Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thanks for Having Me, and an Idea I'd Like to Float: 'The Franciscan Sensibility'

Hello All,

I've finally figured out how to add comments here, so here goes the maiden voyage.  And thanks many millions to Rick both for the invitation and for making the actual posting possible!

I thought I'd start off by floating an idea to which I'm eager to get your reactions.  It has to do with what might be called one's 'moral-theological sensibility' -- the theologico-ethical orientation that I presume prompts and suffuses any person of faith's life and work, be it theoretical or practical in character.  Since we are most of us academics, there will of course be an academic flavor here, but I imagine that some of what follows will be of more general applicability too.

Now, I think that my own such sensibility was what I'll call 'Augustinian' during my youth.  I tended to think that, because our ultimate destiny is not of this world, worldly things were distractions.  I felt a sirenic sort of longing for a life apart from the world, either in prayerfully hermitic isolation or in some form of religious community.  (I was fascinated by the Orthodox tradition of the Poustinia -- the isolated monk's cell out on a barren steppe.)  The world often struck me as irretrievably fallen, and the best thing we could do for it, I often thought, was simply to pray for it as ardently as possible, while living a life that was simple and tightly liturgical.

In the intellectual life, this sensibility manifested itself in a leaning toward strictly theological subjects, leavened a bit with theoretical reading of an abstract, even Platonic nature.  Augustine and Kierkegaard and Cantor were my favorite authors.  To be both a theologian and a mathematician, prayerful in both capacities, I thought would be utterly cool.  The Biblical story that perhaps best captured my sensibility in this time was that of Moses and the burning bush. 

In earlyish adulthood, my sensibility began to evolve in what I now recognize to have been a 'Thomistic' direction.  My commitments and inclinations did not become any less centered on holiness and beauty, but I did find myself increasingly attentive to the holiness and beauty that seem to me truly to fill all the world -- especially its human inhabitants.  I really found myself just about actually *seeing* Christ in 'the hungry and the naked,' not simply looking for Him there.  A strange sort of love of all people began often almost to overwhelm me as I passed through my twenties, and it continued to grow as I entered my thirties.  I often found myself actually weeping each night for people I knew who were going through difficult times, and felt as though I 'knew what He meant' when He shed those tears for the multitude on the lakeshore.  And this Biblical story now came to supplement, if not indeed to supplant, that of the burning bush as best capturer of my sensibility.

In the intellectual life, this evolution of sensibility manifest itself in a growing interest in somewhat more 'practical' subjects, though I suppose still with strongly abstract tendencies.  So now I turned to more overtly moral theology rather than theology simpliter, as well as to ethical theory, normative economic theory, and of course legal theory.  From folk like Augustine and Kierkegaard and Cantor, I turned more to Aristotle and Aquinas and Kant, along with lots of mathematically oriented justice theorists like Serge-Christoph Kolm, Marc Fleurbaey, and one of my all time heros and mentors, John Roemer.  I also began thinking of means by which actually to realize, to instantiate, the good and the just, so there was and remains plenty in the way of institutional design work in what I nowadays do.  (Here I found another of my heroes and mentors, Jerry Mashaw, especially congenial.)  But the core interest always was justice, primarily if not solely as an interpersonal concern, prompted by an ultimate concern with the inherent dignity that our ultimate destiny confers upon us or coheres with.  And in large part I still think of every piece of writing that I do, and every class session that I teach, as being ultimately about realizing justice among persons on God's earth.  

Lately, however, I seem to be being drawn to yet one more expansion of the 'circle of sensibility,' if I might put it that way.  There remains the same preoccupation with holiness, and there remains the tendency to see God in all persons.  (It's a little embarrassing to say this, but I even still sometimes have to go off and tear up a bit over somebody I see on the bus who seems to be troubled or struggling in some way.)  Yet somehow now I find that I'm sort of seeing Him in other creatures too, and even in insects and *plants,* of all things!  This summer, I even found myself taking Martin Buber's advice a few times, by experimenting with saying 'Thou' to some very beautiful deer, and (please pardon me for this), even a tree! 

Now, I'm quite sure that this was not pagan in any objectionable sense, for I didn't think of the tree, say, as a 'person,' or as possessed of a soul in anything other than the Aristotelian, 'anima' sense.  But there was definitely an intense strain of 'this is sacred, this is a sacred thing' in it.  And in seeking a word for this tendency, which I still feel growing quite strongly right now, I find myself tempted to call it 'Franciscan.'  So the trajectory thus far seems to have been:  From Augustinian, to Thomist, to Franciscan -- with each move incorporating not repudiating its predecessor.  And this is finding reflection in my reading of late.  In particular, I'm quite taken with the 'deep green' theorizing of a fellow I used to know only as a logician -- Richard Routley.

Now when I consider where this might *ultimately* take the Catholic lawyer as a matter of her intellectual, moral, and practical life, I suppose that it would include a growing interest in designing institutions and crafting law with a view to what might be called 'giving stewardship its due.'  Suddenly 'God's green earth' too, and our fellow creatures as well, seem to be striking me more often as bearing both a share of holiness and an intrinsic moral worth to which we are Meant to be responsive in our attitudes, orientations, and ultimately our works and lives.  But I admit that I'm still groping about and fumbling with all of this, and am not sure how easy it will be to integrate it with the nicely contained, limited (distributive) justice orientation of the work I have done up to now.

In any event, what do you all think of this?  How should we be regarding other creatures and the earth as a whole in our capacities as self-conscious, self-critical Catholic lawyers and academics? Am I right in thinking that the trajectory from Augustinian, to Thomist, to Franscian can plausibly be interpreted as cumulative, in the manner I'm trying to do?  Or am I lurching into a dangerous paganism?  

Thanks again for inviting me onto this site, and speak with you again soon,




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