Monday, September 12, 2011

Aquinas, Augustine, and "Mommy Bloggers”

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza has said that, “If John Paul II was a great philosopher pope, teaching the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the late 20th century, Benedict is doing the same for Augustine in the 21st.” There's little question that Benedict would readily agree.  In fact, he's said that if he were stranded on a desert island, the two books he'd want with him are the Bible, and St. Augustine's Confessions.

In Salt of the Earth, then-Cardinal Ratzinger explained that “from the beginning, Saint Augustine interested me very much - precisely also insofar as he was, so to speak, a counterweight to Thomas Aquinas.” With Aquinas, you see brilliant thoughts, laid out systematically. With Augustine, you get no less brilliance, but something much more human.  As Benedict explained:
He was a real bishop. He wrote huge tomes, too, so that one wonders how he managed to accomplish that next to all the odds and ends he had to do. But as a bishop he had above all to deal constantly with all the quarrels of the state and the needs of the little people, and he tried to keep his structure together. It was an unsettled time, the barbarian invasions were beginning. In that sense, he was a man who was by no means floating in the clouds.

In that organization of the empire at that time, the bishop was also a sort of justice of the peace. He held a certain level of jurisdiction and had to decide routine civil litigation. So he lived amid all that day by day and in doing so tried to mediate to men the peace of Christ, the gospel. In this sense, he is also an exemplar, because although he had such a great yearning for meditation, for intellectual work, he gave himself up to the small details of everyday life and wanted to be there for people.

What moved me then, however, was not such much his office as shepherd, which I was not familiar with in that way, but the freshness and vitality of his thought. Scholasticism has its greatness, but everything is very impersonal. You need some time to enter in and recognize the inner tension. With Augustine, however, the passionate, suffering, questioning man is always right there, and you can identify with him.
I think that we can see these two camps even in the Catholic blogosphere.  Plenty of blogs fall into the Scholastic camp.  I admit that this blog is probably in this camp.  I've tried to take John the Baptist's advice to heart: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).  While I'll occasionally share personal details, I want this blog to be primarily about Jesus Christ, not me.  And I think you can see plenty of Catholic blogs with a similar ethos, whether they're focused on apologetics, theology, Liturgy, or anything else.

There's room for this approach: it's great, even.  (Obviously, I think this, or I wouldn't take that approach.)  Benedict's point isn't that Augustine's good and Aquinas is bad.  It's simply two different ways of presenting the Gospel, and they should complement one another. So this first approach has its greatness, but with certain hazards: we have to avoid making everything so impersonal it becomes sterile, and avoid letting ourselves float off into the clouds, detached from the real world.

The second approach, the down-to-earth one favored by Pope Benedict and exemplified by St. Augustine, is also one we also see in the Catholic blogosphere.  Nowhere, I think, do we see it done as well as with the so-called “Mommy bloggers.” Here we see women presenting and living the Gospel in an incredibly honest way, for all to see -- and through the lens of their own lived experience.  I mentioned a couple weeks ago to Fr. Kelly that it seems that having to interrupt writing blog posts in order to change dirty diapers does wonders for keeping you from getting lost in the clouds.

Here are some of the crown jewels of the blogosphere that I have in mind:
  • Jen Fulwiler, Conversion Diary -- This was the first of the Mommy blogs that I found.  What struck me instantly about it was what a powerful apologetic tool her blog was. She related how she, as an atheist, came to find Christ and the Church.  It wasn't presented as “here's an irrefutable logical proof,” but “here's what I struggled with, and here's the solution I found that struggle.” She didn't focus her energies on attacking other religions, but on presenting her own encounter with the Truth, and how it revolutionized her life.  Her blog is now one of the top 10 most-read Catholic blogs, and she's used this popularity to promote emerging Catholic bloggers.  Smart, holy, and classy.

  • Leila Miller, Little Catholic Bubble - as she explains, her blog is “a teaching blog, primarily for Catholics.” Her focus is primarily on moral theology, and she's unafraid to tackle the tough issues: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and the rest, in between raising eight kids. She also knows apparently every Catholic blogger. Don't ask me how she has time to do all of this: where I come from, there are only 24 hours in a day.

  • Danya, He Adopted Me First - Danya's blog offers a pretty unique viewpoint, in that she's the mother of seven kids, four of whom were adopted.  Her blog cleverly notes that as Christians, all of us are adopted (Ephesians 1:5), and of course, Jesus Christ was Himself adopted by St. Joseph.  Given this, when she offers opinions on adoption, she's worth listening to.  But the blog isn't primarily about adoption: it's primarily about motherhood, and living for Christ.  And in the process, it's hilarious.  She captures priceless moments from the lives of her kids, with witty commentary (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

  • Brianna Heldt, Just Showing Up - There are two beautiful and well-written blogs about the joys and struggles of adoptive mother?  Who'd have thunk it?  Brianna's the mother of five kids under the age of seven, and while she's not Catholic yet, she appears to be on her way.  Her blog is testament to one other feature of Mommy blogging, in the way that friendships and networks are formed across denominational lines, which makes for a unique (and healthy) dynamic.  These ecumenical friendships don't cause the bloggers to shy away from the potentially divisive issues, either. Brianna, for example, was unafraid to suggest Devin Rose's If Protestantism is True for Catholics, Protestants, and everyone else.  Within the adoption/motherhood vein, her recent series of posts on the struggles of adopting her two girls with Down Syndrome from Ethiopia has been quite moving.

  • Simcha Fischer, National Catholic Register and I Have to Sit Down - Imagine if satirical author Dave Berry were a Catholic housewife, and you're halfway to getting what I love about Simcha's writing. She makes great points in an amusing way.  For example, she makes a number of quite serious (even profound) points on religious art while making fun of Thomas Kinkaide's art.  Her conclusion (which I found myself agreeing with by the end) is that Kinkaide's “vision of the world isn’t just tacky, it’s anti-Incarnational.”  And her self-effacing post on “Decorating Tips from House Horrible Magazine,” was one of the funniest things I'd read in a while.

  • Deltaflute, Diapers and Drivel - The sidebar on Deltaflute's blog promotes everything from the Catechism and the importance of the seal of confession to breastfeeding. One of her most eye-opening posts was on the way that pro-life, pro-choice, and pro-abortion people react to the fact that she's pregnant.  Yet this is the most classic of the Mommy blogs on the list, in that the blog's primary focus is on the joys and challenges of being a wife and mother -- talking about various challenges, offering advice, and the rest.  Like St. Augustine, she gives herself up “to the small details of everyday life,” in order to be there for her family.  And in doing so, she's serving as a witness for Christ.

  • Stacy Trasancos, Accepting Abundance - Stacy describes her blog as “What a scientist turned homemaker and joyful convert to Catholicism is learning about faith, reason, order, infinity and life.” She's brilliant, and her posts on science and religion should command the attention and respect of anyone with an interest in either or both of those subjects (each of which she knows a lot about).  She's also got an excellent eye for art.

  • Michael Morris, Michael's Musings - I know, Michael's not a mother.  But I included him to show that the phenomenon I'm talking about - about relating the working of Christ through one's own life - isn't something unique to women. Just read Michael's post on being an advocate for his son, or his most recent Random Thoughts, in which he seamlessly combines the joys and struggles of fatherhood with a healthy dose of Catholic apologetics. You'll see what I meant.
I could easily go on, and there a lot of worthy bloggers I'm leaving off the list, but I think that this gives a fair sampling of what's out there.  In these bloggers, the passionate, suffering, questioning [writer] is always right there, and you can identify” with them and their challenges.  

Pope Benedict has been a great promoter of Catholic New Media, and I have to believe that he'd be proud of the way that so many Catholic laymen and laywomen have taken up his call to turn their own lives into a spotlight for the Gospel.

19 comments:

  1. Fantastic list! I'd also point to Lisa Hendey and the more than 100 contributors to her CatholicMom.com. That site models honest, down-to-earth, lived Catholicism like few others.

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  2. Brandon,

    I'm glad you mentioned her. I was reading a chapter she'd written in a great book I'm reading, and it really helped me get my head around what I find so appealing about Mommy blogging.

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  3. haaaarummmmpphhh, I'm too tired to reply very well, suffice it to say, 'Vociferous disagreement!'

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  4. I'm also not yet aware of any Articles of the Summa wherein St. Thomas proves he's the greatest doctor of the Church, but if I find it, even if it's a year from now, I'm posting it (it's just hard to believe of all the things he's written he wouldn't have developed a proof of something so manifest, so elementary :P ).

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  5. I've been called a mother before....no wait it was worse than that...

    Thanks for noticing me Joe. I'm just a humble, well I try, little outpost on the blogosphere. I think mostly when I try and write the meat and potatoes Catholic stuff I do try and relate it to my own life and see how I share in God's own Fatherhood. However incompetent I may be I try.

    Also I think the heroic virtue of the saints is an interesting look toward watching Tommy deal with his own struggles.

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  6. Another trend I've noticed among Catholic bloggers is that most of them are lay, with a few notable exceptions, of course.

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  7. I didn't prepare a speech!! But I am so grateful that someone of your caliber finds my little contribution worthy! And so many of my peeps getting a shout out, too, oh my! It's a great day!

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  8. Leila, I love your work too. Isn't it awesome when someone as amazing as Joe points out the rest of us...

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  9. Just when you think no one is listening...er...um...reading. Can I just say: thank you for the support from the bottom of this mommy blogger's heart? Thank you. Sniff.

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  10. Oh, I can't decide between heart attack or crying. Hormones. I tell you. Completely shocking to see myself listed with the likes of Leila and Jen who are my heroes. I really don't think of my little rants as being worth much. Nor do I think of myself as being much of a witness.

    If anyone is far more suited to be on that list I would say it's Cam http://awomansplaceis.blogspot.com

    But even though I'm completely humbled. I should at least be polite shouldn't I? Thank you so much.

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  11. AAAHHHHH!!!!!

    THANK YOU!!!

    Wow, to be listed among those other bloggers is really an honor. Thank you Joe. I owe Lisa Graas, an awesome Mommy blogger, gratitude as well for reminding me all the time that mothers need to speak up. Also a thank you to Leila and Jen for giving me much needed and excellent advice!!

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  12. Thanks, man! It's an honor to be included in this list. And the timing was very helpful for me -- I was fuming over the way the occasional meathead chooses to refer to me as a "mommy blogger" with a condescending pat on the head whenever he disagrees with me. I'm very grateful for the reminder that this is a title of honor. (You know, more or less.)

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  13. Have you seen David foster Wallace's brilliant commencement speech on this topic? BRILLIANT: http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

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  14. And by the way, in case you doubt my recommendation, he, almost in spite of himself makes a deeply Christian point in conclusion:

    " Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

    Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

    They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

    And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

    That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

    I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away."

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  15. HocCogitat,

    I enjoyed that speech quite a bit, and I'm glad you shared What made you connect it to this particular post?


    Restless Pilgrim,

    I'm starting to think that there's a very good reason for that. When God has entrusted a particular portion of His flock to the care of a given pastor, their needs (big and small) trump evangelizing the Internet. One of the jobs of the laity is to bring the Gospel from the Church into the world. So while there absolutely should be a pride of place for clergy in online Catholicism, we're very much in the marketplace, not the Cathedral.


    Michael, Leila, Danya, Deltaflute, Stacy, and Simcha: you're welcome! Thanks for all the spiritual nourishment you give me, and countless others!

    God bless,

    Joe

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  16. Well, the whole DFW piece is warning his audience about losing sight of the "water", his metaphor for the fact that one's "natural, hard-wired default setting... to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self."

    And he gives off a couple examples of thought patterns blinding people to this. One in particular is closely related to your post. He notes:

    "Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education--at least in my own case--is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now)."

    That is, getting your head stuck "in the clouds" (to use your phrase) is an escape mechanism that allows you to avoid the reality that you are not the center of the universe. It allows you to stay in your own little world where your unconscious, the "water", tells you what you want to hear. It let's you continue to worship yourself, or some aspect of yourself.

    But, as DFW notes, this is a recipe for misery, because

    "If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down."

    The only other option is to be "eaten alive" by:

    "the kind of [self] worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

    ...

    "But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."

    And this danger seems as alive to the baptized as to the unbaptized. And getting "lost in the clouds" seems to be another way of letting the default, unconscious, self-centered "water" push you around.

    Do you see a connection?

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  17. Now that you explain it like that, I absolutely do. Just hadn't looked at it in that way before. Nice!

    By the way, I've been meaning to ask you: what's your story, faith-wise? Interpret that question as broadly or narrowly as you like, I'm just curious what your grand perspective is.

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