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Aggiornamento and Resourcement in American Democracy?

I thought I'd open an thread on E.J. Dionne's fascinating cover story in the new Commonweal. The last paragraph particularly struck me:"If Pope Benedict, that staunch defender of orthodoxy, is able to acknowledge his own traditions debt to the positive aspects of modernity, it should not be so difficult for other believers to do so. Religion is, necessarily, both conservative and progressive. Religion is rooted in tradition and survives through development and change within tradition. It applies old truths to new circumstances. It also reexamines old truths in light of new circumstances. The conservative insists that the tradition not be distorted merely to accommodate passing fads and fashions. The progressive insists on purifying and clarifying the tradition by freeing it from the cultural encrustations of the past. The conservative keeps the tradition alive by honoring it. The progressive keeps the tradition alive by adapting it, and sometimes by challenging it. The history of American democracy shows that religious conservatives and progressives need each other more than they know. The election of 2008, coming after a long period of profound division in our politics and within our religious communities, will mark the moment when we finally come to understand that truth."

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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A lot of people (myself included) who drank even a drop of the "radical orthodoxy" Kool-Aid over the last two decades need to read Dionne's invaluable essay. They've been marvelous on the resourcement end of the continuum, but there's far too much facile modernity- and liberalism-bashing among the RO crowd, and it's dangerous as well as boring. (What does the incisive critic of the Enlightenment do when he has a toothache? Light a votive candle?) As an antidote to the Kool-Aid, I highly recommend Chuck Mathewes' remarkable new book, A Theology of Public Life. Acknowledging his debts to RO, Mathewes stakes out a position that eschews both the old, tiresome "public theology" twaddle (we can translate theological commitment into secular categories) and the new, "ecclesially-based" twaddle (we can only talk about non-Christians, not to them). (In the interests of shameless self-promotion, I'm working on a review of the volume for Commonweal.)

Dionne's essay is indeed, as Eugene Mccarraher say, first-rate. See also the review of Dionne's book in yesterday's NY Times book Review. (I'll look forward to the review of "A Theology of Public Life).Let me underline Dionne's endorsement of Obama's remark "People are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith used to belittle or divide." Whether Obama is factually correct about what "people want," that is certainly what they should want. Those of us who take our religion seriously and see its importance to sensible political life have a duty to reject any suggestion from any person that the very fact of being religious better equips one to be a better citizen than anyone else. It seems to me that, regrettably, some religious people do fall into this error.

Eugene,A Theology of Public Life sounds very interesting, and I look forward to your review. But I just checked Amazon, since it sounded like something I might buy, and the list price is $99, and even with the Amazon discount it's $79.20. I consider myself extravagant when it comes to buying books, but I don't remember ever paying $79 for a 380-page book. I work in the college textbook industry, and we are constantly criticized for book prices, but comparing this to an expensive history text or calculus text, page for page A Theology of Public Life is considerably more expensive. Who buys these books? (Sorry. I know you are only writing the review!)

David: You'll get no argument from me. (In fact, I intend to throw a line in the review about Cambridge University Press' indefensible pricing of this book. I would think they would have offered a paperback version, which wouldn't be unusual.) I didn't even ask Commonweal to supply me with a review copy -- I'm using a volume I obtained through an inter-library loan system.

If it is a book version of a thesis, the press run tends to be quite small and the price quite large. I don't know if that is the case with this book, but it most certainly does price things out of the hands (and wallets) of the average pew potato.

Interesting stuff, but he clearly doesn't get conservatives.In simplest and starkest terms he misses why it is that most conservatives, religious and otherwise, are wary of "progress" and modernity. Some of the very same progressive impulses and ideas that led to and end of slavery, improvement of workers conditions, women's suffrage and the like also gave us the Reign of Terror, the Gulag, and the Great Cultural Revolution.Moreover, he seems to draw seemingly definitive lines of historical descent that simply don't exists.

Cambridge University Press regularly demands exorbitant prices for its books; I pointed this out myself in a review of one of them.I don't like the uses to which "ressourcement" and "aggiornamento" distinctions are commonly put, but that probably is material for another thread.

Sean, surely your use of the phrase "the very same impulses" is hyperbole. If the impulses propelling modernity had been the "very same" ones that resulted in the Cultural Revolution then you would have spent a large portion of your youth being "re-educated" in North Dakota instead of (I'm guessing) debating with your professors. Or, by that kind of analogy, why aren't the very same forces propelling evangelical Christians seeking greater religious input into government the same ones that propelled the Thirty Years War?

One of the things that liberals tend to do (myself included) is not to be aware that criticism must be constructive and be discreetly rendered. When we easily condemn long standing customs we unnerve those who revere such customs and find them necessary. A good example is biblical criticisms. While there is good reason to believe that many stories in the New Testament (as well as the OT) are not factual we have to be careful that we don't slide into the complete denial of the faith as many have. And we have to reassure those who take these stories as fact that we are not abandoning the faith by such criticism. This has always been the force behind fundamentalism. People feel threatened by certain theories and begin to declare a war because they feel their very faith is endangered. This is a good area to start a necessary dialogue.

No Barbara, I do mean the very same impulses. The very idea that there is such a thing as "human progress" writ large is the most dangerous modern idea. By the way, I have never been to North Dakota, but I did argue with my professors. My favorite one being over whether Ronald Reagan, who just became president, might not be right about defeating the Soviet empire - which was, of course a "pipe dream."

One might counter that the very idea of infallible knowledge and possession of divine truth is the most dangerous idea, modern or otherwise, and one shared by the religious and irreligious alike. The former for centuries, the latter for decades . . .

"In simplest and starkest terms he misses why it is that most conservatives, religious and otherwise, are wary of progress and modernity. Some of the very same progressive impulses and ideas that led to and end of slavery, improvement of workers conditions, womens suffrage and the like also gave us the Reign of Terror, the Gulag, and the Great Cultural Revolution."Where does nation building a secular state in Iraq fit in with this do you think?

Sean: I want to follow up on your exchange with Barbara. You wrote,

Some of the very same progressive impulses and ideas that led to an end of slavery, improvement of workers conditions, womens suffrage and the like also gave us the Reign of Terror, the Gulag, and the Great Cultural Revolution.

I dont understand. First, please name at least a few of the very same progressive impulses and ideas which youre referring to. Second, please provide some examples e.g. show us how the very same impulse which led to womens suffrage also led to the Gulag.

Gene,The idea of "progress" implies you are getting to an end state - usually some ideal better world. For example, it is no coinincidence, I think, that many of the leading lights of the women's suffrage movement were also strong proponents of things like "hygenic eugenics," "free love," and the elimination of traditional marriage and family. When you seek to "fix" the world, you often need to "fix" how people perceive it and what they value, you need to destroy the institutions, and possibly the individuals that don't fit the model. The Soviets didn't create the Gulag because they just wanted to imrison and kill people - they were building a better world.This probably doesn't express what I mean very well - Read Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World.

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