June 28th, 2006

I See You!

Personal: Visiting Mom

Well, I'm still enjoying some quiet time visiting Mom for a few days. The joint birthday-party for the nieces went off smoothly on Saturday, with the perfect weather playing into Jim and Leslie's present of an inflated, netted-in castle - one of those kiddie jumping playhouses - for the girls. Once their three little cousins jumped in with them, the girls became more of a shrieking tribe. Naturally, Haley, being born without fear, began doing stunts as soon as she stopped being scared of the thing just being there. Cute pictures forthcoming upon my return to Milwaukee.

Otherwise, with Mom working during the day and leaving very early in the morning, we get some hours in the evening to hang together, mostly being low-key, debating the news, looking at some antiques or art or finding ourselves watching a documentary and letting our conversation follow. We talk about her work, or what I've been working on here. As I said, it's all very low-key, but entirely pleasant. I've also been speculating about the Geneva/Venice/Florence trip next month with her, and some of the things I'd particularly like to see. Erik has been forwarding me information of that sort, including the kind of civic life like Geneva's own free evening concerts, in the mode of Milwaukee's own Jazz in the Park.

Ayres' Nicaea and its Legacy is slow going, with lots of note-taking involved. So has been the ever-plodding work of adding to and correctig the dissertation bibliography. Tonight I've also started serious reading on modernity and post-modernity, its relation to Christianity and particularly with regard to the Second Vatican Council, with an eye toward a paper proposal for the Ethics and Culture Center this fall.

Strange emails the last few days. My advisor sends me instructions and a budget for hunting recent Green Lantern issues from his rural farm in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I found a note from a charming and daring girl apparently new to Milwaukee asking me out. Unfortunately for both of us, she sent it to my MySpace account in March and I only just opened it. Oops. Mere hours after reading out loud - and with considerable amusement - a note from my friend Julie enthusing about how the men in Tuscany are delighting her by wearing tight pants, Mom graciously insists on buying me a pair of "relaxed fit" Levis. Coincidence? I've also apparently ended up on a marketing list that has me targeted as an African-American woman. Maybe it was the bookshelves. It'll be easier to straighten everything out when I get home and off the dial-up.
Clanmacnois Tower

Theological Notebook: Reviewing Benedict as Benedictine

I mentioned the other day having found a misplaced issue of First Things in my computer bag as a result of my visit to Mom's. I also just found what was then the most recent issue of the Jesuit's journal of [diverse] opinion, America, which remains at the top of my recommendation list for people to subscribe to who are interested in reading widely and intelligently on faith, politics, culture and humanity. I had apparently tucked this into my bag for the Boston trip as well, but my reading there was overwhelmed by Erik's pushing Joseph Ellis' Revolutionary Brothers at me, as I've reported elsewhere.

This morning I found myself reading a treasure of an article that I wanted to share with anyone who could be persuaded. As a bit of context, I recall being disappointed with Madison's The Capital Times this weekend when they ran in their "Forum" section two review-essays discussing Pope Benedict's first year on the job. Neither essay was particularly impressive or informative. In an almost-humourous display of accidental stereotyping, they ran a "good job" essay by a Catholic priest and a "bad job" essay by a professor of sociology. The priest's column was weakened by its enthusiasm, which was too much of the cheerleader and not enough of the thoughtful observer, and the sociologist's column was weakened by its snide character. Example: He dismissed Benedict's opening encyclical, with the English title of God Is Love, merely by relating an anecdote that a priest once told him that if you couldn't think of anything else to preach about, you could turn to "God is love." While we can immediately imagine a weak, sentimental homily of that sort, one could - if they had the wit - also use that as an entryway into the depths of the trinitarian wonder of the transcendant nature of God, and/or from such a vision, explore the God who is Love as the basis for the richest anthropology of human nature ever devised. Instead, the essayist's anecdote is used as an excuse to not give any indication at all that he had even read Benedict's encyclical.

As reviews go, you can imagine why both of these seemed rather unsatisfactory, whatever the fact of the matter.

So imagine my pleasure this morning when I read in this May issue of America a review not only well-informed and thoughtful, avoiding uncritical gushing, but one which actually in itself was a moving and substantial piece of spiritual reading. How delightful is that? The author draws out Pope Benedict's intentional rooting of himself in the rich earth of the spirituality of the Benedictine monks, a spirituality of the everyday, but of the everyday that is mindful of, and empowered by, the constant awareness of the love of God for us all.

Highly recommended.

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What Is A Theologian?

Theological Notebook: Woody Allen; Human Sexuality in Humanae Vitae

You know, that issue of America I mentioned in my previous entry is one of the most consistently excellent issues I've ever read. As I continued reading this morning, I found that there were two other articles I particularly wanted to take note of for possible future reference here, one about Woody Allen's film making and the conspicuous presence of the absence of God, and another that is one of the more intelligent pieces I've ever seen written on the controversial Humanae Vitae of 1968. That latter usually seems to provoke the kind of reaction one is used to from our polarized press and society: all right or all wrong, with not much room for nuance or sense. I think this one, in addressing the issue of human sexuality as the core issue, does much better.

Woody’s World

By Robert E. Lauder

Woody Allen’s latest film, “Match Point,” is probably one of the most explicitly atheistic films in the history of American cinema. It is also a vivid illustration of the nihilistic worldview that Allen has been presenting in most of his films for nearly 40 years. While God is absent from most American films, what distinguishes Allen’s work is that in his films the absence of God matters. It makes a difference in the lives of people. In fact, it makes the difference.

Much of Allen’s film work could be described as a combination of the humor of Bob Hope with the vision of Ingmar Bergman. Like Hope, Allen pokes fun at human failures and foibles, focusing on the seeming impossibility of a successful heterosexual relationship. The humor is almost always at the expense of his on-screen persona, as played either by himself or, in later films, by stand-ins as different as Mia Farrow, Kenneth Branagh and Will Farrell. At the same time, in Allen’s films there is no happy ending, no final fadeout in which a leading lady stand-in for the likes of Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Godard or Jane Russell succumbs to the charms, real or imaginary, of the inadequate hero. Also, unlike Hope or most any other American comedian, many of Allen’s jokes refer to the divine. Even in his early essays, short stories and plays, Woody’s wit found a source of laughter in the existence or nonexistence of God.

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Of Human Life

By John F. Kavanaugh

Thirty-eight years after its publication, the encyclical Humanae Vitae is once again causing a stir. The Italian weekly L’Espresso featured in its April 21 issue an extended dialogue between the bioethicist Ignazio Marino and the retired Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J. (For the text in English, search the World Wide Web for “chiesa martini marino.”) The discussion includes egg or sperm donation, the scientific use of abandoned frozen embryos, the use of condoms for “spouses when one of them is infected with AIDS,” abortion and euthanasia. Although I did not see the encyclical specifically mentioned, it seems to haunt the proceedings. This became evident in the following weeks, as a flurry of articles raised the possibility that the church’s blanket condemnation of contraception might be modified.

There is extensive literature on the encyclical, including intense critiques and strong defenses. Offered here is merely a reflection that might be worthy of attention when thinking about human life and human sexuality.

My own judgment is that Humanae Vitae, while missing a strategic opportunity, was in many ways prophetic. The opportunity missed was the occasion to articulate clearly the difference between contraception and the taking of human life. After condemning abortion as a means of birth control, No. 14 of the encyclical says that forms of direct sterilization, whether lasting or temporary, and other forms of contraception are “equally to be excluded.” That equally, possibly an effect of seeing only grave matter in sexual sins, has the unintended but disastrous effect of equating contraception and abortion. Abortion is not contraception; it is the termination of an early human life.

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