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Authorayjay

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.

the “gradual decay” of Twitter

Am I finally done with Twitter? After years of leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back? If I haven’t learned how to leave Twitter, at least I’ve learned how not to claim that I’m leaving Twitter. But I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

There’s almost never any pleasure in visiting Twitter now, just the utility of finding out what my friends are up to. Still, something in my brain remembers better times, so left to my own devices I check in far more often than makes sense. So lately I’ve been using Freedom to block Twitter except for a brief period each morning and a brief one each evening. I have found that I don’t miss the place, yes, but also that more and more often I forget to visit when the window is open.

Now that Twitter is finally hobbling the third-party clients that make using the site bearable, and is continuing to get bad publicity for its inability to control bad actors on its platform, I’m seeing in my RSS feed a number of suggestions for how Twitter can be fixed. All of them are ideas that have been put forth for a decade now — adding a paid tier, forcing the third-party clients to show ads, improving the ability to block users — so it would be very strange if Twitter started making intelligent decisions at this late date. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known for his wit, but I think often of what he said some years ago about the creators of Twitter: They drove a clown car to a gold mine, and then fell in.

Twitter’s current leadership are flailing around right now, looking for ways to fix their platform, but there’s virtually no chance that they’ll make good choices. They have never understood their own product, in large part because few of them use it themselves, and a dozen years in that’s not going to change. And for people like me, it’s too late anyway.

There’s a very moving passage in one of Samuel Johnson’s essays about how friendships end that captures much of how I feel about Twitter:

The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal. — Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense: but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.

But if my friendship with Twitter is dying, I still care for the friends whose company I have enjoyed there. I hope I will hear from them elsewhere — maybe even at micro.blog.

going big, going small

Here’s the promised follow-up my recent post on the university. In one sense I want to think bigger than Daniel and Wellmon do, and in another sense I want to think smaller. Let’s start with “bigger.”

When Ross Douthat recently commented on my new book, he used it to turn his attention to the condition of the humanities in American universities today. I responded to that turn in a couple of tweets that probably have been deleted by the time you read this, so let me quote them here:

I think it’s important to distinguish between the humanities (intellectual disciplines located primarily in educational institutions) and humanism, or humane reading and learning (which have fuzzier and more flexible institutional placement). It is possible to renew humane learning without renewing “the humanities,” and to some extent vice versa. It’s worth remembering that only one of my five protagonists was an academic (CSL), though Auden taught for a while to make ends meet.

All of my protagonists were concerned with education, but none of them particularly with university education. By then, most of them thought — Lewis was particularly explicit about this — it was too late for major interventions into a young person’s formation. Nor were any of them especially concerned with the curricula of lower schools. Rather, what they wanted to shape was a culture in which humane learning was valued — a culture that, for at least some of my protagonists, began with the family and extended into the public sphere. On this model, what happens in schools at any level is downstream from other, more fundamental forces.

I’m attracted to this idea and think it applicable to our own moment — maybe more applicable now than it was 75 years ago. Given the tentacular infiltrations of the internet, the building of a humane culture can begin anywhere, and even if you’re a professor it’s not necessary to confine your efforts at culture-making to the inner structures of the university. You can think of culture as neuronal, branching dendritically, memetic axons carrying information and moral impulses among family, school, public sphere. Indeed it may be the case that if we want to make our universities healthier the best course might be not to aim directly at them but to nourish families and the public sphere, in order to stimulate universities from without. In that sense I am thinking a little bigger than Daniel and Wellmon do.

But cultural nourishment begins at home. While I can think of my interventions occurring along axons that link multiple cells of culture, I can rarely control my levels of access to any given cell or aggregation of cells. To take a very homely example: I am very interested in the informational culture of the institution where I work — the ways the technologies we have adopted shape our reading, our writing, and our pursuit of knowledge, and while there are several faculty committees on campus that deal with these matters, I have never managed to get myself appointed to any of them. Every year I volunteer; every year I hear nothing. (I am not sure why this is — I think it’s a product of some long-standingly perverse politics here at Baylor — but the reasons aren’t relevant to this post.) It is very difficult to see how you can directly help to shape “the university” if you can’t get appointed to the very faculty committees that a great many of your colleagues are trying to avoid having to serve on.

So, as needed, you get more local. You start with your classroom, or your personal blog (hi), or whatever is, as Heidegger might put it, zuhanden. One of my favorite scenes in Dickens’ Bleak House comes when the indefatigable Mrs. Pardiggle tries to enlist our heroine Esther Summerson in her “militant” evangelism among the poor — which is in truth not evangelism at all but rather relentless moral hectoring. Esther finds it appalling, and overcomes her characteristic diffidence sufficiently to resist:

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.

This is what I counsel in relation to fixing the university: note what is to hand, make your interventions locally, see where they take you, and “try to let that circle of duty gradually and natural expand itself.” This is not a matter of “think globally, act locally”: you are thinking and acting locally. But if you do so faithfully and consistently, then maybe over time your “local” becomes rather more expansive.

another look at Daniel, Wellmon, and the future of the university

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon respond to my response to their essay. (They respond to Cathy Davidson too.) Got all that?

My first thought is that if I had known that my blog post would be taken even this seriously I would have spent more than ten minutes writing it. (You live and you learn.) But now I’m digging into the subject more fully and thinking more seriously … and just getting more confused.

The stories I read about the American university just yesterday told me, with illustrative examples, that it’s a place where any dissent from leftist orthodoxy is being ruthlessly crushed; where the tyranny of deep-pocketed donors is driving out any resistance to free-market capitalism; where powerful humanities professors rake in big money for purveying pseudo-radical ideas while demanding sexual favors from younger colleagues and grad students; where soon enough there will be no humanities professors or humanities departments, and precious few humanities courses.

Again those are stories I read yesterday. Aside from the variety of the narratives, the chief thing that I would note about them all is that each claims to be saying something at least characteristic and perhaps definitive of “the University.” All tales about “the University” are morality tales, with very explicit lessons that are presumed to be transferable to any and every particular institutional context.

And that’s what makes all these narratives bullshit. It’s not that the events they describe didn’t or don’t happen; rather, it’s unsustainable imposition of definitive and universal judgments based on handfuls, at most, of anecdotal material.

I have therefore come to the conclusion that nothing of general validity can be said about “the University” – and not much about any given university in toto. Different schools and programs within the university conveyor very different purposes and characters. Even departments that seem relatively closely related, according to the taxonomy of academic disciplines, can sometimes lack a common vocabulary, common goals.

All of which means that I myself wrote too generally and abstractly in my earlier post. It is true that the people who make the biggest financial decisions tend do so along the lines I suggested, as Daniel and Wellmon agree. (Universities “have increasingly adopted the practices, technologies, and professional expertise of late capitalism…. In many places, these activities and idioms are gaining such purchase that they threaten to exert a decisive influence on what universities most basically do, to the exclusion of core academic considerations.”) But much else is going on – not all of it Good – throughout every university, and its many nooks and crannies. More on this later.

For now, though, I want to note that Daniel and Wellmon are not as afraid as I am of speaking in general terms, and make a broad recommendation: that the American university renew and intensify its (historically variable) investment in the American democratic project. “The democratic model” can offer a “normative ideal” for the university, and should be grasped as such.

My essential problem with this suggestion is that I do not know what it means. I think there are two broad possibilities:

  • The pedagogical: Universities should take on the responsibility toe educating students to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens in a democratic order.
  • The demographic: Universities should seek to serve a broader constituency than is characteristic of elite institutions, bringing in students from historically underserved populations and helping them to come into their inheritance as persons and citizens.

Maybe (probably) both of these are at work, but I suspect that the latter is the stronger emphasis. I’d appreciate clarification on this point.

I also don’t know how to understand this renewal of the democratic model as regulative ideal in relation to what Daniel and Wellmon say elsewhere in the essay about the university-as-corporation: “Too frequently, the question of how and whether they make the university a better university — by advancing teaching and research — is never seriously considered.” Does “advancing teaching and research” necessarily contribute to the democratic project? Or must teaching and research be adapted to make that happen?

Moreover: Let’s say that I sign up for this project. How do I contribute? To judge by his job title — “senior associate dean for administration and planning” at UVA — Adam Daniel may have some input into his university’s overall strategies. And Wellmon recently led a revision of UVA’s undergraduate core curriculum. But what should a teacher like me do? Try to get myself appointed to the right committees? Write essays for the Chronicle of Higher Education? Obviously I don’t expect Daniel and Wellmon to produce a blueprint. But I would like a better idea of how an academic might support a renewal of the democratic project, and how anyone might recognize the signs of such a renewal, were it to begin.

I said earlier that I would say more about the great variety of goods that are being pursued in any given university, but I’m going to save that for another post. Stay tuned.

on necks that need millstones around them

In the Diocese of Allentown, for example, documents show that a priest was confronted about an abuse complaint. He admitted, “Please help me. I sexually molested a boy. “The diocese concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should just be given “an oportunity to ventilate.” The priest was left in unrestricted ministry for several more years, despite his own confession.

Similarly in the Diocese of Erie, despite a priest’s admission to assaulting at least a dozen young boys, the bishop wrote to thank him for “all that you have done for God’s people. The Lord, who sees in private, will reward. “Another priest confessed to anal and oral rape of at least 15 boys, as young as seven years old. The bishop later met with the abuser to commend him as “a person of candor and sincerity, “and to compliment him” for the progress he has made “in controlling his “addiction.” When the abuser was finally removed from the priesthood years later, the bishop ordered the parish not to say why; “nothing else need be noted.”

— The grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. You need a strong stomach to read much of it; I couldn’t manage more than a few pages. But this was the passage that, though not explicit about what the priests did to children, most caught my eye. Even when the priests knew they were doing terrible things, even when they wanted to be held accountable, even when they desperately desired for children to be protected from them, the bishops refused. Faced not only with horrifically abused children, but also with abusers who cried out to be restrained, they did nothing. They all but forced the abuse to continue — they could not have done more if they had themselves desired above all things the destruction of lives.

The Lord, who sees in private, will reward.

more to come

I am very grateful to Jeffrey Bilbro for this extremely thoughtful and thorough response to my new book. For now I just want to respond to one passage:

Jacobs’s project includes elements of both history and argument; he’s narrating a particular intellectual history, and he’s defending the wisdom these figures provide. For the most part, these dual purposes are compatible, but at times I found myself wanting more synthesis and analysis. Much of the book is content to interweave the thinking of his five protagonists without teasing apart the inherent tensions among them or mustering an argument about which view Jacobs thinks is best. He compares his narrative mode to the cinematic method of Orson Welles, and I appreciate the challenges of crafting a unified story from the lives of five individuals who rarely, if ever, interacted directly with each other. Nevertheless, I kept wishing Jacobs was more explicit regarding his own evaluation of their ideas.

My response: God willing, I am not done writing books yet. Stay tuned.

A brief addendum to the previous post:

  1. It goes a long way towards explaining why in my writing I so often try to resurrect abandoned metaphors and neglected or forgotten terms. These are not necessarily better than the languages that are dominant today, but they are different and than in itself is valuable.
  2. Difference is valuable in itself because of a phenomenon that has never been described better than Kenneth Burke described it decades ago in his great essay on “Terministic Screens”: every vocabulary brings certain aspects of reality into clear view while simultaneously screening out others.

excerpts from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.

This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent  because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.

Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.

Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.

I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.

This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.

on sharpness and gentleness

I appreciate this from Joe Carter on the times when theological correction needs to be “sharp” — which I think is a better term than “harsh,” the term Joe uses through most of his post. (“Harsh” almost always has pejorative connotations.) But of course I have some doubts about the argument.

First, if you’re going to say that St. Paul tells us to be sharp (Titus 1:11–12), you really need also to acknowledge some of his other advice. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12). “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received: with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, and with diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3). “A servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). It’s a very strong theme in Paul.

And before any of us presumes to correct anyone, we would do well first to meditate — and I mean very seriously to meditate — on this: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This doesn’t mean that we never presume to correct; but it definitely does mean that correction can properly be risked only after the would-be corrector has engaged in some serious self-examination and penitence. Even when I do seek to correct my brother or sister, I need to face the very real possibility that I am in greater need of correction than he or she is. (And when it comes, how will I receive it?)

Might that discipline make correction less frequent? Probably. But a dominical commandment is a dominical commandment. We just have to deal with it.

Finally: A great many of intra-Christian disputes these days happen on social media. What do we have more of there? Meekness and gentleness? Or excessive harshness?

saving America from exploding Cadbury bars

“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.

I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t — because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works — they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.

Qasim Rashid

not for fun

At the beginning of Two Serious Ladies, the great Jane Bowles novel, one little girl asks another to play a new game. “It’s called ’I forgive you for all your sins,’” she says. “Is it fun?” asks the other. “It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.” This, undoubtedly, is just why religion is so queer; it’s not for fun that we play it.

— Michael Warner, “Tongues Untied”

excerpts from my Sent folder: authority

There are three models of writing I despise: “I am old and have seen everything and therefore can speak with absolute authority”; “I am middle-aged and at the height of my powers and therefore can speak with absolute authority”; “I am young and have mastered the moment in which I live and therefore can speak with absolute authority.”

The Profumo Option

The other day, in one of his many recent posts on the waves of sexual scandal that are afflicting American churches, Rod Dreher made a passing mention of John Profumo. In the early 1960s Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War and got caught up in a sexual scandal that led to his resignation.

So much so ordinary (sad to say). But what happened afterwards wasn’t so ordinary. Profumo — a very well-connected man with many friends and supporters who would gladly have eased him back into some significant political or business role — simply left public life and never fully returned. He began to work as a volunteer for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, doing menial work at first and gradually, over the course of decades, becoming a primary fundraiser. He never sought office again. For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.

Will a Profumo arise from our current situation? Will even one, single, solitary Christian leader who has been caught doing or enabling or covering for nasty things decide that the proper response is to perform extensive penance? And by performing extensive penance I don’t mean just taking a few months off to plan a comeback tour. I mean, rather, embracing humble service as medicine for the soul.

Will there be even one? Will any our currently disgraced leaders do for even a few weeks what John Profumo did for fifty years?

I doubt it. There are multiple forces conspiring against it. One is a religious-celebrity culture that produces no shortage of people who want to rub shoulders with the famous even when they have become infamous. Another is the almost complete disappearance of penance from the life of the Church — of churches in the west, anyway, including Catholicism, where it remained structurally embedded the longest.

Will anyone take the Profumo Option? I doubt it. But I hope.

excerpts from my Sent folder: LP & MTD

One of these days we’ll be drooling in our wheelchairs in the old folks’ home and saying, “Remember liberal proceduralism and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Good times, good times….”

Re: the previous post, I often wonder whether the people who claim to reject proceduralism

(a) believe they can win and win forever;

(b) don’t have that confidence but are so miserable under the current regime that they’d rather blow it up than allow it to stay alive — like Tolkien’s Denethor, if they can’t have things the way they prefer they will have nought; or

(c) deep down inside, don’t think they can blow it up, don’t think they can even put a real dent in it, but love the posture of radicalism.

 

nostalgia for proceduralism

One of the classic critiques made against the liberal social order is that it is philosophically thin, characterized by an inadequate, narrow, limited account of human being and human flourishing. It effectively waives essential questions of what the human animal is and replaces those questions with a commitment to certain fixed procedures applied to all. These procedures, philosophical liberals believe, are the best preservers of peace in a highly plural society such as ours. This “liberal proceduralism” is most often associated with the work of John Rawls, but its pedigree goes back at least to Locke.

I have often joined in those critiques, and have been especially attracted to the anti-proceduralist arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre, but now that proceduralism is greatly weakened and perhaps dying, I am starting to miss it. Some time back Ross Douthat tweeted that if you thought you hated the religious right, wait till you see the post-religious right. Similarly, I thought I disapproved of the proceduralist liberal order, but that was before I met the post-proceduralist liberal order.

Here is a classic argument based on the assumption that we are living in, and that arguments can appeal to, proceduralism. It concerns no-platforming strategies by leftist protestors on university campuses, and here’s a characteristic sample of the substance and tenor of the argument:

If [students] are led to think that it is appropriate for them to shout down speakers whose views they dislike or that they find offensive, then, to act with intellectual integrity and in good faith, students would have to support people shouting them down when they express views that others find distasteful or offensive.

But protesters who shout down others without acknowledging that they too could be shouted down are acting without “intellectual integrity” and “good faith” only under the assumptions of proceduralism. And student protestors do not share those assumptions. For them, what matters is that their positions are correct and the positions of those they are shouting down are profoundly wrong.

Similarly, you often hear political pundits contend that Republicans act in bad faith when they cheerfully allow President Trump to behave in precisely the same ways that they fiercely denounced when President Obama did them, or that Democrats lack intellectual integrity when they protest behavior by the current President that they cheerfully embraced in the previous administration. These arguments too appeal to proceduralist norms in conditions where they simply have no force. Few of our politicians are willing to share a common set of rules and norms with those they are convinced will ruin the country if they get a chance (or are beholden for their seats to voters and donors who think that).

When Conan the Barbarian was asked “What is best in life?” he replied, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Had you been there, would you have replied, “Now Conan, you need to think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned, and it was your women who wailed in lamentation”? I trust that the question answers itself.

Proceduralism depends on the belief that my fellow citizens, while often wrong, indeed in some cases profoundly wrong, can be negotiated with. It depends on the belief that, while a world made precisely in my image may not be in the cards, if I and my fellow citizens agree to be bound by a common set of norms, then we can probably negotiate a tolerable social order. It depends on the belief that people whose politics differ from my own are not ipso facto evil, nor do they need to be pushed to the margins of society or forced out of it altogether. When those stances are not in play — and especially when all sides agree that error has no rights — proceduralism withers.

And that’s why, though I agree that proceduralism is morally limited and metaphysically thin to the point of invisibility, I am already missing it. I can feel the nostalgia coming on.

an apology

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I sought to express solidarity with what many of my faithful Catholic friends are going through these days. I also sent the link to some of those who have been on my mind. Very few of them responded at all, and among those who did respond, while a small handful were grateful, the predominant tone was one of irritation. I clearly touched a raw nerve, or struck the wrong tone, or something. I honestly do not know what went awry, but something did, and I am sorry for it. I never would have published the post if I had known that it would bring no comfort.

And if you are one of those friends who found my post somehow inappropriate, I would be grateful to you if you wrote to explain where and how I went astray. I will listen with open ears and heart.

the Clientele, the Public, the Person

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon:

The multiversity [Clark] Kerr described was not the result of any considered plan or coherent philosophy. Rather, it emerged inadvertently as a congeries of historical conceptions of the university. Kerr identified three salient traditions. The first was represented by Cardinal Newman, founder of the University of Dublin in the mid-19th century. Newman regarded the purpose of the university as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, cultivating gentlemen suited to lives of erudition, taste, and intellectual refinement. The second was embodied in Abraham Flexner, an American educational reformer who, in 1930, founded the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He invoked a German model that defined the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.

Finally, Kerr described the “American model,” which he saw most strongly reflected in the land-grant movement of the latter half of the 19th century. This distinctly American idea of the university was born of an explicit twinning of higher education and the democratic project, opening the doors of the academy to a broader public and emphasizing such “practical” fields of study as engineering and agriculture. If Newman’s university served the generalist and Flexner’s the specialist, the American model was to serve the demos.

Kerr saw all three models as coexisting in the multiversity. The balance among them varied by institution, but, under the watchful stewardship of presidents, they remained in a general state of homeostasis. In the 55 years since Kerr’s treatise, however, the “American model” has increasingly eclipsed the other two. Regardless of what they do or how they fund and organize themselves, American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”

With all due respect to my good friend Chad and his colleague, I must disagree. It is true that universities often describe themselves in this way, but that is a smokescreen. American universities actually understand themselves as institutions in service to their clientele. They make occasional face-saving and conscience-salving gestures in the direction of the public good, but the reality is this: Universities, and especially top-tier universities, compete with one another for a shrinking pool of customers, whom they lure with promises of (a) a variety of recreational activities during their four years of undergraduate life and (b) admission to graduate school or a relatively lucrative job afterwards.

Professors and some administrators will tell a different tale, but I believe that the decisions of the people who actually run our universities clearly confirm my account. As I said in an earlier post, if you pay attention to actions rather than words the math isn’t hard to do. Just follow the money.

This is why, as Chad himself has argued, those of us who care about learning must promote and nourish the Academy that stealthily functions within the University. But I would argue that that Academy doesn’t exist “in service to the public” any more than the University does.

Many years ago, W. H. Auden wrote,

A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.

A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.

The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it….

Auden gets his notion of the Public from Kierkegaard, who said, in The Present Age, that “the public is a host, more numerous than all the peoples together, but it is a body which can never be reviewed, it cannot even be represented, because it is an abstraction. Nevertheless, when the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself.”

I want to argue that the secret function of the Academy within (and sometimes without) the University is to nurture the human formation to which the gaping maw of a Clientele and the featureless abstraction of a Public are alike inimical. And to this formation the arts are absolutely central. Auden again:

Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, there existed naïve art and sophisticated art which were different from each other but only in the way that two brothers are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media which cater to it have destroyed naïve popular art. The sophisticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from a few comedians, the only art today is “highbrow.” What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.

The purpose of the Academy should be to encourage and nourish a richly human cultural world in which one may transcend the subhuman status of Clientele and Public without succumbing to the equally dehumanizing lure of the Highbrow.

getting real about Facebook

Nikhil Sonnad:

The solution, then, is for Facebook to change its mindset. Until now, even Facebook’s positive steps — like taking down posts inciting violence, or temporarily banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — have come not as the result of soul-searching, but of intense public pressure and PR fallout. Facebook only does the right thing when it’s forced to. Instead, it needs to be willing to sacrifice the goal of total connectedness and growth when this goal has a human cost; to create a decision-making process that requires Facebook leaders to check their instinctive technological optimism against the realities of human life.

Absent human considerations, Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world. The 2.5 billion people who use it, as part of their real lives, won’t put up with that forever.

My reply:

  1. Facebook will not “change its mindset.” Ever.
  2. Facebook’s “goal” is not “total connectedness,” it is the monopolization and monetization of your attention.
  3. “Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world.” Period. There are no “human considerations,” nor will there ever be.
  4. Billions of people will indeed “put up with that forever.”

I really cannot see the point of these arguments that assume the possibility that Facebook will radically reconfigure its corporate ethics. That’s like building hen houses with the hope that the local foxes will become vegetarians. The “what to do about Facebook” question must begin with the understanding that Facebook will (a) try to buy off its fiercest legislative critics and (b) make only such changes as it must to avoid being legally constrained.

the end of hypocrisy

Today, many critics on the right are noting that the New York Times is extending to Sarah Jeong gracious understanding that they refused to Quinn Norton, and that the Atlantic refused to Kevin Williamson. These critics then go on to accuse the Times, and the center-left journalism world more generally, of hypocrisy. 

Hypocrisy occurs in the presence of an agreed-upon standard which people in power — perhaps the power is only local — apply variously according to preference. If a standard helps someone I like, I’ll apply it to them; if it helps someone I don’t like, I’ll carve out an exception and say it doesn’t apply to my enemy. Thus I become a hypocrite. 

But as Stanley Fish pointed out decades ago, during the first round of political-correctness culture wars (ca. 1985-95), in this sense hypocrisy is simply what human beings do. According to the definition given above, it is virtually impossible to find non-hypocritical judgments. In his famous essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” Fish describes John Milton’s famous celebration of free speech in “Areopagitica,” which commends “the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” after which “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate.” Here’s the key passage: 

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself. 

Beneath every commitment to free speech, Fish says, is this unspoken but essential question: “Would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” If the answer is Yes, then that speech is unprotected by our laws. 

Supposed commitments to “free speech” and “fairness” and “equal access” and “inclusiveness” are always — always — smoke screens for some commitment that is both narrower and more fundamental. Fish summarizes it thus: 

Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. When the pinch comes (and sooner or later it will always come) and the institution (be it church, state, or university) is confronted by behavior subversive of its core rationale, it will respond by declaring “of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate,” not because an exception to a general freedom has suddenly and contradictorily been announced, but because the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning. 

The general failure to understand this point leads to a pathology of thought that is extremely common but rarely acknowledged for what it is. You see it when people say that they’re all about empowering women’s voices, but of course pro-life women aren’t really women at all. You see when people who advocate for true freedom for black people in America say that a black person who supports Trump isn’t really black at all. You see it when Republicans call other Republicans RINOs. You see it when people say that Catholics who don’t support the Pope against ancient tradition aren’t really Catholic, and when others say that those who don’t support ancient tradition against the Pope are the ones who aren’t really Catholic. You see it when people want to celebrate the beautiful unity of Christianity, but those who don’t hold our views about sexuality aren’t really Christians at all. “Of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate.” 

I think this chasm between what one claims to stand for, who one claims to speak for, and one’s actual loyalties happens because most people have two conflicting desires: (a) to feel that they belong to a majority, they they speak for and with a great cloud of witnesses, and (b) to exclude and punish dissenters. It is very difficult to face the possibility — and it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty — that those two desires truly are irreconcilable, and that you’ll at some point have to choose one rather than the other. So it’s easier to pretend that there’s no choice to be made. This is how you get to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” 

For those of us observing such scenes, the best practice is simply to ignore what any institution says it stands for, and pay attention to its actions. The self-descriptions of institutions are meaningless, because, to borrow terms from William Butler Yeats, they tend to be either rhetorical or sentimental: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalist himself.” There is really no point in your calling attention to the hypocrisy of institutions in applying their professed standards. The lack of fit between their words and their deeds is inevitable, and precisely the same is true of the institutions you love and pledge your loyalty to.

The idea that you can somehow back an institution, or an individual, into a corner by drawing attention to that lack of fit is absurd. When has that tactic ever succeeded? The accused parties merely tweak their definitions to disguise the inconsistencies and resume their self-soothing. 

It is better, then, just to pay attention to how institutions act and draw the conclusions the conclusions that are generally obvious. The New York Times has room for Sarah Jeong but not for Quinn Norton; the Atlantic has room for Ta-Nehisi Coates but not Kevin Williamson. Churches, universities, businesses all likewise define themselves through their inclusions and exclusions, their actions and inactions. If you’re not distracted by institutional self-descriptions, the math is rarely hard to do. 

the value of emotional resilience

“Trogger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead”:

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content… .

Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

Right — but what if you don’t think that being emotionally resilient is desirable? What if emotional resilience is perceived as a failure to feel pain with sufficient intensity?

insensibly

Careful writers of narrative, whether that narrative is fictional or historical or journalistic, will, like composers, work with themes and variations on those themes. For example, consider Edward Gibbon: reading his account of Rome’s decline and fall a few years ago, I noticed his fondness for a particular adverb: insensibly. “It was by such institutions that the nations of the empire insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people.” “We have already seen that the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire.” “The heart of Theodosius was softened by the tears of beauty; his affections were insensibly engaged by the graces of youth and innocence: the art of Justina managed and directed the impulse of passion; and the celebration of the royal nuptials was the assurance and signal of the civil war.”

Why does Gibbon like this word so much? Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course. And this insensibility affects political structures, social and religious developments, military cultures, and the hearts of emperors alike; this particular theme has many and wide-ranging variations.

The reader who notices this word, then, notices a vital, not a trivial, point about the story Gibbon tells. 

— Me, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction 

the threefold order of ministry

This is a topic I find myself thinking about surprisingly often — surprisingly because it’s so far beyond the scope of my expertise and experience. But hey, if you can’t bloviate on your personal blog, where can you bloviate? 

I believe that the classic threefold order of Christian ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) is indeed embedded in the earliest Christian communities. You can see these roles beginning to form by noting how the letters of the New Testament employ the terms (episkopos, presbyteros, diakonos) — but the evidence is sketchy, and there are few details. The threefold order could have taken different forms that it did, and I’m inclined to think that, as the saying goes, mistakes were made. 

The most lasting and consequential of those mistakes was the decision to model episcopal governance on the administrative structures of the Roman Empire. I say “decision” but I suspect it was an unconscious inclination to mimic the dominant social organization of time, in much the same way that churches today mimic the broader culture’s entertainment and business models. In any case, just as the Roman Empire came to be divided into provincia, each of which contained several or many municipia, so ecclesiastical systems gradually emerged which followed this general practice. These have always differed from place to place, and a Metropolitan in the East may not be precisely the same as an Archbishop in the West, but there are strong family resemblances, and they all follow from the territorial structure of Rome’s Empire. 

An ecclesiastical organization modeled on an administrative organization will inevitably take on an administrative character, and that is what has happened to the episcopacy. Thoughtful and prayerful churchmen have always been aware of the dangers involved in this modeling: for instance, the informal papal title of servus servorum Dei is an attempt at correction and redefinition. But organizational structures exhibit powerful affordances; they constantly press the people who inhabit them into certain practices, into a certain habitus. The pre-existing layout of the Empire may have seemed to the early Church a wonderful gift; but I cannot help seeing it as a poisoned chalice. 

The long, slow, but ultimately irresistible process by which bishops became managers is one of the largest contributing factors in the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today. Very few bishops are wickedly predatory like Uncle Ted McCarrick; but men who have been raised to the episcopacy because they were thought to have managerial competency, and men who clearly lack managerial competency but understand that their job demands that they acquire it, are equally unlikely to think that it’s any of their business to exercise fraternal discipline of someone managing a different department in the same organization. The affordances of the episcopacy as it is currently constituted (more or less throughout the world) strongly dispose it to disciplinary ineffectuality. 

Some Christians will agree with much of this and see it as evidence that the threefold order of ministry needs to be abandoned, or at least to become twofold through the amputation of bishops. I don’t think so. But I think the Church of Jesus Christ needs a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the office of bishop. 

More thoughts about that (and related matters) in another post. 

Sustainability and Solidarity

Sustainability and Solidarity – Kathleen Fitzpatrick:

There is absolutely an institutional responsibility involved in sustaining these projects, but, as I argue in Generous Thinking, individual institutions cannot manage such responsibilities on their own. Cross-institutional collaborations are required in order to keep open-source software projects sustainable, and those collaborations demand that the staff participating in them be supported in dedicating some portion of their time to the collective good, rather than strictly to local requirements. 

Sustainability in open-source development thus increasingly seems to me to have solidarity as a prerequisite, a recognition that the interests of the group require commitment from its members to that group, at times over and above their own individual interests. What I’m interested in thinking about is how we foster that commitment: how, in fact, we understand that commitment itself as a crucial form of social sustainability. 

Kathleen’s blog has been full of ideas recently — more than I can respond to with some travel and talking coming up — but this is an  especially important idea, and applies to more realms than the one she’s discussing. Collective achievements require collective virtues; but collective achievements also encourage collective virtues. The academic world — or at least the part of it I occupy — is dominated by incentive structures that discourage this kind of positive feedback loop. Those of us at the senior level of our profession need to be doing some serious work to restructure the incentives we’re bequeathing to our junior colleagues. 

political mistrust in the long term

Elizabeth Bruenig:

The gravity and legality of the two exercises in meddling differ, certainly. But they both operate to wound our faith in democratic legitimacy. It has gone this way before. It took several incidents, from Vietnam to Watergate to scattered episodes of civil unrest, to permanently damage American trust in government; but as distinct as each event was, they all fractured the same essential faith. We haven’t returned to consistent levels of pre-’70s levels of trust in 40 years, and I doubt this current civic unease will fade much sooner. 

This particular horror — Trump and his failures, whatever ridiculous thing he has said or done today, whatever international incident he causes on Twitter tomorrow, however authentic the next panic is — will pass. What will last is the frank revelation of a point that, while ugly and dark, is at least true: You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors. It’s possible to continue to participate in a democracy after that. But not with a quiet mind.

common prayer

I have many faithful Catholic friends who are hurting right now — who are in deep pain, even anguish. They stay in the forefront of my prayers, along with the victims of clerical abuse. (And of course, many of those victims remain faithful Catholics, though who knows how many have left Catholicism and even the Christian faith altogether.) 

I am also praying for the clerical abusers and their enablers, my primary emphasis being that they find true repentance and express that repentance publicly. For what it’s worth, I wholly (and quite seriously) endorse Sohrab Amari’s suggestion

But the first step is, as I say, sackcloth and ashes. I mean that quite literally. Following ancient Israel’s footsteps, the early Church adopted ashes as an expression of sorrow for sin. Depending on the sin, public penitents were required to wear ashes and sackcloth. The Church should bring back such practices. Whatever criminal and civil consequences await McCarrick, he should also be called to Rome and forced to circle Saint Peter’s Square in sackcloth and ashes, perhaps while the pope observes from the steps of the basilica. Or how about having McCarrick spend hours kneeling at a prie-dieu while Pope Francis looks upon him with anger and contempt? Others have proposed corporal punishments. I’m not opposed to these, either. The point is that the old apologies and settlements won’t do. 

But I am not dwelling on the clerics. It’s those who are wounded by clerical sin and crime who primarily concern me. 

And, I think it essential to say, these are not the wounds of Roman Catholicism. These are the wounds of the Body of Christ. Insofar as we are members of that Body those wounds are ours. This is no time for those of us who belong to the Reformation traditions to be smug (as though we have a leg to stand on anyway). This is time for every Christian to weep with those who weep. This is the time to confess our own sins of omission and commission. This is a time to ask God to reveal to us all that we have done and left undone that pride and complacency and fear do not allow us to perceive. This is a time to bear one another’s burdens. This is a time to pray a common prayer, and die a common death. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” 

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