Welcome to our new Blog.
Many of you have followed our journal, Seeking Wisdom, and its predecessor, Dialectic, Cosmos, and Society for nearly two decades now and have at least some idea of what Seeking Wisdom is all about. Others of you are joining us for the first time. So I thought that I would begin by giving you a little bit of a sense of who we are and what we do.
Seeking Wisdom emerged out of a crisis or, rather, out of three distinct but related crises. The first of these was the crisis of the postconciliar Catholic Church. Catholicism, like all of humanity’s great spiritual traditions, offers humanity a distinctive challenge: –to become fully human by cultivating the intellectual and moral virtues and struggling for a just society, and more than human by, in the process, being drawn into a cosmohistorical evolutionary process which lures us, often kicking and screaming, toward connaturality with God. For over a century after the collapse of the old papal states and its alliance with the ancien regime in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church struggled –unevenly and with many failures, to be sure, but also creatively and consistently– to build for itself a new base of support among the working classes and the peasantry and to find a pastoral and political strategy which would carry its challenge to humanity to a modern industrial society which had chosen a very different path of divinization, one centered instead scientific and technological progress or the creation of a collective political subject, the modern democratic state or Communist Party, which would make humanity the master of its own destiny and that of the universe. This process culminated in the Second Vatican Council and the advent of the new theologies of liberation which put the Church in alliance with the most progressive forces in modern civilization, all the while challenging them to look beyond innerworldly civilizational progress towards humanity’s highest, transcendental vocation. Then, in the late 1970s, with the election of Karol Woytila as Pope John Paul II, this process was abruptly halted and then reversed. The Church broke its alliance with the forces of civilizational progress and allied itself instead with the new neoliberal global regime being established by the United States and advanced a spirituality of authority and submission which, under the false cover of tradition, represented an abandonment of the whole Catholic tradition. This rightward turn led to the ascendancy of dangerous secret organizations such as Opus Dei, with roots in Europe’s fascist past, and eventually to the election of Joseph Ratzinger, who had himself been a member of the NAZI youth, as Benedict XVI.
The second crisis is that of the university. Product of a nearly 3000 years of spiritual maturation, a process with roots in what Karl Jaspers called the “axial age,” the university represents humanity’s recognition that engagement with questions of meaning and value are, in fact, what makes us human, and that such questions are both problematic and open to significant insight by means of rational deliberation. The universities, as they developed in the high middle ages, took on themselves the task of leading the communities they served in deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value and cultivating free human beings and citizens –people capable of participating in deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value.
The dominant, positivistic project of high modernity, which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, has effectively put an end to this. Our universities have become centers for scientific and technological progress, the great drivers of the high modern project. The humanities imitate the sciences by cultivating specialized scholarship which carefully avoids engagement with fundamental questions of meaning and value. And rather than cultivating free human beings and citizens the universities train skilled intellectual labor.
The third crisis is that of Left. Where positivistic high modernity sought to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress, humanistic modernity sought, as we have noted, to create a collective political subject which would make humanity master of its own destiny and of the universe as a whole. This project was rooted in the older classical humanistic project focused on the cultivation of the intellectual and moral virtues and of free human beings and citizens and represented, at first, simply a democratization of that project, an attempt to extend to all of humanity what Plato and Aristotle had, for example, thought possible only for a few. Eventually, however, this project ran into its own internal contradictions. As the Left discovered to its chagrin, the sort of political organization which can act effectively as a collective political subject –centralized and disciplined– is incompatible with the cultivation of rational autonomy.
Much of our early work was devoted to simply thinking through these three crises and helping the organizations with which we worked –local congregations, colleges and universities, and popular organizations from the local to the global levels– do the same.
At the theoretical level we asked ourselves what was sane and whole in the traditions from which we had emerged and what needed to be discarded. At the practical level we helped the organizations we served and their members and constituents find ways to cultivate a mature spirituality, the capacity to make and evaluate arguments regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value, and to act effectively in the public arena.
Then came 9/11. Already, even before this event, we had become convinced that the realities of globalization meant that questions of meaning and value would have to be engaged not only within but across humanity’s great wisdom traditions. But 9/11 drew us deeply into the work of making this happen at both a theoretical and a practical level. At the University of New Mexico – Gallup, on the borders of the Navajo Nation, where I was teaching at the time, we began with a simple effort to promote mutual understanding between the Diné (Navajo) who had a strong military tradition, and the area’s large Islamic trader population between whom there were already intense economic contradictions. It became much, much more –the seed of a new kind of public arena, pluralistic and democratic, but constituted by deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value.
We have, at long last, left the “post 9/11 conjuncture” behind. The economic crisis of 2008, the election of Barack Obama, and the ascent of China and India to global leadership have, at least, set the conflict between the liberal and Christian Wests and Dar-al-Islam into a new and larger context. The contours of this new conjuncture are still taking shape, but it represents, we will argue, the next step in a deepening crisis of the modern project and of the emergence of a new global spiritual situation, one defined by globalization and the demand for sapiential literacy. Human beings no longer imagine that any one tradition has a monopoly on truth and we no longer accept on authority claims regarding questions of meaning and value. Rather, we engage spiritual questions across as well as within traditions and demand the skills to make our own decisions in spiritual as well as civic concerns.
As we enter this new period we come prepared to offer, like the wise scribe, both something old and something new. Our perspective remains deeply rooted in humanity’s millennia long quest for spiritual maturity and in the struggles of our own traditions and that of humanity’s other religious traditions to engage, learn from, challenge, and come to terms with the crisis of, the modern world. We remain deeply committed to the Axial Age project carried historically by the university. We belong to the party of meaning, but we believe that meaning is problematic and contested. And because of this we belong to the party of reason, which alone can adjudicate contested meanings and which thus defines a space which is both meaning and value laden and open and pluralistic –an authentic res publica. We are also democrats, in the ancient Axial Age and early humanistic modern sense of believing that the call to engage questions of meaning and value is universal: it is the patrimony of humanity as a whole, and not just of a priestly or professorial elite. We conserve, finally, the humanistic modern critique of capitalism and extend it to the whole industrial system which, as Marx pointed out, alienates humanity from both nature and from itself. But we reject the project, on which we believe the modern Left foundered, of making the construction of a collective political subject the center of our political-theological strategy.
That is the old. What about the new?
We offer to you first our Convivencia Theology. This is both a new way of doing theology –engaging fundamental questions across as well as within traditions– and a substantive theological position which we believe emerges naturally out of this approach. In the posts which follow we will engage such fundamental questions as the sources of religious knowledge and religious authority, the existence and nature of God, the ultimate meaningfulness and meaning of the universe, the nature, condition, and destiny of humanity, and the aims and means of spiritual development and civilizational progress. These posts are intended as informal statements intended to begin a conversation. That conversation will form the context in which we will write our next major work, The Ways of Wisdom: A Summa for the New Age.
Second, we offer you ongoing geopolitical-theological and socioreligious analysis. Those of you who have followed the journal are familiar with the distinctive way in which we approach the task of understanding the current situation, identifying material constraints and structural factors, but also taking seriously the ends to which human action is ordered, ends which we believe are ultimately transcendental. Our analyses identify what is at issue theologically and the material and structural conditions on which those issues are being engaged. And they suggest strategic, operational, and tactical directions for those who share our commitments to a spirituality of meaning and self-cultivation, to transcending industrialism and the market order, and creating a new kind of public arena constituted by deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value.
Finally, we will offer you both examples of how we work practically in various settings and proposals for further work. Here as well we will join old with new. We will work with existing local congregations to help them meet the demand for sapiential literacy in a globalized context, with colleges and universities to promote an authentic liberal education, with working class communities to find new models of economic development which promote human development while conserving the integrity of the ecosystem, and with all of the above to create a public arena which is pluralistic and democratic but also meaning and value based, constituted by deliberation around fundamental questions of meaning and value. But we will also be working to develop new models of pastoral leadership and religious community, new models liberal education, and new approaches to organizing and economic development. Hopefully this blog will help you decide if some of what we have to offer is right for you and to discover how you might work with us to help chart the next steps in the human civilizational project.