Friday, January 28, 2011

Divine and Worldly History

Yesterday I began a consideration of the theology of history, how a Catholic historian might approach his work. I offered a distinction between spiritual and mundane history, and probed both the strengths and weaknesses of this distinction. Today I’d like to consider another distinction, between divine and worldly history.

If spiritual history concerns all the working of God, the angels (including demons) and men, divine history concerns specifically those spiritual realities which are good. One might be tempted to conclude that divine history, together with a counterpart perhaps called “satanic history”, is a subset of spiritual history. Let me contend, however, that the divine/worldly distinction stands apart from the spiritual/mundane.

Many of the Church Fathers argue that evil does not exist; existence itself, they argue, is good, and so evil is a privation, a lack of good, and therefore also a deficiency in being. Whatever one makes of these metaphysical claims, I think we can agree that evil is more of a lack than a positive thing. Thus, rather than talking about the presence of evil, we might more accurately refer to the absence of God. Likewise, while St. John refers to “the Anti-Christ” (1 John 2:22, 2 John 7), he also refers to “many anti-Christs” (1 John 2:18. These anti-Christs all lack a positive identity of their own; they are defined in opposition to Jesus and His work.

Thus, the opposite of divine history is not satanic history, but anti-divine history. Put another way, active hostility to God (of the demonic form) and apathetic rejection of God both constitute an absence of God. This is what I mean by “worldly history.”

When trying to understand the most important happenings in history, we may see the hand of God wherever there is truth, beauty, goodness, self-giving, joy and other such qualities. We find these in abundance in the lives of the saints: Frances of Assisi, Thomas More, Teresa of Calcutta and countless others. But when trying to understand that which opposes God, we should look not only for the horrors of child-immolating Carthage or Nazi Germany, but also for the apathy and relativism common in our own age and many before it.

A historian would be laughed at if he offered a paper on “Why the 17th Century Saw Divine Victory and the Retreat of Satan”. Nevertheless, the historian should be driven by the desire to understand, an understanding which should not preclude the highest things. (That the academy is so hostile to any consideration of spiritual or divine history shows how far it has strayed from an interest in profound understanding or first principles.)

We should not forget, however, that all this is simply a framework for thinking about history, not a method for approaching it. The method of the historian is humble: he collects stories, facts and bits of data and then assembles them, trying to make sense of it all, like trying to piece together the fragmented pages of some lost epic. But in so doing, he may take confidence from the knowledge that the epic indeed exists, that it has an Author, and that the Author’s loving ways are, to some extent, known.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Finding a Theology of History

It is somewhat common in the history profession – or at least in graduate school – to be asked about one’s philosophy of history. What is your guiding framework? Economic determinism? Marxism? Gender theory? The Annales school?

I don’t generally think of myself as having a philosophy or overarching theory of history. I just read about the past and tell stories, trying to make sense of what happened, and why. But lately I’ve decided to think more about the biggest questions in history. After all, I am a Catholic and a historian, but am I a Catholic historian? Does my faith inform my work? Some days I think I have a better sense of what it would mean to be a Catholic physicist than a Catholic historian. So I’ve picked up Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure.

Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) is a theologian, not a historian, but he became interested in history for a very simple reason: our salvation occurs in history. This might seem trite, but in fact it is a major question with which Ratzinger wrestles. Most theology is grounded in metaphysics and asks questions about things that are eternal and universal, such as the Holy Trinity or the nature of man. But the key moments in salvation are moments, particular events. Jesus Christ was made incarnate at a particular time in the town of Nazareth in the womb of a woman named Mary. He was not made incarnate in an earlier age, nor in another land, nor was He born of another woman. His birth, ministry, death and resurrection also occurred as discrete events in particular places. What then is the relationship between theology (universals) and history (particulars), Ratzinger asks.

I have not finished reading The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, nor am I expecting it to definitively answer this quandary. Still, I am beginning to sketch out two distinctions that I think might be useful.

The first distinction is between “spiritual history” and “mundane history”. The former involves all things non-material: the working of God, the angels (including demons) and men (at least in their spiritual capacity). Mundane history, in contrast, involves things that are of little spiritual or eternal consequence. The Incarnation clearly belongs to spiritual history, while the fluctuations of the price of rye are fairly mundane. (To clarify, this is not a distinction between a history of the Church and the secular world. Ecclesiastical history can be just as mundane as the price of rye. Just ask any parish secretary.) There are, however, events which are not so easy to place, such as disasters which prompt men to turn to God in prayer. Rising water levels or spiraling inflation are, of themselves, mundane, but may take on spiritual significance. This is because man is himself a hybrid, possessing a spirit like the angels but also a body like the animals. To divorce these two aspects of man from one another is a grave danger; we should expect similar dangers if we try to divide history.

Moreover, Bonaventure notes that sapientia omniformis (omniform wisdom) perceives the traces of God’s work in all things. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, “What can be known about God is plain to [the nations]…. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:19-20). Thus, if all creation points to God, it becomes problematic to label any of it “mundane”.

Still, I think the spiritual/mundane distinction has its merit. Most of the history that is written today is terribly mundane, though occasional works on the Civil Rights Movement in America or the battle against Nazism in Europe may touch the spiritual. Still, historians should be reminded that much of what they study, though interesting in its way, is of only passing importance. Moreover, they should be encouraged to push through the mundane and at least aspire to charting the spiritual, when possible.

Alas, that “when possible” may be the hang-up. C. S. Lewis argues in his essay “Historicism” that charting spiritual history by means short of divine revelation is impossible. First there is the problem of collecting data: how do you know if or when God has touched the hearts of men? Few people keep spiritual diaries, and I know of no World Bank of the spiritual world which tabulates such information, telling whether or not the spiritual life has enjoyed a good year. But even if we somehow had access to all the right data, Lewis points out that it would be overwhelming. Important things in politics get written down; key moments in art are recorded by the works of art themselves. Thus it is fairly easy to pick out the high points of political or cultural history, or at least to collect some events which are of arguable importance. But the spiritual life is both fuller and more subtle. At any moment of your life, you are experiencing life with all of your being: the five senses, recent memories, more latent concerns, a history of experiences and your particular intellectual and emotional formation. To see a picture of a place you have been is not the same as returning to a past visit. Even a second visit to the same place cannot recapture the old moment. If somehow you could be re-inserted into a past experience, it would take the whole of your being to re-live it properly. Thus, Lewis contends, for the spiritual historian to properly reconsider a single day of a single life would take him an entire day himself. He could never properly survey even his own life, much less a century or two of an entire nation.

Still, Lewis leaves the door open to spiritual history by freely conceding that his comments do not apply to those who claim knowledge by revelation. Indeed, Lewis clearly knows that Christianity makes just such a claim, contending that God has revealed Himself throughout the centuries and has made known His actions through Scripture. Thus, at least with regards to events discussed by Scripture, the Christian can claim knowledge of spiritual history by revelation.

But can we hope for a spiritual history of the 20th century, or must we settle for mundane history? Bonaventure’s understanding of “revelation” gives us hope for more recent spiritual history. He contends that the revelation of Scripture is not in the words on the page, but the spiritual understanding of the individual reading them. (After all, there are anthropologists and literary critics who have read Scripture inside and out but remain atheists; nothing has been revealed to them.) Bonaventure does not claim that any interpretation of Scripture has equal claim to being “revelation”; the authoritative interpretation is that found within the Church and her life of faith. Still, his definition may be seen as an invitation to consider “revelation” in a broader sense, one which allows us to apply the principles of Scripture to more recent events. I would not claim such an interpretation as authoritative or “revealed” in the same way as the Trinity is revealed, but I think it suggests a way out of Lewis’ dilemma.

Finally, we must consider the possibility of direct revelation, that is, spiritual insight apart from Scripture. The Church teaches that the revelation of doctrine is closed – expect no news flashes about a Fourth Person of the Godhead – but interpreting the events of history need not be a doctrinal matter. Thus, the historian who is faithful to prayer might reasonably consider the possibility of the Holy Spirit guiding his efforts.

This may sound a bit far from history as it is practiced in the academy. In fact, it may sound more like staring into a crystal ball. I advocate no such thing. But I do advocate an approach to history which is not divorced from faith. At the bottom of things I desire to understand history in a why that is meaningful, as are all things in a world created and sustained by a loving God.

That second distinction, you ask. Where is it? Today’s discussion has gone on long enough. Tomorrow we will consider divine and worldly history.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where Is My Village Militia?

For some time I have been intrigued, perhaps even troubled, by today's title question. In days past, every adult male - or nearly every - would serve in his village militia. Something of the sort existed in Anglo-Saxon England, when the Normans invaded in 1066, and continued to exist into the 19th century in the United States. The primary purpose of this militia was to defend the village, either from marauders (such as American Indians) or to participate in a larger defensive effort against an invading army. On the side, the village militia might be called out from time to time to help with manhunts or crowd control. Nevertheless, this was fundamentally a civilian organization, and so it served only occasionally.

Participating in the village militia was once an integral part of republican life, but where is the village militia today? How do I fulfill this long-standing duty?

The simple fact of the matter is that my village - College Station, TX - has no militia. Even if it did, it would be largely pointless. If a Chinese army comes rolling through College Station, America is in serious trouble, probably something far bigger than a militia could handle. As for marauders, thankfully there are none these days. And modern policing means manhunts are few and the forces to conduct them already in place. (Admittedly, I could become a police officer or sheriff's deputy, but these are full time jobs, no the part time work of a republican citizen.)

The most obvious candidate for the modern militia is the National Guard. While this is an admirable force which does many important things, even it is something different than the militia of old. This is, in large part, the result of the changing nature of conflict. In Anglo-Saxon England, an army consisted almost entirely of village militia (fyrd) members, with a sprinkling of professional housecarls in the king's retinue. That was it. No air support, no supplies, no intelligence service. Maybe a couple stray monks acted as messengers and diplomats, if their services were needed. It was a pretty lean operation. Even in the 19th century, the villager with his musket remained of primary importance.

But the nature of conflict has changed. While the infantryman remains central and essential to warfare, he now has artillery, armor and air support aiding him. He is backed by a massive logistical tail. And behind the logicians stand an army of bureaucrats who file paperwork on benefits, write contracts for equipment and manage massive budgets. Engineers design gizmos of every sort to support the war effort. And then there are those beyond the military and its supporting elements: there are countless intelligence agencies, diplomats, economists and analysts of every strip involved in our nation's national security process. If they could all be tabulated, we would find that not only is the infantryman in the minority, but even the military itself no longer plays the overwhelming role it once did. Thus, joining the National Guard would provide support to one aspect of our nation's security, but only one.

The second problem with the village militia/National Guard parallel is that today's Guardsmen are really professional - if part time - soldiers. They fight in distant wars, not in the environs of their home. One can argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought to protect American homes, and perhaps they are, but this is hardly the same as standing within sight of your own property and bodily defending it. Not only is the obvious motivation for fighting lost, but so is a certain advantage. The militiaman knows his home terrain and draws his supplies from his own home and neighbors. Today's Guardsmen, fighting halfway around the world, enjoy no such advantages.

To find the modern parallel to the old republican militia, we must first ask: what threatens my home and family? The answers are many: burglars and muggers, flooding, Chinese cyberattacks, Russian cybercriminals, Islamic terrorists, manipulation of oil prices by foreign powers... The list could go on and one. Suffice it to say, we can identify two qualities of these threats: they are generally unlikely and they are incredibly diverse. And, with few exceptions, there are no militia to meet them. There might be a neighborhood watch I could join or a county emergency volunteer program, but there are no weekend cyberwarriors of which I am aware, nor militias which participate in part time economic warfare. Nor have I seen any signs of an on-call intelligence outfit of citizens-spies.

Where is my village militia?

Perhaps the village militia is gone for good. Perhaps it has become defused over countless volunteer and professional organizations. For now, I shall keep looking. And if you find it, please send me a note.

Today's image depicts a Massachusetts militia muster, c. 1637. The work was done by Don Troiani for the National Guard Heritage Series.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reviving Languages in the Classroom

In much discourse today, "tradition" looms in our minds as a monolith, imposing and utterly unmovable. But traditions are actually much more fragile than we often think, and even the best-intentioned attempts to preserve them can alter them radically.

A good example to illustrate this point is language. Language is the means by which we interact with people, without which no other tradition would be possible. Language obviously does not live by itself; it must be taught to each child that comes into the world, and must be cultivated by adults. Most people, though, never consciously thought, as they grew up themselves, about what language they were learning, nor do they consciously decide what language they will teach to their children. Children simply take their language in with their mother's milk--which is why the Germans call their native tongue their Muttersprache. Yet there are times when individuals and communities must make a conscious choice to hand down the language they have spoken for generations. This usually happens when another language has become dominant in the area, whether through demographic change or some socio-political reason. How many extinct languages in the world today are nearing extinction, supplanted by other languages?

Sometimes, the language will not die but will linger on its deathbed until it can be revived. Today languages are usually revived by means of classroom instruction. But traditions, such as a language, cannot really be revived in a school without changing the tradition itself. The moment formal instruction is needed to maintain the basic elements of a tradition, that tradition has changed significantly: the tradition is neither entirely old, nor entirely new, but a tertium quid. The drive to preserve the tradition, while it can save the tradition from extinction, never preserves the tradition entirely intact.

One example of such a language that nearly died out before being revived in the classroom, but has undergone great changes because of its revival, is Irish. By 1900 the Irish language was largely confined to poor rural areas in the west, such as the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, Connemara and the Aran Island in Galway, parts of Mayo, and northwest Donegal (see the parts in green on the map to the right). These regions are known today as the Gaeltacht; Irish is still the ordinary means of communication in daily life there and is spoken on local radio and television. After gaining independence from Ireland, the new government made Irish an official language and introduced it as a mandatory subject in the schools. The language has even made something of a comeback in the towns and even in Dublin itself, often among the highly-educated. Because of these official efforts, Irish is enjoying something of a renaissance.

But, a strange thing has happened to the language, according to Brian Ó Broin: he has fears that there will be a "schism" between rural Gaeltacht residents and urban speakers, between those who grew up with the language and those who originally learned it in school. When members of the two groups meet, they actually prefer to speak in English because they cannot easily understand each other's Irish. As Ó Broin explains, Irish has many subtly different sounds, especially guttural sounds, that are very hard for a native English speaker to distinguish. And all these subtle differences are important:

Irish has a fairly sophisticated morphological system. That is to say, words can change form in several ways. The noun cainteoir, for instance, can mutate to gcainteoir, cainteora, chainteora, cainteoirí, and gcainteoirí, depending on its grammatical function. As we saw earlier, if the pronunciation of these mutations alters or fails, the entire grammatical system of the language becomes endangered.

One example that Ó Broin gives is that urban speakers did not "mark any masculine nouns that were in the plural or genitive." In this example, the urban speakers' failure to pronounce certain sounds correctly has led to a drastically simplified system for the declension of masculine nouns. What is being born is a new pidgin Irish spoken primarily by urban speakers, as opposed to the older, more complex form spoken in the countryside.

All this is interesting in itself (at least to amateur linguists), as an example of a language experiencing major changes in real time. It is also interesting, though, as an example of the unwitting harm preservationism can do to what it seeks to preserve. There is much reason for rejoicing at the successful revival of Irish through classroom learning, but Irish's shift from being the language of the poor to being a marker of middle-class education shows that much is lost even as a tradition is saved.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hauschka's One-Man Ensemble

Volker Bertelmann - aka "Hauschka" - has jury-rigged his piano to produce a wide variety of sounds, allowing him to play what sound like a swelling ensemble. Quite impressive.

H/T to Nathan for bringing this video to my attention.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Life Imitates Art

One year ago I took a look at the classic Britcom Yes, Minister. And just today I was reminded of how great that show really was.

It turns out that the state of Virginia has built a brand-new prison...but has no prisoners to put in it. Administering an empty prison can be quite complicated, as well as quite expensive: it cost $715,000 this year alone just to maintain the facility in its current condition.

Just in case you never could have imagined a bureaucracy so bumbling as to do something like construct a prison without being able to fill it, the writers of Yes, Minister did. One of the best episodes tells the story of a hospital that is brand-new, and fully staffed, but without patients.

The minister decides he needs to investigate the hospital, and is taken there to meet with the directress and the labor union's representative:

For those of you who haven't watched the show before, a linguistic note: very often the crazier characters are given regional accents, such as the maniacal Scots trade unionist in this episode.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Apocalyptic Imagery

Here's an open question to start off the new year.

Aaron's Christmas Eve post, particularly his description of how the natural world rejoiced at Christ's birth, how the very molecules danced in delight, brought to mind something I have been pondering for a while now. I'm sure one of you literary types out there knows more about this than I do and will be kind enough to enlighten me.

One prominent trait of apocalyptic literature seems to be that key moments in man's history are accompanied by and reflected by similar events in nature. Why is such imagery so powerful?

Here's an example from Lk. 21:24-27, when Jesus speaks about a great persecution; he predicts that

They will fall by the edge of the sword,
and be made captive in all nations,
And Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles
until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Then, immediately after speaking about the fate of men, he spaks about the signs in nature:

And there will be signs in the sun
and moon and stars,
and distress of nations on the earth in despair
at the roaring of the sea and waves,
Men fainting from fear and foreboding of what
is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they'll see the Son of Man
coming on a cloud with power and great glory.

Another good example comes from the Exsultet sung at the Easter vigil, when the earth is told to rejoice in the splendor of the eternal king. This moment is perhaps not eschatological in the strict sense, since Easter marks not the end of the world but a re-birth in Christ, but the situation is similar, since a great change in man's history has come about. The imagery, then, is also similar:

Gaudeat et tellus, tantis irradiata fulgoribus:
et æterni Regis splendore illustrata,
totius orbis se sentiat amisisse caliginem.

This imagery of nature somehow cooperating, or at least reflecting, the events of man's history is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon either. Here is an example from Virgil's first Georgic (ll. 466-471, translated by David Ferry):

When Caesar's light was quenched, the shining face
Of the sun, in pity for Rome, was covered with darkness,
And that impious generation was in fear
That there would thenceforth be eternal night.
And not only the sun but the earth and the sea gave signs,
And dogs and birds gave signs, of ill to come.

This kind of imagery has great emotional resonance, but I'm not sure exactly why. Any ideas?