Friday, February 13, 2009

My Advisor Is Blogging...

...and he's pretty good at it too.

I graduated with my doctorate in political theory from Catholic University of America in 2001; my dissertation advisor there--and really my closest academic associate the whole six years I spent in Washington DC--was Stephen F. Schneck. Steve was a generous and gentle and unfailingly easygoing prodder of me and my work during my time in the program; many people have all sorts of horror stories about graduate school and dissertation advisors, but I'm not one of them. Going on a decade later, I still look back on my years at CUA as pretty much a delight, and Steve is one of the largest reasons for that.

For that reason, I was pretty delighted to discover that he'd been brought into the blogging world through his association with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, an organization I'd heard about before, but hadn't really looked into. Now I'm looking into it a good deal--and particular checking out their blog, "Just Words"--and I'm liking what I see very much. But of course, I would, wouldn't I? Community, common good, social justice...just throw some populism in there, and I'm sold.

The blog--which appears to have about a half-dozen contributors--has thus far covered issues of abortion, poverty, family values, and children's health from a firm though not pedantic Catholic perspective; Steve's contributions have ranged over matters pertaining to religion and public life, property and stewardship, and "common good" principles generally. If you're interested in discussions of how Catholicism (or indeed, just Christianity generally) can apply itself in an orthodox, just, and socially aware way to matters of public import, do check the blog (and the whole website) out. You might become hooked, which is what's happening with me.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the plug and the kind words, Russell. Some of my other doctoral advisees might scoff at your gentle account of working with me.

I've been reading your old pal, Charles Taylor, recently looking for language to address the question of the proper role for religion in the public square. His Varieties of Religion Today and his Marianist Award lecture "A Catholic Modernity" are quite helpful.

The gist is that religion needs to move from a community of doctrine to a community of service, a model he calls "post-Durkheimian." Herein while belief would be utterly personal and interior, we find our shared religiosity in self-effacing service (or I would say "works") for others. This resonates, accordingly, with the decentering of the subject that you and I both appreciate.

To frame this a bit, it's fascinating to compare this thinking from Taylor with Carl Schmitt's Political Theology. Schmitt praises the Catholic counter-Enlightenment theologies of people like de Maistre and Cortes precisely because on doctrinal grounds they reject service and humility in order to approach the public square in warlike, but righteous engagement against profound evil.

What I'm struggling with, obviously, is what Taylor's post-Durkheimian religiosity would mean for the prophetic or critical role for religion to "speak truth to power." Maybe you have a thought?

But, thanks again for the kind words, Russell! I've secretly admired your own blogging for several years.

Steve Schneck

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comments and kind thoughts, Steve.

Some of my other doctoral advisees might scoff at your gentle account of working with me.

Maybe you were nice to me because I discovered your hidden office over at the Life Cycle Institute, and would stalk you there, and so you had to brush me off somehow.

The gist is that religion needs to move from a community of doctrine to a community of service, a model he calls "post-Durkheimian." Herein while belief would be utterly personal and interior, we find our shared religiosity in self-effacing service (or I would say "works") for others. This resonates, accordingly, with the decentering of the subject that you and I both appreciate.

I'm still meaning to finish reading A Secular Age; I've promised myself I was going to get back to it twice now, most recently after last year's APSA, when I was able to attend a session with papers by Jean Elshtain, Michael Gibbons, and Ruth Abbey on the book, and came out really fired up. Yet, still it stands there up on the shelf, intimidating me.

It strikes me that a great deal is contained in the question of how Taylor understands that "shared religiosity" which we find within our other-directed service or works. Surely it isn't simply a "shared subjectivity," a shared perspective on common experiences, as that would make communities of faith (or, I guess, service) little more that joint expressions of a kind of emotivism. But if it isn't that, what is it? Obviously I'm mining a Herderian vein here, thinking in terms of how mutual participation in works (you might even go Rawlsian and speak of an "overlapping consensus" about said works) potentially instantiates a religious or spiritual understanding, one with some transcendent quality to it. Even after all this time, I still don't know how far Taylor himself would be willing to follow through on these implications. (Another reason to read A Secular Age, I suppose...)

What I'm struggling with, obviously, is what Taylor's post-Durkheimian religiosity would mean for the prophetic or critical role for religion to "speak truth to power." Maybe you have a thought?

Well, following along with what I wrote above, one might argue that works of service which actually generate understandings that transcend the individual perspectives which brought people to them in the first place are therefore empowering works, and carry with them a source of critical authority. This isn't anything more, I suppose, than a philosophical reading and defense of the fact that doers of good works--the Dorothy Days, Mother Teresas, and Paul Farmers of the world--can and do speak to power with an authority that most human beings acknowledge. But again, to lay it out in these terms might require Taylor to commit to an ontology that he would prefer not to.

Look at this: eight years on, and I'm still talking about my dissertation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips, Russell.

I've expanded the Schmitt/Taylor musings in my current blog at CACG. Already the hosts there are suggesting I find a less theoretical voice. But, you'll note how I've taken up your angle of considering the matter.

I also notice a big uptick in grad students stalking in my Life Cycle digs. No doubt you are to blame.

All my best!

Steve