Tuesday, April 28, 2015
My remarks at the Ninth Annual Scarpa Conference were a (mostly) connected series of reflections on how it might matter to the Mirror of Justice project that the blog is constituted by the contributions of (mostly) Catholic legal theorists.
I can’t do justice with the written word to the content of my oral reflections—which began, not incidentally, by appealing to the conference attendees’ mercy. But if I had to relate my primary theme to a contemporary pop song, I would use “Glass” by Thompson Square.
My basic claim (in law professor speak) is that our public participation in the life of the Church, too, can serve through God's grace to illuminate matters for others, if we cooperate. My organizing text was an excerpt from from Pope Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity:
Augustine relates in his Confessions how it was decisive for his own path when he learned that the famous philosopher Marius Victorinus had become a Christian. Victorinus had long refused to join the Church because he took the view that he already possessed in his philosophy all the essentials of Christianity, with whose intellectual premises he was in complete agreement. Since from his philosophical thinking, he said, he could already regard the central Christian idea as his own, he no longer needed to institutionalize his convictions by belonging to a Church. Like many educated people both then and now, he saw the Church as Platonism for the people, something of which he as a full-blown Platonist had no need. The decisive factor seemed to him to be the idea alone; only those who could not grasp it themselves, as the philosopher could, in its original form needed to be brought into contact with it through the medium of ecclesiastical organization. That Marius Victorinus nevertheless one day joined the Church and turned from Platonist to Christian was an expression of his perception of the fundamental error implicit in this view. The great Platonist had come to understand that a Church is something more and something other than the external institutionalization and organization of ideas. He had understood that Christianity is not a system of knowledge but a way. The believers’ ‘We’ is not a secondary addition for small minds; in it a certain sense it is the matter itself—the community with one’s fellowmen is a reality that lies on a different plane from that of the mere ‘idea’. If Platonism provides an idea of truth, Christian belief offers truth as a way, and only by becoming a way has it become man’s truth. Truth as mere perception, as mere idea, remains bereft of force; it only becomes man’s truth as a way that makes a claim upon him, that he can and must tread.
Thus belief embraces, as essential parts of itself, the profession of faith, the word, and the unity it effects; it embraces entry into the community’s worship of God and, so, finally the fellowship we call Church. Christian belief is not an idea but life; it is, not mind existing for itself, but incarnation, mind in the body of history and its “We”. It is, not the mysticism of the self-identification of the mind with God, but obedience and service going beyond oneself, freeing the self precisely through being taken into service by something not made or thought out by oneself, the liberation of being taken into service for the whole.
I am, of course, no Marius Victorinus. (Assuming, that is, that he was all he was cracked up to be. One critic has suggested that “Victorinus acquired for a long time a reputation hardly merited by his contributions to learning, which did not rise above the mediocrity of the period.” W.S. Teuffel, History of Roman Literature, Eng. Tr., ii., pp. 337 f., quoted in F.F. Bruce, Marius Victorinus and His Works, The Evangelical Quarterly 18 (1946): 132-53. That may be a more attainable resemblance, however unfair it might be to Marius Victorinus.)
Whatever our abilities, we can reflect the divine light in various ways. And we should try. We may not be the perfect mirror, like Mary, but we can let light shine through even if refracted or broken up in various ways. Sort of like this guy (even if not as intensely or brightly):
I concluded my Scarpa Conference reflections by observing that "We are fragmented; we are broken. We are not the light, but we can come together and reflect the light ... even if we could always use more polish."
Echoes of this understanding could then be heard in the closing prayer that the conference presenters offered up in a reflection session led by Susan Stabile. That prayer, by Cardinal John Henry Newman, included the request: "Stay with me, then I shall begin to shine as you do, so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Lord, will be all from you; none of it will be mine; it will be you shining on others through me. Let me thus praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around me."
As I conclude this post, it is appropriate to acknowledge its difference in tone and emphasis from almost everything I have posted in the past. I more often stick to the safer path of arguing about the law, and that is typically of more interest to the internets anyway. One of the challenges of opening up a little window into the ideals and inspirations I have as I blog about legal topics from a Catholic perspective is an awareness of how much I fall short of those ideals and inspirations. Linking myself up to them publicly risks lowering these ideals and inspirations through association with my imperfect embodiment of them. Through a slight remix and transposition from the love song that it is to a message from me to the internet, it is perhaps fitting to conclude with some lyrics from "Glass":
We might be oil and water, this could be a big mistake,
We might burn like gasoline and fire,
It's a chance we'll have to take.
* * *
I'll let you look inside me through the stains and through the cracks
And in the darkness of this moment you see the good and bad
But try not to judge me because we walk down different paths
But it brought us here together so I won't take it back
* * *
We may shine; we may shatter; we may be picking up the pieces here on after.
We are fragile; we are human; and we are shaped by the light we let through us.
And we break fast, 'cause we are glass.
'Cause we are glass.