Spotlight: Terence Sweeney

Spotlight: Terence Sweeney

In the Spotlight series of posts, we ask former attendees of the Genealogies of Modernity Summer Seminar questions about about their current work and its relation to the concerns of the Genealogies of Modernity project. This first entry gives us answers from Terence Sweeney. Terence is a doctoral student in the Villanova University Philosophy Department. He holds the Theology-Philosophy Fellowship and works on philosophical theology in the Continental tradition. His focus is on St. Augustine and the Augustinian tradition as expressed in early Medieval intellectual life. His dissertation is on Augustine and community and draws on contemporary figures such as William Desmond, Hannah Arendt, and Jean Luc Marion. He has published articles on a range of thinkers such as Plato, Augustine, Gabriel Marcel, and Søren Kierkegaard.

1. What are the stakes for thinking about modernity now?

As in any era, the stakes for understanding one’s situation in history are high. For the ancient Greeks, it was their dimming proximity to the giving of the gods in the earliest times; for the Romans, it was the often-unfilled obligation to carry the traditions instituted in the Founding of Rome; for Christians, it is to live in the between: between transcendence and immanence, eternity and time, this world and the kingdom. This means living in the time that remains: the time between the kairos of the Incarnation and the kairos of the Parousia.

Our situation entails ongoing debates regarding the nature of modernity and its accumbent principles: secularity, scientism, capitalism, and liberalism. In particular, the final principle seems imperiled by the return of a vigorous left and right both of which undermine the tradition of liberalism. We are thus between, and uncertain of the way forward.

The position of the Christian is particularly challenging. As she navigates Christianity’s own critiques of liberalism (to say nothing of socialism and fascism) she lives in a simultaneously alienating and comforting world. This is heightened by the as-yet unanswered theological question regarding secularization. Where various genealogies (Milbank, Gregory, Taylor, Pfau, and Pickstock) have sought to examine the origins and development of secularity, few have yet attended to the theological meaning of declining Christian practice. What does it mean that Christianity is withering in the West? How do we understand not just history but providential history as the lights of Christianity go out? What to make of global Christianity as its geographic home loses touch with its old missionary fields/colonies While Gianni Vattimo has argued that this secularization is the gift of Christianity because it weakens transcendence into immanent acts of community, this offers little solace or guidance to orthodox believers. Orthodox believers have largely been unable to understand the theological meaning of a God who seems to be losing His hold over His people. Ultimately, we must seek to understand Christ’s question:

“When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

What does it mean if the answer is: ‘barely’?

2. Has thinking about genealogies changed your approach to your work?

Studying genealogies has deepened my sense of historicity and the temporal condition of human persons and communities. It has also pointed to the constancies that make such historicity and temporality possible and intelligible, while also disclosing that these constancies are only revealed in time and history. The restlessness of the human heart manifests in various ways through various epochs. We can never fully anticipate the formulations of restlessness that are to come. It is this that makes a genealogical approach necessary because it shows us that paradigms are not static but dynamic and so opens us to the difference to come. The human heart is always already tortuous and inexplicable and yet it expresses itself ever anew. What is to come? And how can we respond to it?

3. What is the most unlikely historical kinship you have discovered?

The relationship between modern Christian separatists and the Donatists and Pelagians. There is a strong strain in contemporary Christian life to ‘leave the world.’ This is best expressed in the idea of the Benedict Option and its various iterations. Curiously, this departure from the world or the broader culture primarily occurs by a distancing from other Christians who are: too liberal, too modern, or too lukewarm. This move away from other Christians—who are deemed to be cafeteria Christians, heterodox, or just immoral—is a return of a Christianity of perfection.

Rather, than staying within the complicated world of the wheats and tares, such a move sees in an ‘us’ a kind of perfection to be kept away from other Christians. This is primarily expressed in traditionalist Catholics who feel that isolating themselves from other Catholics (including the Bishops and the 2nd Vatican Council) is in some sense the most Catholic thing they can do. Their move towards communities of perfection entail core misunderstandings of grace as unearned and often hidden. They also fail to see our epistemic situation of uncertainty prior to the eschaton: we do not get to know who the good Christians are.

Here I see a poetic failure and another unexpected kinship. For many of these Christians, they see Dante as the great thinker of Christianity. In his writing, they see the separation for lost sinners from the saints (or soon to be saints). Dante’s after-life vision is one of demarcation. There is much to be learned from Dante and I don’t deny his greatness. But we don’t live in Dante’s vision; we live in Chaucer’s vision. We are a pilgrim people made up of sinners who travel together. We cannot separate the wheat from the tares and so must grow together: conservative and liberal, heterodox and orthodox, moral and immoral. We travel with the Host from the tavern to Canterbury. We travel with Jesus from the world to the Kingdom, but we do not get to select—or understand—our traveling companions or ourselves. Some of us may be Chaucer’s Knight or Parson and some the Friar or Wife of Bath. Most of us are just Chaucer: a little confused but looking around us as we head to Canterbury.

4. Whose work have you read recently that excited you?

Alan Jacob’s The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. The book is a literary-historical text on five figures: Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. When faced with the prospect of a post-war world, they sought to articulate and advocate for a Christian understanding of the human person. Their attempt to forge a new Christian culture against the threats of totalitarianism and technocracy speak to our own time when Christianity seems past decline and tending toward collapse, liberalism seems under threat by the return of leftist and rightist politics, and the reign of technocratic capitalism deepens. But with these five giants, we see a troubling failure. Despite their various approaches, Christianity was soon faced by a precipitous deterioration picking up pace after 1968. What are Christian humanists to make of this? Are we to look to them examples to follow if they were not able to maintain a Christian society? What is the theological meaning of this? How are we to navigate our epoch?

5. Have we ever been modern?

I don’t know. All I can do is relate a story that I told in Genealogies of Modernity II. I work as a custos (a medieval job) in a catholic parish with an architecturally neo-byzantine church (modern by way of the patristic era). I put out ciboria (ancient Latin term) and chalices (modern anglicization of Latin) and lay out Gothic vestments made of polyester. One Wednesday, I opened church and a nun came up to me in a habit (early modern), to ask me to help with our speaker system (late 20th Century). Apparently, she was unable to plug in her iPhone (21st Century) to help lead the students while they sang at the school Mass (a 1970s-feeling liturgy based on 2nd century liturgical practices). I figured out the speaker system and the iPhone. I then rushed to the sacristy to tell Fr. Ben (a priest from Nigeria here in the Western world because there are so few priests here and so many there) that we had a ciborium with only crumbs. They were too small to distribute. Fr. Ben set down his Android phone, took the ciborium and went to the sacrarium (a sink that goes directly into the ground). He filled the ciborium with water and massaged the hosts until they dissolved. He did so because of an Aristotelian principle (Ancient) that is ensconced in Catholic doctrines and practices from the Middle Ages, while using a modern plumbing. Have we ever been modern? I don’t know.

6. What is the most overrated example of modernity?

Air conditioning.

7. If you could change one detail about the subject you are working on, what would it be?

I work on the intersection of philosophy and theology. My preferred term for this is philosophical theology in that I attend to revelations of the infinite from the standpoint of the finite. I would change the use of the word philosophy of religion. I admire William James, but this word is a lingering term that situates me as a scholar considering the immanent possibilities of various religions. It is excessively horizontal whereas the task of philosophical theology is to find the axes of the vertical transcendent and the horizontal immanence. I want, as Pascal writes, to “to find out whether God has left any traces of Himself.”

I would also like to see a renewed finesse for the language of God. As William Desmond argues, philosophy grows increasingly hard of hearing, unable to hear the Other who beckons from within our ethos: secular or not. God is the question and too many philosophers have stopped asking.

8. What differentiates your generation of young scholars form the older generation?

The growing evidence that the humanities are withering. This has never been a great way to make one’s way in the world but the decline in humanities participation at universities seems marked and continuing. WH Auden saw the oncoming control of what he called the Apollonian regulators. The humanists “must dread this threat /to organize us.” He knew when the regulators occupy “a college, /Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge.” This increasingly seems to be the case. It is a disaster for education and bad news for my job prospects.

The good news (not for our wallets!) is this may open possibilities of critique and renewal. The decline of academic humanities does not necessarily mean the end of the humanities. It could mean this (and thus the withering of humanity), it could also mean a new way forward. Humans are marked—as Hannah Arendt identified—by natality, the truth of birth and new initiatives.

What may this birth mean? We will see and perhaps, we will birth it. For it to be a Christian birth, it must take not man as its measure, but God.

9. Which ‘tome’ would you recommend to other graduate students in your field or others?

The Old Testament. Here I think Augustine’s genealogy is helpful. He doesn’t lay claim to understanding the history of the church after Christ along the lines of Eusebius (triumphalism), Tertullian (earthly failure ever again), or Cyprian (an embattled minority with a clear identity). Rather, he looks to the ever-changing community of the Old Testament, which has triumphs (“not us to Lord, but to you be the glory!”) and failures (“Have mercy on me O God”) while living on as remnant with no clear boundaries (Isaiah’s message of a remnant of a remnant combined with the promise of the summons to all peoples indicates the Church’s status as a diminished thing. The Old Testament for Augustine (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is the paradigm of an ecclesial history because it provides manifold situations that the civitas peregrinus would also travel through after the coming of Christ.

There is no easy answer to this life especially considering scripture’s manifold meanings (sensus plenus) and the tangled nature of the civitas peregrinus et civitas terrena. In part, the Old Testament may be a way to understand our situation in a Christ-forgetting/Christ-forgotten world. What can David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Esther, and Judeas Maccabeus tell us about our peregrination now? How is hope revealed even in our Babylonian captivity?

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