Friday, February 5, 2016

liberal, as in liberating

as opposed to servile, which means "an exceeding willingness to serve" something else.


As noted previously on this blog, that version of college education has taken some hits recently. Why study the classics and old-fashioned disciplines (Religion, History, English, Biology, Sociology) when what the kids (and their parents) really want is job-training? Out with the liberal arts, in with "Competency Based Education" (CBE)!

And the hits keep comin'...Steven Ward sees this high-level vocational training as furthering an already troubling bifurcation in American education. Liberal education has become elite education.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.
Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.
CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.
CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.
These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.
In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

Read it all here.

Monday, February 1, 2016

visual proof

OK, so last month's announcement of faculty layoffs at The College of Saint Rose has sparked outcry in several different forms.

To hear that programs will be eliminated is one thing.  To see proof of this and that future is another matter.  Consider this irony:  the invitation to pursue questions of faith, rationality, politics, and culture preceded by the notice: "no more applications are being accepted."  From the College's own website:


Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies


**No new applications are being accepted for this program**

Do you ask the big questions about faith, God, humanity, and the fate of the world?

Are you interested in the relationship between Religion, Culture, and Politics? Do you want to live a good life? Is your life shaped by Scripture and prayer? Do you appreciate intellectual discipline? Do you long to reflect on the extraordinary character of life’s spiritual purpose and meaning? Do you want to make your time at College really count? If so, we hope you will consider a course of study in Religious Studies.


In other words, don't bother.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Get back to where you once belonged

No, sorry, not a post on the Beatles.

Rather, the woods.  In a post last year, an Orthodox priest explores the spirituality and space that are the northern forests of Russia (reviewing Jane Costlow's Heart-Pine Forest: Walking and Writing the Nineteenth Century (Cornell University Press, 2014).  Christ spent forty days in the wilderness, the prophet Elijah survived the desert thanks to crows, sailors look to get back on the water, and Russians, when they need respite, rescue, or spiritual refreshment, look to the dense, inexhaustiable expanse of woodlands.

Historical site of protection from invaders but also from state authority, by the nineteenth century Russia’s forests became the focus of both scientific scrutiny and poetic imaginations. The forest was imagined as alternately endless and eternal or alarmingly vulnerable in a rapidly modernizing Russia. For some the forest constituted an imaginary geography of religious homeland; for others it was the locus of peasant culture and local knowledge; for all Russians it was the provider of both material and symbolic resources. In “Heart-Pine Russia”, Jane T. Costlow explores the central place the forest came to hold in a century of intense seeking for articulations of national and spiritual identity.
Costlow focuses on writers, painters, and scientists who went to Russia’s European forests to observe, to listen, and to create; increasingly aware of the extent to which woodlands were threatened, much of their work was imbued with a sense of impending loss. Costlow’s sweep includes canonic literary figures and blockbuster writers whose romances of epic woodlands nourished fin-de-siècle opera and painting.
Considering the work of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Korolenko in the company of scientific foresters and visual artists from Shishkin and Repin to Nesterov, Costlow uncovers a rich and nuanced cultural landscape in which the forest is a natural and national resource, both material and spiritual.

Read it all here.

Personal note:  having taken the train twice across western Russia--so not even Siberia or eastern Russia!--in 2004, I can attest to this blog's (and Costlow's) insights.  To see the Russian forest gives insight into a land still strange and foreign to so many of us (American or not!).  I've also experienced a bit of the Russian winter in Moscow.  All those World War II history books I read during my younger days suddenly gained a new perspective. That cold--just like the forest--is real, an enormity far surpassing our human capabilities.

There are all sorts of sources for examining further Christianity's relationship with the natural world, but few better than Belden Lane, an American Studies and Theology emeritus professor at Saint Louis University.  In the last three decades Lane has published four books on this subject:

one on sacred space and geography (a fun romp through rural America, with sly influences--I alwys thought--from William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways)

one on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers

one on a Calvinist appreciation of natural beauty (anticipating, perhaps, Pope Francis' Laudato Si')

and a spiritual guide to backpacking (something Lane does frequently in the Missouri Ozarks).

Lane, an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, at times tends, as perhaps we might expected, to scriptural images and the hagiographies of the earliest church (e.g., St. Antony of the Desert more so than Blessed Charles de Foucauld).  On the other hand, readers of this blog will appreciate Lane's ability to read other Catholic and even Orthodox spirituality sources more authentically and empathetically than we would expect.  Lane knows and treasures his material, including even the Russian Orthodox spirituality of the forest discussed above.  Being a Calvinist, but one who loves St. Francis of Assisi, Lane sees the sovereignty of God in all things, natural and man-made.  Thus the call back to the wild--desert, plains, ocean, or forest--is thus one of ways in which God calls us back to Himself. The particularity of Christ's trial and temptations in the desert thus make all wild places, in their own particularities, a revelatory location. So in getting back to the woods, we get back to God.  No, this isn't pantheism or panentheism.  It's an ecumenical Christian approach to stewardship, one which Pope Francis, as we know from last year, holds dear.

Those Horribly Sappy Saints

Those Horribly Sappy Saints

Yet another thoughtful--and thought-provoking--post from "Bad Catholic" Marc Barnes.  His subject today:  depictions of sappy, flaccid saints, eye cast ever skyward and looking rather pale.  Barnes:

Obviously, there is no need to defend a saccharine sentimentality when it rears it cloying head. Acknowledging that a human being kicked the bucket with some modicum of spiritual perfection does not require us to enjoy her diary-entries. Asking for the speedy help of St. Bonaventure hardly means I have to pray, with him, that “my whole soul may ever languish and faint for love” — a Popsicle in the divine microwave.

The best known reaction came from the Protestant Reformation, wherein chests were thumped and backs slapped over the supposedly successful elimination of this mamby-pamby Catholic piety.  The problem, Barnes notes, is that's not what the Gospel--which, of course, Protestants love to remind us that they alone "know"--reveals about God.

Certainly, there are evangelical benefits to the true faith being an industrial faith, never ridiculous, hapless, bungling, silly, or sappy. The Church would go a long way with CEOs. But by making God the object of our seriousness — banning the possibility of false-sentiment, infantile-sentiment, incomprehensible-intimacy, and all those dubious and earnest “odors of sanctity” — we ignore God as he reveals himself in Scripture. He is a Trinity of persons, eminently concerned with our particular life, who desires a relationship, and indeed, initiates and makes this relationship possible in the person of Jesus Christ — even at the risk of looking like a fool.
So let the stoics sneer at a faith flecked through with “languishing souls” and awkward devotions. Let the aesthetes turn their noses at the ugly-ass holy cards and plaster statues. For my part, I deny the possibility of a genuine faith unless it is simultaneously the capacity for awkward, incomprehensible, infantile, idiotic and sappy moments with the Great God of Wrath.

So room exists to distance ourselves occasionally from the sap and mush--but not a complete break.  The sentimentality and emotion are part of the Christian story--our identity--just as much as the power and the glory (which, although Barnes doesn't explicitly state this, his post implies it) which belong solely to God.

Read it all here.

And hey!  Pope Francis has made the same point (see #124 and #286).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

it's OK, they're not human like we are

OK, first, these guys out in Oregon occupying federal property.  No, I do not support them in any way, shape, or form.  Here is a good synopsis of the Mormon ideology that seems to motivate them.  Since I started this post, a shoot-out with police killed one of the occupiers' leaders which in turn has prompted for calls to end the stand-off.

That being said, these folks, too, fall under that inconveniently broad umbrella "intrinsic human dignity."  They have it just as much as anybody else who reads this blog.  Thus, while their actions cannot and should not be endorsed, we likewise cannot treat the Oregon occupiers as objects, not persons.  This unavoidable reality means ridicule that makes cheap gay-sex jokes about them is wrong. Not as wrong as what the occupiers commit, nor like the intentionally inflammatory covers of Charlie Hebdo, and certainly not as awful as the evils committed by ISIS or other terrorist groups.

This notion that we can disarm difficult, intractable problems through dehumanizing satire embodies what I've elsewhere called "comedy porn."  Like visual porn or any other addiction, this soul-emptying "humor" becomes a necessary habit.  This has elite support today, too.  Mark Judge on "virtual signaling," a term coined by James Bartholomew.

Virtue signaling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas, cultural happenings, or even the weather. When a liberal goes on a tirade about how dumb and dangerous Senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is—a tirade devoid of specific examples of Cruz’s mendacity—that person is actually signaling to others that he or she is virtuous. It has very little to do with Cruz’s actually personality or record.


It’s delivered like Holy Writ, without sourcing or self-reflection or doubt: Islamophobia is declared irrational, blamed for producing feelings of anger and betrayal in Muslims, which then pushes young people “on the edge” towards radicalization. No need to dive into data about Muslim attitudes about jihad. No need to examine the contradiction of liberals who argue that vulgar elements of pop culture have no effect on people, even people “on the edge.”
Read it all here.

All of this forms the habit of denigrating the intrinsic human dignity of those we don't like or find disagreeable politically, socially, or intellectually.  They're stupid, ignorant, uncultured--so it's OK when we ridicule them.  "They had it coming."

Now, just a reminder-that-we-know-we-really-shouldn't-need-at-this-point, the Church defends the intrinsic human dignity of all (see the Catechism# 2284-2301).  Pope Francis' popularity hinges on, gosh, actually observing this.  Notice the joy of the crowds:

That's because the people--the believers and the skeptics alike--know he also visits and embraces the orphans.  

I do think it's important to note, as the epistle reading from Mass January 17 did, that the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people.  So not everybody embraces orphans--because they might be called instead to embrace the prisoners.  Pope Francis, being the Pope, does it all.  He also quite ably maintains the Church's teaching, too, on the social issues some wished/feared he would change.

So in our midst now, just like we did with Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II, blessed Paul VI, St. John XXIII, and yes even those before him, we have the Holy Father calling us away from the temptation--and habit--we know and practice so well:  ridiculing others based on our mistaken diminution of their humanity.

TOB Tuesday: Is TOB just a proof-text?

TOB Tuesday: Is TOB just a proof-text?

Two-and-a-half year old post from Sister Anne Flannigan, FSP, and still bearing fruit.

TOB Tuesday: Is TOB just a proof-text?

An earlier post for TOB Tuesday inspired a comment:
Will you discuss the question that TOB is based on proof texting? I'm bothered about that possibility.

Here's what I answered in an off-the-cuff way:
     Re: proof texting, I assume you mean TOB is an attempt to establish a scriptural foundation for the 1968 document "Humanae Vitae."
     It is clear that Pope John Paul intended to give the Church just such a gift. But did he do so after the fact, relying simply on the appeal to proof-texts as his only basis?
     If you read "Love and Responsibility" first (published in 1960) you see that Karol Wojtyla had been doing studies in the area of marriage and sexuality for many, many years. That is why he was part of Paul VI's commission on the birth control question: he was an acknowledged authority on human sexuality before there even was such an area of study. Both the documents of Vatican II and "Humanae Vitae" itself reflect some of Wojtyla's characteristic phrases with regard to marriage.
     TOB was actually written before he became Pope; it is the "biblical" companion volume to his more philosophical Love and Responsibility. (Since he could not publish the work in book form on being elected, he adapted the content to deliver it in person, by word of mouth).
     He did not make this stuff up in the quiet of his office; couples who had been college students during his time as a campus minister were sharing their stories and experiences with him--for decades. The real authors of Theology of the Body are those Polish couples who bared their souls to their pastor and friend. TOB is the distillation of those families' lives, put in conjunction with the Scriptures through the heart of Karol Wojtyla.
     Simply reading the Theology of the Body would be enough, I think, to override the accusation of proof-texting. The content and correlations are simply too deep. Proof-texting is necessarily superficial and disconnected; there is no inner logic or harmony among proof-texts as there is in a genuine sapiential reading of Scripture (which is what Marquette scripture professor William Kurz, SJ, calls TOB).
     I hope you will join us for the program! Even if you missed the first classes Saturday, you can catch up by using the archived files.

Later, I put a link to the post and comments on Google+ and got this input:
...a comment that Alice von Hildebrand made about TOB once struck me very strongly -- that TOB is about much more than birth control, much more than sex or marriage.  The parts of TOB relating to the glorious body, for example, go far beyond these narrow issues.  Could reducing most TOB conversations to birth control/sex feed the argument that it's an after-the-fact excuse for Humanae Vitae?  Maybe.

Good point! The sections of Theology of the Body that don't deal in an explicit way with marriage are often completely ignored, giving the impression that TOB is only about the hot-button issues. I am afraid I have been guilty of continuing that impression, assuming that these are the only areas in which most people have reservations about Church teaching that TOB addresses. There's not a whole lot of controversy right now with the resurrected life. Maybe there ought to be: Sister Helena tells me that in her work with young adults, there is very little recognition that that line in the Creed ("I believe ... in the resurrection of the dead") is about our future, body and soul.

What do you have to add to the conversation?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Καθολικός διάκονος: Living the creative tension: twelve years a deacon...

Καθολικός διάκονος: Living the creative tension: twelve years a deacon...:

Deacon Scott Dodge, serving the Church in Utah, notes the twelfth anniversary of his diaconal ordination.  Deacon Dodge does great work blogging, and that is but part of his ministry.

Because the diaconate, along with episcopate, most likely pre-dates the priesthood, at least as we understand the priesthood today, there has always been a close tie between a bishop and his deacons. Deacons were the bishop's original helpers, or servants, in taking care of the Christian community. This is clearly seen in passage of Acts that is understood as the institution of the diaconate - Acts 6:1-7. As Stephen and Philip show us, from the beginning, deacons have also been evangelizers. One way I think about being a deacon is that I make my bishop present wherever I go. 

Read it all here--and pray for Deacon Dodge and all deacons.  His post draws attention to the creative tension to which deacons are called and in which they live.  Ad multos annos!