Thursday, May 15, 2008


I've returned safely from Colorado, where I had what I hope was a fruitful visit with the community of St. Walburga's.

As is my habit on the road, I brought along books I normally wouldn't get to read at home. The two in particular were Karol Berger's Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, an exhilarating read (though musically very technical), and a collection of essays by Alasdair MacIntyre called The Tasks of Philosophy. Both books have stimulated a lot of thought, as did the Visitation of the abbey itself. Rather than attempt a systematic presentation of these thoughts at this point, I will simply lay down some observations over the next few days.

1) Berger, between sections on Bach and Mozart, locates the beginning of modernity in the break that Rousseau and others made with the Augustinian synthesis of Christendom. Now this was of particular interest to me, as I often make the point that these two thinkers represent fundamental opposites in terms of the understanding of evil. For Augustine, original sin infects even infants, who fight over milk when there is plenty to go around. The cure is socialization, into one of the two cities: the city of the world, in which force and domination keep unruly passions somewhat at bay, or into the City of God, in which grace allows us to be refashioned in God's image and freed from slavery to sin.

By contrast, Rousseau begins with an original goodness in children that is destroyed by socialization (this is very oversimplified, but it will do, I hope)! Socialization keeps us from being our good, natural selves.

Berger's view is consistent with mine (and I doubt very much that my observation is original). His focus, however, is on the addition of 'autonomy' to Christian freedom as a defining mark of Rousseau's innovation (along with that of the whole Enlightenment). In other words, Christians, who are 'set free for freedom', understand the universe to be a moral place, and this implies the freedom to choose either good or evil. Moderns also understand this, but with the addition of 'autonomy', which Berger defines as the ability to define the good for oneself, by applying reason according to one's own lights. Then one is free to choose to follow one's own good or not.

This is consistent with my observation above that Rousseau thinks that persons are naturally good and not afflicted by original sin. If this were the case, then of course we would not be liable to misuse autonomy to define a course of life for ourselves that will have a bad end. We would naturally choose good moral standards. Again, in R's opinion, the pressure of society and the pressure to conform or at least be thought well of (which generates the bad kind of self-love, amour-propre), causes us to negate our autonomy and to live inauthentically, which in his view is evil.

These issues are very much alive today. Who among us does not feel that certain areas of Church teaching, for example, force us to be inauthentic? The problem affects discernment especially. Very few people today find it easy to consider discernment as a process of finding out what God wants of me and choosing that, especially when what God wants is not what I want. We are rather more inclined to assume that our desires are all good, at least until they get us into deep trouble.

People frequently ask me, for example, if I find being a priest, monk or religious superior fulfilling. I am hesitant to say yes to the question phrased that way. I suppose that being a priest and superior, if anything, is the opposite of fulfilling; it is rather emptying. I have to get rid of all kinds of plans and little freedoms that I might otherwise want to keep. I have to do all kinds of things that I am not inclined to do. Now I write not so as to play the martyr, simply to say that I have come to believe that this is about obedience to a God Who knows better than I what is for my benefit and others' benefit. I had it my way for many years before I entered the monastery, and it was fun, I guess, but I also know that for me, autonomy, that is, choosing for myself what my life was going to entail, was a recipe for selfishness and generally lax moral behavior. So my life today, as a struggle to live discipleship faithfully, requires me to un-learn all kinds of behaviors over and over again, and at times it feels like the 'me' that I had kinda liked outside the monastery, is in danger of disappearing. But is this not the death that each of us must die in Christ so as to allow God to be all in all in us?

"Autonomy" might be a new term, but the idea of it I think is captured in the Tradition by the term "self will." What has changed is that whereas 'self-will' has a narcissistic and anti-social ring to it, who can find fault with autonomy?

So if we are to make sense of the monastic and otherwise Christian teaching that requires us to subjugate our will and autonomy to God's will and His creation, we need conversion. So I will pick up there with MacIntyre tomorrow, God willing.

Peace to you!


Connie said...

How does one discern Father? Especially a religious vocation? I know that I want to live my life for God, with God, and in God. It is very difficult for me to live in duality, i.e. a secular "life" with a job and its responsibilities and only time for God sandwiched in between. How do I know that my desire to live for, with and in God comes from God and not from me? Or would I even have these desires if they did not come from God?

God bless you and thank you for all you do for the Church and Our Lord.

Ascending Incense said...

It's interesting that Berger marks the beginning of modernity with Rousseau. I've more often seen Descartes marked as the beginning.

I don't agree with St. Augustine that original sin infects infants :-)

But I think St. Augustine closer to the truth than Rousseau. Rousseau, so far as I can tell, locates wrongdoing, not in the individual, but in society, and society's effect of giving natural man a self-awareness of himself in relation to others.

Good post.


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