts the First Amendment. The sickness unto death of the First Amendment is that the spectacular success of free speech and religious freedom as American constitutional rights on premises of liberal, individual autonomy has been the very cause of mounting and powerful collective anxiety. The impressive growth of these rights has rendered them fragile, if not actually unsustainable, in their current form. Their unprecedented expansion has brought on an awareness of their emptiness in serving the larger, common political good. The yearning for political community and shared purpose transcending individual interest has in turn generated vigorous calls for First Amendment constriction to promote what are claimed to be higher ends — in some cases ends that were promoted by the hypertrophy of the First Amendment itself.

What binds these claims is the view that expansive First Amendment rights harm others or are more generally socially or politically harmful. In some cases, the same people who argued for the disconnection of free speech rights from common civic ends are now advocating free speech constriction to reconnect free speech to new ends said to be constitutive of the American polity. The same is true for religious freedom. But in a society that is deeply fractured about where the common good lies, imposing new limits on First Amendment rights in the name of dignity, democracy, equality, sexual freedom, third party harm, or any of the other purposes championed by the new constrictors is at least as likely to exacerbate social and civic fragmentation as to reconstitute it.

This paper describes the development of the First Amendment — and in particular of its ends and limits — through three historical periods. Part I concerns early American understandings, which conceived rights of free speech and religious freedom within an overarching framework of natural rights delimited by legislative judgments about the common political good. Part II traces the replacement of that framework with a very different one in the twentieth century, describing the judicial turn toward self-regarding justifications of speech that prioritize individual autonomy, self-actualization, and absolute anti-orthodoxy. The paper describes the crisis or despair of free speech and the coming of the First Amendment constrictors in Part III. It concludes briefly in Part IV by recapitulating the parallel paths of the rights of free speech and religious freedom. It is, in fact, remarkable that over the centuries, some of the most prominent justifications for and objections to the scope of these rights have proceeded pari passu and assumed nearly identical shape.

Courtenay, “Rituals for the Dead”

Yesterday’s book note concerned the place, if any remains, of religion in the modern 9780268104948university–religious or otherwise. Here is a related entry about the rather more integrated role of religion in the medieval university, in which religious ritual played an important part and in which prayer for deceased colleagues helped to preserve the connection between the living and the dead. But perhaps it isn’t so much that religion as such has left the modern university, as that the nature of university rituals has simply changed to reflect very different religious commitments.

The book is Rituals for the Dead: Religion and Community in the Medieval University of Paris (Notre Dame Press) by William J. Courtenay.

In his fascinating new book, based on the Conway Lectures he delivered at Notre Dame in 2016, William Courtenay examines aspects of the religious life of one medieval institution, the University of Paris, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In place of the traditional account of teaching programs and curriculum, however, the focus here is on religious observances and the important role that prayers for the dead played in the daily life of masters and students.

Courtenay examines the university as a consortium of sub-units in which the academic and religious life of its members took place, and in which prayers for the dead were a major element. Throughout the book, Courtenay highlights reverence for the dead, which preserved their memory and was believed to reduce the time in purgatory for deceased colleagues and for founders of and donors to colleges. The book also explores the advantages for poor scholars of belonging to a confraternal institution that provided benefits to all members regardless of social background, the areas in which women contributed to the university community, including the founding of colleges, and the growth of Marian piety, seeking her blessing as patron of scholarship and as protector of scholars. Courtenay looks at attempts to offset the inequality between the status of masters and students, rich and poor, and college founders and fellows, in observances concerned with death as well as rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

Rituals for the Dead is the first book-length study of religious life and remembrances for the dead at the medieval University of Paris. Scholars of medieval history will be an eager audience for this title.

Wolterstorff, “Religion in the University”

The work of Nicholas Wolterstorff, whether it concerns religious arguments in public discussion, political theology, aesthetics and religion, justice, liberal democracy, or many others, is always worth reading. A few years ago, I participated in a very worthwhile conference concerning Professor Wolterstorff’s short book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology (here’s my little reaction)–an important meditation on the continuing relevance of political theology today written from a distinctively liberal Christian perspective.

And now comes Wolterstorff’s newest book, Religion in the University (Yale University 9780300243703.jpgPress). It’s a timely and rather fraught subject, and I’m sure that whatever Wolterstorff says will be enlightening.

What is religion’s place within the academy today? Are the perspectives of religious believers acceptable in an academic setting? In this lucid and penetrating essay, Nicholas Wolterstorff ranges from Max Weber and John Locke to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Charles Taylor to argue that religious orientations and voices do have a home in the modern university, and he offers a sketch of what that home should be like. He documents how, over the past ve decades, remarkable changes have occurred within the academy with regard to how knowledge is understood. During the same period, profound philosophical advancements have also been made in our understanding of religious belief. These shifting ideals, taken together, have created an environment that is more pluralistic than secular. Tapping into larger debates on freedom of expression and intellectual diversity, Wolterstorff believes a scholarly ethic should guard us against becoming, in Weber’s words, “specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart.”

Brodd et al., “Invitation to World Religions”

9780190690816We close this week’s book posts with a comparative religion textbook that Oxford released earlier this year. The book is Invitation to World Religions, by John Brodd (CSU-Sacramento) and others, now in its third edition. Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Featuring a unique, consistent, and modular chapter structure–“Teachings,” “History,” and “Way of Life”–and numerous pedagogical features, Invitation to World Religions, Third Edition, invites students to explore the world’s great religions with respect and a sense of wonder. This chapter structure enables students to navigate each religion in a consistent and systematic way and to make comparisons between religions. The book describes the essential features of each religion and shows how they have responded to basic human needs and to the cultural contexts in which they developed. The authors also encourage students to develop an appreciation for what religious beliefs and practices actually mean to their adherents.

Guarino, “The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II”

9780802874382As an outsider, I find the debate among my Catholic friends and colleagues on the true interpretation of the Second Vatican Council extremely interesting. On the one hand, there are those who insist on following “the spirit of Vatican II,” which I understand as a call to go beyond the words of the Council documents themselves and continue to press in a progressive direction, notwithstanding the traditions of the Church. On the other, there are those who wish to adopt “a hermeneutic of continuity”–I believe the phrase is Pope Benedict XVI’s–and read the documents consistently with the tradition of the Church. I realize my description is a bit of a caricature and that each side’s position contains more nuance. But I think my description is correct, as a kind of thumbnail sketch.

A new book from Eerdman’s, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, by Seton Hall theologian Thomas G. Guarino, addresses this debate. Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) radically shook up many centuries of tradition in the Roman Catholic Church. This book by Thomas Guarino, a noted expert on the sources and methods of Catholic doctrine, investigates whether Vatican II’s highly contested teachings on religious freedom, ecumenism, and the Virgin Mary represented a harmonious development of—or a rupture with—Catholic tradition.

Guarino’s careful explanations of such significant terms as continuity, discontinuity, analogy, reversal, reform, and development greatly enhance and clarify his discussion. No other book on Vatican II so clearly elucidates the essential theological principles for determining whether—and to what extent—a conciliar teaching is in continuity or discontinuity with antecedent tradition.

Readers from all faith traditions who care about the logic of continuity and change in Christian teaching will benefit from this masterful case study.

Pressman, “On Press”

9780674976658-lgWe Americans think of ourselves as living in a moment of deep polarization around issues of religion and politics, and we do. But the roots of the crisis go back decades. For decades, conservatives, including religious conservatives, have complained that the mainstream media, which has a huge influence in our culture, is biased against them, and so cannot be trusted. It’s not simply a matter of how the media reports stories; it’s how the media chooses which stories and people to cover, and which not to cover. Professional journalists have rejected the criticism and insisted that they have acted, to the extent possible, in a neutral way. Conservatives have never been convinced, which is why today’s progressive complaints about media bias seem to them a little hollow, and tardy.

This month, Harvard releases a history of media in the 1960s and 70s that seems, more or less, to support the conservative criticism: On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, by Seton Hall journalism professor Matthew Pressman. Pressman argues that the media very self-consciously adopted liberal positions during those years, with the best of motives. “Objectivity and impartiality, the cornerstones of journalistic principle, were not jettisoned,” the description reassures us, only “reimagined.” Which is just what conservatives always maintained–though they didn’t find the reimagination reassuring. Here’s the description of the book from the Harvard website:

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American press embraced a new way of reporting and selling the news. The causes were many: the proliferation of television, pressure to rectify the news media’s dismal treatment of minorities and women, accusations of bias from left and right, and the migration of affluent subscribers to suburbs. As Matthew Pressman’s timely history reveals, during these tumultuous decades the core values that held the profession together broke apart, and the distinctive characteristics of contemporary American journalism emerged.

Simply reporting the facts was no longer enough. In a country facing assassinations, a failing war in Vietnam, and presidential impeachment, reporters recognized a pressing need to interpret and analyze events for their readers. Objectivity and impartiality, the cornerstones of journalistic principle, were not jettisoned, but they were reimagined. Journalists’ adoption of an adversarial relationship with government and big business, along with sympathy for the dispossessed, gave their reporting a distinctly liberal drift. Yet at the same time, “soft news”—lifestyle, arts, entertainment—moved to the forefront of editors’ concerns, as profits took precedence over politics.

Today, the American press stands once again at a precipice. Accusations of political bias are more rampant than ever, and there are increasing calls from activists, customers, advertisers, and reporters themselves to rethink the values that drive the industry. As On Press suggests, today’s controversies—the latest iteration of debates that began a half-century ago—will likely take the press in unforeseen directions and challenge its survival.

 

 

 

A New Translation of Epictetus

9780691177717_0Here’s a good book for Election Day, however it turns out.

Recent years have seen a small revival of Stoicism, perhaps in response to the hypersensitivity that pervades our culture; witness the amazing popularity of Jordan Peterson, especially among young men. Christians often complain about today’s neo-paganism. If the paganism that revives is the Stoic variety, though, things might not be too bad. Conflicts would exist, surely. For example, Stoicism allows for suicide as a moral choice in some circumstances, and could support the movement to legalize euthanasia. Christianity could not. And the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius didn’t prevent the Empire from persecuting Christians, though it’s not clear how much Marcus himself was involved. But, today, Christianity and Stoicism could get along reasonably well, it seems to me–better, anyway, than Christianity and the other forms of neo-paganism currently on offer.

Last month, Princeton released a new translation of Epictetus by classicist A.A. Long (Cal-Berkeley). Here’s the description of the book, How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, from Princeton’s website:

A superb new edition of Epictetus’s famed handbook on Stoicism—translated by one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoic philosophy

Born a slave, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) taught that mental freedom is supreme, since it can liberate one anywhere, even in a prison. In How to Be Free, A. A. Long—one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoicism and a pioneer in its remarkable contemporary revival—provides a superb new edition of Epictetus’s celebrated guide to the Stoic philosophy of life (the Encheiridion) along with a selection of related reflections in his Discourses.

Freedom, for Epictetus, is not a human right or a political prerogative but a psychological and ethical achievement, a gift that we alone can bestow on ourselves. We can all be free, but only if we learn to assign paramount value to what we can control (our motivations and reactions), treat what we cannot control with equanimity, and view our circumstances as opportunities to do well and be well, no matter what happens to us through misfortune or the actions of other people.

How to Be Free features splendid new translations and the original Greek on facing pages, a compelling introduction that sets Epictetus in context and describes the importance of Stoic freedom today, and an invaluable glossary of key words and concepts. The result is an unmatched introduction to this powerful method of managing emotions and handling life’s situations, from the most ordinary to the most demanding.

 

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