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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Younger Than Sin

Readers of this blog may be interested in a conference taking place next week at the University of Notre Dame: Younger Than Sin: Retrieving Simplicity Through the Virtues of Humility, Wonder & Joy. This is the annual Fall flagship conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, where I was honored to serve as one of David Solomon’s associate directors from 2003-2009. It all begins Thursday evening, November 18 and culminates with a banquet on Saturday evening, November 20.

Here is a description from the Center’s website of what the conference is all about:

In his 2009 Christmas homily, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that it is the "simple souls" who receive most readily the truth and have therefore the shortest journey to make: "[T]he shepherds, the simple souls, were the first to come to Jesus in the manger and to encounter the Redeemer of the world" because they "lived nearby," whereas the wise men, who represent "those with social standing and fame," "arrived later" and "needed guidance and direction." Those who are not "lowly souls who live very close" to the truth but are instead captivated "amid worldly affairs and occupations that totally absorb us," we "are a great distance from the manger" and must undertake an "arduous" journey. We propose to explore simplicity of soul and its attendant virtues of humility, wonder, and joy—the fullness of which Georges Bernanos identified in the state of the Blessed Virgin who, attending at the manger, is described as "younger than sin"—free, with a virtuous simplicity of soul, for her joyful assent to and embrace of the Truth and the Good that has set her free. We, not so "young" as she, must undertake the journey to simplicity by humility, which enables honesty concerning oneself and one’s dependence on others; wonder, which as Aristotle wrote, first leads one to seek the freedom of the truth; and joy, the delight of the soul that is able to apprehend the true and the good and draw them to itself.”

“Such reflections are timely and extend to all disciplines as they can illuminate a culture that, in many ways, has become fragmented in its old age. For the simplicity that manifests and develops itself by humility, wonder, and joy is far from simple-mindedness or naïveté; it is a mature and concentrated and clear-sighted pursuit of the highest truth and the highest goodness by one who is not conquered by the addictive and constantly-changing self-distraction allowed by the iPod, the Blackberry, and the pursuit of acquisitive self-satisfaction. It is a cultivated disposition able to enjoy the simple life, the simple pleasures, and the truth, goodness, and beauty that they disclose.”

The conference is interdisciplinary, so beyond talks and presentations on theology and philosophy, it will also feature many talks on works of literature and film.

I will be giving a talk that Saturday afternoon, entitled “Sucking the Life from Our Children: Hollywood and the Romance of the Living Dead.” In the last four-to-five years there has been a prodigious increase of middle grade and young adult books, as well as movies and television shows, featuring vampires—and even more recently, zombies. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of young adult novels (and the movies made from them) is a major case in point. What is the cultural significance of this phenomenon? Vampires, and Gothic tales generally, have been a part of our literary culture since the early 19th century, when John William Polidori wrote “The Vampyre.” Is the recent spate of vampire stories simply a reprise of the same fixation, or does it have a different emphasis and inspiration? I’ll post some notes from my talk next week. But as I prepare it, I would love to hear your takes on any aspect of this phenomenon. 

Those who can’t attend the conference shouldn’t despair. Many of the talks will be available to read on the Center’s website, and the streaming video of the invited talks, including my own, will also be available on the Center’s website not long after the conference.

I’ll close with some questions about which the conference hopes to generate discussion. I look forward to discussing them with you:

“In what ways does our culture offer opportunities for this simplicity? Or does it not? What are the necessary conditions for persons trying to achieve this ideal, or for families trying to fashion a culture wherein this ideal is possible or for societies trying to determine and pursue the common good?” 

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