Posts Tagged ‘Catholicism’

The Buffered Self and Movie Buffs

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Jeffrey Wheatley

The Academy Awards took place this past Sunday, so I thought a post on movie-going would be appropriate. Plenty of religious studies and American religious history books have engaged religion and cinema in one way or another (Judith Weisenfeld’s stellar Hollywood Be Thy Name comes to mind), but, despite a once tepid response to what I thought would be a compelling lecture (I now know better), I want to use movie-going in this post to take a tour through some of my side research interests and to think rather suggestively about the metaphysics of secularism, about the theoretical and methodological openings and foreclosures implicated in recent work on secularism, and about Frank O’Hara.

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that one of the central transformations of the past five-hundred years is a shift from the porous self to the buffered self. The porous self is open to transcendent external forces like demons, spirits, and witches. In our contemporary secular age, we have buffered selves, meaning that we are largely autonomous agents resistant to external forces. Movie-going, Taylor argues here and elsewhere, is an example of our disenchanted age’s nostalgia for enchantment:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.[1]

Here Taylor is really talking about the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, in which non-physical, yet physically felt and affective, forces flow through the characters. But we might do better to think about the metaphysics of the movie-going experience rather than the stories. These genres, after all, have precedent in other mediums, but it is the film industry’s emphasis on medium itself that signals the particular cultural niche of movie-going in the United States and abroad. Movies have stories, characters, and tropes, but Hollywood presents itself as a particular type of enchanter. The industry runs on the promises and dazzlers of technological innovation, the visitations of the celebrities, and the theater’s experiential aspects.

On the one hand, we certainly can analyze “enchantment” as but one claim of Hollywood myth-making—and how could we be surprised? For instance, take the idea that early film audiences were terrorized by trains rushing toward the screen. Late nineteenth-century audiences losing it might be a compelling testament to the affective power of cinema in a theater, but, as at least one scholar has argued, the terrorized crowd is likely a myth developed decades later by journalists and the film industry.[2]

On the other hand, recent works that explore the metaphysics of secularism have opened up avenues of inquiry that take enchantment (or, to be more specific, the porous self) as an assumption rather than an exception relegated to the past. They do so while largely resisting, or at least sidelining, secularization narratives that proclaim the decline of religion. Consider John Modern’s exemplary Secularism in Antebellum America, which explores the flashes of nineteenth-century Americans’ recognition of the intimacies between the self and the world, especially as selves are made through and by machines. That is, Modern traces the ways in which the mutually reinforcing relationship between expanding and densifying technological networks and the individual will (Taylor’s buffered self) became evident and necessary to his historical actors.

From this perspective, movie-going—far from a backwards-pointing sign post in a disenchanted age—can be taken as efficacious enchantment, albeit of a very different sort than what Taylor meant. This is an enchantment openly reliant on technology’s capacity to present and distribute affective simulacrum. Accordingly, we have never been modern in the sense Taylor describes, but perhaps we have been un-modern (that is, desiring enchantment and enchantable in ways that defy our supposedly buffered selves) in different ways.

Allow me to provide one rather dramatic example by way of mid-twentieth-century American poet (New York poet, in truth) Frank O’Hara, whose poetry is full of ruminations on his Catholic childhood and his ecstatic devotion to movie-going. His love poem “To a Film Industry in Crisis” provides one useful example. The second stanza begins: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love, / And give credit where it’s due . . . ” He does not give credit to his starched nurse, nor to the American Legion, nor to the Catholic Church, which is “at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment,” but “to you

glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,

stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all

your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!

His paean begins with the technologies of the film industry. O’Hara goes on to also give credit to a number of actresses and actors; the last stanza addresses the celebrities and the technologies:

Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays

and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you

as you rest after a long day under the kleig lights with your faces

in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night

but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent

you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Far from a nostalgia for a pre-secular enchantment that can be merely approximated through the genres of cinema, O’Hara seeks to affirm through his poetry his enchantment with the medium (and its characters who illumine the space of the theater). In “Ave Maria,” he makes the theater a key site where work is done on the soul (not vice versa!):

Mothers of America

let your kids go to the movies!

get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to

it’s true that fresh air is good for the body

but what about the soul

that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images

That O’Hara, who was a self-described atheist but a Catholic when he was younger, sets up movie-going as a sort of substitute Catholicism seems clear by his vocabulary, which plays on associations with Catholic saintly visitations, especially in “To a Film Industry in Crisis.” O’Hara is flippant about Catholicism, but the persistent citations of Catholicism in his work, even if they are rather derogatory, might point us to a particular genealogy of enchantment that cannot be adequately captured by reference to a singular “secular age.”

In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles makes the intriguing argument that many American Catholic artists, including O’Hara, display an aesthetics (often secularized) of Catholic culture through their work. Sketching the contours of a Catholic aesthetic in contrast to a Protestant/Enlightenment aesthetic that literary scholars have presumed to dominate American media, Giles emphasizes characteristics such as parody, ambivalence, the sacralization of the immanent, an analogical view of the world, and a greater openness to the passivity of the human—something akin to Taylor’s porous self. This aesthetic persists, Giles claims, even if the artists reject identifying with Catholicism.

For those interested in exploring secularism through this rather open framework, this might introduce a number of questions. If Modern’s work describes evangelical secularism, might we say that O’Hara’s poetic bonds between Catholicism and movie-going disclose a Catholic secularism? Is this type of categorization useful in the first place? And if so how might such a claim disrupt the persistent salience of a narrative of secularization conceptually and/or historically tied to Protestantism? Have we become too comfortable gesturing towards an amorphous Protestantism undergirding “secularism”? Derridean hauntology and projects that rely on the language of epistemics make these types of questions difficult to answer. But one of the things I find compelling about these approaches is that they open up the options of conceptual and organizational tropes available to the scholar. Very particular examples, such as movie-going as a cultural artifact, the Zong massacre,[3] the novel Moby-Dick (as in Modern’s case), or fitness trainer Shaun T (great for language play on the “buffered self”), for better or worse, can do a lot of work, they can capture quite a bit, which makes for (in instances not this blog post) compelling and provocative reads. The difficulty of discerning the temporal or spatial boundaries of epistemics—a discernment I desire in my more historical moods—seems to me both a constraint and an opportunity.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can contact him at or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 38.

[2] Martin Loiperdinger, “Lumière’s ‘Arrival of the Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 4, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 89–118.

[3] In a work both incredibly tragic in its content and astonishing in its presentation, Ian Baucom, in order to explore the epistemes undergirding finance capital, emblematizes the slave-ship Zong and the massacre of Africans as the crew threw them overboard to collect insurance. See Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005).

Image by Fernando de Sousa from Melbourne, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Demonization and Racialization in British North America: Slave Revolts, Devilish Priests, and Infernal Landscapes

Monday, December 1st, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley 

(Although in my last post I proposed that I would use the next few posts to explore historical and historiographical trends related to the study of capitalism, I want to take a brief detour. I have adapted what follows from a paper I gave at the Florida State Department of Religion graduate symposium in 2014.)

The two things that British North Americans feared most in the colonial era were slave revolts and the Catholic Church. Within the colonial imaginary these two threats occasionally coalesced into one. The result was an infernal spectacle that forced colonial anxieties about the basic structures of colonial society to the surface. The soundness of the institution of slavery, emerging conceptions of the public, and the British Protestant beachhead in the overwhelmingly Catholic Americas all came into question.

Read the rest of this entry →

Blase Cupich and the Language of the Culture Wars

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

By Jeffrey Wheatley

I have looked on with interest these last few days as a series of buzzes, beeps, and red dots have pushed me to read the latest updates on Pope Francis’s selection of Blase Cupich to be the next Archbishop of Chicago. The Archdiocese of Chicago is the third-largest in the nation. Historically, its archbishops have been major players in the national hierarchy. Because of the importance of this office, the media has been building up anticipation regarding the replacement of Cardinal Francis George, who is suffering from bladder cancer.

Blase Cupich (Image courtesy Diocese of Spokane)

The appointment of Cupich has provided ample opportunities for various news outlets to comment on the politics of the American Catholic Church. At first glance the language is not surprising. Most liberal American news outlets applauded the selection of Cupich, who has urged for civil language regarding issues of marriage and abortion and who has supported immigration reform. The Chicago Tribune’s article “New Archbishop Brings ‘Francis Factor’ to Chicago” described Cupich as having “embraced a moderate agenda that stands in contrast to Cardinal Francis George’s unyielding loyalty to Catholic doctrine.” The National Catholic Reporter, taking it a step further, remarked that few bishops are “more allergic to the culture war model.” ThinkProgress echoed this sentiment: Cupich’s appointment could usher in an “era of American Catholic leadership that spends less time fighting culture wars and more time echoing the populist leadership of Pope Francis.”

On the flip side, the conservative political advocacy organization CatholicVote took liberals to task for distorting the appointment for their own purposes. “Cupich to Chicago: What it Actually Means” remarks that despite the language of “civility,” Cupich has been firmly against same-sex marriage, abortion, and the HHS mandate. The article notes that Cupich “told the New York Times ‘Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues’.” The CatholicVote article then asks, “but do liberals ever stop and realize that cuts both ways?” Liberals, and specifically liberal Catholics, the author argues, “are hoping we greet Bishop Cupich with the knives out. That would be a disaster and an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.” The liberal media, the author asserts, is baiting conservative Catholics.

There are a lot of different things we can gain by examining these varied responses as a whole. For the purposes of this post, I argue that these responses provide us with an opportunity to slice into our religio-political environment and, specifically, to learn something about how the language of the culture wars functions today.

As Daniel T. Rodgers has argued in his book Age of Fracture, we should analyze the past four decades of American history not by accepting the socio-political divisions as presented by the period’s politicians, intellectuals, and journalists, but by attending to the “contagion of metaphors” that have flourished (10). Examining the way that Americans have adapted and re-deployed these metaphors provides us the best opportunity to understand an age of fracture while also acknowledging the increased interconnectedness and shared conceptual blocks of American society.

For Rodgers, the “market” has been the dominant metaphor of our age, but I want to examine how the contagious metaphor of the “culture wars” has been deployed. Early on the language of the culture wars was often used in the affirmative. In 1991 James Davison Hunter published his sociological study Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, which brought the phrase back into use after decades of neglect. A year later Pat Buchanan claimed at the Republican National Convention that the election was a “cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.” The metaphor was attractive not only as a descriptive term, but as a phrase useful for mobilizing intellectual and political resources. It served to create (a call to war) what it described (the war itself as already occurring).

However, there is another way that this language has been deployed, and the few responses to Cupich’s appointment that I have highlighted suggest a shift in emphasis. Beyond a language for mobilizing for intellectual and political war, Americans have also used the language of the culture wars to identify who is warring and who is not. In contrast to Buchanan, the responses to Cupich’s appointment on both the right and the left situate their preferred politics—emblematized in Cupich—outside of the warzone. To efficaciously use the metaphor you must present yourself as operating outside of the trenches. Conversely, you must present your political opponents as operating within them and seeking to draw you in.

As for Cupich’s own feelings about his new job: “Labels,” he said in response to questions about being a moderate, “are hard for anybody to live up to one way or another. I just try to be myself and I try to learn from great people.” “I don’t come,” he also noted, “with any intentionality.” The latter was an especially popular quote.

And so I am suggesting that some of the original intentions behind the language of the culture wars—to identify political enemies, to mobilize support against them, and to justify divisive and potentially violent rhetoric—have, to an admittedly limited extent, exhausted themselves. This, of course, does not mean that the age of political division is over or that militaristic metaphors in the service of politics will recede from public use. Far from it. But there are new uses for the metaphor. Americans have become culture war-weary, it seems.

Yet I wonder if the shift in emphasis that I have tried to identify in this post actually signals an intensification of the original logic. In a remarkable instance of rhetorical exhaustion, we have perhaps reached a stage in which the public has to reject the culture wars metaphor and its corollary labels in order to extend their original purposes.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

“Los Nacionales” – Foreign Actors in the Spanish Civil War

Monday, December 30th, 2013

by Kathy Schneider

The cover of this month’s Church History illustrates the left’s portrayal of the Nationalist Front. The Ministry of Propaganda published the caricature during the Spanish Civil War. In the boat are all the familiar faces (clockwise from the left): Italian military as marked by the blue sash with the fasces symbol, two Moorish troops with three more below, the Nazi capitalist, and, most prominently, the cardinal who gives his blessing. “Arriba España” was one of the slogans of the Francoist forces.

In contradiction to this phrase, the cartoonist has placed Spain on the gallows. Lastly, the boat in which they travel has the words Junta de Burgos and Lisboa. Burgos is the location of the rebel government and Lisboa represents Portugal’s support of Franco. In short, the cartoonist sought to include all sources of foreign aid for the Nationalists in the hope that Spaniards would see the Nationalists and their supporters as a grave danger to Spain’s existence. Interestingly, the Church is included among the foreign supporters although the Spanish Church tended to see itself as a bulwark of traditional Spanish identity.

The depiction, as propaganda is wont to do, simplifies a complicated situation. The Spanish conflict had very Spanish roots, but was pulled into larger European events with the rise of the radical right. Both the Nationalists and the Republicans contributed to this portrayal through their generalization of a conflict between ungodly Communism versus fascism. While Hitler and Mussolini had their own interests that shaped their actions, the assistance was vital to Franco’s victory.

Award Winning Research Essays

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

The Journal of Ecclesiastical History has announced the winner of its first annual Eusebius Prize, which goes to the best submitted essay on any topic in early Christian history. This year’s winning paper is entitled “On the Diversity and Influence of the Eusebian Alliance: The Case of Theodore of Heraciea,” by Matthew J Crawford of the University of Durham. Cambridge University Press has made the prize-winning paper available online for free through September 30. You can read it here.

Also in prize-related news: the deadline for the Sidney Mead Prize has passed, but there is still time to submit nominations for the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize. The Douglass Prize goes to the author of the best essay published during the previous calendar year on any aspect of the role of women in the history of Christianity. Nominations must be in by August 1.

To nominate an essay for the Douglass Prize, send a letter or an email to our Executive Secretary, Keith Francis ( with

1) The author’s name
2) The author’s affiliation
3) The author’s contact information, and
4) The title of the essay

Last year’s winner was Sarah Adelman, whose essay “Empowerment and Submission: The Political Culture of Catholic Women’s Religious Communities in Nineteenth-Century America” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Women’s History.

Friendship: Interpreting Aelredian Love for Today

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

By Timothy Lim T.N.
On the Occasion of a Cistercian Feast of Observance in Honor of Aelred of Rievaulx.

1. Preamble
I started reading about friendship a few years ago. My readings ranged from Aristotle’s three levels of friendship in Nicomachean Ethics, Cicero’s On Friendship, Augustine’s Confessions, Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship to a personal study on friendships in the Bible.1 I hoped that I was a friend to those whom providence arranged. Friendship nourishes me, although the disappointments and pains are sometimes difficult to bear. Who is a friend, and how do we nurture friendships? While I am more of an interdisciplinary theologian, like many members in the American Society of Church History, I rejoice in the richness that history could proffer. In this article, I present a contemporized and analogous reading of Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship.2 Aelred postulates the benefits of deep friendship whilst being aware of the perils of relational problems, and in that sense, his thoughts challenge superficial friendships in our day. May this essay encourage us in finding true connection with friends.

2. Aelred of Rievaulx’s (1110-1167) Spiritual Friendship

This twelfth-century English-Scottish Cistercian abbot from Hexham, Northumbria, who was formerly a steward of King David I of Scotland and a member of the nobility class, examined friendship from a religious standpoint. Aelred is better remembered for The Mirror of Charity (written between 1142-43 at the invitation of Bernard of Clairvaux to educate the Cistercian life), although readers of Aelred would consider him a historian, theologian, philosopher, monastic spirituality writer, and politician.3 In this retrieval, I limit my exploration to his Spiritual Friendship, which was written between 1163-64, though Book 1 was originally written in the late 1140s.4

Aelred’s primary sources are Scripture, the Church Fathers, and experience together with Cicero’s philosophical dialogue On Friendship.5 Book 1 records his discussion with Ivo, a daughterhouse of Rievaulx, Wardon of Bedfordshire. And Book 2 and 3 detail his conversations several years later with two younger monks in the monastery, Walter (believed to be Walter Daniel, his biographer) and Gratian; the later dialogues expand on Aelred’s earlier dialogue with Ivo, to show “an ever-widening circle of fellowship,” and friendship’s inseparability even after death (because for Aelred, true friendship is eternal).

Please note that this investigation does not follow a recent controversial reading of Aelred’s sexual orientation.6 My primary reasons are as follows: Aelred wrote Spiritual Friendship for those committed to a Cistercian lifestyle, and would live in accordance to the Benedictine monastic rules for holy living.7

Hence, I find it unfruitful to probe between the Scylla of Aelred’s formal literary expressions on friendship, and the Charybdis of psychologizing the saint’s motives, feelings, and sexual-state in order to prove a speculative interpretation of Aelred’s sexuality that has no strong admitting evidence. Reinterpretations of a supposed sexual attraction to maleness in The Life of Ninian, and in his eulogy to Henry, son of King David in 1153, must be located in the context of the Cistercian monastic spirituality. Moreover, he often decried the hypocrisies of courtly and monastic promiscuity: it sufficiently demonstrates that for the abbot, chastity, i.e., the purity in the inner sanctum of his soul, is his motto for life, as evidenced also in The Mirror of Charity and A Rule of Life for the Recluse.8

Book I explores the origins and types of friendship. Aelred identifies three types of post-lapsarian (after the Fall) friendship: carnal, worldly, and spiritual friendship.9 Common to all types of friendships, friendship in post-lapsarian terms would manifest charity/love in its universal extent to all people, including enemies.10

Also, common to all, humans desire love and companionship, and the happiness friendship brings.11 However, true friendship is reserved for only a select few: one can only maintain bona fide friends and open our hearts unreservedly to a few.12 Carnal connections on the other hand are ruled by transitory pleasures (with concupiscence as its root), and hence their rapports are more inclusive and these relationships seldom last (as compared to genuine friendship).13

Worldly associates seek only temporal advantage for oneself; they seldom exhibit genuine interest in the other person’s well-being.14 These lesser friendships steer each other towards inordinate desires, and could not endure troubles together.15 The glue to their companionship is charm for the greedy, glory for the ambitious, and pleasure for the sensuous, although they resemble the beauty of reciprocal friendship.16

These worldly friendships are counterfeits of true friendship since they regard “friendship as a trade” and for what are temporally useful to them.17 Worldly friendship, like carnal friendship, will not last.18 And because “the love of such a man is acquired at a small price,” their friendship disappears “at the slightest offense” or trouble.19 Aelred calls carnal and worldly relations as “apparent friends,” and distinguishes it from “true friends.”20

On the other hand, true amicitia (friendship) rests on a virtue that unites the spirits of both (or more) through an unbreakable bond of amor (love) and interior sweetness (making them one); the bond is their respective and mutual fellowship together in Christ – beginning, continuing, and perfecting in Christ together.21 True friends (amicus) are each other’s “guardian of love”; they preserve secrets faithfully, endure each other’s weaknesses, and share with a friend’s joys and sorrows as his/her own.22 From St. Jerome, the abbot affirms that true friends love at all times, and offenses do not injure their love and bond.23 True friends are not accomplices in evil/wicked activities; this is because the love between true friends does not seek lusts that defile, avarices that dishonor, and luxuries that pollute.24

True friendship is its own reward, and any other benefits are secondary.25 Essentially, true friends love each other’s soul as one’s own. The foundations are pure intention, and the exercise of cardinal virtues; they cherish the feeling of sweetness, seek each other’s perfection, reject nothing expedient, accept nothing unbecoming, and grow together in prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and “it will never cease to be properly ordered.”26 Their bond is rooted in chastity and wisdom. If the relationship is not between equals (e.g., between a wealthy and a less wealthy, or an accomplished person and an ordinary person), then the stronger or wiser of the friend will seek to diminish himself/herself before the other: they unite in their genuine desire to live a chaste and charitable life that is close to God.27

Lawrence OP

Book II discusses the fruits and excellence of friendship. For the Rievaulx abbot, the key to true friendship during their life on earth is intimacy with God. Of the many fruits of friendship, friends celebrate and share their kindred-ship forever. Even if a friendship is separated by death, Aelred confesses that he still thinks about his deceased friend Ivo, and in that sense, Ivo continues to dwell with him.28 The kinship attests to “nothing more pleasant than [the fruit of] spiritual friendship.”29 Agreeing implicitly with Sirach 6:14-16, Aelred affirms that friendship is like “medicine for life”: a faithful friend (amicus fidelis) helps one endure life’s sorrows, cultivates virtues, overcomes vice, and shares good and bad times, and leads one to the love and knowledge of God.30

Using the metaphor of a threefold kiss to symbolize a corporeal, spiritual, and mystical exchange of breath, Aelred explains the dynamics when people become close friends: they will experience physical intimacy (not in sexual terms, and definitely not to be misused for unwholesome purposes). As their spirits mingle, they will share “the kiss of spiritual breath,” i.e., the exchange of life and grace, desiring the good of the other, and sensing intimate affectivity of the heart (not avarice, inordinate desires, or the contact of the mount/lips): the Holy Spirit superintends their relationship.31 The bond is sweet and secure, and the bond is characterized by honor, truth, and holiness.32 This “spiritual kiss” of the affective hearts between close friends emerges from the sweetness of “the kiss of Christ,” permanently re-orientating all earthly affection.33

As to the limits of friendship, i.e., “what one should or should not do for a friend,” Aelred postulates that friends will give their lives for each other because they esteem each other higher than themselves, and hence, they will deny and refuse nothing to the other.34 He draws his inspiration from the Johannine Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus on friendship (that he lays down his life for his friends); and he limits true friends to only the gathering of the good, and not the wicked.35 Here, the abbot goes beyond Cierco’s definition of friendship as a mutual harmony of wills.36

Now, he does not restrict the good company to only the gathering of perfect people; however, they must be among those who have conquered their vices and resists temptations.37 They would be living well-ordered lives although they had chosen wayward lifestyles previously.38 Also, friends do not have to think about “mutual repayment of one’s friend through service and compliments” because they ought to have held all things in common and in one mind and soul.39 They mutually appreciate each other, and do not take one other for granted, or for advantage.

Aelred explains that reciprocal love is the “fountain and source of friendship.” Unlike love without friendship, friendship cannot exist without love.40 Thus, seeds of love must be carefully watered, tended, and grown for friendship to blossom.41 Love proceeds from nature, duty, reason, and affection.42 And yet, there is a kind of love that extends to all people, but friendship-love is reserved only for those admitted as friends.43 Consequently, he proposes in Book III the necessity of choosing friends judiciously, and only to admit as friends those who have been tested.44 Even as friendship attests to God’s grace in calling and uniting the hearts, friends must still cooperate with the grace to nurture and protect the relationship.

Aelred writes:

once admitted, he should be so borne with, so treated, [and] so deferred to, that as long as he does not withdraw irrevocably from the established foundation, he is yours, and you are his, in body [not sexually but intended as presence and love] as well as in spirit, so that there will be no division of minds, affections, wills, [and/] or judgments.45

With that in mind, Book III discusses the four stages of progress/development in friendship: 1) selection and dissolution (especially of friends who was later discovered to be less than virtuous), 2) probation, 3) admission, and 4) cultivation of friendship.

In the selection stage, Aelred prefers friends who lead virtuous lives.46 They would possess attributes of loyalty, patience, well-intention, giving and receiving, discerning and listening, and supportive whilst willing to challenge your thoughts because friends walk in each other’s “light and darkness.” Restriction of friendship-love applies only when a friend acts inappropriately, with a bent for evil.47 Otherwise, in all imperfections – “minor lapses and imperfections of character”, we bear with friends: he lists a few examples such as a thoughtless word, a zeal that does not demonstrate discretion, a sword drawn at a friend, anger, a temporal withdrawal, or a preference for his own counsel to yours.48 Aelred reasons why the forbearance: As friends, “their affection toward us is established with certainty,”49 unless there was question of dishonor, confidence violated, or virtue lessened.50

Moreover, because no one is perfect, the criterion for friendship is their desire for godliness and by implication, their efforts to conquer vices and resist temptations.51 Aelred also explains that the presence of disturbances/imperfections would amplify their virtues more laudably if they have exercised restrain over these passions; and hence, there is no need to withhold friendship from them.52 And if we must correct them, Aelred suggests doing so “painlessly and even pleasantly” and out of love.53

He further recommends distancing from people who practice evil habits.54 Those habits and behaviors (that are detrimental to forming lasting friendships) would include slander, reproach, pride, the disclosing of secrets, and the possession of secret detractions.55 Furthermore, one would better avoid the quarrelsome and those who give in to excessive anger, fickleness, suspiciousness, and loquaciousness.56 Choosing these people as potential friends is feasible only if they repent from the above vices.57

Lawrence OP

Stained glass detail in Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire, showing Rievaulx Abbey

If a friendship has to be dissolved for unavoidable and compelling reasons, the process must be gradual, respectful, and approached with dignity, so as not to strain the feelings of both parties. Aelred calls the process, “to unstitch little by little” in order to prevent the surge of animosity and dishonorable effects due to the estrangement.58 True friendship will not allow any injury done to cause the relationship to recede.59 Still, if a former friendship incurs ill-will and enmity as a result of the dissolution, one must honor the former friend, by enduring insults as much as possible.60 More importantly, one is still bound to love a former friend at all times, even after the withdrawal.61 The abbot includes, “be concerned as much as you can for his welfare, safeguard his reputation, and never betray the secrets of his friendship, even though he should betray yours.”62

What then distinguishes the acts of love to a former and an existing friend? The Abbot explains that a friendship contains four elements: love, affection, security, and happiness.63 After a dissolved friendship, confidence, affection, security, and happiness in the friend are normally withdrawn, but a friend should still love, honor, bless, do good, aid, and advise the former friend as Christ would.64 The only exception is when the love for the former friend will result in the ruin/death of many, or “when he continued to be an occasion of ruin and scandal to those for whose well-being you are responsible, especially when the infamy of these crimes is damaging to your own good name.”65 Otherwise, it “is the more laudable, and gives greater proof of being a virtue” to bless those who wrong, scorn, curse, and plot evil against his former friend.66

In the probation stage, Aelred recommends testing would-be friends “in small and great matters.”67 The probation stage is crucial because once admitted into the friendship, we lay our soul and heart transparently to our friends, with “no hiding of thoughts, no dissembling of affection,” and the sharing of “our confidences and plans.”68 It is thus important not to merely test the four qualities of a friend – loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience,69 but also to distinguish the wise from the unwise.70 The periods of testing require that the one who ‘secretly’ administers the test, exercise prudence and holds back one’s affection.71 The loyalty of a friend always sees the heart of a friend.72 Loyal friends do not betray one another. Misfortune is the best way to prove the fidelity of a friendship: in adversity, we discover friends who are there not for our prosperity.73

On right intention, truly loving a friend expects no reward in return. The love ought to be given gratuitously, and not for some advantage or mercenary benefit.74 Discretion pertains to how friends offer correction, especially at the petty faults – do they impatiently bear these lapses without regard to the venue, season, and fittingness to the person? To befriend those with discretion will minimize unnecessary controversies and quarrels with them.75 What appears different for Aelred is the test of patience – he suggests that one ought not to immediately withdraw the prospect of friendship with the teachable, even if there are displays of impatience, such as indiscreet rebuke, desire for temporal gain, over passing due gentleness, or thoughtless revelation of some confidences.76 When the test is complete, and when admitted to the friendship, one should never question the loyalty of one’s friend.77

At the admission of a friend, the abbot recommends building mutual loyalty as their foundation, and cultivating qualities such as stability, constancy, honesty/frankness, congeniality, and sympathy.78 Friends do not become suspicious of each other. Instead, they are to foster trust, affability, cheerfulness, good manners, and peace/ease.79 Recognizing the importance of treating each other as equals, Aelred further recommends that those in higher positions should descend to their friends’ levels, and those from lower levels to ascend with their confidence.80 David and Jonathan provide one such example from Scripture: Jonathan preferring his friendship to his kingdom (already a remarkable virtue since it is in man to naturally desire power) is contrasted with Saul, who would injure Jonathan, his own son, for his own throne.81

David and Jonathan, depicted in La Somme Le Roy (circa 1300)

Finally, to foster the friendship, Aelred urges that one seek only what is honorable (be it from, or for the friendship), and preferably without being asked, and never to deny serving a friend, be it in money or otherwise.82 Revere each other since respect is friendship’s “greatest adornment.”83 Care, pray, and rejoice more readily.84 Seek the ultimate good of the other; regard the betterment of the other as one’s own progress.85 Always give cheerfully in anticipation of each other’s needs without being asked, and keep the confidences and dignity of the recipient of grace, and never expect a reward.86 Citing approvingly of Ambrose, Aelred calls friends to admonish the erring friend with love and reason, with humility and sympathy, and with much patience; Aelred prefers the aforementioned to reproaching with anger, bitterness, and/or harshness, or that of withholding correction in order to preserve a false and tenuous peace.87

The only exceptions are knowing when to correct in certain circumstances (he calls it dissimulation), as well as to refrain from deceptively agreeing to everything (he calls it simulation).88 And if one holds a position of power (e.g., an office), be sure to recommend promotion/appointment to an incumbent only because he/she is a worthy candidate, and not merely because of the friendship: Aelred believes that recommending a friend who does not have the ability to excel in the job, does a disservice to a friend.89

3. Contemporizing Aelred on Friendship

3.1. Difficulties. Brian McGuire attributes the ease with which modern people can contemporize medieval concepts of friendship to the universality of friendship as a human experience.90 However, to contemporize an Aelredian reading on friendship is not without difficulty, especially if we seek analogous applications to the prevailing norms of sociality and friendship, and avoid reading him anachronistically. James McEvoy elucidates in Friendship in Medieval Europe that Christian thinkers from the fourth century onwards (including Aelred) perpetuates, albeit selectively with, pre-Christian philosophical ideas on friendship.91 That means, we would have to juxtapose a receiving audience (and its culture) with medieval thoughts as we contemporize Aelred on friendship.

Specifically, if Aelred spoke to monks living in a cloistered communal life, could we simply transpose Aelred’s principles for modern people seeking platonic male-female or even same gender friendships in a cosmopolitan workplace, and in an overtly sexualized, commercialized, and technologically savvy world as ours (especially for those who live in ‘developed’ civilizations)? Likewise, the concept of platonic male-female and male-male, or female-female friendship in Aelred’s time differs markedly from the nuances of romance understood in our day, especially because of the subjugation of women and their rights to a predominantly patriarchal medieval social institution.92

3.2. Prospects. Without reading him anachronistically, I believe that Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship provides resources for cultivating friendship-bond in our milieu. What follows is a concise attempt at contemporizing lessons learnt from an Aelredian love.

a. General

What is the nature of friendship? Friendship occurs in varying degrees of affectivity and connectivity; and with each friendship brings love, companionship, and happiness. More importantly, Aelred deems that there are three types of friends, each motivated by a corresponding drive for carnality, worldly benefit, and/or spiritual virtue respectively. The nature of these relations will vary accordingly: carnal friends towards pleasure and concupiscence, worldly friends towards what has advantage and utility to them, and spiritual/virtuous friends towards what is truly good and beautiful for each other. The latter is reserved for only a select few, and in Aristotle’s view, for true and virtuous friends, we give superabundance of love to them.93

What distinguishes a confidant from all other relationships? A virtuous friend is most ideal for a confidant-relationship. He/she is someone whom you could bare your soul, heart, and mind to, without fear. True friendship is guided by loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. And because they love you as they would love themselves, they will desire the greatest good for you. On that account, they will be truthful and practice dissimulation – correcting you at the right time, and in light of particular circumstances, with love, reason, and much patience, humility, and empathy (note: Aelred uses the term sympathy). They will not practice simulation, that is, deceptively agreeing with you so as to preserve a false and tenuous harmony. And unlike what Aristotle calls, Utility friends or Pleasure friends, true friends will not leave you in your troubles if and when your friendship has no benefit/advantage.94 And since true friends seek virtues, they will not steer you to satisfy inordinate desires, believed to be harmful.

What are the boundaries of friendships? To other people, Christ models that we give ourselves so far as “to lay down our lives” and “love at all times” and thus prove that we love God and neighbor. To former friends as with enemies, we are still commanded to love and support them, even though we would withhold confidence and affection. But to a true friend, we give unreservedly since “a friend loves at all times.” To a true friend, we hide nothing, deny nothing, betray nothing, suspect nothing, dishonor nothing, yield everything, forebear everything, honor everything, and expect no other benefits because friendship is its reward. In other words, Aelred has no boundaries for true friends, because true friends by definition and in practice, will invariably seek out that which is true, good, and honorable for reciprocal growth and development, and they will not take advantage of us. Here, Aelred negotiates between two traditions in Eastern monasticism – Abba Arsenius who turned away friendship for solitude, and Abba Moses who found God and peace through friends.95

b. Marriage, Platonic, and Other

Would friendship outside of marriage flourish, or is confidante reserved for marriage? Aelred does not specifically speak to this question. The abbot wrote in the context of monastic and communal relationship. Still, it is reasonable to postulate that he could affirm the flourishing of friendships in several contexts, all at the same time. In his letters, he wrote of deep and committal friendships with a few monks, and these friendships were developed independently of each other, and even though all of these monks lived together in community (cf. Books 2 and 3). In specific instances, he widens the circles of friendship to include Walter and Gratian. And of course, in Aelred’s treatise, he would not have developed any concept close to seventeenth century Jeremy Taylor’s expression of marriage as “the Queen of friendships.”96

Is relational intimacy to be encouraged in light of Eastern monastic warnings? The Eastern monastic tradition warns of the possibility of platonic male-female relationship developing in sexually inappropriate ways under the guise of friendship. It also has strict codes against male-male attachments for similar concerns. Viewed thus, Aelred would have had reservations about deep male-female and male-male friendships. Still, his familiarity with the wholesome and engaging inter-mural relationships between Christian monks and nuns of his time and before his time would probably not preclude him from affirming a more circumspective level of platonic relationships. Here, I draw from a range of data to offer a conjecture.

Whilst mindful of the traps of eros (as a sexual problem), Aelred did not show that relational intimacy would inevitably become romantic/eros. Yes, in A Rule of Life for the Recluse, he warns sisters in a celibate lifestyle from forming deep emotional bonds with any man and away from friendly tenderness that would lead to open sexual release.97 The concern arises from his familiarity with promiscuous sexual relationships both in the courts and in the monastic communities, as well as the Eastern and Egyptian Christian monastic traditions (such as Anthony, Pachomus, Cassian, and the Desert Fathers), which warned against sensual love between older monks and younger monks, and/or with the opposite gender.

Cassian’s Conferences XVI contained specific warnings against lustful thoughts, subversive dreams, bodily vices, and nocturnal emissions; all of which would suggest the wisdom of keeping a distance from attractive relationships both outside and within the monastery, for both male-male, and male-female relationships.98 And since Benedict’s monastic rule in this respect was drawn from Cassian on rightly ordered love, and since the Cistercian Order, which Aelred has devoted himself, observes the Benedictine Rule, Aelred was clearly not naïve about the perils of sexual temptations.

I would offer a further conjecture that Aelred would remain open to platonic relationship. Aelred readily draws from Ambrose of Milan and Jerome’s wisdom, as evident in Aelred’s writings. Outside of his pastoral/diocese time, Ambrose used his time from his solitude to write and exchange friendships. Ambrose’s optimism about friendship leads him to embrace the comfort and support friends provide, and to elevate beneficentia or benevolentia as sine non qua of friendship.99

Jerome, Boniface, and other Anglo-Saxon missionaries have had a good variety of deep spiritual friendships with males, females, abbots, monks, and abbesses, that have informed Aelred’s conceptualization.100 Some of these letters of exchange explicitly display a love, a longing, and a desire for communion and support between friends to carry them through their pilgrimage of love and piety for God; and in some cases, these spiritual confidantes never met in person, but bared their soul freely to each other regularly in letters.101 Despite rumors, Jerome’s friendship with widower Paula remained in chastity.102

As can be seen, Aelred follows the Latin Western mystics to affirm the instrumental role of friendships towards God. McGuire has eloquently paraphrased Alcuin’s thoughts, that in human love we see images of divine love, which makes all varieties of love possible.103 As spiritual intimacy represents the highest goal of Aelredian friendship, he would affirm relational intimacy in its most holy and mature manner, befitting of true friendship: that this love would not contain travesties of avarice and concupiscence: caritas has nothing to do with cupiditas.104

How can platonicity develop healthily, without romance hindering it? While romance as we know it today would have been foreign to medieval platonic male-female friendship, there is at least a recognition of the potential perils of such friendship developing into a sexual promiscuity. As Vernon remarks, “how sex can hang a question mark over friendship, or vice versa.”105 That said, male-female platonicity remains possible, if friends honor each other – not by twentieth-first century standards of “Friends with [sexual/pleasurable] Benefits” (a movie directed by Will Gluck starring the friendship of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) – but through a medieval lectio divina framework; that of growing in discernment in two simultaneous directions – the knowledge of God and knowledge of self, especially in the inner movements of one’s own heart.

Spiritual exercise has its roots in a philosophical tradition of scrutinizing intentions and behavior that forms the conscience since the time of Socrates.106 In later Christian spirituality, Ignatius of Lyola in Spiritual Exercises expands this examination of the heart to include a search for the movements of consolations and desolations.107 Though Aelred offers no such these instructions, he did provide guidelines on developing healthy relationships, such as loving each other’s soul as their own, with pure intention, and cardinal virtues, which include rejecting nothing expedient, accepting nothing unbecoming, and growing together in prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and always expressing their kindred-ness in properly ordered love. Chastity and wisdom, towards God and each other, then represents the two roots to this truly healthy platonic bond. McEvoy calls the Aelredian approach a friendship of conscience.108

c. Pragmatics
Why does friendship hurt?
Life is messy, and sometimes, even with preventive measures (such as setting good boundaries and demonstrating mutual reverence), heartaches still knock at our doors. The reciprocity of love as the fountain and source of friendship would imply that if a friendship hurts, it is often due to differing degrees of reciprocity between friends. It is like the case of Jerome’s disappointment with Heliodorus or William of St. Therry’s question to Bernard of Clairvaux that “you did not love me as I did you” (note: not to be interpreted with any sexual overtones). To a large extent, the degrees of reciprocity depend on the nature of the friendship in Aelred’s conception, whether it is carnal, worldly, or spiritual. In essence, friendship hurts because friends disappoint us, regardless of their intentionality, and because we live in a world characterized by jealousy, possessiveness, and selfishness.109

How can we forgive? Aelred embraces a biblical notion that a friend loves at all times, even when friends falter; it would suggest that forgiveness is possible. On the limits of friendship in Book II, he acknowledges that those who previously followed wayward paths of lusts and avarices may return to fellowship if they are learned to control over their inordinate affections and behaviors. He further postulates that if Christ forgives us and asks us to love our enemies like friends, then, there can be forgiveness however difficult it may be. Some may read Aelred’s comment on distancing from the wayward as an act of judging others. However, the Aelredian paradigm is not an act of casting aspersion, but that of inner discernment, so as to admit into closer friendship with those who show signs of desiring a godly life.

Is reconciliation possible? Aelred’s garden of reciprocal love illustrates the forgiveness process. Like a garden that has to be carefully watered and tended for growth, so too in reconciliation, efforts to nurture and protect the relationship are necessary. As Augustine’s commentary on Galatians 6:2, about bearing each other’s burdens indicates, we grow to bear the infirmities and weaknesses of the weakest. Though there is no guarantee of reconciliation, finding true friends is a mysterious process and like the healing process, both cannot be rushed.110 As John Crossin (a scholar and reader of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantel) suggests, friendship and reconciliation remain keys to spiritual growth.111

Should we move on or trust providence to bring about good amidst our serendipity? Aelred would only recommend dissolution if that is unavoidable and compelling. Keeping a distancing becomes compelling when a friendship recedes from holiness, and walks either in darkness or with a bent for evil and practices evil habits. However, the dissolution ought to be a gradual process, “unstitching little by little,” all the while respecting and affirming the honor and dignity of parties involved.

Nonetheless, Aelred holds that one is still bound to love the former/withdrawn friend at all times, offering support, caring for his/her welfare, safeguard his/her reputation, and never betraying the former confidant’s secrets. It is in the name and honor of Christ’s exemplary model, that we are to love at all times. Jesus loved Judas (whom he knew would betray him even before Judas ever did), the sinners (who still live in sin), and those whom the then socio-conventions considered undeserving of true and noble friendships.112 However, in the case of a dissolved friendship, we no longer show confidence and affection as we would normally do a friend, even though we are still to demonstrate love and support as Christ would his enemies.

Aelred would also say that if the bond indeed rests on the foundations of true friendship (and although it may presently falter), an offense (however hurtful) would not ultimately severe the relationship, even though some distancing might be necessary for a while. A friend loves at all times, believes in, bears with, and hopes in all things concerning you and the friendship. And if true friends expect no reward except the reward of each other’s friendship, then even after reproving an erring friend, reparation remains a possibility, if both continue to connect and grow in Christ.

As Venerable Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert claims of Cuthbert’s relationship with Hereberht, the hermit of Derwentwater: spiritalis amicitiae foedere copulates: “they were bound to each other by the bond of spiritual friendship.”113 Augustine calls it the welding of two souls cleaving together through charity from the Holy Ghost.<114 And this friendship, though a choice, is ordered first by God. As Augustine claims in his letter to a long-lost friend, Marcianus, God is the author and giver of friendship, without whom, none would be friends with God and each other.115

Gospel singer Misty Edwards in the song “Let Me Love You More,” sums up the thrust of this paper. If friendship is intimacy with people in varying degrees, then “after all [that] is said [and done], love is a sacrifice… The gift of love, to whoever God sends our path, could hurt. So people often behave the opposite of what they truly desire – we all want to be loved, and yet, we push [away] those closest to us… the paradox of ‘Come Closer, Go Away’.” Yet, the rewards of true friendship are nurturing! In Aelredian schema, if we exercise care in the process of selection, probation, and testing, then, in moving away from counterfeit and shallow levels of intimacy (carnal and worldly), we will discover that in truly loving each other as we would ourselves, and in the love of God (spiritual), we relate as friends and form healthy relational depth (not to be interpreted via as analogous to contemporary romance of love and friendship).

May chastity, wisdom, and love be unleashed to all who seek the gift of friendship today, as Christians observe the Cistercian feast in honor of St. Aelred of Rievaulx.


[1] My appreciations to Shaun Horton, for the invitation to write for the American Society of Church History, and to a wider fraternal colleague and friend, Medievalist Dr C.J. Jones (University of Notre Dame), a dear friend, Ms Esther Ng Ailey, and my confidante and wife, Sharlene Yeo, for their comments at short notice, and during the holiday season. Any mistakes remain my responsibility.

Timothy LIM Teck Ngern, “You’re My Friend Indeed: Bearing the Fruits of True Friendship” shared at a Regent University School of Divinity chapel, 29th March 2010.

[2] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship. Classics with Commentary Series, with commentary by Dennis Billy (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2008); cf. the backdrop of medieval experience and philosophical conceptions of friendship in Brian Patrick McGuire, Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience, 350-1250 with a New Introduction (New York: Cornell University Press, 2010); Eva Osterberg, Friendship and Love, Ethics and Politics: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern History (Lund: Central European University Press, 2010), and Mark Vernon, The Meaning of Friendship (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[3] Brian Patrick McGuire, Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 105.

[4] McGuire, Brother and Lover, xi.

[5] Billy on Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, 27.

[6] For a range of perspectives, see McGuire, Brother and Lover, 1994; against the larger backdrop of John Eastburn Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler, eds., Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1999); and Liz Carmichael, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love (New York: T&T Clark, 2004, 3rd rpr., 2007), especially Carmichael’s ch. 3 on Aelred of Rievaulx, pp. 70-100.

[7] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, Prologue, I.6. p.25. Format follows Book, Paragraph, and page.

[8] McGuire, Brother and Lover, 42-47. The account does not of course discount the reality of sexual temptations he had in the court, and the invitation to sexual communion with a woman whist as a Cistercian monk. See however McGuire’s controversial account of Aelred’s Life of Waldef in McGuire, Brother and Lover, 49-50 turning Aelred into a monk with a monogamous desire for another monk, to the contrary of Aelred’s standard biographer, Walter Daniel. Still to McGuire’s credit, he at least registers the chastity in Aelred’s life after he entered the monastery. See for instance, excerpt of Aelred’s A Rule of Life for the Recluse in McGuire, Brother and Lover, 59-67.

[9] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.38, p.40.

[10] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.32, 59, pp.39, 46.

[11] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.53-57, pp.44-45; II.49, p.68.

[12] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.32, p.39.

[13] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.39-41, p.40; II.57-59, p.71.

[14] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.42, p.40-41; II.60-61, p.72.

[15] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.42, p.40-41.

[16] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.58-60, pp.46.

[17] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.43, p.41; II.16, p.61; II.53, p.69.

[18] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.54-55, p.71.

[19] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.47, p.68.

[20] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.60-61, pp.46.

[21] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.9,19,21,24, pp.33-35. In Book II, Aelred explains: “in friendship [as ‘a stage toward the love and knowledge of God’] there is nothing dishonorable, nothing deceptive, nothing feigned: whatever there is, is holy, voluntary, and true. And this itself is also a characteristic of charity. In this, truly, friendship shines forth with a special right of its own, that among those who are bound by the tie of friendship, all joys, all security, all sweetness, [and] all charms are experienced. Therefore in the perfection of charity we love [the] very many who are a source of burden and grief to us, for whose interest we concern ourselves [with them] honorably, not with hypocrisy or dissimulation, but sincerely and voluntarily, but yet we do not admit these to the intimacy of our friendship. And so in friendship are joined honor and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and goodwill, affection and action. And all these take their beginning from Christ, advance through Christ, and are perfected in Christ.” See Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.18-20, p.61.

[22] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.20, p.35.

[23] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.24, p.35. Aelred explains that a friendship contains four elements: love, affection, security, and happiness: “love implies the rendering of services with benevolence, affection, an inward pleasure that manifests itself exteriorly; security, a revelation of all counsels and confidences without fear and suspicion; happiness, a pleasing and friendly sharing of all events which occur, whether joyful or sad, of all thoughts, whether harmful or useful, of everything taught and learned.” cf. III.51, p.96.

[24] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.45, 35, pp.41, 40.

[25] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.35, 45, pp.40, 41; II.62-64, p.72.

[26] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.45, 48-49, p.41; II.59, 62, pp.71, 72.

[27] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.65-66,70 p.47. Aelred mentions a conjugal chastity as on par with a virgin in terms of their excellence towards virtue.

[28] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.5, p.56; II.24, p.62.

[29] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.9-14, pp.46.

[30] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.12-14, p.60.

[31] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.24-27, pp.62-63.

[32] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.18, p.61.

[33] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.27, p.63.

[34] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.33, p.66; II.67-69, p.73-74.

[35] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.33, p.66. Aelred also explains, “Heaven forbid [that the “mutual harmony of evil and wickedness though they are willing to die for one another [be called] … friendship”], since friendship cannot exist among the wicked.” He continues, “as long as any one delights in an evil thing from a desire of evil, as long as sensuality is more gratifying than purity, indiscretion than moderation, flattery than correction,” these desires are “shameful and unworthy of the name of friendship wherein any foul is demanded of a friend.” Cf. II.35-37, p.66; and III.10, pp.84-85.

[36] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.28, p.65.

[37] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.43, p.67; III.32, p.91

[38] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.12, p.85.

[39] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, II.67, p.74.

[40] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.2, p.83.

[41] Billy on Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, 77.

[42] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.2, p.83.

[43] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.6, 48, pp.84, 96. He writes: “not all whom we love should be received into friendship, for not all are found worthy of it. For since your friend is the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing, you should, in the first place, surely choose one who is considered fitted for all this. Then he is to be tried, and so finally admitted. For friendship should be stable and manifest a certain likeness to eternity, persevering always in affection.” Ibid. cf. II.10, pp.84-85.

[44] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.6-8, 55, p.84, 97.

[45] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.7, p.84.

[46] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.14, p.87.

[47] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.17, 20, pp.88.

[48] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.22, pp.88-89; III.73-74, p.103.

[49] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.17, p.88.

[50] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.20, pp.88.

[51] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.32, p.91.

[52] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.55-56, p.97.

[53] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.17, pp.88.

[54] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.14, p.87.

[55] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.23-25, pp.89.

[56] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.28-30, 55, pp. 90-91, 97.

[57] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.26, p.89-90.

[58] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.41-42, p.94.

[59] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.48, p.96.

[60] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.43-44, p.95.

[61] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.44, p.95.

[62] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.44, p.95.

[63] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.51, p.96.

[64] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.49-51, p.96. Aelred writes: “if nevertheless, you suffer all these evils from whom you once received into friendship, we said that your friendship should not be broken off immediately, but dissolved little by little, and that such reverence should be maintained for the former friendship, that although you withdraw your confidence from him, yet you never withdraw your love, refuse your aid, or deny him your advice. But if his frenzy breaks out even to blasphemies and calumny, do you, nevertheless, yield to the bonds of friendship, yield to charity, so that the blame will reside with him who inflicts, not with him who bears, the injury. Furthermore, if he is found to be a peril to his father, to his country, to his fellow-citizens, to his dependents or to his friends, the bond of familiarity ought to be broken immediately; love for one man should not take precedence over the ruin of many.” III.57, p.97.

[65] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.57, 46, pp.97, 95.

[66] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.49, p.96.

[67] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.66, p.101.

[68] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.80, 83, p.107, 108.

[69] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.61, p.100.

[70] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.79-80, p.106.

[71] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.75-76, p.103.

[72] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.62, p.100.

[73] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.63, 65, pp.100, 101. In poverty, one sees true friends, because there is no flattery or any hope for gain among the poor. See Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.71, p.102.

[74] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.69-70, pp.101-102.

[75] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.72, pp.102-103.

[76] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.74-75, p.103.

[77] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.66, p.101.

[78] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.88, p.110.

[79] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.89, p.111.

[80] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.90-91, 96-97, pp111, 113.

[81] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.92-94, 95, pp.111-112, 113.

[82] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.97-98, p.115.

[83] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.102, p.116.

[84] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.101, p.116.

[85] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.101-102, p.116.

[86] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.99-101, pp.115-116.

[87] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.103-104, 107, 109, pp.116-118.

[88] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.111-112, p.121.

[89] Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, III.115-127, p.122-126.

[90] McGuire, Friendship and Community, xi.

[91] James McEvoy, “The Theory of Friendship in the Latin Middle Ages: Hermeneutics, Contextualization, and the Transmission and Reception of Ancient Texts and Ideas, From c.AD350 to c.1500,” Friendship in Medieval Europe, edited by Julian Haseldine (New York: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 11, cf. 1-44.

[92] Ferrante demonstrates how contemporary concepts of romanticized love have been read into medieval documents, thus wrongly interpreting medieval spiritualists’ concept of spiritual and true friendship into an earthly romantic and erotic understanding. Joan M. Ferrante, “Spiritual Love in an Earthly Context: Religious Allusions in Courtly Love Texts” both in Earthly Love, Spiritual Love, Love of the Saints, edited by Susan J. Ridyard (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South Press, 1999), 27-44. Moreover, this Aristotelian notion of friendship-love and soul-mate has historically been interpreted incorrectly as romance only. See Alan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993); cf. A. W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[93] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985), IX.8.1168b-7-11; 1158A.10-17; 1171A.10-11.

[94] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VIII and IX.

[95] Carmichael, Friendship, 71.

[96] David Garrioch, “From Christian Friendship to Secular Sentimentality: Enlightenment Re-Evaluations,” Friendship: A History, edited by Barbara Caine (London: Equinox, 2009), 175.

[97] Aelred, A Rule of Life for the Recluse (New York: Cistercian, 1971), 52; McGuire, “Jean Gerson and the End of Spiritual Friendship,” 238. Interestingly, unlike the male monastic orders’ reservations about male-male friendships, the later Beguine Orders do not forbid two female recluses from enjoying intimate-wholesome, non-sexual/sensual friendships.

[98] Richard Newhauser, ed., The Seven Deadly Sins: From Communities to Individuals. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Leiden: BRILL, 2007), 81 among others.

[99] Cassidy explains that although the concept has roots in Stoic notion of universality, later thinkers recover earlier Aristotelian notion of goodwill and benevolence in creating and sustaining friendship. See Eoin G. Cassidy, “‘He who has friends can have no friend’: Classical and Christian Perspectives on the Limits of Friendship,” Friendship in Medieval Europe, edited by Julian Haseldine (New York: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 46, cf. 45-67.

[100] McGuire, Friendship and Community, ch. 2, pp.38-133; Ferrante’s two articles in Earthly Love, Spiritual Love, Love of the Saints (1999), 5-26, 27-44.

Some other exemplars in history include the classical characters of Archilles and Patrodus, the Anglo-Saxon deep longings for friendships between Bishop Boniface and Abbesses, like Egburg and Eangyth, the support between Clare and Francis of Assisi, the twelfth century recluse, Christina of Markyate and his chaste intimacy with her guardian, Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans, the Dominican Jordan of Saxony’s ministry with a nun, Diana of Andalò of Bologne, the nineteenth century spiritual correspondences between Maurice and Therese, and the ‘seraphic friendship’ between Charles II maid of honor, Margaret Godolphin and the English diarist, John Evelyn. See Hans-Werner Goetz, Life in the Middle Ages from Seventh to the Thirteenth Century (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994); Hans-Werner Goetz, “‘Beatus Homo Qui Inventit Amicum’; The Concept of Friendship in Early Medieval Letters of the Anglo-Saxon Tradition on the Continent (Boniface, Alcuin),” Friendship in Medieval Europe, edited by Julian Haseldine (New York: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 124-136; Jon M. Sweeney, Light in the Dark Ages: The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi (New York: Paraclete Press, 2007); The Life of Christina of Markyate, trans. C.H. Talbot, with revision notes by Samuel Fabous and Henrietta Leyser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Patrick Ahern, Maurie and Thérèse: The Story of a Love (New York: Doubleday, 1998); Frances Harris, Transformations of Love: The Friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Godolphin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Joan M. Ferrante’s two articles, “Earthly Love in a Spiritual Setting: The Language of Friendship among Religious” and “Spiritual Love in an Earthly Context: Religious Allusions in Courtly Love Texts” both in Earthly Love, Spiritual Love, Love of the Saints, edited by Susan J. Ridyard (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South Press, 1999), 5-26, and 27-44.

In non-conventional relationships, we have examples in the same-sex male friendship of Michel de Montaigne and Etienne La Boëtie, and closer to our time, the American Trappist Thomas Merton’s letters with a Clairvaux monk Jean Leclercq? Michel de Montaigne, Selected Essays with La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Trans. James B. Atkinson, and David Sices (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2012); Survival or Prophecy: the Letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq, edited by Brother Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus and Ciroux, 2002).

[101] St. Jerome, The Pilgrimage of the Holy Paula. Trans. Aubrey Stewart. Elibron Classics (Adamant Media, 2007); John Lord, Beacon Lights of History vol. IV (Forgotten Books, 2012), 173-210.

[102] McGuire, Friendship and Community, 41, 60, 107-115.

[103] McGuire, Friendship and Community, 123. See also McGuire’s citation: Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, trans. Peter Munz (New York: Harper, 1964), 101.

[104] Carmichael, Friendship, ch. 3, pp.70-100.

[105] Vernon, The Meaning of Friendship, 51. Vernon’s quote continues: “It happens when the similarities between the two loves are forced into too close proximity with the differences.” Richard Rolle (d.1349) remained optimistic about platonic friendship despite its challenges; see Rolle’s The Fire of Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 175, cited in Brian Patrick McGuire, “Jean Gerson and the End of Spiritual Friendship: Dilemmas of Conscience,” Friendship in Medieval Europe, edited by Julian Haseldine (New York: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 230; cf. 229-250.

[106] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 129.

[107] Jules J. Toner, Commentary on Saint Ignatius Rules for Discernment of Spirits: A Guide to the Principles and Practice (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1982); idem, Discerning God’s Will: Ignatius of Loyola’s Teaching on Christian Decision Making (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1991).

[108] McEvoy, 11, cf. 1-44.

[109] Ferrante, “Spiritual Love in an Earthly Context,” 44.

[110] In Paulinus of Nola’s case, Sulpicus Severus did not rekindle the spiritual bond after it dissipates. See McEvoy, “The Theory of Friendship in the Latin Middle Ages,” 12.

[111] John W. Crossin, Friendship: The Key to Spiritual Growth (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist, 1997).

[112] Matt 11:19; Lk 7:34; 94; Matt 26:50; Lk 21:16; Matt 20:13; Eph 1:4.

[113] McGuire, Friendship and Community, 94.

[114] Augustine, Confessions, IV.4.7.

[115] Augustine, Epistle 258.

America’s Culture War Since the 1960s

Friday, December 14th, 2012

by William Russell

In the late twentieth century Americans experienced a major cultural shift in their experiences of religion. Cultural commentators have called this a “Culture War” and argue for a return to traditionalism – or at least how they believe religion was traditionally practiced. Theologians largely left behind the idea of constructing systematic theology in favor of diversity and meeting the needs of particular peoples in particular places and times. Americans readily ignored the denominations of their parents and grandparents preferring a stronger sense of voluntarism in their religious affiliations.

These religious, theological, and ecclesial changes ran parallel with and intersected with changes in mobility, cultural identity politics, and worldview alternatives. Historians of religion in the late twentieth century followed suit, challenging traditional religious narratives too heavily focused on Puritan ideals and cultural hegemony. The descent of Protestantism in American intellectual ideology was fostered by an increasing recognition of pluralism, voluntarism, and cross-cultural contact.

Religious changes since 1950 have been massive indeed. The first philosophical problem encountered in the 1960s was the perceived hegemony of Protestant thought. The rise of Catholic and Jewish intellectuals challenged the accepted narrative creating the first step in undermining the cultural consensus. Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew argued for three occasionally overlapping spheres of religious experience in American culture. Their combined efforts against the perception of an anti-religious communism brought the three independent groupings together in a unified American ideal.1

Robert Bellah saw the consensus ideology as a unique phenomenon informed by these three spheres and called it “American Civil Religion” with its worship of its own saints and martyrs, religious sites and pilgrimages, and its own religious rituals. Civil religion remains a site of scholarly debate today as to exactly what it entails, where it best applies, and how it works. The debates regarding Civil Religion opened up the scholarship to a consciousness of America’s Protestant hegemony.

The second shift in the historiography was the incorporation of sociological, anthropological, and ethnographic methods to the study of American religion. As scholars began to view American history through new lenses, pluralism emerged throughout American history – pluralism noticeably absent from the grand narrative. Americans had always been pluralistic, and the nation was founded in part on the disestablishment of religion. Continual immigration and religious innovation had created widely variegated religious ideas and practice. When combined with economic opportunities and seemingly infinite space, the country inevitably fertilized a massive plurality of religious expression. The Immigration Act of 1965 opened the United States to massive immigration, particularly from East and South Asia and South and Central America, bringing a variety of ancient religious practices and ideas with it.

The countercultural ideas regarding extreme freedom, personal authenticity and something I call “religious realism” inoculated the American experience with openness to alternative religious experiences beyond the dominant traditions. Americans experienced these expanding religious options in a very American ahistorical syncretic manner. Using a variety of new sociological tools scholars uncovered a great deal of variety in American history at the same time as they themselves experienced an expanding pluralism. Scholars at the end of the millennium began to recognize that religion and culture were inseparable and intermingling. New more provisional narratives emerged creating meaning and logic from religious experience.

As a direct result of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s a new force in American politics emerged in the Christian Right. As a synthetic political collaboration between social conservatives, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals, the force came to dominate the Republican Party by the early 1980s, supporting the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

The ascendancy of the Religious Right caught the mostly secular and mainline left off guard. Having undergone a movement away from national politics in the late 1920s, Fundamentalists in America had been largely ignored, yet fostered significant growth during that period. Some Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham gained national fame and political influence, but a great deal more occurred away from the spotlight as Evangelicals developed their own countercultural views inculcated through TV, radio and their own publication circles. The move back to political power in the late 1970s came as a surprise to many and demonstrated a shift in Evangelicalism away from isolationism and personal experience to a concerted effort to regain cultural dominance in America. This movement called for the dissolution of denominationalism and the ascension of a particular (but understood as a universal and traditional) Born Again Christianity.2

In total, these three shifts in the last half of the twentieth century drastically altered America in its variety of religious experiences and its recognition of difference. The descent of Protestantism in American culture opened up the view of our past as pluralistic and awakened a recognition of difference as having had direct contributive impact on the American experiment. The rise of pluralism challenged our understandings of the past and the question of who we were as a people – if even there has ever really been a “we” to begin with. The emergence of the Christian Right in one sense represents a very particular type of religious experience, but it too stems from recognition that choice, pluralism, and syncretism have always been a part of the American experience.

Theological shifts since 1950 have also had great effect on American culture. Theology followed the religious shift from the hegemonic to pluralistic with a slight delay. But at times the emergence of new theological options had immediate effects on the culture immediately as well. The first shift in the 1950s were the great ecumenical accomplishments such as the formation of the National Council of Churches and the corresponding World Council of Churches. Ecumenism followed theologically from a concept of the universal church and the idea that disparate traditions should in fact work together to create world peace and justice. Denominationalism was considered sinful. In a few short years ecumenical work also became interreligious work, first between Christians and Jews, then between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and soon extending to the religions of the world. Interreligious experience brought with it both experiences of self pride but also of religious humility in the face of alternative equally viable religious traditions. Theologies of pluralism, soon emerged to help describe this new religious reality.3

In the so-called third world, one such theology developed. The forces of decolonization fostered the growth of theologies of liberation. As immigration expanded in the 1960s theologies of justice and the preferential option for the poor entered the American scene, and undermined the Protestant cultural authorities and created space for alternative views of America as a destructive world power. These largely Roman Catholic theologies inspired the creation of a Black Liberation Theology as an authentic black religious expression.4

Other oppressed cultural groups in America fashioned their own culturally informed theologies resulting in a grouping of peopled theologies. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left and the Counterculture inspired white and black American women to begin to think of the theological implications of misogyny, resulting in new theological strains of Feminist and later Womanist theologies. Feminist and Womanist theories drew from traditional theological sources, but also from non-traditional (even non-Christian) sources.5 The trend continued through the following decade and extended to a peopled theology of Queer theory – a re-creation of theology for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgendered people and their allies. More importantly, Queer Theology is an effort at recognizing difference as a theological value at the core of the religious experience.

Historical narratives from the nineteenth and early twentieth century attempted to draw American life into a single unified stream of history. Puritan values such as hard work, universal education, family centered society, and capitalism have been argued as such organizing principles. Other ideas such as a the idea of Progress, of American exceptionalism, chosen status, and of America as world savior still infiltrate our society today, but without the power of unity and the determinism that made these hegemonic in the 1950s.

Unified meta-narratives simply could not stand against the pressure of America’s past that continually defies amalgamation. This is not to say that there is no longer intrinsic value for narrative in the American experience; that would be far too naïve and limited. But the expansion of narrative to include the diversity and pluralism of the American experience challenges the notion of a single unified theory. Monolithic historical narratives create a kind of purified uniform past that never was. So while useful in organizing some aspects of society into understandable chunks, the hegemony of meta-narratives has rightly gone extinct. The summation of the religious changes in the United States over the past half century has been an extreme expansion of the recognition of pluralism and the value of cultural contact. Unified cultural ideology is continually being eroded by experiences of difference and new forms of historical narratives expressed through it.



[1] Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

[2] Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America”, Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96, no. 1 (Winter 1967).

[3] Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007.

[4] See as an example of pluralistic theology John B. Cobb, Varieties of Protestantism, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

[5] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970.

[6] See as an example of early Feminist Liberation Theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Church against Itself: An Inquiry into the Conditions of Historical Existence for the Eschatological Community, New York : Herder and Herder, 1967.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Religious Tourism (or Lack Thereof) in Norwich and King’s Lynn, England

Friday, July 27th, 2012

by Donna Ray

Being a fan of the medieval visionary writers Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and assuming that many others across the globe shared my fandom, I expected at least a minor crush of tourists when I recently visited these women’s hometowns of Norwich and King’s Lynn, England. I was disappointed but not surprised to find no mention of either Julian or Margery in the official tourist literature for East Anglia despite their renown in religious and scholarly circles. Emphasis in promotional brochures was rather predictably placed on shopping, nightlife, restaurants, “family fun,” and local football.

It’s hard for long-dead religious figures to compete, however deserving: Julian (ca. 1342-ca. 1416) wrote the Revelations of Divine Love, a hopeful meditation on the tender love of God and the first known book by a woman in English. The Book of Margery Kempe, published in 1436, has less spiritual heft than Julian’s book—its protagonist being more boisterous and less stable, in every sense of the word—but is nonetheless full of theological and cultural interest and arguably the first autobiography written in English.

Norwich was up first on my trip: Only brief notice appears in a city-sponsored brochure of “numerous medieval churches” (there are, in fact, thirty-one). This paucity of boosterism, in addition to the fact that St. Julian’s Church and the Julian Centre are off the beaten path and in a rather seedy part of town, might explain why I was the only visitor there in late June.

I received a very gracious welcome, however, from the two women running the Centre (library, gift shop, and adjoining guest house), who reasoned that the recession also had something to do with the downturn in visitors; although, on a good day, they might have half a dozen. The church itself, now part of the Anglican Diocese of Norwich, is small and cozy, formally outfitted for Anglo-Catholic mass held there on Mondays and Fridays and solemn evensong on the first Sunday of each month. But the church primarily functions as a shrine to Julian, an anchoress whose small cell was attached to the south end, near the altar. An annual Julian festival and lecture are held on the grounds each May.


The south side of St. Julian’s Church, Norwich (the reconstructed anchorhold at center)


St. Julian’s Church is not far from the River Wensum, which runs through Norwich. The church can be accessed by foot by crossing the new Lady Julian Bridge (opened in 2009 and named at the behest of local Anglican nuns) over the river from a commercial district. From the quieter and older King Street on the other side, where sits a medieval trading hall, a new sign points the visitor to St. Julian’s Alley, which leads to the church.

The church and Julian Centre can also be reached by car along Rouen Road, lined with government housing, car shops, and graffiti-covered walls, just south of the city’s red-light district. Another Anglican church two blocks away serves as a drop-in counseling center for area prostitutes. Some beer cans and empty cigarette packs littered the otherwise lovely and steadfastly maintained churchyard, watched over by the Friends of Julian of Norwich and a stray white cat.


The Lady Julian Bridge, crossing the River Wensum



The neighborhood around St. Julian’s Church (not visible here, but across the street from the medieval trading hall and center)


Julian settled into her cell in 1373, at age 31, and remained there for the rest of her life. Here she led a life of prayer and devotion; wrote her Revelations, or >em>Showings; and counseled visitors who came to the south window of her cell. Another opening on the north side of the cell, toward the altar, was her window to the Blessed Sacrament; and a third allowed communication with a servant.

The original church building may have been erected in the tenth century; but the anchorhold was pulled down after the Reformation. The church was bombed and severely damaged in World War II, but it was rebuilt afterwards, including a new replica of the anchorhold based on the ancient footprint. The cell is now, however, a small carpeted chapel, so one has to mentally strip away the modern accoutrements to imagine what the space looked like when Julian lived there.


Julian’s cell as it looks now


Among the other medieval buildings of note in Norwich are the imposing Norman cathedral and castle, some distance from St. Julian’s Church but no doubt visible from it in Julian’s day. Less imposing, but important as a religious landmark, is the timber-framed Briton’s Arms, now a restaurant but once a beguinage for a small community of semi-religious women—the only surviving medieval beguinage in England, built probably in the first half of the fifteenth century. The Carmelite solitary and scholar Elizabeth Obbard is reportedly writing a book on Julian’s connection to the beguinage, possibly as a resident there before she became an anchoress. Some scholars also speculate, given Julian’s maternal sensibility, that she may have been a wife and mother before she became an anchoress. There is no evidence that she was ever a nun.


The Briton’s Arms: once a medieval beguinage, now a restaurant


Whatever the case, we know that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norwich was a tumultuous place: the Black Death struck there at least three times during Julian’s lifetime and wiped out half of the city’s population, perhaps including (although this is entirely speculative) Julian’s own family members. Norwich also felt the effects of the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Uprising of 1381, ongoing theological strife (a pit for burning Lollards stood not far from St. Julian’s Church), and papal schism. Julian’s presence must have been an eye in the storm, her cell a place of reassurance and stability. The mission of the church hasn’t changed; in its brochure, the Julian Centre says that it aims “to be a place of quietness and prayer in the midst of a busy city.” One hopes the new bridge and signage will help them fulfill that mission.



Next up on my trip was a train ride to King’s Lynn, 44 miles to the west of Norwich, on the River Ouse. Here the medieval historical sites are somewhat more front-and-center, as the town is smaller and the monuments thus loom larger. The city tourism center also offers a “pilgrimage trail” map for those wishing to see the medieval sites. On these two rainy days in early July, however, my husband and I were the only pilgrims in sight.

No one knows exactly where in the city Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1440) lived, but her home was likely not far from the river in the market district where the well-established, wealthier families lived. (Her father was the mayor, her husband a merchant.) As in Norwich, King’s Lynn—called Bishop’s Lynn in Margery’s day, or just Lynn—is crammed with old churches and the ruins of medieval religious communities, some of them repurposed for modern non-religious use.

In contrast to Julian, Margery gave a lot of attention to physical space and movement, with vivid accounts of the many cities to which she traveled in Europe and the Holy Land. The place that features most prominently in Margery’s biographical account, however, is her home church in Lynn: St. Margaret’s, founded in 1101 and still an active (Anglican) parish church now formally named King’s Lynn Minster.

St. Margaret’s, in contrast to St. Julian’s Church, is enormous—the architectural centerpiece of the town as well as the spiritual centerpiece of Margery’s lively and sometimes tortured spiritual narrative. Margery spent hours praying there, receiving visitations and instructions from Christ, engaging in pastoral tasks, shedding her signature tears, sometimes receiving support but often noisily irritating the people around her. By her own account, she saved the church from fire by her intercessions, which were followed by a timely snowstorm. Another time, she was allegedly hit by a heavy beam that fell from the ceiling of the church, and yet was miraculously unharmed.


St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn



Interior of St. Margaret’s Church


The narratives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe come together briefly in Margery’s Book (1:18). During a visit to Norwich around 1413, Margery visited the cell of the renowned anchoress, who for three days gave her much needed reassurance, encouraging confidence in God and fearlessness in trouble. Margery in fact made more than one trip to Norwich, crossing the boggy expanse of Norfolk to receive the counsel of those celebrated for their piety, seeking as she did always and everywhere both peace and vindication.


Via Brother Leon of Walsingham, at St. Michael and All Angels, Brighton

Contemporary icon of the meeting between Julian of Norwich (left) and Margery Kempe


Nothing beats religious tourism for the church historian. Seeing a place, rather than just reading about it, gives a sense of scale and proximity and provides a total sensory environment. Despite the centuries of change, and sometimes neglect, that overlay historical sites, there is no better way than an on-site visit to absorb the spirit of the place and the people who lived there. In Norwich and King’s Lynn, as in so many historical religious sites, one can still perceive the spiritual liveliness and perseverance of the inhabitants.

Even in the faded and damaged places, one can get an immediate whiff of the long-term narrative and appreciate the vacillating fortunes and failures of religious institutions and people, even to the present day. For anyone who seeks them out, these places still convey a comforting sense of stability amidst chaos, whatever it may be.


Donna Ray is a lecturer in History and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

American Indians and the Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

by Linford D. Fisher

On June 24, 2012, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD). The what, you say? Exactly. The DOD (or Doctrine of Christian Discovery, as it is sometimes referred to) is one of the most important historical and contemporary issues that Native activists and communities talk about, educate regarding, and work against, and yet the vast majority of non-Natives have never heard of it.

In short, the Doctrine of Discovery is the deceptively simply historical notion that Europeans had rights to the lands of the Americas by right of discovery and verbal fiat from the Pope and Christian European kings and queens. Although this may sound to most modern readers like historical malarkey that we have all abandoned long ago (and, in fact, never subscribed to in the first place), this notion has resurfaced repeatedly in American history and, indeed, silently undergirds not just public discourse about Native land rights and sovereignty, but the U.S. Federal Court system as well.

The DOD has its roots in pre-Columbian European expansion, mainly in the colonization of the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands by the Portuguese and Spanish in the fifteenth century. Most scholars date the official origin of the DOD to the papal bull issued in 1452 by Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, which specifically sanctioned the colonization of non-Christian lands by Christian European monarchs and their emissaries. It was with this fictive legal and religious authority that Columbus first claimed the island of Guanahani (San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas) for Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an authority that was reconfirmed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493).

Papal bulls between 1481 and 1529—including The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—attempted to keep the peace between competing and expanding European empires by officially dividing the newly “discovered” lands of the northeastern Atlantic, the Americas, and the West Indies between the Spanish and the Portuguese. After the 1520s, Protestant nations like England and eventually the Netherlands followed suit, replacing the authority of the pope with that of a king or ruler.

It takes little effort to convince most modern-day Americans (or Euro-American residents of the Americas) that this was a preposterous notion, rooted firmly in the arrogance of Europeans’ self-perceived cultural and religious superiority. So then, what’s the big deal?

The problem is that the DOD—or at least the ideas behind it—has never gone away. It still influences much of the cultural assumptions of non-Native inhabitants of the Americas, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. More perniciously, the DOD actually continues to inform the U.S. legal system in terms of how it determines the ongoing rights of Native peoples within its borders. One of the clearest examples of this is the infamous 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In it, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that only the U.S. Congress had the right to buy and sell Native land and based this right on the original “discovery” and conquest of the Americas by Europeans who were sent by Christian kings and queens to Christianize and conquer the “heathen” peoples.

The implications of this ruling were simply tragic, and its logic defies rational and historical analysis. In an astonishing overturning of colonial practice and belief, in one fell swoop American Indians were decreed to have never been the rightful possessors of their land in the first place, all based on this notion of the authority of European discovery (the word “discovery” is used twenty-three times in the ruling).

Johnson v. M’Intosh has had a long shadow. Up through the present, it remains the legal standard for Native land rights cases and was indirectly cited in court decisions as recently as the 2005 decision City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. (this 2005 ruling cited a 1985 ruling, County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, which explicitly references the “doctrine of discovery” and cites Johnson v. M’Intosh as one of the prior precedents).

In many ways, however, the tide is turning, even if officially this legal precedent is still firmly in place. Some of the most interesting recent developments have been taking place on the international stage. The United Nations established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000. In 2007 the United Nations overwhelmingly passed an unprecedented document, titled the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is the boldest and most comprehensive statement to date on the rights of indigenous populations worldwide, but particularly of those in the “Lands of the Demographic Takeover,” as Alfred Crosby has described it (PDF), or North and South America (including the Caribbean islands), New Zealand, and Australia. The United States was only one of four nations out of 147 that voted against UNDRIP (the other three were, predictably, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia). Although the governments of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have all subsequently signed on to UNDRIP, the U.S. remains the sole holdout. Obama declared in December 2010 that the U.S. will sign UNDRIP, but so far he has been unable (or unwilling) to get the U.S. Congress to officially endorse it.

As groundbreaking as the UUA resolution was last month, it was not the first such motion by a religious body. That honor goes to the Episcopal Church, which in 2009 passed a resolution that officially denounced the DOD and called for the U.S. to sign on to UNDRIP. The World Council of Churches eventually followed suit in February 2012 during its executive committee meeting in Switzerland. The hope is as other denominations learn about this doctrine and its history, they, too, will be compelled to repudiate it officially and join the growing chorus of calls for the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP. The DOD even has its own Wikipedia page (which marks a certain coming of age in the wider public consciousness, I guess).

In the meantime, despite the wider academy’s failure to engage the DOD as a serious academic topic of inquiry, Native academics have led the way, putting together panels at academic conferences, running regional seminars and listservs (like the one out of Syracuse University), creating an informative website, and publishing books and articles on the topic (one of the best summaries of the DOD is a little essay titled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice,” by Steve Newcomb). This dedicated cadre of Native scholars and activists deserve the credit for bringing this important historical and present-day issue to the attention of literally millions of people around the world, including a growing number of Christian churches and other religious bodies.

Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University and author of The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford, 2012).

Herodotus, Hermeneutics, and Vatican II: Should Historians Trust Us Theologians?

Monday, July 9th, 2012

by Christopher Denny

HerodotusTwo decades ago I graduated from a liberal-arts school whose curriculum is based upon reading classic texts from Western Civilization—the so-called Great Books. Students read them in roughly chronological order, from Homer to Heidegger. Having decided that I needed to postpone entry into the real world for a tad longer, after I left college I embarked upon a more ambitious reading project.

Beginning with surviving fragments of ancient Egyptian literature from the Old Kingdom period, I planned to work my way chronologically through influential texts from the succeeding four and one-half millennia of human history, this time branching out beyond the West and also reading texts from China, India, the Middle East, and Japan. The detail with which I drew up the reading list was not matched by a corresponding level of interest in the need to earn enough money upon which I could live, and so after three years I decided to head to graduate school in religious studies, where I could embark upon a profession in which I could combine teaching, writing, and reading. I put aside my reading list, having only reached Herodotus’s History.

In the succeeding years I finished graduate school, earned a doctorate, and assumed a post teaching historical theology at St. John’s University in New York City. My cherished reading list was relegated to a file cabinet, until this past year, when I decided to return to Herodotus, picking up right where I left off twenty years ago—in the middle of the History’s third book.

Herodotus wrote his History during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, around 430—425 BCE, and his subject was the earlier war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. The History was part of a stream of demythologization that swept through Greek literature in the last half of the fifth-century. Along with Aristophanes, Euripides, and Thucydides, Herodotus cast a critical eye upon both Greek religion and the paideia that supported this piety.

His opening account of the Trojan War, which Herodotus saw as the prelude to the latter struggles between the Greek city-states and Persia, omits any reference to the machinations of divinities. Croesus of Lydia loses his empire to King Cyrus after misinterpretations of oracles lead to a series of political mistakes. Herodotus reports religious customs of the Babylonians without evincing any belief in their efficacy, chastises the Egyptians with being “religious to excess,” ridicules selected Greek beliefs regarding Heracles, and emphasizes the novelty of Greek religious beliefs by comparison with more ancient cultures.

Herodotus does not ascribe the events of the Persian Wars to a theomachy on Mount Olympus. This novel emphasis does not stem from religious unbelief, as Herodotus warns that harsh punishments can draw down the gods’ wrath. Rather, Herodotus relegates religious influence to the realm of the inscrutable, pushing his History away from religion and towards . . . history. It is to Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” that later centuries owe the distinction between theological and historical interpretations of the world. Readers interested in Herodotus and Greek religion can read Thomas Harrison’s book Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford UP, 2000).

As a historical theologian, both the institution at which I work and the Catholic community of which I am part expect me to make sense of history by discerning God’s activity therein, but the enterprise is treacherous and often ill-defined. Methodologically church historians despite their monotheism are the offspring of the polytheist Herodotus, while Christian theologians are impatient to construct a “usable” history for their present contexts, lest they and the communities they represent be suspected of antiquarianism, nostalgia, or reactionary sympathies. The same events, the bare facts of the Christian past, are examined through two very different disciplinary lenses, leaving historical theology as an uncomfortable hybrid in the academic menagerie.

These musings about Herodotus came to mind as I was reading a new book by theologian Massimo Faggioli, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (Paulist, 2012). Faggioli is a religious historian at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, and his specialization is the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council (1962—65).

Those with an interest in intra-Catholic disputes perhaps know about the recent struggles among Catholic historians, theologians, and bishops regarding the proper understanding of Vatican II. Part of the ongoing debate between centralized and decentralized visions of the Catholic Church, these differences of opinion have recently crystallized into two major groupings. One group’s preferred understanding of Vatican II is alternately termed “the hermeneutics of discontinuity” or the “hermeneutics of rupture,” while the opposing group styles itself as promoters of the “hermeneutics of continuity” or the “hermeneutics of reform.” Regardless of the terminology employed, the fundamental difference between the parties is the extent to which the Second Vatican Council should be understood as having departed from the previous practices, intellectual frameworks, and customs of Roman Catholic tradition.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) Wikimedia Commons

Is this a theological dispute or a historical dispute? No less a theologian than Karl Rahner begged off making a clear distinction between history and theology at the beginning of a widely cited address in 1979, later published as “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II.” (PDF) This contest operates at both these levels simultaneously because each faction wants not only to recount past events but also to use the past to establish ecclesial norms for the future. Faggioli himself acknowledges his debt to the late Italian church historian Giuseppe Alberigo, the editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II (Orbis, 1995—2006).

Alberigo’s work established a new standard for the historiography of Vatican II, making use of archival documentation, unpublished correspondence of council participants, and journals to construct a narrative of conciliar activity. The end result was so influential that the name of Alberigo’s home institution is now the eponym for the scholars who use the series as a baseline for further historical research — the Bologna school.

Debates about the Council predate the close of the council itself, but Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning joins other recent publications in promoting a new standard by which to settle theological disputes about the Council. Along with John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard UP, 2008), Faggioli’s book aims to ground theological disputes about the meaning of Vatican II by appealing to history. In what Faggioli identifies as one of the “macro-issues of the debate,” he writes,

What is typical of Vatican II is the dimension of the relationship between the Church and the modern world, the assumption of history in its epistemological value for Catholic theology, and the fact that Vatican II is not a paradigm in itself . . . but a ‘paradigmatic example’ of the complex relationship between continuity and discontinuity” (p. 137). Again, “The historicization of Vatican II starting in the late 1980s has clearly introduced a hermeneutical shift in the theology of Vatican II.

Catholic theologians of different persuasions can certainly spill ink about how to balance the letter and the spirit of Vatican II, and debates about continuity and discontinuity have been a feature of Christian theology since the first-century debates over circumcision in Antioch and Jerusalem recounted in the New Testament. But what stake do historians have in this debate? Continuity and discontinuity may be problematic for theologians seeking doctrinal, liturgical, and moral norms, but all historians presume change as a precondition of their disciplinary methodology. One doesn’t have to be a resolute empiricist or positivist to insist that ascertaining theological standards and formulations is more than a function of setting past events in their historical context; this much should be uncontroversial, and yet the turn to history in twentieth century Christian theology unearths quite a few examples of theologians attempting to settle differences with an appeal to history.

Consider the example of ecumenism. In 1963 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Montreal. In a conference report the Commission published that year, entitled “Scripture, Tradition, and Traditions,” the hope is expressed that somehow history can be a catalyst for overcoming church divisions. The Commission wrote:

During the centuries the different Christian communions have developed their own traditions of historical study and their own particular ways of viewing the past. The rise of the idea of a strictly scientific study of history, with its spirit of accuracy and objectivity, in some ways ameliorated this situation. But the resultant work so frequently failed to take note of the deeper theological issues involved in church history (para. 59).

A “scientific” Christian history tantalizes theologians with the prospect of undoing the damage done by early modern confessionalization, but the authors of the Commission’s report recognize that such history is insufficient. The hope that ressourcement of Christian traditions, especially from the period of the early church, would bring ecclesial unity was also present at Vatican II. Members of the 1963 Commission included Protestant observers at Vatican II, while Catholic periti (theological advisors) at Vatican II were present at the Montreal gathering, even though the Roman Catholic Church was not (and still is not) a member of the World Council of Churches.

Yet despite major advances in historical scholarship in the intervening decades, the ecumenical movement is no stronger than it was during the heady days of the 1960s. Indeed, the global Anglican Communion itself is struggling to remain united, with little indication that historical study will heal divisions rooted in contrasting understandings of the authority of both Scripture and ecclesial traditions as they pertain to church authority and sexual morality.

If the ecumenical frame of reference seems too narrow, historians can listen in on the theological debate regarding salvation history and world history that emerged in Europe after the Second World War. In two influential books — Christus und die Zeit (1947) and Heil als Geschichte: Heilsgeschichtliche Existenz im Neuen Testament (1962) — Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann (1902—99) distinguished between the events of history and their significance for God’s plan of salvation. In Cullmann’s formulation the empirical facts of history are visible to all, while proper insight into the specifically religious significance of these facts is only granted to those privileged to receive the Word of God in faith.

Cullmann himself was a biblical theologian who participated in ecumenical dialogues from the 1920s onward and was an observer at Vatican II. His proffered relationship between world history and salvation history is a neat solution to many of the pressing issues confronting Christian theology at mid-century. By granting historical scholarship autonomy from theology, Cullmann made room for historical-critical research while safeguarding religious interpretations of Christian history.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-) Wikimedia Commons

Wolfhart Pannenberg and others attacked this cleavage in the 1960s, challenging the claim that salvation history was a sanctum cordoned off from the general progression of world events. In the introduction to Offenbarung als Geschichte (1961) Pannenberg evinced a confidence that historical events needed no supernatural hermeneutics to make them intelligible. He claimed that using historical methodology to examine the events of Christian history should be sufficient in principle to establish a response of religious faith.

Whether they deal with the relationship between Christian churches or between Christians and the world, these debates are in essence boundary disputes in which the fence pickets are often dimly glimpsed. Catholics such as Alberigo, O’Malley, and Faggioli debate opponents of the Bologna school such as Agostino Marchetto, Matthew Levering, and Matthew Lamb over whether the intentions of those who drafted the documents of Vatican II should guide interpretation of the sixteen documents that the Council produced.

O’Malley cultivates a vision of Vatican II that identifies the Council as a language event that is unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church, while Marchetto (Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Controppunto per la sua Storia; Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005) insists that the texts themselves rather than the surrounding conciliar debates establish the standards for contemporary Catholic theology. Alberigo’s co-editor of the History of Vatican II, Joseph Komonchak, emphasizes the reception of the Council by the members of the Church as an important marker in understanding its activity, while Levering and Lamb (Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition) interpret the conciliar constitutions and decrees with reference to each other and to previous magisterial teaching. The necessary distinction between history and theology in these publications is mostly implied and rarely expounded in sufficient detail.

Continuing a trend of magisterial statements on the meaning of Vatican II dating back to the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Benedict XVI himself reentered the fray in a Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he contrasted a defective “hermeneutics of discontinuity” with his preferred “hermeneutics of reform.” Historically of course discontinuity cannot be denied, but the pope is primarily concerned to assert that the Catholic Church “has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

For the former Cardinal Ratzinger, the essence of the Catholic Church transcends temporal fluctuations. Like Cullmann’s sacralized interpretation of salvation history, however, the pope’s ecclesiology is rooted in a theological vision that historical-critical researches will not be permitted to obscure.

Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we should expect this of a religious leader, even one who is a former academic whose 1957 habilitation was devoted to the theology of history in Saint Bonaventure, but for theologians and historians promoting the historicization of the Second Vatican Council are we not right to insist upon a more systematic differentiation between history and theology? Shouldn’t we expect that the tasks of historical reconstruction on one hand, and doctrinal, ethical, and systematic construction on the other, be properly distinguished?

Fortunately a pair of theologians influenced by Bernard Lonergan (1904—84) have set about to clarify these matters by directly examining what history and historiography are and what they are not. Lonergan was a Canadian Jesuit who was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. His most lasting contribution to Christian thought was the development of a detailed methodology that distinguished between research, interpretation, historical reconstruction, and evaluative judgment. In his 1971 book Method in Theology Lonergan provided a thoughtful delineation of intellectual tasks that contestants in the Vatican II debates should keep in mind. Lonergan wrote:

Embedded in the problem of hermeneutics, then, there are quite different and far profounder problems. . . . In my opinion, they can be met only by the development and application of theological method. Only in that fashion can one distinguish and keep separate problems of hermeneutics and problems in history, dialectic, foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. In fact the most striking feature of much contemporary discussion of hermeneutics is that it attempts to treat all these issues as if they were hermeneutical. They are not.

For Lonergan a concern with theological method was a non-negotiable requirement for empirical cultures of the modern age if Christian theology was to successfully negotiate the discontinuities that the modern world imposes upon the churches at an exponentially increasing rate.

Robert Doran is a Jesuit at Marquette University, the author of Theology and the Dialectics of History (University of Toronto Press, 1990) and also the editor of Lonergan’s collected works. As a student of Lonergan, Doran built upon his teacher’s theories in a 1999 article in Theological Studies (“System and History: The Challenge to Catholic Systematic Theology”) to argue for a more explicit distinction between critical descriptive history and a systematic explanatory history.

The former genre would address the question, “What happened at Vatican II?” while the latter answers the question, “Why is Vatican II significant?” Critical history is one discipline; philosophies and theologies of history are another. Archival researches, cross-cultural comparisons of contemporary events, and interviews to compile oral history collections are all necessary endeavors for critical history.

If one wants to compose a Christian theology of an historical event, however, whether that event is Vatican II or any other event, none of these activities are sufficient by themselves. Ressourcement is not sufficient for theologians; direct appeals to a normative source shaping continuities and discontinuities within historical developments are unacceptable in critical histories. This is true whether the normative source is the God of Israel, a Hegelian Geist, or the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches during the 1960s. Doran understands the contemporary theological task as one of mediating history while respecting its autonomy.

The second theologian using Lonergan’s thought to bring clarity to the issue of Vatican II interpretations is Neil Ormerod, a theologian at the Australian Catholic University who also holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. Ormerod retrieves the work of John Henry Newman to remind theologians that there are more productive ways of describing historical changes than to use the tautological categories of continuity and discontinuity.

In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman, Omerod sets forth criteria to adjudicate between authentic growth in theological understandings of Christian tradition and distortions of the same. Ormerod’s 2010 article in Theological Studies (“Vatican II—Continuity or Discontinuity? Toward an Ontology of Meaning”) brings Newman’s work to bear on the Vatican II debates:

In terms, then, of the changes initiated in the aftermath of Vatican II, what would Newman contribute? He would alert us to the many types of change that can occur. Change is not one-dimensional. . . . At the very least this question takes us beyond the simplistic metaphor of continuity/discontinuity. (p. 619—20)

Ormerod believes that Lonergan’s account of change improves upon that of Newman, to whom Lonergan acknowledged a debt in his writings, by enabling theologians to understand that their proper domain in historical research is not change in itself but the meaning of changes in church history for individuals and Christian communities.

Church historians may understandably bristle at this proposed division of labor, as though my praise for Doran and Ormerod is designed to suggest that historians sit down at the back of the bus while theologians, hoping to restore their discipline to its former glory as the “queen of the sciences,” shape the narratives that historians compile into something significant for Christian religion. Such is not my intention. First, many historians also wear theological hats while many theologians don historical garb. The popular discipline of historical theology attests to this.

Second, critical histories need not mean secularist histories impervious to religious interpretation. The narratives that church historians create are not simply indifferent catalogs from which all theological interpretations that can be drawn are equally adequate explanations. In his 1986 presidential address to the American Catholic Historical Association (“No More Than ‘Footprints in Time’? Church History and Catholic Christianity”), James Hennesey noted, “The historian’s role is to aid in the discernment of the authentic tradition, not to make the ultimate judgment. . . . The history of the Church, rightly studied and rightly understood, has a vital theological and ecclesial role” (The Catholic Historical Review 73/2, p. 194).

The insistence upon disciplinary boundaries that I am promoting is designed to protect church historians from theological encroachments rather than to shackle historical scholarship. The problems with recent debates over the hermeneutics of Vatican II and its implementation is that scholars from various positions on the spectrum of Catholic opinion are inserting specifically theological claims into historical reconstructions, and these claims are too often unacknowledged as such. When George Weigel titles his account of the papal election of Benedict XVI God’s Choice, even Weigel’s ideological opposites can acknowledge that he has made his theological convictions surrounding the events in 2005 explicit.

Would that others writing about Vatican II and its aftermath were as straightforward in expressing their own religious viewpoints. To make the claim God speaks through the Bible, through bishops, or through cardinals is easily identified as a theological claim and as an act of religious faith. But to claim that the cultural event of modernity provides the framework that should guide the application of Vatican II is also a theological claim. To claim that the documents of Vatican II should only be understood in accord with the intentions of those who promulgated them rather than the wider Church is yet another theological assertion.

In contemporary American society we are admonished to avoid expressing religious beliefs in polite conversation, and blurring the difference between historiography and faith is one way for Catholics in a polarized Church to camouflage their differences with one another in the interest of avoiding further rifts. Whether this scholarly politesse is helpful to the life of the Roman Catholic Church is a theological question for another time.

What should church historians learn from these theological disputes? For that I conclude by returning to Herodotus. Herodotus wrote at a time when traditional Athenian piety was solely tested by shifting social patterns resulting from urbanization on the Attic peninsula.

The early years of the Peloponnesian War were fueled by the enthusiasm of Cleon’s democratic party in Athens, but Athens’ early successes did not last. War dragged on and the oligarchic and democratic factions grew further apart. Playwrights such as Aristophanes lampooned divinities on the comic stage, laying the groundwork in the next generation for the more direct demythologization of Greek religion led by Socrates, Plato, and their associates. The historical parallels with the last decade of American society need no belaboring.

In the midst of these upheavals Herodotus adhered to a middle path. His History separated itself from the traditional myths that served as a foundation for Attic religion, but Herodotus did not deconstruct religion in the manner of philosophers such as Xenophanes and Plato. Though he is undoubtedly uncritical by modern standards — and evinces no consistent grasp of the ideals of multiple attestation, relative chronology, and other requirements of modern historical research — Herodotus’s value for those perusing the boundaries of theology and history is in what he refrains from doing.

At the start of a war that would eventually destroy both Athens’ economy and its independence, Herodotus looked back to an earlier war in which the combatants called upon their respective divinities and refused to take competing religious accounts of the world at face value or to choose among them. In this he should be a model for contemporary scholars regardless of his methodological shortcomings.

Church historians, when we Christian theologians come calling with supernatural explanations that presume to account for the course of human events, stick to your principles. Insist upon empirical scholarship and consistent standards of evidence. When evidence is lacking, show more humility and consistency than we often do in disguising piety as history. Learn from Herodotus, the father of history.