Negative Capability

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Date: Fall 2008
From: Cross Currents(Vol. 58, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,900 words
Lexile Measure: 1560L

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The first discussion that I had at the University of Chicago with a new graduate student, Lowell Livezey, was a model of many more to come. It continued for roughly one quarter, almost three months, and consistently engaged more than a dozen other scholars, including some faculty, in many locations and events: Swift Commons weekly lunches; Committee on Social Thought monthly breakfasts, some Friday evenings at Hopkins House, the Jesuit residence, and various particular gatherings on philosophy and politics at Hutchinson Commons and in downtown Chicago venues, also at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap and the Eagle Tavern.

The narrow focus on a subject matter came from Graham Greene's writing, especially the religious insight of his "Catholic novels," and most especially how to understand the one that is often said to be his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. But the larger theme was stimulated by our probably romantic memories of the Castro revolution in Cuba, and the steady imprisonment of political dissent and repression of human rights in that small society by his dictatorial government, almost immediately from the moment that he seized power. And the contemporary events that we were watching closely included the Chilean Presidency of Eduardo Frei, who was a scholarly Christian Democrat and active agrarian reformer, and a reader of Jacques Maritain's writings in theology and justice, labor and property rights, and the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Frei and his Christian Democrats were opposed by a coalition of Chilean socialists and radicals, who appeared to be stridently anti-Catholic, and condemned religion as a cover for reactionary establishment power. The Socialists were led by Salvador Allende, who was a critical follower of Castro's politics, and for a time had worked with him and Che Guevara in Cuba. Allende defeated Frei and was elected President of Chile about the time that Livezey and I started our graduate studies, and the Chilean economy went into the tank under his leadership. Not many months later his administration was the victim of the reactionary coup, led by General Pinochet, and Allende was imprisoned and murdered by the militarists. The functions of the Catholic Church and other religious groups during most of these events were notably subdued, if not completely off the horizon.

So the intellectual context of the first sustained Livezey-collegium discussion was an empirical matter concerning the politics of justice and organized religious practices. In North and Latin America, why do egalitarian political groups regularly attack organized religious people as their enemy; and why do catholic social teachings and modern traditions of religious social ethics so seldom, or never, collaborate with radical activitists to accomplish fundamental political reform?

Graham Greene had lived in Mexico in the 1936-38 period, and published The Power and the Glory in 1941. His writing shows uncanny prophetic ability to project the story of the Castro revolution in Cuba, the events in Chile under Frei, Allende, and Pinochet, the murder of Bishop Romero, the government of the Sandanistas, and the revolutionary efforts of the Chiapas...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A193007413