In the fourth chapter, on the church in the world from the Renaissance
to the Enlightenment, you write about the tension man experiences between
"two irreducible orientations": the vertical, or eschatological,
and the horizontal, or incarnational. What are those orientations and
what people should know about them?
Dr. Olsen: We are oriented to God, vertically, and to the
world around us, horizontally. These orientations were meant to be complementary,
but often are in conflict. Sometimes we despair of the world and are tempted
to throw up our hands and pursue some form of "flight to the desert."
We want earths sufferings and frustrations to be done with and some
form of eschatological rest. Then again we find the world so interesting
and full of things to do that we forget God.
By saying that our orientations to God and the world were meant to be
complementary, I mean something Ignatian, but also something prominent
in the section on Prayer (IV) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This is that every day, and our life as a whole, is to be composed of
a rhythm in which each day we orient the day by prayer, and then proceed
"into the world" to live for the glory of God. Periodically,
we stand apart from the world for a longer time in a retreat to get a
fuller perspective on the form our life is taking. Here I stand with Augustine
and Aquinas in thinking that the fullest form of Christian perfection
is not a life wholly of the desert, but a life in which we go apart with
God precisely to return and build up the body of Christ in charity.
IgnatiusInsight.com: "Modernity" and "post-modernity"
are often understood and presented negatively by Christians, but is that
a fair or correct treatment of those concepts/realities?
Dr. Olsen: These words have no fixed meaning, and can pretty
much be assigned whatever meaning one wants, positive or negative. "Modernity"
used to have two primary meanings, one essentially neutral, indicating
that something was of the present (the word modernus already means that
in medieval Latin), and one either positive or negative according to ones
own estimate, namely, something that presents a break with and rejection
of the past. One of the meanings of "modernism" in art from
about 1900 is "something that breaks with past artistic tradition."
Whether one judges this a good or bad thing depends on ones point
"Post-modernity" often is a catch-word to express the assault
during the last generation, common in the academic world, on the values
of the previous period, now denominated "modern." The "modern"
here signifies a now ending age characterized by trust in the so-called
scientific method and the supposed fact and benificence of scientific
advance; belief in objectivity and reason; and a correlative belief that
truth is universal in the sense that, for instance, ideas like human rights
and democracy have universal application. Post-modernity often calls all
these beliefs of the modern period in question, and is characterized by
a deep relativism. Rather than seeing the "modern" as good,
it sees it as simply one more arbitrary set of beliefs.
Obviously, with so many incompatible definitions floating around, it is
impossible to say that one should speak in general of either the modern
or the post-modern as good or bad. I would make one historical observation
however, and that is that for the average man on the street, the modern
understood as faith in things like science, reason, and progress is not
at all dead. As I indicated in an earlier answer, I wish some parts of
it, such as the belief in progress, was dead, but they are not. That I
wish that parts of the modern were dead means that I have sympathy for
parts of the post-modern.
As I have intimated, I think the overconfidence in reason that has led
historians to pretend that they can write purely objective histories deserved
to die, and I am comfortable with certain forms of relativism such as
recognizing that all history is always written from some limited point
So my position is that it makes no sense to speak of either modernity
or post-modernity as things that can be either generally approved or generally
I deplore certain forms of artistic modernity, for
instance, but like very much the recovery of an abstract mode of presentation
that we find in a good deal of modern art. Religious people sometimes
assume that all good art is mimetic, that is, imitates - or should imitate
- something in nature. But some of the greatest religious art has always
been non-representational. The figures in icons do not look very much
like actual human beings, but are a reduction of the human figure to what
is essential in him as a creature defined by relation to the Creator.
In one of the periods I myself study, the Romanesque, the figures in most
art are in one way or another distorted to emphasize some truth or another,
or so whimsically presented as on first take not to seem human at all.
So I am not going to be against "modern art" in general, but
against any modernism which begins with the premise that all that has
gone before is bad.
Think of the music of John Tavener. Tavener hates twelve-tone music and
all the pretentiousness of various composers who in the early twentieth
century rejected the conventions of the whole Western tradition of music.
But in returning to the conventions of the Orthodox liturgy, and also
going outside the Western tradition to incorporate various Eastern musics,
he ended with a music almost cosmic in its conventions, beautiful but
like no music that had ever been composed anywhere.
IgnatiusInsight.com: A consistent theme in the book is the role
and meaning of liturgy. How is liturgy most misunderstood or misused today,
and what can we learn from Church history that will help correct contemporary
problems with the liturgy?
Dr. Olsen: The liturgy is most misused by trying to use
it to teach about God, rather than to worship God. Obviously teaching
about God is not a bad thing, and there is a place for it the homily,
but the primary function of liturgy is to unite with the cosmos in praise
of the Creator. The liturgy has been bent to didactic or teaching purposes
for many reasons. One of the most powerful of these in America is the
larger, vaguely Protestant, environment. From its beginning Protestantism
tended to redefine Christianity around moral categories, taking religion
itself to be about making people good. In some of the forms of Protestantism
most prominent in American history, liturgy was "made plain."
Many Catholics have come to accept what is essentially a Protestant view,
that the reason for being a Christian is to become good, and the reason
for going to Church is to be taught how to do so. Hence they are comfortable
with a certain hectoring that often has accompanied the Catholic liturgy
in America since the II Vatican Council. I think here particularly of
the instructions given to lectors, in which in essence they tell the people
what the Scripture they are about to read says. I would prefer that the
Scripture announce itself.
There are other reasons why the purposes of the liturgy have become distorted.
As part of the general dumbing down of education and high culture since
the 1960s,almost any solemn form of expression has hard going these days.
My working class father had a much greater sense of the dignity of his
body than do my students. He tipped his hat to women, and stood erect
in conversation. They wear caps indoors, and lean on things when they
talk. In such a culture it is going to be difficult for people to think
of their bodies as things that signal their souls, to think of their bodies
(as well their souls) as things that pray. Further, the whole heritage
of liturgical music may be less open to them because at home pop music
was always heard, and they have little exposure to classical music. One
big marker in my own life was the day when each of my children went out
and unbidden bought their first Mozart CD, just because they wanted to.
All this said, being a member of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt
Lake City has been a revelation. I knew with my head that a solemn liturgy
was not dependent on education or culture - witness the wonderful liturgies
of the Orthodox world, often found in very elite cultures in which the
mass of people are hardly literate - but we naturally tend to associate
appreciation of the liturgy with appreciation of high culture. Conversely,
"guitar masses" are seen as what people without much education,
college students or members of Communion and Liberation, like.
Anyway, the pastors at the Cathedral of the Madeleine
have made a point that the liturgy is addressed to no specific social
class or ethnic group, and have simply presented the entire liturgical
tradition of the Church as something intrinsically attractive because
signaling Gods nature and how we stand in relation to him. Now,
admittedly, a lot of work has been put into this. In a typical mass, the
choir may traverse everything from chant to living composers. But the
congregation is a "little United Nations," composed of dozens
of ethnic groups and everything from homeless to rather wealthy people.
Probably what we can learn most from history here is the history of worship.
Most of my students come into my Church history classes at the University
without awareness of such things as that ancient prayer was largely about
God, modern prayer largely about ourselves. When I read them ancient prayers
or hymns, they can see that they are generally praising God; when I read
them modern prayers, they can see that they are generally testimonies
about something that has happened to themselves. But before they joined
this class, they did not even have a sense of how our civilization passed
from "objective" to "subjective" categories. By making
them aware of such things, and showing them that religion can be about
much more than just moral categories, new worlds open to them. They are
ready to consider such proposals as that what makes us Godlike is participation
in the liturgy.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You explain that Catholics have three basic
approaches they can embrace in engaging with their historical situation:
reject all accommodation to the world, accept accommodation to the world,
or they can be "in the world, but not of the world." What does
that third option mean and how has Pope John II articulated it in his
Dr. Olsen: The third option means that we can at one and
the same time live an active life in the world while oriented to God in
prayer. In an earlier answer I noted the specifically Ignatian way of
doing this, seeing prayer and the sacraments as food and reflection for
finding our way in the world. Most of us will have a rhythm of life in
which times of silence link us to times of productivity.
But the third option also refers to a certain attitude which understands
that while we were made to enjoy the world and live as co-creators with
God in it, finally everything worldly has only a relative value. We are
to understand that we are not to become overly attached to anything less
To be in but not of the world means to live in hope. This is as central
a theme to John Paul IIs pontificate as any. We are to address each
situation under the assumption that something good may come of it, and
that God is at work in it. Since in this world good and evil are always
present and intertwined, our goal is discernment, neither accepting nor
rejecting the world as it is, but trying to discover how it may be used
to the glory of God.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The second appendix is titled "Prayer
as Covenant Drama in the Catechism of the Catholic Church." What
does it mean to say that prayer is "covenant drama"?
Dr. Olsen: It means many things, but I would like to stress
just one that develops an earlier answer. Above I expressed my reservations
about the idea of progress. Implicit in that response was the idea that
progress must have replaced an earlier idea better than progress, that
should be recovered.
I take the Catechism of the Catholic Church and my second appendix
to be talking about this earlier idea under the heading "covenant
drama." The earlier idea was not intrinsically progressive, understood
as meaning that things are generally getting better. It was that human
history is centered on a covenant made between God and the Jews that with
Christ has been explicitly extended to all mankind. This Covenant promises
that God will be faithful to us, and asks us to be faithful to him. It
assures us that God is doing something with history, making a tapestry
that we can not yet read the meaning of.
Hence the addition of the word "drama"
to "covenant." History has more the shape of drama than of progress.
To speak of prayer as covenant drama means to think of our lives in a
way analogous to history itself. God has created each of us for a unique
mission and this is discerned and developed through prayer. We are "players"
and God is the "author" of the play, and we dialogue with him
about the nature of and how to play our role through prayer.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Beginning at Jerusalem has a strong
"Balthasarian" flavor and tone to it. What influence has the
work of the great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, had upon your thought
and this particular book?
Dr. Olsen: I am interested in and write about many things.
Some are rather technical, and less display my larger interests. But this
particular book manifests as much as anything my long-standing interest
in Balthasar. I would have to describe myself as an amateur in things
Balthasarian, because I have to spend most of my time reading and writing
But I have been privileged for many years to have been in contact with
various projects related to Balthasar. I have been connected to the principal
Balthasarian journal in the United States from virtually the beginning,
Communio: International Catholic Review. For three years I was
able to participate in a week of studies each summer led by people associated
with this journal, and when Balthasar visited Washington, D. C. and Catholic
University for a conference on his thought, I was able to participate
in that. I suppose we quarrel with every writer we read, but Balthasar
has more influenced my view of the world than any single thinker. I think
his central idea that theology of recent centuries has neglected the category
of the beautiful, and has not seen the radical way in which the life of
Jesus Christ redefined beauty, is of crucial importance.
Read Part One of this interview. This interview was originally
posted on IgnatiusInsight.com in September 2004.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
Are We At The End or The Beginning? |
Glenn W. Olsen
Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Tale of Trent: A Council and and Its Legacy |
Introduction to Church and State in Early Christianity |
Hugo Rahner, S.J.
Crusade Myths | Thomas F. Madden
The Jesuits and the Iroquois | Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J.
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