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Lenten silence

Friends, there will be no posts here (or on Text Patterns, or on Twitter) until the Easter season. Blessings to you all.

the Map of Peace

Barth: great hope and little hopes

Hope seizes, or rather is seized by, the promise of the future. To that extent, it is the great hope, the expectation of the eternal life, which has still to be manifested and given to us, confidence in the coming Jesus Christ as the end and new beginning of all things, the joy in anticipation of the perfect being of man and all creatures in the service of God which is pledged because it is already actualized in Him. As it seizes the promise of the future it is in every respect – not only hope which derives from Him but also hope in Him as the eternally living One. He, the content of the promise and object of hope, cannot be replaced by any other. If there is also a small hope for today and tomorrow, if there are also temporal, penultimate, provisional and detailed hopes for the immediate future, it is only because He is the future One who shows himself in every future.

Where there is the great hope, necessarily there are also small hopes for the immediate future. These hopes have their basis and strength only in the great hope. They are small, relative and conditioned. In their detailed content, they may be mistaken and open to correction. But within these limits they are genuine hopes. And it is certainly in these many little hopes that the Christian lives from day to day if he really lives in the great hope. And perhaps he is most clearly distinguished from the non-Christian by the fact that, directed to the great hope, and without any illusions, he does not fail and is never weary to love daily in these little hopes. But this necessarily means that he is daily willing and ready for the small and provisional and imperfect service of God which the immediate future will demand of him because a great and final and perfect being in the service of God is the future of the world and all men, and therefore his future also.

Church Dogmatics IV/1, pp. 120-122

“the death of gods is a chain reaction”

A mythology, if it is to be effective, must be all-encompassing. The death of gods is a chain reaction; each drags another down into the abyss. Abyssus abyssum invocat. Hence the necessity – of which experienced priests are well aware – of maintaining the mythology as a system in which every detail is equally important and equally holy. The logic of mythology is familiar to every priest; it is there in his mind when he says: today you will miss Mass, tomorrow you will curse God, and the day after that you will become a Bolshevik. This is why only Stalinism, because it was all-encompassing, was a viable mythology. Stalin’s priests said: today you will admire a painting by Paul Klee, tomorrow you will cease admiring socialist-realist architecture, the day after that you will start to doubt the leap from quantity to quality, and the day after that you will renounce your loyalty to Caesar. And since Caesar’s rule is the rule of the people, you will be an enemy of the people. So by admiring a painting by Paul Klee you become an enemy of the people in potentia; you are ‘objectively’ an enemy of the people, a spy and a saboteur. The power of this strategy, confirmed by centuries of historical experience, is undeniable. And its collapse had to be as total as its rule had been: a chain of divinities, collapsing like a pack of cards. What folly to imagine it was possible to extract just one!

— Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Gods”

advice to teachers

Just a quick follow-up to my last post:

So you’re a teacher, and your students don’t meet your expectations. They’re not well-informed. They know nothing of Shakespeare. None of them get your sly biblical allusions. They can’t write elegant sentences. When they speak they punctuate every third word with “like.” When they think of God at all, they think of Him as a celestial fairy godfather who’s supposed to ensure that they get what they want in life.

Here’s my advice to you:

Teach them. Nobody promised you that all your students would know everything they need to know — everything that you didn’t know when you were their age. And if at their age you knew things they don’t know, then give thanks to God for your blessings and have pity on those who were not so blessed. Teach them. Take them wherever they are and move them a step or two forward. Stop your ceaseless, pointless whining and do your job. For the love of God, do your freakin’ job and shut the hell up.

excerpts from my Sent folder: kids these days

The percentage of young people willing to entertain a genuinely countercultural Gospel has always been small. It hasn’t changed in my 35 years of teaching. I can introduce you to students who would make you despair for humanity, but I can also introduce you to students — Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical — who would give you great hope for the future of the Christian faith. 

Seriously, I don’t get these people: what planet do they come from? Do they really remember, thirty years ago, teaching to a roomful of rapt scholars eager to absorb the richness of Christian tradition? Not a world I ever knew. Most people — here, now, and always — just want to go along to get along. Those who are open to the risks of genuine education are rare, were always rare, will ever be rare. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 

hi

one more note on motivated reasoning

This is something I’ve been worrying over, specifically as a Christian, for a long time:

… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn’t lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can’t endorse.

So it’s quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it’s not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.

Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, “OK, if you want what I’m giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor.” And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.

I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I’m thinking, “What is this passage demanding of me?” It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, “What does it mean for me?” So far, I haven’t decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that’s because I’m an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I’m not taking my beliefs seriously enough.

So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that’s only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn’t solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.

— from an interview I gave thirteen years ago.

on spears, throats, and motivated reasoning

Some really good words from Matthew Loftus here:

I want the BenOp to succeed because I do think that Christian communities in the West will need to implement the principles Rod talks about in order to remain faithful in the generations to come. I am pretty much in agreement with Rod on the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it. Yet I (and many of my peers like me) are deeply sympathetic to Emma’s line of questioning because we have to find an answer to this question in order to live out the Bible’s commands in our daily lives, bear witness to non-believing friends, and teach our children how to do the same. Dealing with a world that hates us is nothing new, but every age will bring with it unique opportunities and challenges for how to do so joyfully. If the Holy Spirit is working in our world, then we have to ask where and how He is bringing about new life and testifying to Jesus in others – and being confident that we can participate with the Spirit in such a way as to even break “the tip of the spear at our throats”.

If Rod and other BenOp enthusiasts want non-Christians to parse between not wanting LGBT activists to drive Christians out of business and not wanting to get away from LGBT people, they’re going to have to start that parsing themselves because Christians have failed to do this over and over in the last few decades. If they don’t want journalists to make bad faith assumptions about their work, they’re going to have to stop making bad faith assumptions about every possible manifestation of LGBT activism. Most importantly, if we expect the Church to endure the threat posed by the Sexual Revolution (and thrive beyond it!), then explaining how Christians love and serve LGBT people – particularly under the regime which the BenOp anticipates – is inevitably part of bearing witness. A Benedict Option that isn’t good for LGBT people will not stand the test of time.

I say Amen to almost every word of this, but that last sentence leaves me uneasy. What I find myself asking is whether people who share Matthew’s views of sexuality can agree with many LGBT people, especially activists, about what is “good for LGBT people.” Isn’t rather significant conflict inevitable here? That doesn’t in any way abrogate or even compromise the commandment that we Christians “love and serve” those who, for whatever reason, mistrust us — even those who curse and persecute us. We don’t get to turn away in hatred of or even indifference to those who have declared themselves our enemies, much less those who are merely our fellow-citizens about which we disagree on some matters. But I do think we need to reckon straightforwardly with the costs. If we teach our children “the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it” — and they accept that teaching, which, frankly, is not very likely — then they’re going to suffer for that, far more than most of us do.

I have some problems with the way Rod presents the BenOp — for instance, I really dislike the “tip of the spear at our throats” metaphor and all that it implies — and I’ve suggested alternative ways to describe the situation, for instance in this post. But I admit that I’ve given more attention to criticizing the critiques of Rod’s articulation of the BenOp — I am, as it were, consistently anti-anti-BenOp — and there’s a reason for that: I, and most of my friends and fellow believers who have been highly critical of the BenOp, have very strong motives for thinking that Rod’s diagnosis and prescription are both wrong.

We have an interest in accepting the general cultural consensus about sexuality and gender. And if we can’t manage to accept it, we have an interest in soft-pedaling our beliefs, both publicly and to our children. Accepting, explicitly or tacitly, that consensus may in some cases open doors of professional and social opportunity to us and our families; vocally refusing to accept it would certainly close doors. We have an interest in believing that we can continue to live more-or-less as we have lived, that it is not necessary to change anything radically, or put ourselves or our families at risk.

Now, to be sure, there are certainly people whose interests lie in the other direction: who might lose social position, or be cast out of church communities, or even lose their jobs, if they were to express doubt about the traditional Christian take on sexuality. But that’s not where I, or my friends and BenOp debating partners, are. So what I would really like from many critics of the BenOp — and by the way, I don’t mean Matthew Loftus here, who has a very nuanced response to the whole movement, as you can see, for instance, in this post — is a frank acknowledgment of the dangers of motivated reasoning and an account of what they’re doing to avoid it.

As for me, I don’t think I’m avoiding it very well. My particular situation, my particular personal and vocational path, leads me to want to be theologically conservative enough to be acceptable to the Christian institutions I love but not so theologically conservative that I can’t get published by reputable secular magazines and publishers. And lo and behold, my convictions perfectly match my interests! How remarkably fortunate for me!

And this is why I’m reluctant simply to dismiss the BenOp, even as formulated in Rod’s the-spear-is-at-our-throat mode. Such dismissal would be wonderfully convenient for me; and I think it is convenient for many of the BenOp’s critics as well. That doesn’t make them wrong, of course; but I’d like to see more frequent acknowledgment of the possibility that, like me, they’re prone to allow their interests to dictate their opinions.

Because the other possibility is that they’re just better Christians than I am. And that I definitely have an interest in disbelieving.

hate + stupidity 

Christians who want religious liberty only for Christians are managing the remarkable twofer of maximal uncharitableness and maximal stupidity. They are enthusiastically handing boxes of ammunition to those secularists who think that Christians don’t give a damn about religious liberty but are only clutching desperately at what little remains of their social power. Why should secularists value religious liberty when Christians don’t? — when Christians would rather eviscerate the First Amendment than allow Muslims the rights that Christians enjoy?  They are like the woman who, when faced with a great choice by Solomon, preferred that the baby she said was hers be cut in half rather than have it go to another woman. Let us all be chained rather than Muslims live free — that’s their position. 

unfair, unbalanced, and afraid

I admire British journalism and have always thought American papers should be more like the British. But it is startling to see how vicious the New York Times has become and a little unfair to Trump. If he is paranoid, you can’t completely blame him. There is also the argument that you help him by encouraging victimisation, the idea that the eastern media elite is out to get him.

Michael Kinsley. I think Kinsley is right about this, and as a result, though I think Trump is a nightmarishly terrible President, I no longer read anything in the NYT except Ross Douthat’s columns. In general, and with only the occasional exception, the Times does not care whether what its reporters say about Trump and his supporters is fair or not. Trump’s description of the major news media as his “opposition” strikes me as an essentially accurate description, and while on one hand I think he deserves all the opposition he gets, on the other hand I’d like newspapers, magazines, and even some television networks to be places where I can go to find out what’s actually happening in the world — rather than places to accumulate anti-Trump ammunition.

Eno’s rough drafts

An iTunes playlist of rough drafts contains 4412 tracks; the most recent of them, something called “Jubilant Hair Sad,” was made just the night before. “I can’t remember what it is,” he says. We listen to it for a moment: slow string pads—the kernel of an idea, maybe, but not much more. “That’s not very interesting,” he says, turning it off. Perhaps part of genius is knowing when to give up on a ho-hum idea and move on.

— A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music | Pitchfork

good to go 

My social media are either deleted or shut off in some way, but it’s not hermitage, because friends and comrades know how to reach me. I’ve just turned the volume control down on the world, and I focus on other things, in other ways. It brings me peace, and peace brings me clarity, and clarity brings me energy. Good to go.

Warren Ellis

on narcissism

Allen Frances writes:

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

This is surely a good cautionary word, but I have some questions, and the primary one is: How does Dr. Frances, who has not examined Trump and has probably never met him, know that Trump “does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder”? What empirical knowledge does he have about Trump’s distress or lack thereof? Frances claims that “Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it,” but surely it is possible for a person to cause and experience distress? It seems to me that if you can violate the Goldwater Rule by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely has a disorder, you can also violate it by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely does not have that disorder. Dr. Frances seems just as overconfident as the people whose letter he’s responding to.

The first two books of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy offered some of the most vividly, magnificently imagined fantasy I’ve ever read. Then the third book degenerated into an absurdly preachy, didactic, hectoring account of Wicked Wicked Bad Guys (anyone associated with the Church) and Blindingly Righteous Good Guys (anyone not associated with the Church). From the description Pullman has offered of the forthcoming Book of Dust — “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free” — it sounds like he has decided to double down on the very worst features of his previous work. What a shame.

two descriptions of the university

It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form – though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, “Sorry, there’s no call for it.” But if you ask for Wisdom – God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.

— Maria Magdalena Theotoky

Lots of youth in a university, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an institution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned man; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded…. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.

— The Warden of Ploughwright College

(Both quotations from The Rebel Angels, that wicked and wonderful novel by Robertson Davies. There may be found in the book a third description of what a university is, and who its ultimate patrons are. But that the enterprising reader may discover.)

resourceful Christianity

Rod Dreher has been asking lately whether various Christian traditions possess the resources that need to practice a genuinely countercultural form of Christianity — what Rod is calling the Benedict Option. He’s been getting different answers about different traditions from different people, but for what it’s worth, my answer is that every Christian tradition that is a tradition has all the resources it needs — except, perhaps, the one resource without which all the others are useless.

In today’s post he quotes a passage from his forthcoming book in which he asks Marco Sermarini, one of the leaders of an intentional Christian community in Italy, what other Christians can learn from what Marco and his friends are doing: “Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground.”

That’s it, I think. You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)

Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.

Austin Chronicle: Where are you, in an office or a small room fielding calls?

Tom Waits: I’m out on my own recognizance in the day room, gluing pieces of macaroni on cardboard and painting it gold. After that I get to make a belt that says, “Whipped by the forces within me” on the back.

current status

Mr. Penumbra in Japan

Japanese cover for Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (via Robin on Twitter)

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