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ancient feelings

Why doesn’t ancient fiction talk about feelings? “I’d often wondered,” says Julie Sedivy, “when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?” Let me put this as politely as I can: What the hell are you talking about?

If you read the Iliad you’d know how Achilles felt when Agamemnon took his “prize,” or how he felt when his beloved friend Patroclus was killed. If you read the Odyssey you’d know how Odysseus felt when his men were being eaten by Polyphemus, and how he felt when he fell, at last, into the arms of his beloved wife Penelope. If you read the Oresteia you’d know how Orestes felt when faced with the task of killing his mother. If you read Antigone you’d know how the title character felt when told she could not bury her brother. If you read the Aeneid you’d know how Aeneas felt when he saw his fellow Trojans painted on the walls of a palace in Carthage — sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears for things, possibly the most famous line in ancient literature — and how Dido felt when she learned that Aeneas would leave her. If you read Beowulf you’d know how Beowulf felt when, after slaying a dragon, he lay dying, abandoned by all but one companion. If you read the Divine Comedy you’d know how Dante the pilgrim felt about everything, from getting lost in a selva oscura to disappointing his guide Vergil to meeting his old friend Casella the musician to being reunited with Beatrice.

I’m old as dirt and have seen people take many ridiculous positions in my time, but none more ridiculous than this.

Hastings House Book of Hours

The Hastings Hours add ms 54782 ff250 1

The lovely Hastings House Book of Hours, from this great I Love Typography post, which has other cool images as well. 

extremely spoilery thoughts about Better Call Saul

I’m a deeply committed fan of Better Call Saul, to the extent that after each episode I listen, hungrily, to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast. I am endlessly fascinated to learn about the enormously complex, deeply intelligent, technically sophisticated, emotionally sensitive collaborative energy that goes into making a show like this. Every time I listen I discover something about the show that I had missed, something that makes its already-powerful story even more powerful.

It’s also fun to hear how closely the actors (there’s usually, though not always, one each episode) identify with their characters, in ways that reveal them, the actors, as often insightful and sometimes unreliable. When Michael Mando explains how he sees Nacho as motivated largely by shame — shame before his honorable father — I immediately see the truth of it. When Bob Odenkirk defends Jimmy’s indefensible actions, I just shake my head in disbelief. By far the most interesting of the actors on the podcast, though, is Rhea Seehorn, who is extremely articulate in analyzing Kim but insightful into other characters as well.

In sum: the podcast is a great supplement to the show.

What follows is super-spoilery.

In a vital scene in the just-released final episode of Season 4, Jimmy McGill breaks down weeping in his car. When that scene was discussed on the podcast, I was struck by the number of participants who believe that he was finally weeping for his dead brother Chuck. No, he definitely wasn’t.

Many of the people on the podcast, regulars and guests, believe that Jimmy is in the denial stage of grief, or something like that. On the show itself, Kim seems to think the same — you can’t be sure because neither Kim nor Jimmy tends to speak what they feel — but I believe that it’s her sense that Jimmy hasn’t processed Chuck’s death that prompts her to press him to seek counseling. But when, briefly, he says he will, it’s not because of Chuck: it’s because he got mugged by some punks when trying to run a scam and he’s concerned that he’s still acting like he’s 20 years old.

In my judgment Jimmy has never grieved Chuck’s death and never will. The last words Chuck said to him were, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” And I believe that from that moment on Chuck was completely dead to Jimmy already.

So why does he cry in his car?

In the previous scene, Jimmy has sat in a conference room with a bunch of other lawyers interviewing high school students who have applied for a scholarship. Jimmy argues on behalf of a girl who had been convicted of shoplifting when younger but has put her life together; he says that at least one of their scholarships (there are three to distribute) should go to someone who isn’t perfect, who has made mistakes and triumphed over them. But that argument falls on deaf ears, and after the decision is made Jimmy catches up with the girl and gives her an impassioned speech explaining that people like her never get a fair shake and never will, and that she has to be bold, has to cut corners, has to do everything she can, no matter how ruthless, to maneuver around those people. So what, Jimmy says, if they’re sitting there on the 35th floor judging you? You don’t care because you’re gonna be on the 50th floor looking down at them.

And then he goes back to his car. His old, beat-up car, with a mismatched door, the same one he’s had since we first saw him. And, as is often the case, it won’t start. And that’s when he starts crying.

This episode begins with a flashback to Jimmy and Chuck, right after Jimmy is sworn in as a lawyer, going to a karaoke bar with friends and singing Abba’s “Winner Takes It All.” And Jimmy actually quotes that song to the girl who didn’t get the scholarship. (He doesn’t say, but he means, this line: “But I was a fool / Playing by the rules.”) The song tells us that the winner takes it all, but is also tells us that “the loser has to fall.” And what Jimmy is facing at this moment is, simply: he’s a loser. As Kim told him in a previous eposode, when he complained that she was “kicking a man when he’s down,” “Jimmy, you’re always down.” He’s not on the 50th floor looking down on anyone. He’s sitting in an old beater that won’t start, because that’s all he can afford. The loser has to fall, and does.

And I think this is the point of no return for Jimmy — the point at which it’s absolutely inevitable that he’ll become Saul Goodman, unscrupulous, lying, deceitful, dishonest, crooked as crooked can be. Because he tried, at least sometimes, playing by the rules and the result is, he’s always down. I don’t think he’ll play by the rules any more.

At the end of the episode and the season, Jimmy has just regained his law license — by faking sincerity more skillfully than he had faked it before —, and we learn that he’s not going to practice under his own name but under the name Saul Goodman. The key point is that Kim learns it at the same moment that we do. He hasn’t told her. He has shut her out, just as he had earlier shut out Chuck, though for far less reason, since Kim has been far better to him than he ever deserved. Kim now sees that there is nothing fully human behind the mask. I don’t see how she can ever trust him again.

a parable for our moment

In this moment when more and more people are calling us to denounce family members who vote the wrong way, I find myself thinking of a passage from an essay I wrote many years ago about Albert Camus:

Camus…  was himself a pied noir; his family’s roots in Algeria went back a century and a half. Members of his family, including his mother, still lived in Algeria and were endangered daily by the FLN’s random shootings and bombings. Yet Camus was not, nor had he ever been, indifferent to the abuses the French had inflicted on the Arabs of Algeria. Indeed, in the 1930s, at the beginning of his career as a writer, Camus had striven ceaselessly to call attention to these abuses, but he was generally ignored — by the French Left no less than the Right.

So he was not pleased to have a difficult and morally complex political situation reduced to an opportunity for French intellectuals to strike noble poses: to those who would ‘point to the French in Algeria as scapegoats (‘Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!’),’ Camus retorted, ‘it seems to me revolting to beat one’s mea culpa, as our judge-penitents do, on someone else’s breast.’ Those who are really so guilt-stricken at the French presence in Algeria should ‘offer up themselves in expiation.’

Camus boldly affirmed that his family, ‘being poor and free of hatred’ — and Camus really was raised in abject poverty — ‘never exploited or oppressed anyone. But three quarters of the French in Algeria resemble them and, if only they are provided reasons rather than insults, will be ready to admit the necessity of a juster and freer order.’ It should, then, be possible to give the proper rights and freedoms to Algerian Arabs without condemning and destroying the pieds noirs indiscriminately, or forcing them out of the only country they had ever known.

But such subtleties were lost on almost everyone involved in this conflict. When Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957 and gave a press conference in Stockholm, he was bitterly condemned by an Arab student for failing to endorse the FLN. His reply was simple, direct, and forceful: ‘I have always condemned the use of terror. I must also condemn a terror which is practiced blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.’

two quotations on democracy and the judiciary

Samuel Moyn, 2018

In the face of an enemy Supreme Court, the only option is for progressives to begin work on a long-term plan to recast the role of fundamental law in our society for the sake of majority rule—disempowering the courts and angling, when they can, to redo our undemocratic constitution itself. This will require taking a few pages from the conservative playbook of the last generation. It is conservatives who stole the originally progressive talking point that we are experiencing “government by judiciary.” It is conservatives who convinced wide swathes of the American people that it is the left, not the right, that too routinely uses constitutional law to enact its policy preferences, no matter what the text says. The truth is the reverse, and progressives need to take back the charge they lost. To do so, they need to abandon their routine temptation to collude with the higher judiciary opportunistically. Progressives must embrace democracy and its risks if they want to avoid the stigma of judicial activism that still haunts them from the past.

The editors of First Things, 1996: 

With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of ‘things of their knowledge.’ Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government…. The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy. 

I have so many questions

These are all serious questions — not gotchas – they’re questions I don’t know the answers to and wish I did. And of course knowing the answers from any one person wouldn’t help very much: what I really need is access to the Zeitgeist on these points. But that knowledge isn’t available. Still, I can’t stop wondering. So here goes:

If you’re, let’s say, Alexis Grenell and you believe that women who supported the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh are “gender traitors” who have made a “blood pact with white men,” what do you do if you find yourself sitting at dinner with such a woman? Say six of you are eating out somewhere and one woman you hadn’t previously met says that she would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh. Do you get up and leave? Try to persuade her that she’s wrong? Throw water in her face? Sit and steam?

What if you don’t throw water in her face but another woman at the table does? Are you okay with that?

If you could get her dismissed from her job, would you consider doing that?

What if the person who supports Kavanaugh is an old friend? Does that, for you, end the friendship?

Now, a question for people who support confronting and challenging politicians at restaurants and other public places. What is your goal? Is it simply punitive, or do you believe that by doing that kind of thing you can change a politician’s mind? (NB: If you’re the sort of person who shows up at a pizza parlor with a gun because of something you read online, you need not answer this question.)

How do you think you would respond if you were subject to the same protests? Would you be intimidated into voting the way the protestors want you to vote? Would you become more sympathetic to their cause?

Presumably you know that what one side does the other will soon copy. So if this escalates to the point where very few politicians of either major party are able to eat at restaurants, what precisely will we, as a nation and a society, have gained?

If you believe that, for example, Brendan Eich could not serve as the CEO of Mozilla because he opposed the legalization of gay marriage, do you think it would be okay for him to have some other, lesser job at Mozilla? If not, what sort of job do you think it would be acceptable for Eich to have?

Obviously the intensity of feeling on the left right now stems from the conviction that a Trump presidency + a long-term conservative majority on the Supreme Court = something close to an extinction event for American democracy — just as many on the right two years ago believed that the prospect of a Clinton presidency was so horrifying that America was faced with the “Flight 93 Election.” But most of these questions are addressed to the left because that’s where most of the anger is right now. (And if you think I’m soft on the right, use the search box on the left side of this page and enter the word “Trump.”)

Presumably not all positions held by the party you oppose are equally reprehensible; not all prompt your activist anger. For example, I doubt that very many people would confront a politician at a restaurant because he or she supports President Trump’s new tariffs, even if they think those tariffs are a very bad idea. So what are the issues that, if someone gets them wrong, place that person beyond the pale, mark him or her as someone you can’t have table fellowship with, as someone who can’t be allowed to live unconfronted? Kavanaugh, yes, but what else?

  • Supporting Trump’s immigration policies?
  • Opposing abortion on demand?
  • Opposing abortion before viability?
  • Believing that the killer of Laquan McDonald should have been acquitted?
  • Supporting legislation like the North Carolina bathroom bill?

That is, what are the issues on which you can agree to disagree with someone — or at least to remain on speaking terms with that person, even if you keep arguing — and what issues, by contrast, demand a break of relationship?

Almost all of these questions center on a particular concern of mine. There’s no doubt that we live in a rhetorically heated time — the most heated moment of my lifetime, I believe (though I can’t be sure about that). But what actions does our verbal anger lead to? If we speak about one another in the extreme ways we do today, how will we treat one another?

the lustful sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala:

This is a point in history where the old idea that women are the more lustful sex – which dominated western culture until the 17th century – is suddenly overturned and replaced by exactly the opposite presumption, that men are naturally promiscuous and can’t help it, and women are more chaste and naturally asexual.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t true. Go all the way back to the Odyssey, where Penelope is expected to remain faithful to Odysseus — indeed, it’s pretty clear that if she were to shack up with one of the suitors the returning Odysseus would kill her — while when Odysseus and his men have sex with Circe and her fun girls they excuse themselves: “As we were men, we could not help consenting.”

Or think about Boccaccio’s great tale (the tenth story of day 3) about putting the Devil in Hell. It’s a story about a woman’s sexual passion, but note that Alibech shows no interest in sex until Rustico teaches her; that she becomes more enthusiastic about this, um, spiritual exercise than he is the reversal, the incongruity, that gives the story its humor.

A thousand more examples could be cited. Dabhoiwala‘s claim seems completely unsustainable to me.


UPDATE: But what do I know? I got an email from my former student Sarah Brom Lindsay, an  actual medievalist, who sets me straight and reminds me — once again! I never learn! — of the dangers of too-quick reactions. Here’s Sarah:

I can’t speak to ancient Greek ideas about sexuality, but certainly in the middle ages women were generally viewed as the more lustful sex. This arises partially from the anti-feminist tradition that saw women as simply more sinful than men; Chaucer’s Wife of Bath rails against this tradition while simultaneously embodying its worst suspicions about women’s uncontrollable sexuality.

The idea of women as more lustful also gained support from the association of women with the body and sensation rather than the intellect; while men could be expected to rationally control their impulses, women were seen as both feeling those impulses more strongly and lacking the rational ability to control their sexuality.

For an example, in her Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan spends a section addressing and refuting the ideas that few women are chaste and that women, even if they object, actually want to be forced. Christine’s work is one of the early entry in the Querelle des femmes and she is responding to broad claims about the inferiority of women, including the commonly-made claim that women are less chaste.

As for Boccaccio’s tale, I’d read the humor differently: the seduced woman may not have been interested in sex at first, but the priest should have known better than to awaken that desire precisely because it would soon outstrip his (although with the caveat that I’m not an Italianist or a Boccaccio scholar).

So the claim that the idea of woman as “the lustful sex” dominated western culture all the way back to ancient Greece may be overstated. But it certainly dates as far back as Jerome.

credibility

When a person testifies about some past event, and his or her listeners have no external evidence to corroborate or refute that testimony, those listeners will place a great deal of emphasis on credibility. “I find her a very credible witness.” “I just didn’t find him credible.” We know that con men make opulent livings through seeming credible to large numbers of people; if we search our memories we will discover scenes in which we believed people we shouldn’t have believed and disbelieved people we should have believed; but in the moment we human beings seem to have a nearly absolute confidence in our ability to assess credibility.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. None of us has the superpower of looking into speakers’ souls to discern their true character. Each of us is, in many circumstances, easily fooled. And perhaps on some level, somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, we realize this. We remember those moments when we were so sure someone was lying when they weren’t, or telling the truth when they weren’t. So we peek around at our ingroup for confirmation. And we get it. They have the same impressions, the same feelings, the same assessments of credibility.

And that can scarcely be surprising, because we share our prejudices and presuppositions and assumptions and tendencies with other members of our ingroup — that’s in large part what makes them our ingroup. So tribalism both produces our impressions of credibility and confirms them. Which makes our impressions of credibility epistemically worthless.

But without them, what do we have? That’s a question that, it seems, few are willing to face. To doubt our impressions is to doubt much of what sustains us day by day. This morning Ross Douthat writes, “Only the Truth Can Save Us Now.” Yeah, good luck with that.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

“a large superfluous establishment of words”

We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.

— Dickens, David Copperfield 

N.B.  Quote posted by a man who has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

the methods of the Official Straighteners

Two recent stories — one involving a Chicago priest named Paul Kalchik and one involving Marine le Pen — have something significant in common. Neither figure is being punished but each is being examined. In Le Pen’s case a psychologist will be tasked with determining whether she is “capable of understanding remarks and answering questions.” Fr. Kalchik’s psychological examination, Cardinal Blaise Cupich wrote, is to ensure that he “receive[s] pastoral support so his needs can be assessed.”

These are perfect embodiments of what C. S. Lewis called “the humanitarian theory of punishment.” Those holding this theory

maintain that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?

Thus Cupich’s claim that his actions are focused on Fr. Kalchik’s “needs.” But Lewis’s continuation is vital: “One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments.” And, from the point of view of the state or any other governing body, this shift from punishment to healing has certain desirable consequences. More from Lewis, on an article he had recently read:

The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts — and they are not experts in moral thology nor even in the Law of Nature — who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

It is not clear, of course, that there will be any “sentence” of Fr. Kalchik or Marine Le Pen. But the remote possibility of lengthy punishment is coupled with the immediate certainty of compulsory therapy at the hands of people who wield enormous power over their future. This is certainly meant to have a profound deterrent effect not only on them but in the one case on all priests in the Diocese of Chicago and in the other on the French public as a whole. Pour encourager les autres and all that.

Lewis is at pains to emphasize that his case against the Humanitarian theory of punishment assumes “no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian.”

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

But what if the official straighteners are not good people? You’ll have to read the rest of his essay to find out.

is it okay to share praise?

Philip Jenkins in the Englewood Review of Books on my book The Year of Our Lord 1943:

Alan Jacobs has written a brilliant contribution to the study of modern Christian thought. By focusing on a single pivotal year during the Second World War, he traces the reactions of a stellar group of Christian thinkers to the ethical and spiritual crises of the age, and how they saw the prospects for building a new Christian civilization in the postwar era. The discussions of individual thinkers are impressive enough, but the conspectus approach allows us to comprehend the critical issues with special clarity. In its innovative structure, the book offers an exemplary model for the writing of intellectual history.

Christian language policing

Mary Eberstadt:

The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.

It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, “Fr. Arne, I’m gay.” To which the priest replied, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.” Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.

I have heard some version of this argument many times and I have never understood it. Are there any other adjectives or descriptors that Eberstadt sees as having the same character?

For instance, imagine that I had just met Fr. Arne, and as we chatted he started telling me, with the evident sense that this would mean something to me, that he loved the city of Montreal and thought that the RCMP is an especially admirable institution that other countries should imitate. Imagine further that, in order to head off any misunderstanding, I said, “Fr. Arne, I’m American.” Would he reply, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God”? And if not, why not? (We can easily imagine other situations in which I might say “I’m white” or “I’m Southern.”)

Adjectives and similar descriptors tend to be circumstantial in this way. Were I to say, in the imagined context, “I’m American,” I would not therefore be affirming that being American is intrinsic to my identity or the most important thing about me. I would, rather, be affirming that my status as an American was contextually relevant. And aren’t there other contexts in which “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” would be similarly relevant?

At this point in writing this post I realized that what I’m saying sounded familiar to me, and I thought a while, and remembered that Ron Belgau has already made my point: “English speakers say, ‘I am X’ all the time without meaning that ‘X’ is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity….” Belgau concludes, definitively: “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” And yet no matter how many times he and his colleagues make these denials, someone always turns up to say Yes you do, you totally think that.

The insistence I see in so many quarters on policing this very particular bit of English usage is very strange to me, and I am losing the ability to see it as anything but a power play, a way of saying to gay and lesbian Christians You’ll use the language we decide you should use, or else. It’s become a non-fatal shibboleth, this demand that a certain word or set of words be used or not be used as a precondition of full fellowship. Isn’t it past time just to let this go?

remembering Doc

I am grieved to hear of the death of Donald Sniegowski, known to one and all as Doc. Doc is father to my dear friends Paul Sniegowski and Gail Kienitz — “father-in-law” seems a little too distant to describe his relationship with Gail — and grandfather to my goddaughter Emma. My wife Teri and I first met Doc many years ago at his and Barbara’s home in South Bend, where we were immediately welcomed with great warmth and festivity. There tended to be a lot of festivity when you were around Doc.

Some years later, after our son Wesley came along, we connected with Doc and Barbara in England, and they swept Teri and Wes away on a day trip to the Cotswolds. Here’s a photo of Doc explaining to Wes how to look for fish in the stream:

(Wesley adored Doc. When he was even younger than he is in this picture he would sit in a high chair at the Sniegowskis’ dinner table and imitate Doc’s voice, which made Doc laugh, which made Wesley laugh, which made Doc laugh even more, in  a marvelous escalation of hilarity.) You can tell just from that pose that Doc would become a wonderful grandfather — which happened, and soon, for Emma came along not long after this, and then eight more grandchildren.

Doc understood the vocation of teacher to be a one of service — it was in helping his students that he fulfilled his calling, as many of them (including Gail) will readily testify. I have always wanted to be more like him than I am, and not just in this. Frederick Buechner says that a saint is a life-giver, and by that criterion anyway Doc was a saint. You always felt a little more alive, a little more aware, and little more delighted with the world when you were around him — so much so that I have struggled to use the past tense in this post.

I last saw Doc when I gave a talk at Notre Dame, maybe six years ago, and over dinner after the talk there was much laughter between us. I deeply regret how rarely our paths crossed in these recent years. But I have thought of him often, and will continue to remember him, and to be grateful for his example, and for his great, great kindness.

on wrath and the feast day of St. Jonathan Swift

Here’s an excellent review by John Wilson of Martha Nussbaum’s new book. With John, I too doubt that fear is the dominant emotion of our moment. My candidate is wrath, which is one reason why I have argued for the canonization of Jonathan Swift. If we must be wrathful, at least let our wrath be truly righteous. Do please click through for the Litany I have written for St. Jonathan’s feast day — soon may it come — but for what it’s worth here’s the collect I composed:

Almighty and most wrathful God, who hate nothing You have made but sometimes repent of having made Man; we thank you this day for the life and work of Your faithful servant Jonathan Swift, who constantly imitated and occasionally exceeded Your own anger at the folly of sin, and who in his works excoriated such folly with a passion that brought him nigh unto madness; and we pray that You may teach us to be imitators of him, so that the follies and stupidities of our own time may receive their proper chastisement; through Christ our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

a clash of cultures in London

Bridging Home, London, 2018 © Do Ho Suh

how to evaluate a strong but disputable claim

This from John D. Cook is a great example of how to respond to strong but highly disputable scientific claims — in this case Michael Atiyah’s claim to have proven the Riemann hypothesis:

Atiyah’s proof is probably wrong, just because proofs of big theorems are usually wrong. Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem had a flaw that took a year to patch. We don’t know who Atiyah has shown his work to. If he hasn’t shown it to anyone, then it is almost certainly flawed: nobody does flawless work alone. Maybe his proof has a patchable flaw. Maybe it is flawed beyond repair, but contains interesting ideas worth pursuing further.

The worst case scenario is that Atiyah’s work on the fine structure constant and Todd functions is full of holes. He has made other big claims in the last few years that didn’t work out. Some say he should quit doing mathematics because he has made big mistakes.

I’ve made big mistakes too, and I’m not quitting. I make mistakes doing far less ambitious work than trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. I doubt I’ll ever produce anything as deep as a plausible but flawed proof of the Riemann hypothesis.

Fantastic. Would that we had more people who think this way.

the instrumentalist chain

Earlier I wrote of goods that can’t be aimed at directly, and here’s another example of that.

Like all college teachers, I have heard many times — many, many times — more times than I can count — something along these lines: If I don’t get an A in your class then I won’t be able to get into medical school [or law school, or business school, or engineering school, or dental school] so just tell me what I need to do to get that A.

Here’s how I usually respond:

First, I understand and sympathize with your anxiety, but please don’t say that. Whether you mean it to or not, it sounds manipulative. (“If all my dreams are crushed it’ll be your fault!”) And teachers are no exception to the general rule that most people don’t like feeling manipulated and will often do the opposite of what they think others are trying to get them to do.

But second, and more important for our purposes, you’re really not thinking of this problem in the right way. The problem is not I’m getting a lower grade than I want, the problem is I’m not doing excellent work. Your grade is only a marker or token of the quality of your work. You can’t get a better grade by focusing on getting a better grade. Your grades will improve when your work improves.

This is the pitfall of all instrumentalist thinking — even when it’s properly instrumentalist. By which I mean that there are some things it’s perfectly okay to think of as means to other ends. I exercise so I can be healthier: if I don’t love exercise in itself and for itself, that’s not a problem — unless I fail to pay sufficient attention to what I’m doing when I exercise that in the end I don’t improve my health as much as I want. The way for me to fix that is to start focusing on the exercise itself. Wanting ever more intensely to be super-healthy doesn’t actually help me.

Many of my students don’t care about the quality of the work they’re doing. They care about the grades they get, and they care about grades because the grades will determine whether they get into med school, and they care about getting into med school because that will determine whether they get to be doctors, and they want to be doctors because … well, who am I to judge? My point here is just that there’s a lengthy chain of instrumentalist motivation here, acts that are meaningful only because they lead to other acts that are only meaningful because they lead to still other acts, in regressive links that I can’t see the end of. But the only way people are ever going to get to their goal, whatever that happens to be, is by starting to care about the work they’re doing today.

on conversation

Tim Herrera’s tips for having better conversations are not tips for having better conversations. They’re tips for being better liked. They’re strategies for getting people to have a higher opinion of you, for (as one of the people Herrera interviews puts it) making people ”think you’re a great conversationalist.” Herrera’s piece isn’t about conversation at all, it’s about becoming “a true conversation superstar.”

Tyler Cowen’s alternative suggestions aren’t much, or any, better. Cowen isn’t worried about being liked, but he does seem to be worried about … I don’t know, let’s call it conversational productivity. “Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.” I imagine Cowen going home ay the end of the day and writing in his diary, “I had seven conversational opportunities today, and after employing my signaling technique discovered that two of them yielded productive interchange. My records show that 28% productivity is slightly above average for conversations, so it was a pretty good day.”

If someone were to ask me “How can I become a better conversationalist?” my first thought would be a question: “Why do you want to know?” Because if what you want is popularity or productivity, then conversation is no more than a means to some other end and maybe not even an especially useful means.

Genuine conversation, it seems to me, is not something that one can aim directly at. (In this sense it’s like happiness.) Genuine conversation happens not when you’ve decided you want to have some conversation but when you’re actually engaged with another person. Conversation emerges from a degree of leisure, from patience, and from the trust that enables people to be truly present with each other and to be well-disposed to each other. Rather than asking “how can I have good conversations” or (worse) “how can I be a good conversationalist,” I think we’d all do better to ask this: How can I live in such a way that conversations naturally emerge from my form of life?

Yahweh’s unearthly patience

The impression we get from 1–2 Kings is not that God is a stingy disciplinarian with an anger problem. If anything, the God of 1–2 Kings is irresponsibly indulgent toward his people, a God who does not seem to realize he cannot run the world without a dose of law and order. By the time Judah is sent into Babylonian exile in 2 Kgs. 25, we are not saying, “My, what a harsh God”; if we read attentively, we are saying, “It’s about time! What took him so long?” The offense of the theology proper of 1–2 Kings is not that God is angry with the innocent. The offense is the offense of Jonah — the offense of God’s mercy, the offense of Yahweh’s unearthly patience with the irascible and unresponsive.

Peter Leithart

on firing Ian Buruma

Damon Linker thinks the firing of Ian Buruma is taking the #MeToo movement a step too far:

Buruma made a serious editorial misjudgment. But he became the focus of intense fury on Twitter and was fired for something else — for displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions, and for seeing value in using Ghomeshi’s personal experience as an occasion for thinking about an aspect of the subject without first and foremost engaging in scorched-earth excoriation.

That is what is fast becoming unacceptable.

Damon is, as I have said often, one of the best columnists around, so I always take his views seriously, but I’m not convinced by his argument here. First, I wonder if Damon has accurately described the reasons for Buruma’s firing. None of us were privy to the conversations between Buruma and his employers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they had asked him to apologize for his actions and words in ways he wasn’t prepared to do. Maybe the details will emerge later.

But even if he was simply summarily fired after his Slate interview I’m not sure that it’s right to say that Buruma simply “displayed insufficient outrage and indignation.” I want to look a little more closely at the details of that interview.

What is Buruma willing to say that Jian Ghomeshi did? He speaks of Ghomeshi as “being a jerk in many ways” and as belonging to a general class of people who “behaved badly sexually, abusing their power in one way or another” — people who “misbehaved.”

But his great emphasis is on the fact that Ghomeshi was not (or has not yet been) convicted of any crime: “in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted … I am not talking about people who broke the law. I am not talking about rapists … What is much murkier is when people are not found to have broken the law … All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime … My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense … All I know is that he was acquitted … People very quickly conflate cases of criminal behavior with cases that are sometimes murkier and can involve making people feel uncomfortable, verbally or physically, and that really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence.”

That last sentence seems especially troublesome. Isaac Chotiner, the interviewer, keeps reminding Buruma that several women have accused Ghomeshi of biting, choking, and punching them during sex. Buruma tries to wave this away: “Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances.” No doubt this is literally true. But to assert that such behavior “really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence” is effectively to say that the women who claimed that Ghomeshi bit and punched and choked them in violent ways were wrong. The suggestion is very strong here that maybe all Ghomeshi did was “make them feel uncomfortable.”

Buruma repeatedly says — and in itself this is certainly defensible — that he doesn’t know what Ghomeshi did. “I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t…. The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

But what, then, is his concern? It is to learn what it feels like to be publicly “pilloried” as Ghomeshi has been. Again and again he characterizes Ghomeshi as someone who is the passive victim of something: Buruma claims to be interested in the experience of “finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried,” of what it’s like to “have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion…. My interest in running this piece, as I said, is the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion and what somebody like that feels about it.”

So when we put all this together, we see that Buruma has no interest at all in what Ghomeshi did, but rather cares only about what has been done to him: the fact that he has been “pilloried,” not whether he has done anything to deserve such treatment. It’s especially telling that Buruma does not think Ghomeshi has ruined anything, but rather is “finding” his life ruined — like finding out you have cancer, or finding that your job has been eliminated. Buruma simply erases the causal links between Ghomeshi’s behavior and his experiences. And it is hard to see how this isolating of the experiences from their causes can have any effect other than to increase sympathy for Ghomeshi.

And the women who have complained about Ghomeshi’s treatment of them? Buruma says not one word about them. They too have been erased. What does it feel like to be them? That’s a question Buruma never asks. And he doesn’t ask it because, as he says, it isn’t his “concern.” It is not something that, editorially at least, he cares about.

Looking at this whole picture, I don’t think we see someone merely “displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions.” I think we see a much deeper moral blindness — an excessive interest in one person’s sufferings and an utter lack of interest in the sufferings of others — that, to me, calls Buruma’s judgment seriously into question. If I had been his boss, I don’t know that I would have fired him; but after I saw that interview in Slate, firing him would have been my first option.

on Sloan and Sherlock

The super-cool Robin Sloan has a super-cool newsletter — only occasional, alas, but Robin has many irons in the fire these days. He even makes olive oil. But anyway, in a recent edition of the newsletter, he makes in passing a fascinating point:

There’s something happening in fiction now, and to a degree in film and TV too: the time in which stories are set is scootching back, with writers fleeing to the safety of 1994 or 1987 or much earlier. Why? Because we didn’t have smart phones then. We didn’t have social media. The world didn’t have this shimmering overlay of internet which is, in a very practical way, hard to write about. Writers of novels and teleplays have well-developed tools for the depiction of drama in real space. Drama that plays out through our little pocket-sized screens is just as rich — but how do we show it? We’re now seeing film and TV figure this out in real-time. Novels have been (oddly?) less successful. Because digital action relies on so many Brands™, it feels risky and/or distasteful to send your narrative too deep into that realm. Who wants to be the person who called it wrong and wrote the Great MySpace Novel? (Actually, the Great MySpace Novel would be amazing. But see, that’s not now anymore! MySpace has stabilized into historical artifact. We can look at it; describe it; maybe even understand it. That’s not the case with the systems we’re using right now. We’re lost inside of them.)

Remember the first episode of Sherlock? Came out eight — yes, eight — years ago, and one of the most-discussed elements of the first episode was its use of texting. Sherlock texted and received texts all the time, and the content of those texts was regularly displayed our TV screens. For a thoughtful take on how the series did this, see this video essay on “Visual Writing in Sherlock” — visual writing that is by no means confined to the display of texting. I believe there’s general agreement that the makers of the series not only got this right but also used it to great dramatic, and sometimes comic, effect.

I don’t want to take Robin’s point too far, but I’m taken by the suggestion that a particular technology only becomes available for artistic representation when artists and audience are not “lost inside of it.” In this context it might be worth noting that Sherlock’s representation of texting happened right after the first widespread availability of smartphones, and therefore right after people began regularly interacting with the phones in non-textual ways (especially through photos and video). Sherlock’s representation of visual writing is, then, what BlackBerry use looks like when you have an iPhone.

You know what else appeared in 2010? The Social Network — a movie about Facebook that showed up just when people were dismissing Facebook as uncool and turning instead to Twitter — and then to Instagram (which was also released in 2010, though it didn’t become huge right away).

One more artifact from that same year: Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, much of which is told through emails.

So: what technologies are going to dominate the books and movies and TV shows of 2020?

dare to make a Daniel

In a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Adrian Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Vermeule sees in a handful of biblical figures a model of civic engagement for Christians to follow:

Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, however, mainly attempt to ensure the survival of their faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession. They do not evangelize or preach with a view to bringing about the birth of an entirely new regime, from within the old. They mitigate the long defeat for those who become targets of the regime in liberalism’s twilight era, and this will surely have to be the main aim for some time to come. In the much longer run, it is permissible to dream, however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant, in a postliberal future of uncertain shape. One such model is St. Cecilia, who, forced into marriage against her vows, converted her pagan husband; their joint martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church. Another is of course St. Paul himself, who by the end of Acts of the Apostles preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.

Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.

This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.

But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees. Vermeule’s model reminds me of someone who says he knows how I can become a billionaire and begins by saying, “First, get a million dollars.” Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels can indeed do great things — if we can come by them. But how are Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels produced?

What Vermeule is overlooking, it seems to me, is the simple fact that the liberal order catechizes. One of the wings of the liberal order that does this especially effectively is graduate school. Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

“earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World”

Revolutions are sudden to the unthinking only. Political Disturbances happen not without their warning Harbingers. Strange Rumblings and confused Noises still precede these earthquakes and hurricains of the moral World.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

the tools to survive

I’m an edge case. I want an untangled web. I want everything I do to copy back to a single place, so I have one searchable log for each day’s thoughts, images, notes and activities. This is apparently Weird and Hermetic if not Hermitic.

I am building my monastery walls in preparation for the Collapse and the Dark Ages, damnit. Stop enabling networked lightbulbs and give me the tools to survive your zombie planet.

Warren Ellis. I think about this All. The. Time.

words and deeds

Pope Francis has issued several excellent statements on sexual abuse. But his actions haven’t matched his statements. Now he has made an impressive gesture. The summons to all the world’s episcopal conferences is unprecedented; under different circumstances it would convey a sense of urgency. Not now.

So in five months the representatives of the world’s bishops, who have fumbled and compounded this problem for decades, will meet with the Pope, who has been talking about the problem for years. And they’ll talk about it some more. If the meeting sticks to the announced agenda, it will do nothing to resolve the problem, nothing to ease the righteous anger of an outraged Catholic laity.

Phil Lawler. My predictions are still holding up, though it seems increasingly likely that Wuerl will retire. With many expressions of gratitude for all the wonderful service he has rendered, no doubt.

that’s what I want

Our love is all of God’s money

What is money? Hard to say, really. It’s easier to document what it does, as Dana Gioia has shown:

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

“Circulation” is the key term here: money is always on the move, is always sliding from one location to another and then back to the first and then on to a third. People who work with money prize fluidity, because fluidity promotes circulation. And every development in computerized trading increases the speed of that circulation, so that now money moves faster than the human eye can see.

But the flow isn’t random, indeed is anything but random. Powerful gravity drags money towards other money. Think of how our solar system formed: the molecules that formed vast clouds of gas and dust drifted towards one another, forming clumps that attracted still more molecules, until eventually there condensed a star. That’s how money works. “Gathering interest, compounding daily.”

But, of course, as what is saved gathers interest, so too does what is owed. Money breeds money; debt breeds debt. And if not for debt, would money exist? “The first thing that happened in human history,” thinks a character in a new novel, “was not money, but debt – obligations and promises and duties incurred. Money arose only as a way of tabulating such owings.”

Most utopias and dystopias are concerned with money, and usually want to show the absurdity of it. This can be done whether a writer lives in an age of “Commodity Money” or “Representative Money” (to borrow terms from John Maynard Keynes). In Thomas More’s Utopia the shackles of prisoners are made from gold, so that that metal may be deposed; in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon the “Musical Banks” enact abstract rituals of circulation that are meant to remind us that the economy is a kind of religion and religion a kind of economy. In the most acute and insightful fictional exploration I know of these matters, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, subtitled in some editions “An Ambiguous Utopia,” the culture of a capitalist planet is contrasted in vivid detail with that of an anarchist planet which has tried to eliminate money as best it can — but is left with other, less clearly defined, structures of circulation, ways for power and control to flow towards those who already have power and control.

But LeGuin did not imagine a world in which near-instantaneous and near-universal digital communication enables money to do what it always wants to do. And here we turn to the novel I just quoted, Adam Roberts’s By the Pricking of Her Thumb.

Adam Roberts is a novelist of ideas, and I want to put equal stress on both of those terms: novelist, ideas. His books tend to be deeply reflective, serious and detailed and nuanced in their conceptual explorations, but those explorations are always embedded in really good stories — and cannot be simply extracted from those stories. That creates problems for someone who wants to write about his books without spoiling them for other readers. So if the discussion that follows is somewhat elliptical, that’s because I want you to read the book.

In this novel, four persons of great wealth have entered into an uneasy alliance in the hopes of achieving absolute wealth: to control nothing less than all the money in the world. The alliance is uneasy because the ultimate goal of each is to take everything from the others: to be the one rich person in a world of paupers, or at best dependents. The question is this: by what means might absolute wealth be acquired. The Fab Four have different ideas about that, and interestingly different ideas, but what they all come down to is this: seeking for ways to make every human relationship, every human desire, fungible — translatable into currency. One character here asks another, “You’re on the money can buy you love side of the debate?” And the other character answers: “I think love is the only thing money is any good for.”

But these Four are not the central figures in Roberts’s story, because the view from above does not interest him as much as the view from below. The protagonist of the book, a private investigator named Alma — she was also the protagonist of an earlier book, The Real-Town Murders — meets some of the Four, but her world could scarcely be more different from theirs. The flip side of absolute wealth is absolute precarity, and Alma is asymptotically approaching that even as the Four draw closer to their great goal. Increasingly Alma understands her life, and every aspect of her life, as shaped and formed by unpayable debts. Which means that the whole of her experience becomes a meditation on money — and its lack.

Grief, she saw now, was a mode of money. Death was a mode of money. Not, of course, the positive, cash-in-the-bank, the active fiction of money that the economic system painted so faux-optimistically. But that had never been the truth about money, had it? Money, by population mass, was debt, and debt was the key trope of negativity, and absence, and lack. Lack drove the economy, compelled people into work and ensured their persistence, lubricated the flow of capital and investment and liquidity. The whole system was a spider’s web stitched together, with a kind of tender fragility, over the empty mouth of debt, down which the wind was sucked.

All this is reminiscent of David Graeber’s 2012 book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, and in that wide-ranging and fascinating book Graeber cites an anthropologist and former economist named Philippe Rospabé who makes the provocative comment that money arises “as a substitute for life.” If you give me life, if you sustain my life, if you save my life, I cannot replay you directly — cannot repay you in, as it were, the currency of the benefit you provided. Money, then, as Graeber puts the key point, “is first and foremost an acknowledgment that one owes something much more valuable than money.” John Ruskin famously wrote — a line cited in Roberts’s new novel — “There is no wealth but life,” which may well be true, but would equally be true to say that there is no debt but life.

In this morally fraught context, the very thing that makes money useful — its fungibility, its ability to be converted — abstracts it to some degree from our lifeworld. As our currency moves from (say) chickens to cowrie shells to gold coins to paper bills to binary digits readable on our smartphones, money extracts itself from its human context — it becomes in an eerily powerful sense autonomous.

In Charles Williams’s strange poetic sequence based on Arthurian legend, Taliessen through Logres, one poem describes King Arthur’s building of a mint and issuing of coins. “Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics,” is pleased:

Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.

But Taliessen the poet is horrified: “I am afraid of the little loosed dragons” — the dragons, representing King Arthur Pendragon, stamped on the coins — because “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” The coins both represent the King and substitute for him: an abstract fungibility is meant to extend but ultimately threatens to replace the personal presence and authority of the monarch.

The Archbishop of Canterbury steps in and tries to pour oil on the troubled waters by demoting money, as it were: to Kay’s claim that “money is the medium of exchange” the Archbishop replies that “money is a medium of exchange.” The greater and more necessary currency is that of the circulation of gifts in Christian community, what Williams in his theological writings called the Way of Exchange: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” The Archbishop’s speech is a nice little exercise in peacemaking, as perhaps is fitting the episcopal role, and it clearly attempts to incorporate Jesus’s bizarre commandment to his disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”; but such splitting-the-difference is perhaps too easy. It assumes that money can be constrained to accept its place as a secondary medium of exchange, subservient to the greater authority of charity. But Taliessen’s fear of what happens when the means become autonomous seems to me a well-warranted fear.

Which brings us back to By the Pricking of Her Thumb. The book concerns itself with many things — love and loss; the difference between “real life”and an increasingly compelling online world; the films of Stanley Kubrick — but the central and compelling concept is this: what if the long-promised Singularity comes, or something rather like it, and what has become self-aware is simply … money itself? What if our future is a future of, in the strongest sense possible, Smart Money?

It really and truly doesn’t bear thinking of. After all, money is powerful enough, influential enough, near-sentient enough, as it is already. As Gioia writes,

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

the report of the Reform Commission

This extraordinary ‘ministry of all the talents’ was shaped into a Reform Commission, to produce a report on the ills of the Church and to suggest remedies. Not a single member of the Curia was included. Its report, the Consilium de Emendenda Ecclesia , presented to the Pope in March 1537, was dynamite. In the bluntest of terms, it laid the blame for the ills of the Church, including the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, squarely on the papacy, cardinals and hierarchy. It listed the evils of the Church, from papal sales of spiritual privileges, curial stockpiling of benefices, heretical or pagan teaching in universities, down to such matters as the ignorance of country curates or the poor spiritual direction in convents of women. It lamented the corruptions of the religious orders, recommended that all but the strictly observant religious orders should be abolished, and that novices in slack houses should be removed at once before they could be contaminated.

— Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Papacy. The report was scuttled after a copy was leaked to Martin Luther and he gloated over it.

homes by mail

I loved this 99pi episode about houses sold through the Sears catalog, because my family and I lived in one for 25 years. Our “Del Rey” was built in 1925, but here’s an image from a slightly earlier catalog:

DelRey

And here’s the one that was ours, in a shot taken almost exactly ten years ago — notice that the red-tile roof didn’t make it, which is understandable given that that’s not a material made for Chicagoland winters:  

DSC 0006

How we loved that house.  On the episode they mention some of the little features that Sears typically included, like fold-out ironing boards in the kitchen. Ours had one, and we had a strange affection for it. Also the laundry hatch, with its little brass ring-handle, that allowed us to drop our dirty clothes into  the basement, where the washer and dryer were. (There was a coal cellar down there too, from the days when the house was coal-heated, complete with a chute through which the coal had been poured.) The French windows in the living area had beautiful brass hardware and old wavy glass.

It was an enormously livable house, one that we never would have left had we not moved. We still miss our Sears home. 

quirky

NYT:

Frisch’s former students describe him as eccentric, nerdy, prone to lengthy classroom digressions about his stamp collection, dinosaurs or childhood snow days spent sledding. Any teacher who spends three decades in the classroom, speaking extemporaneously for hours on end to a roomful of teenagers, is going to have awkward moments. Frisch might have had more of them, and they may have been a bit more awkward. But that was how he connected, and it was perhaps a way of connecting that is no longer possible. “Everybody knew this guy was off — weird behavior, quirky,” said one parent who, fearing retribution against her child, insisted on anonymity. “Maybe in the ’70s that would have been O.K., but not when you’re paying $45,000 a year in tuition.”

Makes sense. $45k per annum ought to insulate you from quirky people.

“money is a medium of exchange”

The king has set up his mint by Thames.
He has struck coins; his dragon’s loins
germinate a crowded creaturely brood
to scuttle and scurry between towns and towns,
to furnish dishes and flagons with change of food;
small crowns, small dragons, hurry to the markets
under the king’s smile, or flat in houses squat.
The long file of their snouts crosses the empire,
and the other themes acknowledge our king’s head.
They carry on their backs little packs of value,
caravans; but I dreamed the head of a dead king
was carried on all, that they teemed on house-roofs
where men stared and studied them as I your thumbs’ epigrams,
hearing the City say Feed my lambs
to you and the king; the king can tame dragons to carriers,
but I came through the night, and saw the dragonlets’ eyes
leer and peer, and the house-roofs under their weight
creak and break; shadows of great forms
halloed them on, and followed over falling towns.
I saw that this was the true end of our making;
mother of children, redeem the new law.

They laid the coins before the council.
Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:
Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.’

Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said ‘We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?’

The Archbishop answered the lords;
his words went up through a slope of calm air:
‘Might may take symbols and folly make treasure,
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides —
that the everlasting house the soul discovers
is always another’s; we must lose our own ends;
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers,
my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.
This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
What saith Heracleitus? — and what is the City’s breath? —
dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.
Money is a medium of exchange.’

— Charles Williams, from Taliessen through Logres

hostages

This from Andrew Sullivan is the single best metaphor I have yet seen about what it’s like to live in Trump’s world:

Sometimes I think it’s useful to think of this presidency as a hostage-taking situation. We have a president holding liberal democracy hostage, empowered by a cult following. The goal is to get through this without killing any hostages, i.e., without irreparable breaches in our democratic system. Come at him too directly and you might provoke the very thing you are trying to avoid. Somehow, we have to get the nut job to put the gun down and let the hostages go, without giving in to any of his demands. From the moment Trump took office, we were in this emergency. All that we now know, in a way we didn’t, say, a year ago, is that the chances of a successful resolution are close to zero.

the face-blind portrait artist

Our ability to recognize faces resides in the right fusiform gyrus of the inferior medial temporal lobe of the brain. People with damage to the front of that region are face-blind, like [Chuck] Close. People with damage to the back of that region cannot see a face at all. Close is probably the only person in the history of Western art to paint portraits without being able to recognize individual people. Why, then, did he focus on being a portrait artist? Close says his art was an attempt to make sense of a world he didn’t understand. For him, it’s not so strange that he makes portraits. He was driven to make portraits because he was trying to understand the faces of people he knows and loves and commit them to memory. For him a face has to be flattened out. Once he flattens it, he can commit it to memory in a way that he cannot if he’s looking at it head-on. If he looks at you and you move your head half an inch, it’s a new head for him that he has never seen before. But if he takes a photograph of the face and flattens it out, he now can effect the translation from one flat medium to another.

Eric R. Kandel

the poet’s house

One summer many years ago, when I was leading a study tour in Britain, we paid a visit to Sir Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford House. I led the group past the tea shop and around a corner, and there the great mansion, with its lawn sloping down to the River Tweed, stood. One of my students halted in his tracks and stared, transfixed. “Oh, I am so gonna be a poet,” he whispered.

I put a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “David,” I said, “That is so not how it works.”

the cult of the virtuoso theologian

Michael Root:

A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.

When Pannenberg broke onto the scene in the 1960s, he was treated as the new candidate for these laurels, the latest thing from Germany, the land of giants. His program of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the Christian message under the rubrics of history and eschatology looked like another interpretive tour de force, another exercise in killing the Oedipal father (or fathers, in the form of Barth and Bultmann) so that the children are free to pursue their own projects. The actual shape of Pannenberg’s achievement has been somewhat different. The quasi-scholastic tone points at least to a different intent, a more humble subjection to the subject matter.

Joe Mangina just reminded of me this wonderful passage. Can the “virtuoso theologian” truly serve the Church? Perhaps not as such. Virtuosity may perhaps be one of those traits that has to be purged, either by the theologian himself or by his readers. 

not our fault

Chuck Todd:

Reporters, I fully acknowledge, bring their own biases to their work. The questions they ask, and the stories they pursue, are shaped by things as simple as geography. I grew up in Miami; I follow Cuban politics more closely than many other Americans did. As a result, when I covered the White House, I was more likely than my colleagues to ask questions about Cuba. A New York–based reporter may approach reporting on guns, or on evangelical Christianity, differently than a reporter in Pensacola, Florida.

The charge of media bias can encompass a great many different problems. Critics, for example, may be pointing to the way that certain journalists pay more attention to some issues than to others, or complaining about the unquestioned assumptions reflected in journalists’ work. These are real issues, and most journalists labor to correct them.

This, in my experience, is as far as MSM journalists ever get in acknowledging their role in the rise of alternative-facts-alternative-media like Fox News. They will not face — they cannot face — the fact that for decades they systematically excluded responsible conservative voices from their platforms. And now our civic fabric is being shredded by irresponsible conservative (or faux-populist) voices. The media world is about as self-critical and self-correcting as the American Catholic bishops.

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them. 

Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.” 

My David Bentley Hart Problem

Though I think David Bentley Hart is a brilliant man, and I have learned a great deal from reading him, I also believe he has some bad intellectual habits, and here I want to explain what I think his chief bad habit is.

Here’s the first paragraph of a recent essay by Hart:

If I seem to take N.T. Wright as an antagonist in what follows, he functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies — one that occasionally so distorts the picture of the intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church as effectively to create an entirely fictional early Christianity. Naturally, this also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy — and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.

Here, then, are the primary claims that Hart wants to make:

  • There is a strong “historical tendency in New Testament scholarship” that he wants to call attention to;
  • That tendency is largely the product of Protestant scholars (a point only implied here, but made explicit later in the essay);
  • That tendency is utterly wrong;
  • The wrongness results from the “dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies”; and, finally,
  • The work of N. T. Wright is characteristic of this erroneous tendency.

Hart will develop these points by claiming that Wright and scholars like him are in the grip of “the Cartesian picture of things” and that only if one manages to “take leave” of that picture may one get a historically accurate grip on first-century Judaism — and therefore on the New Testament documents which emerge from it.

I do not want to contest any of these claims. For what it’s worth, they have some prima facie plausibility to me — I have myself complained about what in shorthand we might call Wright’s Cartesianism, though my complaints have focused on hermeneutical method rather than historical judgment. My frustration with Hart’s essay is simply that he provides no evidence for his claims: no evidence whatsoever.

Consider this passage:

In the New Testament, “flesh” does not mean “sinful nature” or “humanity under judgment” or even “fallen flesh.” It just means “flesh,” in the bluntly physical sense, and it often has a negative connotation because flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death. Hence, according to Paul, the body of the resurrection is not one of flesh and blood animated by “soul,” but is rather a new reality altogether, an entirely spiritual body beyond composition or dissolution. And this is how his language would have been understood by his contemporaries.

Is the view that Hart criticizes here widely held by New Testament scholars (Protestant or otherwise)? Here’s what Hart says:

the early editions of the New International Version of the Bible, where the word “flesh” was in many cases rendered as something like “sinful nature” (I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV).

I am not sure what Hart means by “early editions” here: editions prior to Today’s New International Version in 2005, perhaps? One can’t be sure, because Hart doesn’t specify, and indeed makes a point of letting us know that he hasn’t even checked a copy of the NIV to make sure that he has the wording right.

But let’s assume that he does have the wording right. Even so, I would ask whether the NIV (a translation closely associated with evangelicalism) is characteristic of Protestantism tout court. How do other translations produced wholly or largely by Protestants translate σάρξ (sarx, flesh)? I would further ask: How do we know that the NIV’s choice is wrong? What evidence supports Hart’s claim that in Paul σάρξ “just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense”? Or that “this is how [Paul’s] language would have been understood by his contemporaries”? Many scholars — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike — have argued about these points for centuries, and have amassed a great deal of evidence about how key Pauline terms were used in the Hellenistic world — including in the Septuagint, from which Paul sometimes diverges in what appear to be highly significant ways — and how such “typical” usage might shape our understanding of Paul. Hart doesn’t cite any of these scholars. Hart doesn’t cite any non-biblical use of σάρξ. He doesn’t note that in addition to σάρξ Paul also uses the word σῶμα (soma, body), which would seem to be very nearly a synonym for σάρξ if Hart is right — and yet the two words seem, to many readers, to have very different functions in Paul. (Indeed, one might become vaguely aware of this divergence even in the parts of the essay where Hart discusses bodies, the σώματα ἐπίγεια and σώματα ἐπουράνια of 1 Corinthians 15.) Hart doesn’t cite, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t provide evidence: he just asserts.

Now, to be sure, Hart quotes passages from N. T. Wright’s translation of the New Testament that he finds objectionable. But he does not quote any of the scholarly works in which Wright has exhaustively — to my mind exhaustingly — made his case for how he understands Paul’s use of flesh, spirit, and soul. Hart writes, “Wright has his own understanding of resurrection, one more or less consonant with the casually presumed picture today, even if it is one entirely alien to the world of first-century Judaism and Christianity. His categories are not those of Paul — or, for that matter, of the rest of the authors of the New Testament.” Not only does Hart fail to quote Wright on these matters, one would not even guess from his statement that Wright has written an enormous book on just this subject, called The Resurrection of The Son of God that explores all of the categories, terms, and authors that Hart invokes. Nor does Hart quote any other scholars who represent this putative Protestant tradition of eisegesis that he deplores. He just tells us what’s what.

The whole essay is like this. Another example:

If we could hear the language of πνεῦμα [pneuma, spirit] with late antique ears, our sense of the text’s meaning would not be that of two utterly distinct concepts — one “physical” and one “mystical” — only metaphorically entangled with one another by dint of a verbal equivocity; rather, we would almost surely hear only a single concept expressed univocally through a single word, a concept in which the physical and the mystical would remain undifferentiated.

But would we? Would we all hear that one concept? Are all “late antique ears” the same, in this respect? Maybe; but before I accept that judgment I’d like to have something more than one scholar’s word for it.

There’s another, related, issue I want to explore. Though Hart doesn’t mention it, the very position he stakes out in the passage I just quoted was articulated ninety years ago in what would become a very famous book, Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. Barfield claims that “the study of the history of meaning”

assures us definitely that such a purely material content as “wind”, on the one hand, and on the other, such a purely abstract content as “the principle of life within man or animal” are both late arrivals in human consciousness… We must imagine a time when “spiritus” or πνεûμα, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified.

It’s possible that Hart hasn’t read Barfield; it is more likely that he has read him but has forgotten that Barfield made this argument. For the record, I do not believe that Hart is intentionally concealing his intellectual debts, at least not in the sense that he seriously wants us to believe that he came up with these ideas all by himself. But I do think that his habit of assertion — this “rhetoric of authority,” as Frank Lentricchia once called it in writing about a very different figure of great intellectual appeal — leads him to neglect his debts in ways that are counterproductive to his arguments.

One might reply that in what is after all merely a brief essay one cannot expect scholarly documentation. Point taken; though I would add that it’s an essay that doesn’t hesitate to get into some fairly deep philological weeds. But be that as it may, Hart manifests the same habit elsewhere. Consider this passage from my favorite of Hart’s books, The Experience of God:

Our brains may necessarily have equipped us to recognize certain sorts of physical objects around us and enabled us to react to them; but, beyond that, we can assume only that nature will have selected just those behaviors in us most conducive to our survival, along with whatever structures of thought and belief might be essentially or accidentally associated with them, and there is no reason to suppose that such structures — even those that provide us with our notions of what constitutes a sound rational argument — have access to any abstract “truth” about the totality of things. This yields the delightful paradox that, if naturalism is true as a picture of reality, it is necessarily false as a philosophical precept; for no one’s belief in the truth of naturalism could correspond to reality except through a shocking coincidence (or, better, a miracle).

That last word makes me suspect that Hart knows perfectly well that he has just summarized the argument that C. S. Lewis makes in the third chapter of Miracles. But he doesn’t cite Lewis anywhere in The Experience of God. Nor does he cite the people Lewis probably got the argument from, Arthur Balfour in Theism and Humanism and G. K. Chesterton in the “Suicide of Thought” chapter of Orthodoxy. (I say Lewis “probably” derived his argument from those sources because, as it happens, he doesn’t cite them either. There may be a lesson here.) I’m inclined to think that Hart also knows that that chapter of Miracles has prompted a whole subgenre of philosophy devoted to evaluating the claim that philosophical naturalism is self-refuting, in the course of which the core idea has been traced all the way back to Epicurus — see, e.g., this article.

My point here isn’t to chastise Hart for failing to document his sources. As it happens, I am quite sympathetic to a mode of argument that is less dependent than academic scholarship usually on citation and documentation. But when you ignore the scholarly context as completely as Hart often does, you can end up leaving your reader with the suspicion that your case is little stronger than “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Documenting your sources can be a powerful way to strengthen your argument.

Again, I am quite sympathetic to the case that Hart makes in this essay. Hart moves towards his peroration by appealing to the Gospel of John. He acknowledges that “Nowhere in scripture … is this fundamental opposition between flesh and spirit given fuller theological (and mystical) treatment than in John’s gospel; and nowhere else is the promise that the saved will escape from a carnal into a spiritual condition more explicitly or repeatedly issued.” But he continues, in a long paragraph I’m going to cite the whole of,

At the same time, of course, no other gospel places greater emphasis upon the physical substantiality of the body of the risen Christ — Thomas invited to place his hands in Christ’s wounds, the disciples invited to share a breakfast of fish with him beside the Sea of Tiberias — but even this is perfectly compatible with Paul’s language. It is, as I say, extraordinarily difficult for modern persons to free their imaginations from the essentially Cartesian prejudice that material bodies must by definition be more substantial, more concrete, more capable of generating physical effects than anything that might be denominated as “soul” or “spirit” or “intellect” could be. Again, however, for the peoples of late Graeco-Roman antiquity, it made perfect sense to think of spiritual reality as more substantial, powerful, and resourceful than any animal body could ever be. Nothing of which a mortal, corruptible, “psychical” body is capable would have been thought to lie beyond the powers of an immortal, incorruptible, wholly spiritual being. It was this evanescent life, lived in a frail and perishable animal frame, that was regarded as the poorer, feebler, more ghostly of the two conditions; spiritual existence was something immeasurably mightier, more robust, more joyous, more plentifully alive. And this definitely seems to be the picture provided by the gospels in general. The risen Christ, possessed of a spiritual body, could eat and drink, could be felt, could break bread between his hands; but he could also appear and disappear at will, unimpeded by walls or locked doors, or could become unrecognizable to those who had known him before his death, or could even ascend from the earth and pass through the incorruptible heavens where only spiritual beings may venture.

It’s magnificent stuff. But I can’t resist noting that this is the very picture — of σώματα ἐπίγεια (“terrestrial bodies,” as Hart has it) being simply less real than σώματα ἐπουράνια (“celestial bodies”) — that forms perhaps the chief conceit of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Now, I am not suggesting that Hart needs to quote Lewis. Good old St. Jack already plays too large a role in our image of what orthodox Christianity is, and quoting him can often be counterproductive. But then, Lewis didn’t come up with this conception himself. Where did he get it? You can’t expect him to footnote a work of fiction; but when Hart uses the same concept in an essay, then maybe a citation or quotation of some kind would be appropriate and indeed helpful. For Hart to acknowledge that his understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not wholly original would, I think, enable him to make the case more plausible. (As I have suggested, had he made sure to cite his “antagonists” accurately and fairly — or at all — that would have helped too.)

It’s curious that Hart seems so consistently disinclined to do this kind of thing, and given how exceptionally intelligent Hart is, I cannot help thinking that the tendency is strategic. Hart is Orthodox, and Orthodoxy is almost defined by its account of Holy Tradition; which means that one can, if one is so inclined, dismiss the argument made by an Orthodox philosopher/theologian as a mere deference to that Tradition. It is perhaps in order to avoid being dismissed in this way that Hart disdains appeals to authority, whether religious or scholarly. One might in this context note that the core of his complaint about Wright et al. is that they sacrifice “historical fact” to “theological predispositions.” And Hart insists, in his eloquent and rather inspiring Introduction to his own translation of the New Testament, that he wants it to be “pitilessly literal” and as free from theological presupposition as he can make it — though of course he knows that he cannot erase history from his own mind.

So there may be strategic reasons for Hart to maintain a certain reticence about his intellectual inheritance. The question — for me, anyway — is whether that reticence can be maintained without falling into the “rhetoric of authority” that may win over certain kinds of readers but makes others, myself included among them, intensely suspicious.

René Girard, please call your office

About Alice Flaherty:

Years later, she consulted on a pilot for a television drama based on her life: doctor develops mania after personal catastrophe. Although the show never got off the ground, the experience became a roomful of mirrors and mirror neurons, for who better to teach empathy to a doctor than an actor?

“The actress playing me was trying to pick up my mannerisms. At the same time,” she said, recalling professional lessons learned, “I was trying to pick up hers, because she was much more convincing than I am — she had a little smile that was triumphant, but also just so happy for the patient. I was imitating her imitating me.”

the strange world of graduate study

In an article on the Avita Ronell controversy, Masha Gessen quotes a Facebook comment — apparently from a current or former student of Ronell’s — that has stuck with me. The author declined to be identified in the article, citing fear of recrimination, so nothing said in the comment can be confirmed. But I find it fascinating nonetheless:

We don’t need a conversation about sexual harassment by AR, we should instead talk about what AR and many of her generation call ‘pedagogy’ and what is still excused as ‘genius.’ When people talk about sexual harassment it’s within the logic of the symbolic order – penetration, body parts – I doubt you will find much of this here. But AR is all about manipulation and psychic violence…. AR pulls students and young faculty in by flattery, then breaks their self-esteem, goes on to humiliate them in front of others, until the only way to tell yourself and others that you have not been debased, that you have not been used by a pathological narcissist as a private slave, is that you are just so incredibly close, and that Avi is just so incredibly fragile and lonely and needs you 24/7 to do groceries, to fold her laundry, to bring her to acupuncture, to pick her up from acupuncture, to drive her to JFK, to talk to her at night, etc….

This comment brought back something that happened to me in graduate school, something that I haven’t thought about in decades.

In one of my classes I wrote my big final paper on a famous and yet almost wholly unread work, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The professor praised the paper very highly — indeed, I hadn’t written anything to that point in my grad-school career that had received as glowing an evaluation — and made it clear that he believed I had great potential. I was of course flattered by this, and when I saw that he was offering a seminar the following semester on a topic I was interested in, I signed up for it. At this late date I am not sure, but I think I was wondering whether this professor might make a good dissertation advisor; in any event, I very much looked forward to the course.

On the first day, he laid out the plan for the seminar. We would be studying an author of the first importance, he said, a figure fascinating and yet endlessly challenging. Writing about this author could bring out the best in us, or defeat us altogether; but in either case, it mattered — not, he concluded, like writing on something as useless as, say, Sidney’s Arcadia. And then he looked right at me.

After class I went away and thought about what had happened. It seemed to me that the professor was telling me, You are bright, young man, but you don’t know how to direct your abilities. If you take my guidance, I will set you on the right path. But if you continue on the path you are now going, I will have no respect for you. The more I thought about it the more sure I was (and for that matter still am) that this was the only plausible interpretation. So I walked over to the graduate office and dropped the course.

I saw the professor in the hall a week or two later, and he stopped me to ask what had happened to me. He seemed both concerned and wounded. I made an excuse of some kind — I think I said I had a scheduling conflict with my part-time job — and scurried away. We never spoke again.

Eventually I found a very different person to direct my dissertation, the brilliant and kind and odd Daniel Albright, God rest his soul. But just as Daniel and I began to work together, two things happened. First, I took a one-year appointment at Wheaton College — which turned into two, then three, and eventually twenty-nine; and second, a little later, Daniel went off for two years as a visiting professor in Germany. Remember, this was the 1980s and therefore pre-email (at least for most academic humanists). So I had a dissertation to write — in between bouts of grading freshman composition papers, hundreds and hundreds of freshman composition papers — and no ready way of being in touch with my advisor. So rather than writing a chapter, sending it off, waiting for a reply, getting the reply, incorporating revisions, sending it back — forget all that stuff, I thought — I just wrote the whole thing and when I was done, a couple of years later, I mailed it all to Daniel in Munich. A month or so later I got back his corrections and comments, all of them written, in a minuscule hand, on the front and back of one sheet of typing paper.

So what’s this little trip down memory lane all about? Just this: my realization that I have had none, absolutely none, of the experiences that, everyone says, are intrinsic to the career of a graduate student. (See this essay by Corey Robin, for instance, or this one by Chris Newfield.) No passive-aggressive games, no assertions of power, no building-up-and-then-tearing-down — not even anxieties about whether my advisor is writing me a strong enough job-recommendation letter. I already had a job, though I wasn’t sure that it would turn into a tenure-track one.

Moreover, I have spent my entire career teaching undergraduates, having played a role in but a handful of Masters’ and PhD theses, and even then a secondary one. So though I have been a professor of English and then Humanities for more than thirty years now, I am reading all these descriptions of what graduate study is really like with almost an anthropologist’s eye. What a strange and fascinating tribe! How peculiar their customs! I’m really, really glad not to be one of them.

a clear choice

Matthew Schmitz:

If the church really does believe that homosexual acts are always and everywhere wrong, it should begin to live what it teaches. This would most likely mean enforcing the 2005 decree and removing clergy members caught in unchastity. If the church does not believe what it says — and there are now many reasons to think that it does not — it should officially reverse its teaching and apologize for centuries of pointless cruelty. 

This is exactly right. Refusing to change its teaching but also refusing to uphold it is the worst of all worlds, theologically, morally, and practically. 

how change happens

There’s a general principle that underlies yesterday’s posts about the Catholic Church’s current problems, and it’s this: The more time people spend on social media, the more prone they become to recency bias, and especially the form of recency bias that inclines us to believe that what has just happened is far more important that it really is.

Everyone everywhere is prone to recency bias, but I think we are more prone to it than any society in history because our media are so attentive to the events of Now, and we are so immersed in those media that anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history. The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump. Trump knows perfectly well that his audience’s attachment to the immediate is so great that he can make virtually any scandal disappear from the public mind with three or four tweets. And the very journalists who most want to hold Trump accountable are also the most vulnerable to his changing of the subject. He’s got them on a string. They cannot resist the tweets du jour.

This tyranny of the immediate has two major effects on our political judgment. First, it disables us from making accurate assessments of threats and dangers. We may, for instance, think that we live in a time of uniquely poisonous social mistrust and open hostility, but that’s only because we have forgotten what the Sixties and early Seventies were like.

Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.


I write these words on the day following the death of Senator John McCain, and I find myself thinking about one particular moment in McCain’s long and varied career. When he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, having been so deprived of food that his weight dropped to 105 pounds, having been beaten regularly, having been thrown into solitary confinement, he one day found himself offered the possibility of freedom. His father had recently been named Commander of the U.S. forces in the Vietnamese theater, and his captors understood that releasing the young man would likely be a public-relations boon for them, an open declaration of their magnanimity. McCain refused — unless the men who had been captured with him were also released with him. This demand went unmet, and McCain not only remained in prison, he was also subjected to intensified beatings and torture so severe that for the rest of his life he would be unable to lift his arms over his head (as was often noted, he always had to have someone around to comb his hair, because he couldn’t). He waited another five years for his release.

All of which leads me to a thought, and a question. Several decades after McCain’s torture a man who had taken great care to avoid serving in the military, and who indeed had never done an hour’s work of public service, denied that McCain was a hero, mocked him for having been captured, cited McCain’s experience as proof that torture “works” — and in spite of such monstrous perversion of spirit was elected President of the United States with the overwhelming support of the very people most likely to say that they “support our troops.” How did this become possible?

The answer is: Gradually and then suddenly. We all saw the “suddenly.” But we have not thought nearly as carefully, as rigorously, as we should about the “gradually.” It’s too late to avert Trump, of course. But we damn well better be asking ourselves what else is happening gradually that will spring upon us with shocking suddenness if we don’t develop more temporal bandwidth and personal density. And do it now.

populist leaders and the defiance of norms

After the release of the Vigano letter detailing Pope Francis’s rehabilitation of Cardinal McCarrick, people started saying, “I don’t see how Francis can survive this” or “This will mark the end of Francis’s papacy.” It’s precisely the same sort of thing that people say when yet another revelation about Donald Trump comes out, or yet another member of his inner circle is convicted of a felony.

And yet there is no plausible path for Trump to be removed from office — congressional Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they will stick with him through thick and thin, and even a Democratic Senate won’t have enough votes to get him tossed out — and no path at all for Francis being forced to resign.

I think the assumption that many people make about both men is that they can be brought to heel by the force of political norms — that they will see, or those associated with them will see, that the violation of important norms makes their position unsustainable. But as I wrote 18 months ago,

Like Donald Trump, Francis makes dramatic and apparently extreme pronouncements which send the world into interpretative tizzies. When he says things like “Who am I to judge?” Catholics who support him effectively say that he should be taken “seriously but not literally” — just as Trump supporters say about their man. Both men generate massive, thick fogs of uncertainty.

Like Donald Trump, Francis cuts through political complications by issuing executive orders and blunt power grabs, as when he dismissed the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and is seeking to replace him with a “papal delegate” under his own personal control, a move of questionable legality.

Like Donald Trump, Francis is an authoritarian populist: he bypasses institutional structures and governs by executive order, but believes that there can be nothing tyrannical about this because he is acting in the name of the people and is committed to “draining the swamp” of his institution’s internal corruption.

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.

General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.

Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possess — all the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.

 

P.S. I wonder if the people who expect resignations or discipline of corrupt leaders tend to be old enough to remember stronger institutions, and more effectual norms, than the ones we have now.  Or perhaps they have participated in strong institutions. Younger people, and those whose experience with institutions has reinforced a belief in their weakness and inconsistency, don’t even bother to demand what seems to them clearly impossible.

big news, no action

The story Rod Dreher reports here would in a certain kind of world be catastrophic for the Catholic hierarchy. I do not believe that we live in that kind of world. Here’s what I think the fallout will be:

  • Pope Francis will not comment.
  • Curial spokesmen will make evasive comments, and simply deny that the Pope knew anything or did anything that would make him culpable.
  • American bishops will continue to deny that they knew anything about anything, and will, when talking among themselves, express great relief that the spotlight has shifted away from them for a while.
  • Expressions of regret will continue.
  • Committees and task forces will be convened.
  • No one will resign, and no one will be disciplined.
  • No collective action will be taken by lay Catholics.
  • The long slow drift of American Catholics away from Catholics will continue.

That’s it, I suspect. Given that (a) the statute of limitations on the worst crimes from the Pennsylvania dioceses has run out and (b) there is no institution capable of holding, or willing to hold, prelates accountable for non-criminal acts, what can happen? Nothing significant, as far as I can tell.

UPDATE 8/26: Yesterday I predicted that the Pope would not comment. Here’s what he said today on his flight from Ireland to Italy: “I read that Viganò statement this morning. I say this sincerely: read it carefully and judge for yourselves. I am not going to say a word about that. I believe that the document speaks for itself. You have the journalistic ability to draw conclusions, with your professional maturity. ” He added that he “may” talk about it in the future.

after Catholic fusionism, what?

Kevin Gallagher’s essay on “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism” is elegantly written, incisive, and largely quite persuasive. I commend it to you, and hope you read it straight through.

[Pause while you read it straight through.]

Now, I want to call attention to the essay’s final paragraph, breaking it into two parts. Here’s the first part:

Across the political spectrum, electoral dislocations and popular discontent have persuaded many that the liberal intellectual consensus of the last century is crumbling and unhelpful; what will succeed it is nowhere yet clear. But the resurgent discourse of identity suggests that the era of the naked public square is over, and political arguments made with baggage attached — representing a particular tradition, nation, or tribe — may now be admitted to the bar.

I have a question: Whose bar? Because the idea that there is a permanent, viewpoint-neutral court in which disputes can be adjudicated is the governing fiction of the very liberal order that Gallagher says is now collapsing. That belief in such a bar did indeed govern, and was indeed a fiction, was convincingly shown many years ago by Stanley Fish in the pages of First Things, back when First Things was the parish magazine of fusionism:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable.

The collapse of the liberal order means the collapse of the very category that Gallagher invokes here: “arguments made with baggage attached.” After liberalism all arguments are understood to have baggage attached, which means that the relevant question becomes: What baggage are you carrying? And the baggage carried by Catholics is simply not welcome at the bar of the New Just City. Gallagher is implicitly rehashing here the old saw that “postmodernism brings a level playing field,” when in fact it relieves the rulers of the obligation to level that field. Under the ancien regime of liberalism people needed to come up with reasons for dismissing religious positions, and typically did so, even when the reasons were very badly formed indeed; now the reasons are unnecessary. “You’re a bigot” does the job just fine. As I once heard Richard Rorty say, “The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” There may be, and indeed I think there are, good reasons to abandon fusionism, but the idea that in our current order integralist and other post-fusionism arguments will have greater purchase than fusionism did is, I fear, a fantasy.

Now on to the second half of that paragraph:

For Catholics, this is an invitation to boldness, to parrhesia: there is no point in watering down traditional teachings to comply with the norms of a decaying liberal discourse. And for non-Catholics, it offers the possibility of new political alignments, based not on a false equation of Catholicism with any other school of thought, but on the identification of genuinely shared goals. As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

Again, I agree with the conclusion but not with the reasons stated to support it. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Catholic particularism will have any more “credibility” to the society at large than Catholic fusionism did. “The Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice” not because that will be more credible or effective but because it is the Catholic tradition’s own voice. Calculations of political effectiveness are misplaced in a social environment where all substantive (and hence exclusive) religious stances are indistinguishable from the grossest bigotry. The dogma living loudly within you won’t win many friends or influence many people. But it ought to live loudly within you anyway.

Which leads me to my chief point: earlier I pointed out that Gallagher was employing a category (“arguments that carry baggage”) that in our moment has become invalid, and now I’m going to point out one that’s absent from his essay but I think has some use. That category is “Christian.” Note that Gallagher writes of “non-Catholics” and then, a little later, writes of “nonbelievers” in a way that suggests he sees the two terms as synonymous. I suggest that they aren’t. But Gallagher’s essay contains only the vaguest of hints that non-Catholic Christians exist.

This means that he doesn’t note that one of the natural outgrowths of Catholic fusionism was a certain attention to ecumenism. If, as a Catholic, you could make common cause with free-market conservatives, then you certainly ought to be able to make even more common cause with free-market conservative Protestants, especially if they also shared your views on abortion. Thus the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, which began, more or less, here and is now moribund.

For many years I tried to persuade reluctant or indifferent Catholics that this kind of ecumenism is not just feasible but mandatory. I typically did so by citing, enthusiastically and in great detail, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (See an example of this kind of argument here. I was so innocent then.) But eventually it dawned on me that the Argument from Catechism was wholly ineffective. For liberal Catholics, it is a product of the very Magisterial authority that they try hard not to think about; for integralists and other traditionalists, its close association with the much-loathed Second Vatican Council — very large chunks of the Catechism are copied and pasted from the documents of Vatican II, and this is especially true of the sections dealing with the “separated brethren” — tends to make it even less appealing to them than it is to liberals.

I just wish I had realized this about a decade earlier than I did.

So I am left with a few questions for integralists and other traditionalists. Without asking that you in any way compromise your integralism or traditionalism, I wonder:

  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you theologically?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean?
  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you politically, and especially in the American context?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean? Do you think of these particular matters in ways distinct from the fusionists?

from Welles to Saul

Here’s a passage from the Preface to my new book The Year of Our Lord 1943:

Touch of Evil, that Gothic masterpiece by Orson Welles, begins with the most famous tracking shot in the history of cinema. In muted light, we see a close-up of a kitchen timer attached to what appears to be an explosive device, held in a man’s hands. The camera pulls back to show him darting towards a nearby automobile: he sets the time — it looks like around three minutes — then furtively drops the device in the car’s trunk and scampers off. We are, we now see, in a city at night. The camera remains focused on the car as an oldish man and a young woman get into it and drive away. The camera pulls back to the rooftops and tracks backwards ahead of the car, which is soon stopped by some goats in the road. As various people move in and out of the frame, the camera continues its retreat and soon picks up a couple walking down the street. Eventually the car, having overcome its obstacles, re-enters the frame; its driver and the couple come simultaneously to a border crossing. Conversation ensues with the border patrol. When the car is waved through, it passes out of the frame; the camera stays with the couple as they embrace. Then their kiss is interrupted by the blast and flash of an explosion.

I have imitated Welles in this book. A chapter or section begins with one figure, whose ideas and writings are explored. Then, at a point when those ideas intersect, thematically and (roughly) temporally, with those of another figure, the focus shifts. We remain with that thinker for a while, then link to a third. Eventually the one with which we began rejoins the scene. The lives of the people who populate this book only rarely meet, or even correspond; but their ideas circulate from one to another constantly. It is this circulation I have tried to capture by an eccentric means of narration. What might correspond to the explosive device of Welles’s film I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Obviously I have thought about this scene quite a bit — which makes it more annoying to me that when I first watched an episode (208) of my favorite current TV show, Better Call Saul, I missed an absolutely brilliant homage to it. Here’s the scene, which begins, of course, at a USA-Mexico border crossing:

Single Shot Scene from “Better Call Saul” – “Fifi” (S2E8) from qiu on Vimeo.

Amazing stuff. I found online an interview with the director, Tom Schnauz, in which he doesn’t mention Welles. Let’s just let the homage be our secret, then.

once more on generational thinking

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, I am moved to say a couple of things I’ve said often before:

  1. I believe that thinking in terms of generations is far more likely to lead us astray than to help us understand. It encourages us to ignore a whole series of factors (class, region, religious belief or unbelief, level and kind of education, etc.) that are at least as important as date of birth.
  2. If you must think in generation terms, then use Joshua Glenn’s more fine-grained and thoughtful scheme. Otherwise you’ll use absurd categories like “Boomer,” which has Donald Trump and Barack Obama in the same generation, which is manifestly absurd.

That said, people do think in rather crude generational terms and it has a major effect on our social discourse — but not one that is equally distributed. As a rule, your ideas get attributed to your generation when you’re under 30 or over 60. In between your ideas might be popular or they might be scorned, but they generally won’t be explained by your generational placement — though they might be explained by your gender or sexuality or (rarely) social class, for Bulverism we shall always have with us.

When you’re noticeably younger than the people we tend to see in leading roles on TV and in the movies, or noticeably older, your age is registered and then deployed as a causal agent — almost always in order to dismiss your ideas. (Rod’s post is unusual in that it gives equal weight to the influence of generations on people in the in-between years.)

I’ve been told that I think the way I do because I’m white, because I’m straight, because I’m a Christian, because I’m Southern — but rarely, to my recollection, because of my age. I’m pretty sure that’s about to change. In a few weeks I’ll turn sixty, and then I will have the rest of my life in which to enjoy having my ideas waved away because of the year in which I was born. Which ought to be fun.

I have one question

Avital Ronell is “original and inspiring.”

I’m sure. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Her “mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years.”

I will gladly take your word for it. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

She is “a powerful, radical, queer, feminist, professor who has always spoken out for the marginalized in society.”

Okay. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“It’s not the same thing to accuse a male person in power versus accusing a woman. It’s just not the same thing, because we’ve got a culture and a very long history in which males were dominant and abusing their power.”

I concede the point. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“People know that she is very friendly and open and crosses traditional boundaries in relationships with her students.”

Duly noted. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Ronell “is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.”

This could very well be true. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

episcopal feelings

One of the more curious aspects of the fallout from the recent revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is the emergence of a certain language of emotion. For instance, Richard Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, wants his flock to know that when he took his recent vacation his “time away for R&R was clouded by the challenges we are facing right now in our diocese.“ He found that his mind was “preoccupied” and his heart was “troubled.” He had feelings. We know that he cares, we know that he takes these “challenges” seriously, because of the feelings he had — even at the beach.

The idea that underlies this kind of communication is made quite explicit in this interview with Fr. Hans Zollner, “a member of the Vatican Commission against paedophilia and president of the Child Protection Centre established at the Pontifical Gregorian University.” The key moment comes when Zollner is asked if the Church is doing enough to protect children and to respond to its past failures to protect them. Zollner’s response: “If we talk about these cases and remain shocked, it means we are taking them seriously.” He goes on in the usual vacuously bureaucratic way to describe the scheduling of “meetings and workshops,” but really the whole substance of his response is this: What matters is how we the clergy feel.

Were your children abused? Well, just look at how “shocked” I am. There. Better now?

When conservative and traditionalist Catholics talk about changes in the Church since Vatican II, one of their most constant themes is the near-disappearance of Confession, of the sacrament of Penance. You can find plenty of commentary on this phenomenon not just in Catholic venues — here and here, for instance — but also in Slate and the Washington Post. (That last piece, from 2007, is about a big push for a return to Confession in the Archdiocese of Washington by its then-newly-appointed archbishop, Donald Wuerl.) There are many speculations about why confession has fallen into such disfavor, but I won’t get into those here, because I have a different point to make.

One could argue that the really key thing about the historical, now almost lost, understanding of penance is this: it’s not something you feel, it’s something you do. There’s an excellent moral realism in this emphasis. Feelings come and go; feelings can be manufactured or pretended-to. But actions — you either do those or you don’t. You say your paternosters or you don’t say them. You wear sackcloth and pour ashes on your head, or not. You take the road to Canossa or you stay home.

Now, to be sure, these actions can be taken for impure reasons. Maybe you wear the sackcloth because you want people to see how holy you are; maybe you kneel before the Pope because you want to keep your crown. But you’re putting yourself to trouble, maybe to some really significant trouble. Moreover, as Bertolt Brecht noted, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” There are costs to acts of penance, some known, some unknown and unanticipated.

The declaration of feeling, by contrast, is cost-free. Nothing is easier than to say that one’s heart was troubled at the beach, or that one is shocked — shocked! — by further revelations of abuse. Which is why so many Christians are begging the bishops to do something, something that enacts penitence, or at least grief. But the most the bishops, who themselves seem wholly unaware of the enacted grammar of penance, are willing to do is to speak of their feelings.

Oh wait, they also schedule workshops. My bad. Complaint retracted.

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