I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.
In the aftermath of the blockade on April 6, the College learned important lessons that must further strengthen our resolve. Our Athenaeum must continue to invite the broadest array of speakers on the most pressing issues of the day. Our faculty must help us understand how to mitigate the forces that divide our society. Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments.
I see Rod is still engaging his critics, and now we’re into the deep weeds of just how important Obergefell is or is not for the future of American Christianity, something about which I don’t have any firm opinion. I wonder whether it might not be possible to simplify the issues at stake a bit, and in that cause I have prepared the following chart. You’re welcome.
What contemporary theorists of civility can and should take away from [Roger] Williams is his recognition of the inevitable disagreeableness of disagreement…. Faced with a heated disagreement, both participants and observers find it difficult to separate the condemnation of another’s position and contempt for her person. It’s precisely this difficulty that we call upon the virtue of “civility” to alleviate.
If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken. As long as we are determined to trace every difference of opinion to some aspect of identity or perspectival privilege, we will continue to win arguments by proclaiming our own epistemic authority and to refute our opponents by impugning theirs. In the face of this politics of purity and the resultant proliferation of ad hominem, Williams reminds us that responses other than ostracism and outrage are possible, while providing a model of how coexistence and cooperation might work.
It strikes me that the future of the Roman Catholic Church in my lifetime, and perhaps well beyond, may largely be determined by which of his two predecessors Pope Francis takes as his model for the final stage of a papacy. For John Paul II, the increasing frailty and illness of his last years were almost a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inner radical dependence on God. (“Though he slay me, I will yet trust in him.”) For him, the public bearing of affliction was a necessary consequence of the burden he had taken on when he assumed the seat of St. Peter. For Benedict, by contrast, those burdens were to be set aside when honest self-reflection told him he could no longer stand under them.
I am not interested in judging either choice – indeed, only God can do that – but rather merely in pointing out that if Francis follows John Paul’s model he could be Pope for a very long time, and therefore, even if (or especially if) he gradually turns over more and more decisions to his subordinates and allies, could reshape the Church so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine how it could be set back on the path that both John Paul and Benedict set it on. Conversely, if he follows Benedict’s model and resigns – which it has been reported he has occasionally said he would do – then there is at least a chance for the next conclave to engineer a reversal of course.
I do not know whether any Pope has ever made a more significant decision than the one that Francis will make about how his papacy should end. And it is Deeply ironic that a decision must be made only because of a dramatic innovation by that great traditionalist, Benedict.
[Nancy MacLean] has continued this narrative of being “under attack” in various interviews, and most recently in a story in Inside Higher Ed, where fellow progressives echo this language.
This notion of being “attacked” is particularly fascinating to me. Let’s be clear what she means: people who know a lot about Buchanan, public choice theory, and libertarianism have taken issue with her scholarship and have patiently and carefully documented the places where she has made errors of fact or interpretation, or mangled and misused source materials and quotes. That is all that they have done.
None of this was coordinated nor was it part of a conspiracy from the Koch brothers. It was scholars doing what scholars do when they are confronted with bad scholarly work, especially when it touches on issues we know well.
None of these critics, and I am among them, have called for physical violence against her. None have contacted her employer. None have called her publisher or Amazon to have the book taken down. Contrary to her claim, the only silence in this whole episode is her own refusal to respond to legitimate scholarly criticism. We don’t want to silence her – we eagerly await her response.
— Steven Horwitz. The whole post gives some good recommendations for how to engage healthily in intellectual disputation.
1. A university is an institution with circumscribed responsibilities which engages in a contract with its students. Its main responsibility is to provide them with an education. It is not an arbiter over their lives, 24/7. What they do on their own time is none of the university’s business.
2. One of the essential values in higher education is that people can differ in their values, and that these differences can be constructively discussed. Harvard has a right to value mixed-sex venues everywhere, all the time, with no exceptions. If some of its students find value in private, single-sex associations, some of the time, a university is free to argue against, discourage, or even ridicule those choices. But it is not a part of the mandate of a university to impose these values on its students over their objections.
3. Universities ought to be places where issues are analyzed, distinctions are made, evidence is evaluated, and policies crafted to attain clearly stated goals. This recommendation is a sledgehammer which doesn’t distinguish between single-sex and other private clubs. It doesn’t target illegal or objectionable behavior such as drunkenness or public disturbances. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could it be seen as an effective, rationally justified, evidence-based policy tailored to reduce sexual assault.
4. This illiberal policy can only contribute to the impression in the country at large that elite universities are not dispassionate forums for clarifying values, analyzing problems, and proposing evidence-based solutions, but are institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.
Now, more than half of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on our culture…. Why? Certainly in part because conservative media focused its attention on the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses, places where students would be sheltered from controversial or upsetting information or viewpoints. This idea quickly spread into a broader critique of left-wing culture, but anecdotal examples from individual universities, such as objections to scheduled speakers and warnings in classrooms, became a focal point.
— The new culture war targeting American universities appears to be working – The Washington Post. I remember when blaming the media for reporting on bad behavior, rather than blaming the people behaving badly, was a Republican thing.
Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.
– the mass defunding of higher education that’s yet to come – the ANOVA. I think Freddie is clearly right about this, and it’s interesting to think about why so many in the academic left are so oblivious to the disaster they’re courting, so convinced that a right-wing smackdown of public (and, as Freddie explains, also private) universities can’t happen. To some extent this is a sunk-costs phenomenon: people who have invested their careers in a particular narrative, and in a particular set of rhetorical strategies associated with that narrative, have a great deal of difficulty accepting the failure of that narrative. In this sense leftish academics are just like the True Believers in free enterprise who simply can’t accept that climate change is both real and dangerous: after all, such acceptance would require them to change their ways! Dramatically!
But I think the left has an additional trait that makes adjusting to reality even harder for them: the belief, deeply embedded in the whole progressive Weltanschauung, that social and moral progress is inevitable and irresistible. Every defeat, then, is a mere blip on the screen, or a bit of static that momentarily disrupts the elegant music of enlightenment. The whole national government in the hands of Republicans? The great majority of state governments also in the hands of Republicans? No worries! This too will pass, and soon.
Well, we’ll see.
You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.
But even The Sandwich Bar Anecdote itself isn’t bad — it makes a valid and important point, one that finds an analogue in the experience of many of us. Look at this post by Rod Dreher for some good examples, from his own experience and from some of his readers as well.
One Christmas I bought my parents the most expensive gift I had ever given them: a big basket of fruit and cheese and pastries and various other goodies from Harry & David. It arrived several days before I could get home myself, and when I arrived at their house I saw the basket sitting in a corner of the living room, removed from its box but unopened. They never did open it. They were pissed. They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was “fancy” in a way they thought totally inappropriate. “But it’s just fruit and cheese!” I said. “I can buy fruit and cheese at Kroger,” my dad growled. I started to explain that it was exceptionally good fruit and cheese, but then realized that that wouldn’t work: for one thing, it was the opposite of what I had just said (“It’s just fruit and cheese”), and for another, I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.
It didn’t have to be food: I could have bought them clothes they also thought “fancy” and they probably would have been equally disdainful. But I think food is generally perceived as sending especially strong signals — perhaps because it involves “consumption” in a completely literal sense. It is what you take into yourself, and while Jesus may have said that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, for most people that’s an unnatural point of view. I will always remember in this regard Rod’s story about how disgusted his family were when he and Julie made bouillabaisse for them — even though pretty much everybody in Louisiana has eaten fish stew.
I didn’t buy my parents any more food for Christmas, and from then on when I shopped for them I shopped at Wal-Mart.
Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.
Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and then says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate, myself.” What result?
In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. […]
Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.
— Mark Movsesian, St. John’s Law School, New York. A fascinating case study for people who tend to think these disputes are all about the sexual revolution. As it turns out, and as I have sometimes suggested, demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.
Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.
“I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”
Usually when I write a post, it’s not because I think the subject is the most important thing going on in the world. Sometimes I write about a topic because I don’t think anyone else will make the same point, or because I happen to know something about it, or because something caught my eye and I can write a quick comment about it. Very often that means there are other topics that I consider more important than the one I’m discussing, but about which I don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation, or don’t have the time to address adequately, etc. …
It is certainly fair to look at someone’s body of work for a sense of what he thinks is most important – although even that exercise can go awry, because a person’s sense of his comparative advantage might not line up with his sense of importance – but it’s wrong to look at one or two posts that way. I find, though, that even the occasional tweet gets treated this way by some readers. So, for example, any jape about liberals, no matter how mild, is sure to draw the response that obviously I am trying to divert attention from some terrible thing Donald Trump is doing, which is what everyone really should be talking about. It seems to me that this is not a healthy way to read, think, or be.
— Ramesh Ponnuru. I co-sign this vigorously.
I wrote recently about not writing about politics, but I have been reminded this morning that such avoidance is more easily vowed than accomplished — and not because I’m tempted to crawl back into those fetid waters, but rather because the waters keep rising and contaminating the previously safe, dry ground.
Example: yesterday President Trump gave a bland, vacuous speech about Western values, the achievements of the West, blah blah blah — the kind of speech that politicians give all the time and that could have been given (with very few modifications) by Barack Obama — and now, as Rod Dreher points out, leftish people are freaking out over the secret alt-right dog-whistly meanings of the speech. Which means that if I want to comment here about the book I am currently reading, those comments — and probably the book itself — will be understood within the context of this ever-spreading and increasingly idiotic partisan wrangling.
Near the end of the post, Rod writes, “If standing against this kind of liberal insanity means I have to stand with Donald Trump, well, okay, I’ll stand with Donald Trump. I won’t like it, but at least Donald Trump doesn’t hate his own civilization.” Y’all know I love Rod, but I’m going to part company with him on this one. Donald Trump indeed does hate his civilization — or, more accurately, he despises it. He just doesn’t say he does. Like pitch, he defiles what he touches, and people obsessed by his every word, people whose hatred of him controls their minds, simply spread the defilement. It does not seem to occur to Trump’s most vocal denouncers that they are aiding and abetting his lust to own the world’s mindspace — and so helping him clinch his biggest real estate deal ever. His haters are his unpaid apprentices.
I will not choose between Trump and his haters. There are better ways to live, and the vital questions raised by the complex history (and even more complex inheritance) of the Western world extend far beyond this moment in electoral politics. Therefore “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one I have never asked to be a part of.” But exclusion from the narrative is much more easily wished-for than achieved.
Now commencement speakers are also expected to give some advice. They give grand advice, and they give some useful tips. The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically, but you should — you should be yourself. But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes. In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be. But you can’t be yourself if you don’t learn who are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it.
Full transcript here. I’ve never seen a better commencement speech.
I am by most measures a pretty deeply committed Christian. I am quite active in my church; I teach at a Christian college; I have written extensively in support of Christian ideas and belief. Yet when I ask myself how much of what I do and think is driven by my religious beliefs, the honest answer is “not so much.” The books I read, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my hobbies and interests, the thoughts that occupy my mind throughout the greater part of every day – these are, if truth be told, far less indebted to my Christianity than to my status as a middle-aged, middle-class American man.
Of course, I can’t universalize my own experience – but that experience does give me pause when people talk about the immense power of religion to make people do extraordinary things. When people say that they are acting out of religious conviction, I tend to be skeptical; I tend to wonder whether they’re not acting as I usually do, out of motives and impulses over which I could paint a thin religious veneer but which are really not religious at all.
Most of today’s leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting in these matters. Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like [Christopher] Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company’s products. Discerning a difference between people’s professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.
Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It’s not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?
— Me, nine years ago. I still hold this view.
Only those narrow few who benefit from today’s system of elite rule could possibly see such rule as a good thing, or contemplate its further entrenchment. For the rest of us, the old cliché about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others remains as true as ever. It is certainly preferable to epistocracy and oligarchy, which empower the most arrogant and least self-aware segment of society to make decisions about the lives of those whom they do not understand or care about. However dysfunctional our democracies may get, it will remain true that the people least qualified for power are those who are most convinced that they should have it.
After Henrik Ibsen became a great man, a great artist, one of the most famous people in Europe, fans and scholars made their way to the places in Norway where he grew up to seek reminiscences. Michael Meyer, in his massive biography of Ibsen, records that one woman from Ibsen’s home town of Skien recalled seeing him, when he was a small boy, walking to school in the mornings, and what she remembered above all was that he often wore a red woolen cap. The snow on the banks of the path he walked would typically block the boy from sight, so that all she could see, from the window of her house, was the vivid color of the cap bouncing above the whiteness. Ibsen became the greatest dramatist of the nineteenth century, but to this woman he would always be, first and last, a small boy with a bright red cap on his head, walking to school through the snowy streets of a small Norwegian town.
The ugly secret of newspapers is that copy editors do a great deal of what non-journalism people think reporters or other editors, with fancier titles, do. They have for generations caught typos; deleted potentially horrifying factual errors; made 20 inches of bloated copy into a tight, bright, and juicy 12; noticed inconsistencies in a narrative and put a reporter on the phone to walk through fixing them; pushed back against the use of empty political jargon; made sure the photos matched the story; made sure stories get to the point before readers become bored; and done what is easily one of the most important jobs of all—crafting the headlines that make people read the stories.
The Christian church has another narrative, but we must teach it to ourselves over and over repeatedly, or the world will run away with it altogether. For at least fifty years, the majority of clergy in the majority of congregations have allowed the church’s teaching about death and funerals to deteriorate, and have let the traditional burial service slip away in favor of any number of generic, syncretistic intrusions. Returning to the power of the Christian gospel in life and in death is not only an affirmation; as such, it is a form of resistance to the story that the secular spiritualists are telling us. My husband and I are preparing to put our funeral wishes on file with the church from which we will be buried. The list will include such things as the presence of the body in the church (covered with the church’s funeral pall), real pallbearers (not undertakers), a significant sermon about death and resurrection, strong hymns, no “eulogies,” and the conspicuous absence of the phrase “a celebration of the life of…” on the front page of the program. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service is called “The Burial of the Dead.” If that is too stark, a fine alternative is “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”
When Jobs announced the device, he called it “a revolutionary product”, one of those that comes along and “changes everything”. In many ways he was right. Merchant describes it as an agent of “civilisation-scale transformation”, the first universally desired, portable technology since clothes. But by the end of the book he backs away from this a bit. A welcome note of humility comes from an engineer who helped build the software: he points out that devices tend only to dazzle in their moment: “My wife is a painter. She does oil painting. When she does something, it’s there forever. Technology – in 20 years, who’s going to care about an iPhone?”
— Jacob Mikanoswki. I suppose that depends on what you mean by “care about an iPhone”: in 20 years iPhones as such may not exist, but I suspect that most people will care very much about the always-connected way of life that the iPhone first made feasible and attractive. In the same way, if in the future every word of text is produced and distributed digitally, no one will care about the printing press; they may not even know what a printing press is; but they will care very much about the world the printing press first made possible. (I’m not saying that the iPhone as an invention is as important as the printing press. I’m also not saying that it won’t be.)
I’m trying to make myself stop talking about politics, for the most part — I will make the very occasional exception for the two issues I am, personally and professionally, deeply invested in: religious freedom and higher-education policy. And even then I want to speak only after a waiting period in which others may be able to state my position more knowledgeably and wisely than I can.
As I explained to a friend earlier today, I’m taking this path (or hoping to) because I worry about the health of many of the good things that politics, properly speaking, exists in order to protect and nurture. I thus find myself remembering this famous letter from John Adams to Abigail, written from Paris:
I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelain, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.
We can be thankful that John Adams made that decision. But it is not a decision to which we should apply a categorical imperative, because if every person of his time had made the same choice, then several generations could have gone by without the production of Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain (and most of these are not the sorts of arts that are readily learned from the mere observation of existing examples). I worry about a society that has so lost the taste for such things that it will no longer know what it’s missing when they’re gone. I worry about a politics that has become an all-encompassing end in itself — an endless series of victories and losses and more victories and more losses — rather than a means by which, as Adams understood, room is to be made for pursuits far better than partisan disputation and maneuvering.
The best of the human order is damaged by these political obsessions. The artist who neglects his craft in order to agitate full-time will soon have no craft to exercise — or to pass down to younger artists. The scholar who abandons the archive for the protest march may return — if she ever does return — to find the archive abolished, its contents destroyed, because when the time of decision came there was no one present with the knowledge and love necessary to protect it. Auden once wrote in praise of those who forget “the appetitive goddesses” in order to take the momentous step of pursuing their own weird private obsessions:
There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,
to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,
the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.
Likewise, there should be some people in our land unsure who the President is, wholly unaware of the latest legislative wrangle — even when such matters directly affect them — because they are absorbed in something else that they love, that they can’t help focusing on, that they can’t manage to turn aside from. I don’t know how many such people there should be, or whether you should join their company. But I strongly suspect that there ought to be more of them than Facebook and Twitter currently allow. And I want to be one too.
What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.
It’s rare for me to disagree with my friend Ross Douthat as strongly as I do when reading this column. Alas, Ross has fallen under the malign influence of Spotted Toad, who in turn has fallen under the malign influence of all those people — cited in both those posts — who think that the right way to read the Harry Potter series is as an allegory of current partisan politics. Ross and Toad accept that essential premise of allegorical reading and merely tweak the algorithms to yield different results. And those results are slightly less bad interpretations of the series than offered by the kind of person who thinks it wickedly subversive to sort Theresa May into Slytherin.
Ross’s view — see his last sentence for a summary — is that the Potter books are “ultimately childish” because they do not serve as a nuanced and subtle Statesman’s Manual. But that critique only makes sense on the prior assumption that books are fundamentally about our own political order, especially the formation of its ruling class. And that’s not a very good assumption.
The chief problem with the idea that wizards somehow stand for the ruling class, and that Hogwarts is therefore the equivalent of Eton and Harrow, or Harvard and Yale, and that the exclusion of Muggles from Hogwarts represents the ways that the ruling class policies its own boundaries and keeps the riffraff out, is simply this: the wizards don’t rule the Muggles. They have as little to do with the Muggles as they possibly can; indeed, many of them are willing to live in uncomfortable circumstances, in conditions that look like sheer poverty, rather than try to make their way in the Muggle world.
And that in itself should be a strong hint of what — if we must allegorize the wizarding world of the books to our own everyday reality, which for the record I deny — a much better connection would be: art and music.
Think about it: In childhood, Harry finds that he has certain interests and gifts that his bourgeois family find weird, useless, and even disgusting — not gifts at all but some kind of perversion. Then, at the cusp of adolescence, he discovers that there is a whole world out there of people who share those gifts and interests, and who believe that, though only some people intrinsically have what it takes to pursue such matters, the ones who do have it must work hard to fulfill their gift: talent must be enhanced by disciplined craft. The vast majority of people who seek such mastery come from families that also value it; very few lack that supportive background in which the requisite abilities seem both natural and praiseworthy.
Because people who lack that family background don’t quite act right, talk right, look right, they can be disdained in spite of their gifts, and can find themselves feeling excluded — or at best treated as second-class citizens — both by their bourgeois family and their new, supposedly enlightened community. But in general that community is built around a shared commitment to what they all believe in, and all can do: their disdain is typically turned outward, towards those outside, those who Just Don’t Get It. They reject all the trappings of that contemptible world: they don’t want its money, they don’t want the false prestige it offers. They mark their alienation from that world by where they live, what they eat, perhaps above all how they dress. When they appear in the bourgeois world they are immediately recognized as weirdos, but they don’t care. They don’t care because they know what really matters.
Hogwarts isn’t a school for the ruling class; it’s an arts school. The series isn’t about the One Percent, it’s about the artsy counterculture.
And that’s if you insist on reading the books as political allegory. I don’t insist on that, and indeed, I’d prefer not to, because frankly, in our hyper-politicized environment that’s how people interpret almost everything. It’s a hazard for us all, not just for political columnists like Ross. I’d suggest an effort to redirect our attentions to what the books are really and directly about, which I think we can achieve by looking at the two epigraphs of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The first is from Aeschylus:
Oh, the torment bred in the race,
The grinding scream of death
And the stroke that hits the vein,
The hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
The curse no man can bear.
But there is a cure in the house,
And not outside it, no,
Not from others but from them,
Their bloody strife. We sing to you,
Dark gods beneath the earth.
Now hear, you blissful powers underground –
Answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.
The second is from William Penn’s More Fruits of Solitude:
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
Such matters, while often absent from “adult” novels in our time, are anything but “childish.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
ABER, adj., sharp, acute, as an edge-tool; clear, well-defined, as a cloudless sky; eager, as a hungry fish at a bait; secure, as a knot on a line; ardent, severe; v., to sharpen, as a knife; to stir up and make bright, as a fire.
— A piece of Shetland dialect, reported poetically in James Stout Angus’s A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect – as we learn from Robert Macfarlane
There are impulses at work in the Church, on both the right and the left, a desire to sweep away the tired old past and to start over again. This desire is founded on an illusory hope. The demands of “justice,” “love,” or “truth” will not sustain the weight pressed upon them as the single interpretive tool to order the Church’s life. These demands cannot trump orthodoxy, or the rich experience of the Church in the past, which is the context of orthodoxy. History is where God works and reveals his will. Those who want to sweep away the mistakes of the past by escape from it are more likely to perpetuate those same mistakes, in the very process of wielding their own theological and pastoral “broom.” The history of the Church is littered with examples; of course, you have to have a commitment to history to notice.
I became interested in ecstatic experiences when I was 24 and had a near-death experience. I fell off a mountain while skiing, dropped 30 feet, and broke my leg and back. As I lay there, I felt immersed in love and light. I’d been suffering from emotional problems for six years, and feared my ego was permanently damaged. In that moment, I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self’, ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you. The experience was hugely healing. But was it just luck, or grace?
Interesting how from its title onward — Religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience — this piece is absolutely desperate to avoid considering the possibility of a living God. People often say that it’s quite unfair that God expects us to believe in him if he doesn’t make himself evident to us. But what if he does and we choose to interpret the experience in some other way?
Thus C. S. Lewis at the beginning of his book Miracles: “In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing…. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.”
When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.
Earlier today I tweeted this:
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) June 26, 2017
Emma Green, the fine reporter who wrote the story (though not the headline), asked me to clarify, so here goes:
- That the story lede (the first sentence) is accurate will be seen from what follows.
- I called the dek (the description below the headline) “misleading,” but that is generous: it’s simply wrong. And Emma Green — who, again, is a superb reporter and rarely makes errors like this — gets it wrong in her story when she writes the source of the dek: “It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship.” No: it is not true government “must” provide money to a house of worship or to any other organization. The ruling, rather, is that if a state or local government says that it will provide money to organizations in return for providing certain services — in this case, the maintaining of a playground available to children throughout the community — then it cannot withhold that money from churches simply because they are churches. (The New York Times get it wrong in its headline too, and in the same way: “States Must Aid Some Church Programs, Justices Rule.”) I understand that you can’t squeeze everything into a headline, but the distinction between “governments must give money to churches” and “governments cannot exclude churches qua churches from projects for civic improvement” is not an especially subtle one.
- The idea expressed in the hed that this decision “Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier” is simply absurd. What is the “barrier” that existed before this ruling and if now gone? What does this ruling do to establish a state church? After all, the ruling applies equally to churches, mosques, synagogues, and atheist community centers: by what torturing of logic could such a ruling be said to establish a state religion? Just as the Civil Rights Act helped to enfranchise people of color without disenfranchising white people, so this ruling excludes prejudice against churches qua churches (in this one minor matter) without infringing on anyone else’s rights.
It is of course possible — Green goes into this possibility in her article — that people who do want to break down the barrier between church and state will be emboldened by this ruling to … I don’t know, do something secularists don’t like, I guess. But that has no bearing whatsoever on whether the ruling is a good one. Nor do fears on that score eliminate that part of the First Amendment decreeing not only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” but also that it can’t make ones “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Before coming back I had been willing to allow the possibility — which one of my friends insisted on — that I already knew this place as well as I ever would. But now I began to see the real abundance and richness of it. It is, I saw, inexhaustible in its history, in the details of its life, in its possibilities. I walked over it, looking, listening, smelling, touching, alive to it as never before. I listened to the talk of my kinsmen and neighbors as I never had done, alert to their knowledge of the place, and to the qualities and energies of their speech. I began more seriously than ever to learn the names of things — the wild plants and animals, natural processes, local places — and to articulate my observations and memories. My language increased and strengthened, and sent my mind into the place like a live root-system. And so what has become the usual order of things reversed itself with me: my mind became the root of my life rather than its sublimation. I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into the earth like leaves in the autumn.
I I hope no reader imagines me so weak to stand up in the defence of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times (if we may believe the authors of those ages) to have an influence upon men’s belief and actions. To offer at the restoring of that, would indeed be a wild project: it would be to dig up foundations; to destroy at one blow all the wit, and half the learning of the kingdom; to break the entire frame and constitution of things; to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences, with the professors of them; in short, to turn our courts, exchanges, and shops into deserts; and would be full as absurd as the proposal of Horace, where he advises the Romans, all in a body, to leave their city, and seek a new seat in some remote part of the world, by way of a cure for the corruption of their manners.
I should think, computing moderately, that 15 angels, several hundreds of ordinary women, many philosophers, a heap of truly wise & kind mothers, 3 or 4 minor prophets, & a lot of doctors and schoolmistresses, might all be boiled down, & yet their combined essence fall short of what Emily Tennyson really is.
— Edward Lear
Are we to live in an age in which every mechanical facility for communication between man and man is multiplied ten-thousandfold, only that the inward isolation, the separation of those who meet continually, may be increased in a far greater measure?
— F. D. Maurice, 1848
When Christian communities decide that they must, for whatever reason, walk apart, then the question that they should all be prepared to answer is this: What are you doing to make it possible to walk together again? For to treat the decision to walk apart as the end of the story is simply to mock the prayer of Jesus that we all be one, even as he and the Father are one. It is the grossest disobedience.
So I have been very pleased to read some reflections on the recent conference at Nashotah House, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal. For instance, this post by Mac Stewart quotes Rowan Williams describing the thought of Michael Ramsey:
It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.
In another post, Clint Wilson writes,
During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.
Bishop George Sumner suggests,
Amid protracted international debate, mission in communion can and should continue at the grassroots. Parishes, dioceses, and provinces maintaining initiatives of mission in communion across lines of difference are their own kind of sign of reconciliation. Obedience to the risen Christ’s command to go is as much lived out from the bottom up as the top down. This on-going and local mission in communion is a valid dimension of our common life and vocation.
Zachary Guiliano asks some penetrating questions:
God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.
And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?
Guiliano’s talk was a response to an address by Ephraim Radner, and I will conclude by quoting it:
The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life. Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate. But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.
All these words challenge me — some of them even judge me and find me wanting, and I acknowledge the power of that judgment — but they also encourage me. I commend them to any, and not just Anglicans, who prayerfully seek the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.
— Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.
— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd. ed.
A mile or so down the road from one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen — the Valles Caldera, the massive caldera of an ancient volcano, 11,000 feet up in northern New Mexico — we came across this paradisal place, the Las Conchas Trail on the East Fork of the Jemez wilderness. Easy to miss, but once found and seen, impossible to forget.