Scott D. Moringiello
Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.
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All of the recent posts on the Triduum and Anthony Domestico’s interview with Christian Wiman have brought me back to one of my favorite living poets, Geoffrey Hill. In the interview with Wiman, Domestico classifies two types of Christian poets: those who emphasize the incarnation and those who emphasize the crucifixion. In the second camp, Domestico quite rightly places Hill. And so I thought dotCommonweal readers would be interested in two of Hill’s poems. “Canticle for Good Friday” comes from his first collection For the Unfallen (1960) and “LACHRIMAE ANTIQUAE NOVAE” comes from Tenebrae (1978). Hill’s Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012 has just been published by Oxford University Press.
Whatever else Christian theology is, it is an exercise in literary criticism. That is, to be a theologian is to take revelation seriously and taking revelation seriously means understanding that God has revealed himself in the Scriptures. To understand those Scriptures, then, one needs to pay attention to form, to genre, to plot, to figures of speech, and all the rest. And of course knowledge of history and philosophy and archeology among a host of relevant disciplines can and should be brought to bear on interpreting those Scriptures.
This is all a roundabout way of introducing two excellent literary critics: Terry Eagleton and Friedrich Nietzsche. If you haven’t read Eagleton’s article in the most recent Commonweal, go and do that now. What I write here is intended to be a codicil to Eagleton’s piece. * I’ve just finished teaching Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, and as usual, the students were in turn angered, surprised, and bewildered. And that anger, surprise, and bewilderment came from Nietzsche’s interpretations of the Gospels, from, we might say, his literary criticism.
As Eagleton makes clear, Nietzsche is the first real atheist, but it’s worth noting that while Nietzsche hates Christianity, he has a particular fondness for Jesus. Nietzsche’s Jesus is not the Son of God or the Word made flesh. Nietzsche’s Jesus is a dim-witted man who spoke in metaphors that no one ever understood. Yes, Jesus brings glad tidings, but the “‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children; the faith which here finds utterance is not a faith which has been won by struggle – it is there, from the beginning, it is as it were a return to childishness in the spiritual domain.” Jesus is an overgrown child. Like a child, he tells stories to tell how he feels. It’s just that everyone has misunderstood the stories.
The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once said, “Jesus teaches us two things. First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition. Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”* Strong words those, and words that often come to my mind on martyrs’ feast days. I’m remembering McCabe’s words today, as we celebrate the feast day of Perpetua and Felicity. I’m also thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose works McCabe’s friend Elizabeth Anscombe did so much to bring to the world’s attention and whom McCabe and his fellow Dominicans studied so closely.
When I’ve taught my introduction to theology class, I’ve paired the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity with Jon Sobrino’s “Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean” (the account of the four American women missionaries martyred in El Salvador in 1977). The reading comes near the end of the semester, just after we’ve finished our discussion of the Scriptures and just before we read Irenaeus’s Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. I offer these readings to the students as witnesses of witnesses. And I think the students are genuinely conflicted about Perpetua and Felicity’s story. What kind of mother, they wonder, chooses death instead of nursing her son? And what kind of mother decides when she’s eight months pregnant to choose Christ instead of her unborn child? (Indeed, what kind of god would want that?) How could these women possibly have sung psalms as they came to their death? Perpetua even wants to fix her hair before she dies, “for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”
These are difficult questions, and I don’t presume to give any answers to them. I do think, however, that the way of life and death that these women faced ought to be taken very seriously indeed. Martyrdom, of course, has nothing to do with death in the first place. It has to do with witness. We, all of us, witness and witness to all sorts of things in our daily actions. We witness to a particular economic system, to a particular political system, to a particular faith tradition, to particular families and friends. The list, as they say, goes on. And this witness can only make sense in the forms of life that we inhabit, but it can also show us the problems with those forms of life.
Which brings me to Wittgenstein.
As 2014 begins, we should bear in mind important anniversaries in the history of the Church. The Council of Constance, which was the high water mark of conciliarism in the Church and which ended the Western schism, began in 1414. The Society of Jesus, which had been suppressed in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV, was reinstated in 1814. And of course World War I, whose repercussions for the Church and the world continue to this day, began in 1914. I’m aware that the opening of a high school in New York City doesn’t match the significance of any of these events, but I hope you don’t mind if I pay tribute to Regis High School, a place that opened in 1914 and has stood for so many of us as a place of prayer and learning and of civility and community.
Recent discussions at dotCommonweal have focused on Catholic philanthropy and Catholic high schools. These discussions have made me think of Regis. I’m also thinking of it because last weekend, some 250 eighth graders were interviewed as part of the admissions process. (Roughly 1000 eighth grade Catholic boys in the New York metro area took an admissions test weeks before that. The top 250 scorers on that test were invited for interviews.) In a couple of weeks, around 140 will receive a letter offering them admissions. If tradition holds, more than 95% of those admitted will accept. I received such a letter on my birthday in 1993. My friend Robert Imbelli did as well a few years before that. (He’s a bit older than I am; it was harder to get in then.) Anthony Andreassi, a frequent presence in our comments, teaches history at Regis, and he’s just written Teach Me To Be Generous: The First Century of Regis High School In New York City, a history of the school. This year the school is celebrating its centennial with a series of events and a capital campaign.
Here are some things Mike Tyson and I have in common. We’re both from Brooklyn. We both have Italian-American men as mentors and role models. We both love Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. We both believe in redemption. Iron Mike looks to Mecca for his understanding of redemption, and I look, as the days of December wind down, to Bethlehem and also, of course, to Calvary.
I haven’t yet read Tyson’s new memoir Undisputed Truth or seen the HBO movie of the same name, but there has been a lot of press surrounding both. Joyce Carol Oates has an excellent review of the book in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published a short article by Tyson in which he discusses what he likes to read. He writes,
Thanks to Dominic Preziosi and all the folks at Commonweal, the discussion we had about Dante's Commedia this Easter season is now all in one place.
I greatly enjoyed reading and blogging about Dante, and I'm currently thinking of the next reading group we could do. (Suggestions for books and suggestions for times are appreciated.)
[Reposted from 9/10/11*]
One of my fondest memories of college is sitting in Greek 401, poring over Homer's Iliad. We would each take turns translating the text, and then the whole class would discuss what had just been translated. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my friend translating the following exchange between Andromache and Hector. (This is from Robert Fagles's translation.)
Pressing close beside him and weeping freely now,
Clung to his hand, urged him, called him: Reckless one,
My Hector your own fiery courage will destroy you!
Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me,
And the destiny that weighs me down, your widow, now so soon
In reply, Hector tells his wife he must fight. He imagines that after the fall of Troy Andromache will be a slave woman is some Argive city. An Achaean will look on her and say,
"There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter
They could field, those stallion-breaking Trojans,
Long ago when the men fought for Troy." So he will say
And the fresh grief will swell your heart once more,
Widowed, robbed of the one man strong enough
To fight off your day of slavery. No, no,
Let the earth come piling over my dead body
Before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away.
After the class finished translating the section, our professor, who was a 30-year veteran of teaching classics and a veteran of the US Navy, seemed to be holding back tears. He wasn't the only one.
“Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.” You’d be forgiven if you thought these words came from Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, who famously said that all of humanity’s problems stem from the fact that people are not able to sit quietly by themselves. The words come not from Pascal, but his twenty-first century avatar Regina Spektor, who sings them in her latest single “You’ve Got Time,” which is the theme song for the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. The show has gotten a lot of good press, and it seems as though everyone in my demographic watches it. The good press the show has received has focused rightly on the solid writing, the excellent acting, the tight storyline. And although I appreciate all these things, I also think Orange is the New Black is the most morally serious television show since The Wire. It helps us confront uncomfortable truths.
[Below there is some profane language and perhaps a mild spoiler.]
Today I've posted my final installment of the Cammino attraverso la Commedia over at Verdicts. Thanks to everyone who has followed along, and special thanks to Helen and Flavia who performed intellectual works of mercy (you didn't know there were intellectual works of mercy, did you?) by commenting on each post. (They will certainly get time off in Purgatory for that!) Although Mary was in the upper room with the apostles, Bernard's hymn to Mary isn't a perfect match for Pentecost.
Pentecost reverses Babel. Whereas once language divided humanity, the words of the Apostles, spoken in the Spirit, unite humanity. Peter's speech in Acts 2 causes people to repent, and the newly repentant form a new community where they share with each other and praise God. In other words, Peter's speech helps to create a community of love. Until today, I hadn't thought of Dante as a Pentecostal, but the title fits. Above all, Dante's Commedia celebrates the interdependence of language and love.
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