IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 of view.
"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 of view.
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 disapproved.
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 writings?
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 than God.
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 about history.
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 | Martha Rasmussen
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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