Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Cube and the Cathedral

I've apparently been a very good boy this year. For Christmas, I received a towering stack of books I can add to my reading queue. I've only got a week and a half 'til class starts up again, so I'd better get cracking!

Having gotten a head start on the pile, I began with the book The Cube and the Cathedral by George Weigel. It is a well crafted book, which shares some of his thoughts on the "Europe problem", which of course could someday become the "America problem" as well. For Weigel, Europe today is suffering from a "crisis of civilizational morale" which manifests itself in many different ways, most urgently in its below-replacement birthrates.

The key to understanding the problem is the general European rejection of Christianity, most notably in the long, protracted battle over whether to include a simple mention of the contributions of Christianity to the history of Europe. That effort ultimately was rejected, instead attributing the roots of European democracy to the Enlightenment.

For Weigel, the perfect metaphor for the intellectual attitude of Europe today can be found in Paris at La Grande Arche de la Defense - a gigantic cube, 40 stories tall, designed as a monument for human rights. It is an open cube, and as any visitor to the rooftop terrace will learn from the tourist literature available there, the open part of the cube is so large that the Notre Dame Cathedral would fit comfortably inside. Though perhaps not intentionally so, the literature nonetheless provided an apt metaphor for Weigel to thus note Europe's obsession with overlooking its Christian past. Hence the title "The Cube and the Cathedral".

Although many of the currents of thought on the continent which are at odds with Christianity can be traced back to the Enlightenement or to thinkers like Nietche, for example, one item that struck me was that Weigel pointed out that the beginnings of the divergence go back even farther. Into the middle ages, the 13th century to be exact. Weigel contrasted the notions of freedom offered by two of the great thinkers of the era, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham.

Here's Aquinas:
Freedom, for Aquinas, is a means to human excellence and human happiness. Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit - or, to use an old-fashioned term, as a matter of virtue. Freedom, on this understanding, is the means by which we act, through our intelligence and our will, on the natural longing for truth, goodness, and happiness that is built into us as human beings.
Ockham, who was a proponent of Nominalism, had a differnt take on freedom:
Freedom is simply a neutral faculty of choice. And choice is everything, for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power. Will is the defining human attribute. For God too is supremely willful, and the moral life, as Ockham understood it, was a contest of wills between my will and God's imposition of His will through, for example, the Ten Commandments.
Boy. Night & Day difference, isn't it. And unfortunately, according to Weigel, Ockham's definition of freedom is much closer to the general attitude among Europeans.

Meanwhile, here in America, we still have many adherents to the understanding of freedom provided by Aquinas. Unfortunately, we also have many followers of Ockham, though most of them probably aren't even aware of who he is. But the interesting thing is that, when it comes right down to it, the different views on all of the most explosive moral issues of our day can generally be reduced down to a difference in one's views about freedom. This is important to realize in order to be able to have productive conversations in the public square.

But the point that I just can't get over is the fact that, here in our advanced techological era of the 21st century, we're really just re-hashing an old argument from a couple of thirteenth century philosophers...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas

To all who surf here, I wish a holy and joyful Christmas! I leave you with the words of Pope St. Leo the Great, spoken during a homily he gave in the 5th century:
Our Saviour, dearly Beloved, was born this day. Let us rejoice. Sadness is not becoming upon the Birth Day of Life Itself, which, now that the fear of death is ended, fills us with gladness, because of our own promised immortality. No one is excluded form sharing in this cheerfulness for the reason of our joy is common to all men. Our Lord, the Conqueror of sin and death, since there was no one free from servitude, came that He might bring deliverance to all.