Charles Taylor on Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

“What can Orthodoxy learn from the Catholic intellectual tradition,

and what can Catholics learn from the Orthodox,

specifically in light of the secular cultural condition we find ourselves in,

and given the vast heritage that we share?”

During his 2011 appearance at Boston College, after the final Q&A session was over, I hustled straight over to the podium, and asked Charles Taylor this question after he finished packing to leave.

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Pseudo-Dionysius, Epistle 9

The late-5th- or early-6th-century figure Pseudo-Dionysios (or simply the Latin “Dionysius” or the French equivalent “Denys”) is a cardinal figure in the history of Western thought and civilization. Given his high importance for Christian theology East and West, one would think that he would be more read, or at least better-understood by specialists. Unfortunately, he is not well-understood, not even by the most prominent name in Denys studies, Paul Rorem. Alas, the most easily-available translation of Denys’ works are marked by the massive anachronistic distortions of Rorem’s Lutheran confessional bias (a topic for another time). There are also specialist biases in play from other Athenian-Pagan-Hellenistic directions, as the scholarship of Ronald F. Hathaway shows (Hathaway I have read with much more profit than Rorem, however). Eric Perl has the best introduction to Denys. Hieromonk (now bishop?) Golitzin wrote a necessary, complementary second. John D. Jones’ translation of the Divine Names is still the best English-translation text to begin digging into Denys himself.

I’ll be posting about Denys in the future, given my love for him and his value and importance (which needs much more articulation than I can possibly give it here). In the meantime, I thought that a good place to start would be to publish a comparative list of three translations of Denys’ Epistle 9, mostly about scriptural language. The Luibheid/Rorem translation is sadly the most easily accessible, the Parker translation unfortunately forgotten or unread, and the Hathaway translation is, lamentably, mostly gathering dust on university libraries (or in professors’ shelves). Given these injustices, this columned, comparative translation seemed worth sharing. I may offer more such in the future — a chapter or two each from the Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. (Denys coined the term “hierarchy”, and it does not mean for him what it means for us.)

Denys’ approach to scriptural figures for God –or any figures for God at all– is markedly unlike any modern confessional theology. Such confessional theologies are dogmatically committed to the existence of secret truths about God that are simply unknowable to us until we are told them, and which reason –any model of reason or rationality– has no capacity to verify. This is idolatry, and Denys shows us the beginnings of seeing why and how this is so. (It also leads to atrocious psychological, social and political configurations, but I shouldn’t run too far, too fast.)

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William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist

william t cavanaugh -- torture and eucharist 1

$40 for a paperback often feels more like torture than the Eucharist, but not this time.

William Cavanaugh is currently Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. He completed his BA (Theology) at Notre Dame, received both a second BA in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge University as well as an MA from the same, and finished his Ph.D. (Religion) at Duke University, under Stanley Hauerwas. Together with Hauerwas, he is associated with the Ekklesia Project [1] (under whose aegis he is an editor for two book series). The Ekklesia Project is a confederation of Trinitarian Christian communities, including both Catholics and Protestants, who see allegiance to the Kingdom of God as fundamental for Christians, and as exercising a critical function on what other kinds of allegiances and affiliations a parish and an individual Christian should have. This includes commitments that might suggest that inflicting violence is compatible with Christian discipleship (simply speaking: this project claims they aren’t). [2]

Cavanaugh is also connected to the Radical Orthodoxy movement most often associated with John Milbank [3] (who is mentioned several times in Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist). Radical Orthodoxy is known for its attempts to critique modernity’s “pre-theological” categories, to reaffirm theology –and not any secular discourse– as the foundation and true basis and description of the Church’s vision and ecclesial practices, and reinstitute theology as the queen of the sciences (this concern to veto the total reduction of the Church to sociological analysis is articulated explicitly in several spots in Torture and Eucharist [4]).

Cavanaugh writes and lectures on a wide range of topics, some on the Christian tradition but mostly within the umbrella of political theology – the intersection of politics and religion, the rise of the nation-state, the legitimacy and genealogy of “religion” as a category, the nature of torture, &c[5] There is an understanding of the modern nation-state as atomizing and intrinsically violent (even “founded on violence” [6]) in the background of Cavanaugh’s work, as founded upon a false myth of violence. [7] To varying degrees, these topics are all touched upon in Torture and Eucharist.

For seventeen months, from July 1988 to December 1989 [8], Cavanaugh “lived in a slum area of Santiago Chile during the military regime,” and “knew people there who had been tortured”. [9] He returned afterwards to Notre Dame as a Research Fellow for six months in 1990, to develop “a computer data base for researching human rights abuses using the microfilmed archives of the Vicariate of Solidarity”. [10] After this experience, it became a focus for his subsequent Ph.D. work. Cavanaugh returned to Chile in 1993 to conduct further research. [11] Torture and Eucharist is based on his doctoral dissertation. [12]

In Torture and Eucharist, Cavanaugh describes and analyzes the horrendous effects of silent abduction (being “disappeared”) and especially torture as a strategy employed by modern nation-states to dissolve the various social bodies that individuals are embedded within. Once citizens are torn away from these larger bodies, the state gains direct and unmediated access to each and all of its own, without the possibility of encountering resistance to its authority or facing the alternative claims of any rival. In Torture, Cavanaugh looks at this dynamic as it was in play in Chile during the Pinochet regime from 1973-1990.

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