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Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: christian (page 2 of 8)

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Very much looking forward to Jamie’s latest, which seems the natural — indeed the wonderfully inevitable — next step in his thoughtful and provocative Augustinian journey. I might want to read it in conjunction with a re-read of this

creating the Vernacular Republic

Ivan Illich, from In the Mirror of the Past

Rather than life in a shadow economy, I propose, on top of the z-axis, the idea of vernacular work: unpaid activities which provide and improve livelihood, but which are totally refractory to any analysis utilizing concepts developed in formal economics. I apply the term ‘vernacular’ to these activities, since there is no other current concept that allows me to make the same distinction within the domain covered by such terms as ‘informal sector, ‘use value,’ ‘social reproduction.’ Vernacular is a Latin term that we use in English only for the language that we have acquired without paid teachers. In Rome, it was used from 500 B.C. to 600 A.D. to designate any value that was homebred, homemade, derived from the commons, and that a person could protect and defend though he neither bought nor sold it in the market. I suggest that we restore this simple term, vernacular, to oppose commodities and their shadow. It allows me to distinguish between the expansion of the shadow economy and its inverse the expansion of the vernacular domain. 

One of Les Murray’s collections of poems is called The Vernacular Republic, and while that title is usually thought to refer to Australia simpliciter, I don’t think that’s right. The Vernacular Republic is more an ideal image of Australia, what it might have been and perhaps (with repentance) still could be. 

I think if we take Illich’s understanding of the vernacular domain, and add to it the image of an alternative but “more comprehensive” economy that Wendell Berry writes of, then we have a rough outline of what a genuine Vernacular Republic would be. The Vernacular Republic is an “informal sector” that opposes the logic of commodity and gradually but steadily practices the Kingdom of God. 

Michael Gerson

When we are caked with the mud of political struggle, and tired of Pyrrhic victories that seed new hatreds, and frightened by our own capacity for contempt, the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife. It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living. Its most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. And even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories. 

God’s call to us while not simplifying our existence does ennoble it. It is the invitation to a life marked by meaning. And even when, as mortality dictates, we walk the path we had feared to tread, it can be a pilgrimage, in which all is lost, and all is found. 

Before such a consummation, Christians seeking social influence should do so not by joining interest groups that fight for their narrow rights and certainly not those animated by hatred, fear, phobias, vengeance or violence. Rather, they should seek to be ambassadors of a kingdom of hope, mercy, justice and grace. This is a high calling and a test that most of us (myself included) are always finding new ways to fail. But it is the revolutionary ideal set by Jesus of Nazareth, who still speaks across the sea of years.

Stanley Fish, How Milton Works:

To those in whose breast it lodges, the holy is everywhere evident as the first principle of both seeing and doing. If you regard the world as God’s book before you ever take a particular look at it, any look you take will reveal, even as it generates, traces of his presence. If, on the other hand, the reality and omnipresence of God is not a basic premise of your consciousness, nothing you see will point to it and no amount of evidence will add up to it. You will miss it entirely, as Mammon [in Paradise Lost] does when all he can see in the soil and minerals of hell is material for a home-improvement project, one that will make up for the loss of heaven: “Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise / Magnificence; and what can Heav’n show more?” He’s not kidding; he really means it. As far as he can see (a colloquialism I want to take very seriously), there is nothing more to see than the phenomena his art and skill will be able to produce; and those phenomena will bring heaven back to him because he never knew what it was in the first place…. Had he truly known heaven, he could not have moved away from it, for it would have been “a heaven within” (as it is for Abdiel, whose physical removal to the North leaves him unchanged in his essence); and were he now to know it by realizing what he had lost and could not replace by feats of construction, he would no longer have lost it, for its reality would be animating him even in exile and he would be in the position the Elder Brother imagines for his virtuous sister: “He that has light within his own clear breast / May sit i’th’ center, and enjoy bright day” (Comus, 381–382).

Remembering Fred Buechner

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My wife Teri and I first met Fred Buechner in 1984, when he came to Wheaton College for a ceremony acknowledging the donation of his papers to the college’s Special Collections. We only spoke briefly at that time, and my chief memory of our conversation is Fred’s passionate impromptu defense of Anthony Trollope as a great and deep novelist – not the relatively lightweight storyteller, the maker of fictional comfort food, that he is often said to be. I had not read Trollope at that time, and when I first sat down with his books I was glad to recall Fred’s words – they made me a better reader of that much-loved but still-underrated writer.

The next year Fred returned to Wheaton for an eight-week stint as a visiting professor, an adventure that he describes in the third of his series of brief memoirs, Telling Secrets. A couple of years earlier he had spent a term teaching homiletics at Harvard Divinity School, an experience he found always perplexing and sometimes discouraging:

Whatever may have bound my students together elsewhere in the way of common belief or commitment, I was much more aware of what divided them. It did not take me long to discover early in the game, as you might have thought I would have known before I came, that a number of them were Unitarian Universalists who by their own definition were humanist atheists. One of them, a woman about my age, came to see me in my office one day to say that although many of the things I had to teach about preaching she found interesting enough, few of them were of any practical use to people like her who did not believe in God. I asked her what it was she did believe in, and I remember the air of something like wistfulness with which she said that whatever it was, it was hard to put into words. I could sympathize with that, having much difficulty putting such things into words over the years myself, but at the same time I felt somehow floored and depressed by what she said. I think things like peace, kindness, social responsibility, honesty were the things she believed in – and maybe she was right, maybe that is the best there is to believe in and all there is – but it was hard for me to imagine giving sermons about such things. I could imagine lecturing about them or writing editorials about them, but I could not imagine standing up in a pulpit in a black gown with a stained glass window overhead and a Bible open on the lectern and the final chords of the sermon hymn fading away into the shadows and preaching about them. I realized that if ideas were all I had to preach, I would take up some other line of work.

This experience was still fresh in Fred’s mind when he came to Wheaton – and if you want to know what he thought about that event, well, you should read Telling Secrets, which is by any measure a beautiful book and more than worth reading even if you don’t care a fig about Harvard or Wheaton. 

Teri and I spent a good bit of time with Fred during that eight-week period: we went to the Wheaton Theater to see Return to Oz (the Oz books were always totemic and iconic for Fred); on weekends we traveled into Chicago to eat at fancy restaurants, meals for which Fred always paid, referring to himself as “the rich man from the east”; and two or three times we ate at a local restaurant that he somewhat comically grew attached to. It was called the Viking, and was a more or less standard Midwestern steakhouse with one peculiarity on the menu: they served a spinach salad that they would flame at your table. At one point a salad was set afire directly behind Teri and me, and we flinched forward in our seats as the flames warmed our necks, which caused Fred to lean over and whisper conspiratorially to Teri: “This is a dangerous restaurant.” (Fred loved Teri, in part because she was the same age as one of his daughters – he and his wife Judy had three daughters – and he would occasionally say to me, “I only put up with you because of your wife.”)

A year or so later, I think, the Viking was badly damaged in a fire, and since nothing could have been less surprising, I hastily wrote Fred a letter about it. The relevant portion of his reply:

And the fiery fate of the Viking! I can only hope that by now it is back in commission again. I remember with extraordinary pleasure – together with so many other things about my Wheaton weeks – my suppers there. Steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and salad, and a glass or two of red wine for the stomach’s sake. I would always bring a book to read as I ate, but most of the time I would just sit there feasting my eyes on my fellow diners and the flames from the various chafing dishes ablaze around me. Had I only thought to warn them.

On several occasions that semester I got to hear Fred read from his own work, and he was an absolutely marvelous reader. His writing was, I think, and this is true of most of the best writers, emergent from speech. He loathed excessive punctuation, and a sentence didn’t have to have a lot of punctuation for him to consider it excessive: he wanted the pauses and emphases to be clear from the words. Read that passage from Telling Secrets aloud; it’s a marvel of timing and rhythm, like the phrasing of a great jazz singer. Or consider this passage from what I think is his best novel, Son of Laughter – a retelling of the story of Jacob, who refers to YHWH as the Fear:

The unclean blood no longer clung to our hands, but the small gods clung still to our hearts. They clung with silver fingers, with fingerless hands of wood and baked clay. Like rats, the gods gibbered in our hearts about the rich gifts they have for giving to us. The gods give rain. The swelling udder they give and the sweet fig, the plump ear of grain, the ooze of oil. They give sons. To Laban they gave cunning. They give their names as the Fear, at the Jabbok, refused me his when I asked it, and a god named is a god summoned. The Fear comes when he comes. It is the Fear who summons. The gods give in return for your gifts to them: the strangled dove, the burnt ox, the first fruit. There are those who give them their firstborn even, the child bound to the altar for knifing as Abraham bound Isaac till the Fear of his mercy bade the urine-soaked old man unbind him. The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted, as to me from the stone stair he gave promise and blessing, and gave them also to Isaac before me, to Abraham before Isaac, all of us wanderers only, herdsmen and planters moving with the seasons as gales of dry sand move with the wind. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless.

Fred was one of the great prose stylists of his era, and while I don’t write like him — I don’t have the skill, and in any case the sorts of things that I write about and the ways that I write about them demand a different style than he developed — I’ve learned a great deal about the writing of prose from him. He made me think about prose in a different way than I ever had before, and if I have ever managed to write well, I think I owe a lot of that success to Fred.

But the most important lessons that I learned from Fred, lessons I’m still learning from him, arise from his temperament as a Christian. Not his beliefs, specifically, but his manner of approaching God and approaching the world. It was open-minded, to be sure, but more than that it was open-hearted, and continually aware of the ways that the world, like the Fear who made the world, can both hurt us and bless us. (He and I shared a great love for the passage in Anna Karenina in which Kitty gives birth to her first child and Levin, the new father, immediately thinks: Now the world has so many more ways to hurt me.) Fred was always fascinated by the many ways the God who loves us can use both the wounds and the blessings to form and shape our very being. Fred manifested – and in some ways this is even more evident from his personality than from his writing – a kind of gently ironic but faithful and hopeful bemusement. It’s very hard to describe, but I found it enormously winning, and the absence of it from the world is I think a real loss.

We hadn’t often been in touch in the past fifteen years. Once, I sent him a copy of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I deeply love and that I felt sure Fred would also love. He wrote back to tell me that he had read it and indeed loved it, though he went on to say that he had absolutely no idea what it was about. Correspondence languished after that, alas. I thought many times over the last few years of writing to him, but I didn’t know what kind of shape he was in, and I didn’t know whether our relationship had ever been close enough to deserve that. I now regret not having made connection, as one does. 

The last time Teri and I saw Fred and his quietly gracious wife Judy was at Calvin College some years ago, where Teri and Judy talked about their mutual love of horses. As we parted Judy asked Teri to come and ride with her sometime at their farm in Vermont, and of course that never happened, because Teri and I are the sort of people who are afraid of imposing, and fear that that sort of invitation might be pro forma rather than genuine. Now of course we wish we had put it to the test.

I am so thankful for Fred’s life and work and example, and I will miss him, and the world will miss him. May you rest in peace, good and faithful servant. 


One more tiny thing: One autumn day in 1985, Fred came to our shabby apartment because he wanted to see my recent acquisition: an original Macintosh, complete with an ImageWriter printer. (My mom, who worked in a bank, had arranged a loan for me — the two items cost nearly three thousand bucks, as much as a car, and a fifth of my annual salary. But I had a dissertation to write and a determination not to take forever doing it.) Fred was quite taken with these devices, and ordered his own when he got back to Vermont; so I always smiled when I got ImageWriter-printed letters from him, like this one: 

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two quotations on church

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to “rock.” Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word” — when the church and I were one. 

Michael Warner, from his essay “Tongues Untied”, on listening to a lay teacher at his family’s Pentecostal church:  

Every Wednesday night without fail, as this man wound himself through an internal deconstruction of the entire Calvinist tradition, in a fastidiously Protestant return to a more anthropomorphic God, foam dried and flecked on his lips. For our petit-bourgeois family it was unbearable to watch, but we kept coming back. I remember feeling the tension in my mother’s body next to me, all her perception concentrated on the desire to hand him the Kleenex that, as usual, she had thoughtfully brought along. 

Being a literary critic is nice, I have to say, but for lip-whitening, veinpopping thrills it doesn’t compete. Not even in the headier regions of Theory can we approximate that saturation of life by argument. In the car on the way home, we would talk it over. Was he right? If so, what were the consequences? Mother, I recall, distrusted an argument that seemed to demote God to the level of the angels; she thought Christianity without an omniscient God was too Manichaean, just God and Satan going at it. She also complained that if God were not omniscient, prophecy would make no sense. She scored big with this objection, I remember; at the time, we kept ourselves up-to-date on Pat Robertson’s calculations about the imminent Rapture. I, however, cottoned on to the heretical engineer’s arguments with all the vengeful pleasure of an adolescent. God’s own limits were in sight: this was satisfaction in its own right, as was the thought of holding all mankind responsible in some way.

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line – starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will. 

— Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow 

Machenesque and Menckenesque

From H. L. Mencken’s obituary for J. Gresham Machen, the proto-evangelical:

There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, “education,” or osteopathy. 

That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again — in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed — but he was undoubtedly right. 

This has always struck me as the proper view of the matter. I could be Machenesque or I could be Menckenesque, but I could never be a theological Modernist. 

The first person to demonstrate this to me was Nietzsche, in his great early essay “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer,” in Untimely Meditations. Nietzsche’s scorn for Strauss’s attempt to build a post-Christian religion on the foundation of Darwinism is eviscerating. Nietzsche shows that the Darwinian model of the cosmos is not exactly a consoling one — and yet Strauss wants to console, wants to be a kind of optimist. So: 

Whereupon Strauss started the ‘soothing oil’ flowing, led on a God who errs out of a passion for error, and assumed for once the wholly uncongenial role of a metaphysical architect. He does all this because his ‘we’ are afraid and he himself is afraid – and here we discover the limits of his courage, even with respect to his ‘we’. For he does not dare to tell them honestly: I have liberated you from a helpful and merciful God, the universe is only a rigid machine, take care you are not mangled in its wheels! This he dares not do: so he has to call in the sorceress, that is to say metaphysics. 

A metaphysics meant, essentially, to make his readers believe that the “rigid machine” of the cosmos is a kind of worship-worthy God, or at least the secure grounding of a new religion. 

At bottom, then, the new religion is not a new faith but precisely on a par with modern science and thus not religion at all. If Strauss nevertheless asserts that he does have a religion, the reasons for it lie outside the domain of contemporary science. Only a minute portion of Strauss’s book, amounting to no more than a few scattered pages, treats of that which Strauss could have a right to call a faith: namely that feeling for the cosmos for which he demands the same piety as the believer of the old stamp feels towards his God. In these pages at least the scientific spirit is certainly not in evidence: but we could wish for a little more strength and naturalness of faith! For what is so extremely striking is the artificiality of the procedures our author has to adopt in order to convince himself he still possesses a faith and a religion at all: as we have seen, he has to resort to jabbing and cudgelling. It creeps weakly along, this stimulated faith: we freeze at the sight of it. 

Nietzsche has a usefully clarifying effect on those of us who want to see what our actual choices are. Mencken was pretty good at that also. 

In Times of Tribulation, Prophecy Books Multiply:

“We are looking for books that not only try to decipher what the Bible is describing, but also how we live now,” says Kim Bangs, editorial director at Chosen Books, an imprint of Baker Publishing. Bangs attributes a greater interest in the End Times to social media, where crises happening around the world are shared. “When you see in real time what the Bible says will happen in the End Times, you start to pay attention and ask questions,” she says. “We seem to be closer to the end than ever before.” 

I’m gonna go way out on a limb and say we are unquestionably closer to the end than ever before. 

a proper goal

Joel Lehman and Kenneth O. Stanley (2011): 

Most ambitious objectives do not illuminate a path to themselves. That is, the gradient of improvement induced by ambitious objectives tends to lead not to the objective itself but instead to dead-end local optima. Indirectly supporting this hypothesis, great discoveries often are not the result of objective-driven search. For example, the major inspiration for both evolutionary computation and genetic programming, natural evolution, innovates through an open-ended process that lacks a final objective. Similarly, large-scale cultural evolutionary processes, such as the evolution of technology, mathematics, and art, lack a unified fixed goal. In addition, direct evidence for this hypothesis is presented from a recently-introduced search algorithm called novelty search. Though ignorant of the ultimate objective of search, in many instances novelty search has counter-intuitively outperformed searching directly for the objective, including a wide variety of randomly-generated problems introduced in an experiment in this chapter. Thus a new understanding is beginning to emerge that suggests that searching for a fixed objective, which is the reigning paradigm in evolutionary computation and even machine learning as a whole, may ultimately limit what can be achieved. Yet the liberating implication of this hypothesis argued in this paper is that by embracing search processes that are not driven by explicit objectives, the breadth and depth of what is reachable through evolutionary methods such as genetic programming may be greatly expanded. 

Late in their essay, Lehman and Stanley illustrate their point by describing the navigation of mazes: If you’re going to make your way from the periphery of a maze to the center, you have to be willing to spend a good bit of time moving away from your goal. A determination to go directly towards your goal will “lead not to the objective itself but instead to dead-end local optima.” 

(I got to this by following some links from Samuel Arbseman’s newsletter.) 

I think this insight has implications far beyond machine learning, and even beyond what Lehman and Stanley call “large-scale cultural evolutionary processes.” It’s true of ordinary human lives as well. When we define our personal goals too narrowly or too rigidly, we render ourselves unable to reach them — or to reach them only to discover that they weren’t our real goals after all. 

There’s a wonderful moment in Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain when Merton — a new convert to Catholicism — is whining and vacillating about what he should be: a teacher, a priest, a writer, a monk, something else altogether maybe, a labor activist or a farm laborer. And his friend Robert Lax tells him that what he should want to be is a saint. It’s a marvelous goal not only because all Christians are called to be saints but also because there’s a liberating vagueness to the pursuit of sainthood. In his great essay on “Membership” C. S. Lewis comments that “the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints,” and it’s true: there are so many ways to be a saint, and you can never know which of them you’ll be called to take. 

I think these thoughts may have some implications for secular vocations as well. 

contractual and unconditional love

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We know that when Dickens wrote David Copperfield he had not read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or – published less than a decade earlier, available only in Danish – but when I reflect on one character from that novel, James Steerforth, I find it hard to believe that Dickens didn’t know the “Seducer’s Diary.” Steerforth’s seduction, abduction, and abandonment of David’s childhood love Emily (Little Em’ly, as her family call her) proceeds precisely according to the emotional sequence outlined in that diary. Johannes the Seducer and Steerforth are both perfect embodiments of what Emile Durkheim would later call anomie – a combination of amorality and unconquerable boredom, with the boredom generated by the amorality, though seducers think that by rejecting the moral laws of their societies they can make their lives more interesting.

More on anomie later. For now I want to focus not on Steerforth himself but on his family – his, and Emily’s. Dickens regularly juxtaposes Mrs. Steerforth, James’s mother, to Daniel Peggotty, Emily’s uncle and adoptive father; this juxtaposition is one of the most important elements of the book. When Steerforth sweeps Emily away, just on the eve of her marriage to her cousin Ham, and takes her to Europe, both families are devastated, but in very different ways.

When, soon after the lovers’ disappearance, Daniel Peggotty visits Mrs. Steerforth – he hopes to learn whether Steerforth is likely to marry Emily – the lady treats him to this discourse:

“My son, who has been the object of my life, to whom its every thought has been devoted, whom I have gratified from a child in every wish, from whom I have had no separate existence since his birth – to take up in a moment with a miserable girl, and avoid me! To repay my confidence with systematic deception, for her sake, and quit me for her! To set this wretched fancy, against his mother’s claims upon his duty, love, respect, gratitude – claims that every day and hour of his life should have strengthened into ties that nothing could be proof against! Is this no injury? […]

“If he can stake his all upon the lightest object, I can stake my all upon a greater purpose. Let him go where he will, with the means that my love has secured to him! Does he think to reduce me by long absence? He knows his mother very little if he does. Let him put away his whim now, and he is welcome back. Let him not put her away now, and he never shall come near me, living or dying, while I can raise my hand to make a sign against it, unless, being rid of her forever, he comes humbly to me and begs for my forgiveness. This is my right. This is the acknowledgement I will have. This is the separation that there is between us!”

To understand this outburst fully, we need to recall that earlier in the story, Mrs. Steerforth’s companion Rosa Dartle – a shrewd and ironic young woman embittered by her hopeless love for Steerforth – had, with a malicious false ingenuousness, asked Steerforth what might happen if “you and your mother were to have a serious quarrel.” To this Mrs. Steerforth replied, “My dear Rosa, … suggest some other supposition! James and I know our duty to each other better, I pray Heaven!”

“Oh!” said Miss Dartle, nodding her head thoughtfully. “To be sure. That would prevent it? Why, of course it would. Exactly. Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.”

Rosa’s mock-inquiry arises from her understanding that Steerforth and his mother do not perceive their relationship in the same light: his “duty” would not, and in the end does not, prevent him from acting in what he perceives to be his interest, even when that interest is merely the avoidance of boredom. Rosa also understands that Mrs. Steerforth sees her relationship with her son contractually and legalistically: he owes her obedience and deference because, she says, he is the one “whom I have gratified from a child in every wish.” Thus her outrage at his failure to meet the terms of the contract is extreme and implacable: he is banished from her presence until he (a) abandons Emily forever and (b) begs his mother’s forgiveness. “This is the acknowledgement I will have.”

After she delivers herself of this announcement Daniel Peggotty takes his leave of her; there is no more to be said; their models of parental love are incommensurable, irreconcilable.

The vastness of the chasm between them may be seen by comparing Mrs. Steerforth’s distribe with Daniel Peggotty’s response when he learns that Emily has fled with her lover:

“I’m a-going to seek her, fur and wide. If she should come home while I’m away – but ah, that ain’t like to be! – or if I should bring her back, my meaning is, that she and me shall live and die where no one can’t reproach her. If any hurt should come to me, remember that the last words I left for her was, ‘My unchanged love is with my darling child, and I forgive her!’”

Call me a normie if you want, call me sentimental, what you will – I don’t know many things in all of fiction more moving than this. Let me wipe a tear from my eye and then take a moment to unpack both the explicit statements and the implications in Mr. Peggotty’s declaration.

  1. Emily is in need of forgiveness, for she has sinned. (Emily herself knows this perfectly well; she is nearly consumed with guilt.)
  2. Mr. Peggotty offers this forgiveness completely and without condition or reservation, no matter what Emily does or fails to do.
  3. He does not wait for her to beg forgiveness – he does not wait for her to repent or return – he’s “a-going to seek her, fur and wide.” The biblical analogue here is not the parable of the Prodigal Son, because there the son returns home on his own initiative. That story is lovely enough, with the old man seeing his son “a long way off” and, as Frederick Buechner has envisioned the scene, picking up his skirts and running as fast as his old legs will carry him to the beloved boy. But what Mr. Peggotty does calls forth something more radical still: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
  4. He knows that Emily will suffer for her sin; he knows that the way of the world – as exemplified, for instance, by Mrs. Steerforth – is not to forgive but rather to “reproach”; so he will do what he has to do, suffer whatever he needs to suffer, so that she will not be further wounded.
  5. His love for his “darling child” is “unchanged” – unchanged. Not altered in one fraction of a degree either by what she has done or what she has left undone, and never to be altered by anything in the whole wide reproaching world.

What most people want, or think they want, is affirmation. Indeed, many people demand it, and seek to punish those who do not give it to them. But affirmation never comes without conditions, even if they’re unstated. Thus I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Steerforth, by explicitly indulging her son’s every wish while forever hinting that by so doing she is binding him contractually to her, is enriching the soil in which anomie flourishes. (Rosa Dartle sees all this coming, but because Steerforth does not return her love, she does nothing to avert it but merely waits for the inevitable crack-up. This may be a function of some inbuilt perversity of Rosa’s character, but I think it rather an outgrowth of her dependent status and Mrs. Steerforth’s contempt for her needs — that relationship too is contractual; it’s impossible to imagine Mrs. Steerforth having any other kind.)

What people need, whether they know it or not, is not affirmation but rather unconditional love – because only with unconditional love can there be genuine honesty. What Emily needs is not the fiction that she has done no wrong; what she needs, and what she receives, is the double truthfulness that she has indeed sinned but is wholly forgiven. It’s what she needs; it’s what we all need, and from those who genuinely love us we just may get it.

Pete Wehner:

For abuse to happen under any circumstances is gut-wrenching; when it happens in a church setting, and is perpetrated by people who are viewed as spiritual leaders, who are entrusted with the care and formation of the young, it’s that much worse. And when those in positions of leadership not only fail to step in to help victims of abuse, but actually attack them, it becomes even more wicked and grievous. Brown’s haunting phrase — soul murder — is what happened within the SBC, and it’s only the latest in a string of recent scandals that have rocked the evangelical world.

The other thing that makes the SBC scandal so twisted and ugly is how leaders of the denomination used the Bible and spiritual language as weapons against the innocent victims, as when Boto invoked Satan to discredit the survivors. That is yet another level of depravity. 

We need a word worse than “depravity” for this. See also Russell Moore on this tragic situation. It’s time for pretty much everyone in the current and recent leadership of the SBC to take the Profumo Option

Rowan Williams:

I have said that I think there is a strong case for the exclusion of the Moscow Patriarchate from the [World Council of Churches], and that they have a case to answer; I’m not suggesting that they should have no opportunity for such an answer. I don’t feel sanguine about their willingness to defend themselves in this particular “court”, but I would not advocate any precipitate decision without notice and consultation.

Should it come to this, however, my reasons for supporting an exclusion would be that we have a situation in which the hierarchy of one particular Christian organisation is actively advocating — not merely passively acquiescing in — a war of pure aggression, in which the routine slaughter of non-combatants is evidently a matter of accepted policy, and which is being presented by this hierarchy as a defence of Christian civilisation.

My question would be: If the behavior of the Moscow Patriarchate is insufficient to warrant an expulsion from the WCC, what would be sufficient? What kind of behavior, generally speaking, would lead to expulsion? My immediate feeling (subject to revision or correction) is that if this behavior isn’t bad enough to get you expelled, nothing is, and membership in the WCC is absolutely permanent. 

my business

That said, I’m not sure that this is an issue we need to spend too much time on. The genuinely Christian view is, it seems to me, both longer and narrower. And maybe it’s not just Christians who need to think this way. I like to remind myself of this passage from Voltaire’s Candide

In the neighborhood there was a very famous dervish who was considered the best philosopher in Turkey; they went to consult him; Pangloss was the spokesman and said to him: “Master, we have come to ask you to tell us why such a strange animal as man was ever created.” 

“What are you meddling in?” said the dervish. “Is that your business?” 

“But, Reverend Father,” said Candide, “there is a horrible amount of evil on earth.” 

“What does it matter,” said the dervish, “whether there is evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, is he bothered about whether the mice in the ship or comfortable or not?” 

“Then what should we do?” said Pangloss.

“Hold your tongue,” said the dervish.

I’m pretty much with the dervish about this, but because as far as I can tell, Christ’s call upon my life is essentially the same regardless of whether I think that current conditions are propitious or not. You people can keep debating these things if you want, but I have a couple of gardens to tend. 

a story

In my first years at Wheaton College I had a colleague named Julius Scott. (He retired in 2000 and died in 2020. R.I.P.) Julius was a New Testament scholar, but earlier in life, in the 1960s, had been a Presbyterian pastor in Mississippi. He was raised in rural Georgia and loved the South, but he knew a good deal about our native region’s habitual sins also, and as the Civil Rights movement grew stronger and stronger, he understand that he had a reckoning to make. So he did. 

After much prayer and study of Scripture, he decided that nothing could be more clear in Scripture, and nothing more foundational to Christian anthropology, than the belief that each and every human being is made in the image of God; that every human being is my neighbor; and that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is required of us all. Julius could not, therefore, avoid the conclusion that the Jim Crow laws common to the Southern states were incompatible with the Christian understanding of what human beings are and who our neighbors are; but even if those laws proved impossible to dislodge, and even if his pastoral colleagues thought them defensible, it was surely, certainly, indubitably necessary for all churches to welcome every one of God’s children who entered their doors, and to welcome them with open arms, making no distinction on the basis of race. When his presbytery — gathering of pastors in his region — next met, Julius felt that he had to speak up and say what he believed about these matters. 

He did; and thus he entered into a lengthy season of hellish misery. He was prepared for the condemnation and shunning he received from almost every other member of the presbytery; what he wasn’t prepared for was what happened when word of his speech got out to the general public, I believe through a newspaper article: an ongoing barrage of threats against his life and the lives of his wife and children. For years, he told me, he had to sleep — and sleep came hard — with a loaded gun under his bed; the fear for his family didn’t wholly abate until he left Mississippi. (“I was afraid for my babies,” Julius said, and with those words the tears filled his eyes.) Of course he remained a pariah to most of his colleagues — and even the ones who respected him told him so in private, expressing their agreement with his theological conclusions only on condition that Julius never share their views with anyone else. 

Think about that story for a while. Please understand that it’s not an uncommon one; and please understand, further, that Julius escaped with no worse than shunning and terror because he was white. (If you want to know more about Christians in Mississippi in that era, the persecuted and the persecutors alike, I recommend Charles Marsh’s book God’s Long Summer. And if you want to know what life in that era was like in Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up, read Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home.) 

Now: the next time you’re tempted to say that American Christians today experience hostility unprecedented in our nation’s history, and can escape condemnation only if they bow their knee to the dominant cultural norms; that it didn’t used to be like that, that decades ago no American Christian had to be hesitant about affirming the most elementary truths of the Christian faith — the next time you’re tempted to say all that, please, before you speak, remember Julius Scott. 

time

I want to connect a post of mine from five years ago — 

There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that, if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts, we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.

— with a post of mine from ten days ago

So it turns out that “the economic way of looking at life” – which is pretty much the American way of looking at life, and certainly the Silicon Valley way – means that you think of time as a scarce consumable resource. Which is indeed how most of us, it seems, think about time, and that, in turn, is why we might experience the idea of traveling at the speed of God as not just wrong but, more, offensive – a failure to maximize consumption.

Breaking that habit of thought, and imagining how to move at the speed of God – these are real and vital challenges. Maybe the first thing we need to learn how to repair is our disordered sense of time — time is not a scarce resource but rather a gift. 

Increasingly I am convinced that we can’t make the changes we need to make — and I’m thinking not just of Christians, but also of all members of our current social order — until we reset our understanding and experience of time.

I even wonder whether the problem I posted about earlier today — what seems to me our increasing reluctance to pursue common rules for the social order, our disdain for proceduralism — is an outgrowth of a diseased experience of time. If we knew, if we really knew, that the people we despise are going to be our neighbors for the rest of our lives, then maybe we’d see the value in coming to some sort of procedural agreement with them before the shooting begins

But then the shooting has already begun, hasn’t it? 

Ross Douthat is a brilliant writer and an old friend, but I wish he wouldn’t participate — as he does in this essay — in the fiction that intra-Catholic disputes constitute the whole of Christian thought. 

on resembling the Angel of History

Okay, so, first we have Andy Crouch’s book The Life We’re Looking For.

Then we have Brad East’s essay-review on Andy’s book in The New Atlantis.

Then we have three follow-up posts by Brad: one, two, and three.

Got all that? Trust me, it’s all worth reading. Okay, then let’s proceed. (Oh, also: I know both Andy and Brad so I will be using first names.)

Those follow-up posts concern Brad’s reservations about Andy’s book, but as he rightly points out, his review is a positive one, and we shouldn’t forget that. The reservations can be summed up in this passage from the review:

[Crouch’s] counsel is wise. But I worry that it understates the problem we face, particularly the extent to which it has infiltrated, and is already integrated with, each of our households. For Crouch agrees that the evils of Mammon and Digital and Acedia amount to something like a globalized conglomerate or racket. Before such an overwhelming power, how could my household be in a position to “choose a different vision,” even for its own members? We are too beholden to the economic and digital realities of modern life — too dependent on credit, too anxious about paying the rent, too distracted by Twitter, too reliant on Amazon, too deadened by Pornhub — to be in a position to opt for an alternative vision, much less to realize that one exists. We’ve got ends to meet. And at the end of the day, binging Netflix numbs the stress with far fewer consequences than opioids.

This is the burnout society, as Han calls it; or the Machine, in the label of Kingsnorth, who learned it from R. S. Thomas. We are sick. It would be unfair to fault Crouch for lacking the cure. The terrifying fact may be that there is none. Moreover, Crouch insists as a matter of principle that the life he commends to us is a life worth living for its own sake, not because it will Change The World. He is right about that. He is right as well to warn against the temptation to look for a magical elixir in the manner of the alchemist. That way lies danger: the quest for power to match the might of Mammon. As he writes, most people who want to influence the culture want to be a force, whereas “Jesus calls us to be a taste.” The book succeeds in offering us a taste, and it is unquestionably a taste of the good life. Whether that life is truly available to most of us, and how, is another matter.

My chief response to this is that I don’t read Andy’s book the way that Brad does, at least in the sense that I don’t see Andy making heroic demands upon us. There’s a point near the end of The Life We’re Looking For where Andy is talking about his use of his iPhone:

It would not be quite right to say that it is entirely up to me whether my iPhone, or future computational technology yet to be developed, becomes an instrument or a device – although it is true enough that every day I can choose which way to use it, within the limits of the programs and interfaces that others have designed it to provide.

But it is certainly true that in the long run that choice is up to us: what we ask our technology to do, what we ask its designers to optimize, what we believe is the good life that we are pursuing together.

That last sentence is the real key. I see the core purpose of Andy’s book to be not a denunciation or even a critique of technology but rather an attempt to orient us towards a vision of the kind of life that we want, individually and collectively, with the emphasis that if we really understand “the life we are looking for” we will be able to alter our technological environment, albeit in incremental ways. That doesn’t seem to me to require heroism; in fact, I would say that it’s pretty sober: our choices will not bring down the power of what Brad calls the Digital and what Andy (I think more accurately) calls Mammon – the Digital is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mammon – but I think that those choices can create a subtle and over time significant redirection of our energies.

So I’m inclined to think that Brad’s question of whether “the good life … is truly available to most of us” is not the best one to ask. A better question – I think Andy pushes us towards this one, though maybe it’s just me who’s doing the pushing – is Augustinian in that it’s about orientation. Orientation is one of the most fundamental Augustinian concepts. He believed that caritas is “the motion of the soul towards God”; by contrast, cupiditas is the motion of the soul towards itself, which makes one incurvatus in se, curved in on oneself. For Augustine the initial question to be asked of anyone is: Which way are you facing? And I think what Andy is trying to do in his book is get people facing in the right direction – towards the life they really desire, as opposed to the life that Mammon wants to sell them – so that they may begin their pilgrimage, become true wayfarers. Wayfarers often have a long road ahead of them, but one of the best reasons to read Augustine, and to think along with that great saint, is to be reminded that what matters most is not the distance from our goal but whether we are facing it. Even if we never achieve “the good life” — in the Christian sense or even in a Stoic sense — surely we can today orient ourselves a little more accurately towards it than we did yesterday. (Maybe start by reading some Dickens?)

It’s true, as Brad suggests, that mighty Powers are arrayed against the wayfarer, such that we may end up looking more like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History than Gandalf plodding towards the Shire; but better to be the Angel of History than one who strolls smilingly into Mammon’s glamorous emporium.

Klee paul angelus novus 1920

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus

ascending

In many of my courses I ask my students to explicate certain key passages from the texts we read — to dig in to the details, to see how the passages do their work. Here’s a selection from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago — the chapter called “The Ascent” — that some of my students are writing about: 

You are ascending…. 

Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness — and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself. 

The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending…. 

With the years, armor-plated restraint covers your heart and all your skin. You do not hasten to question and you do not hasten to answer. Your tongue has lost its flexible capacity for easy oscillation. Your eyes do not flash with gladness over good tidings nor do they darken with grief.

For you still have to verify whether that’s how it is going to be. And you also have to work out — what is gladness and what is grief. 

And now the rule of your life is this: Do not rejoice when you have found, do not weep when you have lost. 

Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering. And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you.

Those close to you in spirit who surround you in slavery. And how many of us come to realize: It is particularly in slavery that for the first time we have learned to recognize genuine friendship!

And also those close to you in blood, who surrounded you in your former life, who loved you — while you played the tyrant over them….  

Here is a rewarding and inexhaustible direction for your thoughts: Reconsider all your previous life. Remember everything you did that was bad and shameful and take thought — can’t you possibly correct it now? 

Yes, you have been imprisoned for nothing. You have nothing to repent of before the state and its laws. 

But … before your own conscience? But … in relation to other individuals?

some thoughts on Tim Keller

If you read Tim Keller’s books or listen to his sermons, some things will (or should) become quite clear to you:

  1. He thinks of himself first and foremost and always as a pastor.
  2. His job as a pastor, as he understands it, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and then form and strengthen and encourage those disciples.
  3. When trying to understand how to do that, Keller – as a conservative Protestant with a high regard for Scripture – turns to the Bible.
  4. There he sees Paul on the Areopagus reasoning patiently with the intellectuals of Athens; there he sees Paul counsel the followers of Jesus at Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience”; there he sees Paul tell the church in Galatia that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”; there he hears Jesus bless the meek and the poor in spirit.
  5. He draws the conclusion – again, as someone with a high view of Scripture – that this counsel is counsel for us as much as it was for its original audience.
  6. So he teaches his congregation and his readers accordingly.

If he is wrong so to teach now, then he was also wrong thirty years ago. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; in him there is no shadow of turning; therefore the lives of His faithful disciples, while they may vary in details according to circumstance or personality type, will always take the same essential form.

Those who say that Keller’s message is not suited to this political moment, that it is not an effective political strategy, are therefore, I believe, laboring under a category error. Keller’s pastoral role has not been to articulate a political strategy, but to make disciples. If he is correct in thinking that the counsel of Scripture is indeed counsel for all of us, and if the passages I cite above are indeed in the Bible, then it doesn’t matter whether obeying them is politically effectual (according to whatever calculus of effectiveness you happen to employ) or not. The task of serious Christians is to become Jesus’s disciples, to become formed in the image of Christ – including Christ in His suffering – whether that “works” or not.

That’s never easy, but it has the merit of being simple. So there’s no need for me, as a Christ-follower, to raise my wetted finger to test the prevailing cultural winds. I know what I’m supposed to do and to be. And woe unto me if I don’t.


UPDATE: It occurs to me that I should call back to this post from last year. Like Diogenes with his lantern, I’m looking for one critic of Tim Keller who shows some awareness that Christians are commanded by their Lord to act in certain ways and to refrain from acting in others. To think only in terms of what is effective or strategic is to fight on the Devil’s home ground. As Screwtape said to Wormwood about the junior tempter’s patient: “He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” Christians who evaluate Keller not by asking whether his message is faithful to Jesus’s message but rather by asking whether it’s suited for this moment are inadvertently following Screwtape’s advice.

uniqueness

Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture is essentially (more so than I realized when I began it) a simplification and condensation of his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. And therefore it’s a good introduction to his work. But I want to talk just about one theme in it.

Much of the first third of Cassirer’s book is devoted to distinguishing Man from the other animals. He says that all other animals have a “receptor system” for registering stimuli and an “effector system” for acting in response to those stimuli. (He’s borrowing these terms from a biologist.) But, Cassirer claims, human beings are unique in that we have in addition to those two systems a “symbolic system” – we are the symbol-making animal. But why shouldn’t we say that our making of symbols is just part of our effector system? It seems very important to Cassirer to insist that it is a different thing altogether, and that’s a reminder that “the age of the crisis of man” is not just about understanding “the nature and destiny of man” but also requires the conceptualizing of that nature and destiny in ways that strictly distinguish us from all other creatures – and by those means resolve the “crisis.”

That human beings are unique in the scheme of creation is of course a point present and important in Jewish and Christian traditions – indeed perhaps only in Jewish and Christian traditions, though the point is debatable. In the Hebrew Bible the context of the claim that humans are made in God’s image is very clearly that none of the other creatures is made in God’s image – but there are many other passages in Scripture that remind us that the rest of creation has its own stake in the outcome of our story, that when God comes the trees of the forest shout for joy, that until He comes the whole of creation groans in its labors. And it’s an interesting thing that so many people our own time, including I think many Christians, have grown weary of and perhaps annoyed by all these attempts to establish and define human uniqueness, and prefer instead to emphasize all the ways in which we and the rest of creation share a history, share a story, share a destiny. To some degree, of course, this is the result of more careful study of the kinds of things that animals are capable of, but I don’t think that’s the only cause, and maybe not even the chief one.

(Here let me pause to give a plug to Frans de Waal’s extraordinary book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I have to write about it at some point….)

I think many of us, and I count myself in this number, feel that all the discourse about human uniqueness hasn’t been good for us or for the rest of Creation. It’s not (this is what I would say anyway) that we need to deny human uniqueness – we are by any measure a very strange animal indeed, and with a distinctive role in God’s economy – but rather that we don’t seem to be able to talk about our uniqueness in ways that help us to live more wisely with one another or with the rest of Creation. And that’s a reminder that some things can be true and yet not always edifying to dwell on.

Michael L. Budde

This book is not an attempt to convince people that Jesus would prefer his followers not to use lethal force, even for a good cause. Instead, in many of the chapters that follow, I aim to give Christians a taste of what they’re buying when they affirm the legitimacy of even a little bit of lethal force, even in the most reasonable of cases. They want a Christ that allows them to kill, so I’m giving them especially that, especially when they think they’re affirming something else. 

Damn. 

cross and resurrection

Lesslie Newbigin

If the cross were the last word in God’s self-revelation, then this first commentary would be the only possible one. If all humankind — even in its best representatives — is exposed here as one murderous treason against its Creator, what future is there but death? What is the point of continuing this futile saga of sin, even with all the adornments of civilization? If the Cross is the end, then there is no future. 

But it is not. The resurrection is the revelation to chosen witnesses of the fact that Jesus who died on the cross is indeed king-conqueror of death and sin, Lord and Savior of all. The resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory. The King reigns from the tree. The reign of God has indeed come upon us, and its sign is not a golden throne but a wooden cross.

the great and awful doctrine

The great and awful doctrine of the Cross of Christ, which we now commemorate, may fitly be called, in the language of figure, the heart of religion. The heart may be considered as the seat of life; it is the principle of motion, heat, and activity; from it the blood goes to and fro to the extreme parts of the body. It sustains the man in his powers and faculties; it enables the brain to think; and when it is touched, man dies. And in like manner the sacred doctrine of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not. Without it no other doctrine is held profitably; to believe in Christ’s divinity, or in His manhood, or in the Holy Trinity, or in a judgment to come, or in the resurrection of the dead, is an untrue belief, not Christian faith, unless we receive also the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice. On the other hand, to receive it presupposes the reception of other high truths of the Gospel besides; it involves the belief in Christ’s true divinity, in His true incarnation, and in man’s sinful state by nature; and it prepares the way to belief in the sacred Eucharistic feast, in which He who was once crucified is ever given to our souls and bodies, verily and indeed, in His Body and in His Blood. But again, the heart is hidden from view; it is carefully and securely guarded; it is not like the eye set in the forehead, commanding all, and seen of all: and so in like manner the sacred doctrine of the Atoning Sacrifice is not one to be talked of, but to be lived upon; not to be put forth irreverently, but to be adored secretly; not to be used as a necessary instrument in the conversion of the ungodly, or for the satisfaction of reasoners of this world, but to be unfolded to the docile and obedient; to young children, whom the world has not corrupted; to the sorrowful, who need comfort; to the sincere and earnest, who need a rule of life; to the innocent, who need warning; and to the established, who have earned the knowledge of it.

One more remark I shall make, and then conclude. It must not be supposed, because the doctrine of the Cross makes us sad, that therefore the Gospel is a sad religion. The Psalmist says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy;” and our Lord says, “They that mourn shall be comforted.” Let no one go away with the impression that the Gospel makes us take a gloomy view of the world and of life. It hinders us indeed from taking a superficial view, and finding a vain transitory joy in what we see; but it forbids our immediate enjoyment, only to grant enjoyment in truth and fulness afterwards. It only forbids us to begin with enjoyment. It only says, If you begin with pleasure, you will end with pain. It bids us begin with the Cross of Christ, and in that Cross we shall at first find sorrow, but in a while peace and comfort will rise out of that sorrow.  

— John Henry Newman

Ezra Klein

Can the constant confrontation with our failures and deficiencies produce a culture that is generous and forgiving? Can it be concerned with those who feel not just left behind, as many in America do, but left out, as so many Ukrainians were for so long?

The answer to that, if there is an answer to that, may lie in the Christianity the anti-liberals feared, which too few in politics actually practice. As an outsider to Christianity, what I’ve always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess, and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven. 

It would be a delicious irony if the postliberal contempt for universal obligations — plain old humanism — started making the intrinsic universality of Christianity more appealing to “outsiders to Christianity.” That might arouse some very complicated feelings in the bosoms of postliberal Christians who have redescribed Christianity as merely a superior tribalism. 

Matt Milliner:

The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was sprinkled with holy water by Patriarch Kirill in 2020, but that does not mean it is holy. It has forsaken the elegant curves of a traditional Russian dome to deliberately resemble nuclear missiles (which Russian priests have cheerily blessed). The classic two-dimensional apse mosaic of Christ has been swapped out for a tacky sculpture, defying centuries of Orthodox wisdom which traditionally eschewed three-dimensional representation. Defending the six billion ruble expenditure, one Orthodox priest said that “metal, wood, glass and talent were offered practically free, for a few kopecks. People worked, worked hard for the glory of God.” His statement calls to mind another priest, Aaron: “Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24). 

Read on to learn of the role played by the Mother of God. 

beyond grumpiness

I suspect you have noticed that many old people are grumpy. I think the explanation for such widespread grumpiness is fairly simple.

Perhaps you’ve been in a relationship — with parents or siblings or spouses or even friends — in which the little foxes spoil the grapes. It’s not the big foul acts or horribly cruel words that do you in, it’s the slow drip drip drip of little annoyances that become over time a vast sea of frustration. Surely you’ve been there? You become exasperated by someone’s passing comment and when they are genuinely puzzled by your anger over so trivial a matter, you try to explain (apologetically, penitently, I hope) that it wouldn’t be a problem if this thing had happened once but it has happened a thousand times. It’s the repetition that kills you.

I think that’s how it is for old people — not only on a personal but also on a cultural level — and I speak as someone who is, I suppose, entering that territory. Take for instance the debates over the last few years in the academy about whiteness, representation, cultural appropriation, the Western canon, the classroom as a venue for social justice, etc. etc. These are precisely the arguments that roiled the academic humanities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The vocabulary can differ slightly, but otherwise we who were alive and alert then know the script. Heck, the arguments of thirty years ago often echoed arguments of a quarter-century earlier, those that arose in the student-protest era of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

This is not to say, of course, that everything is the same. For instance, in the Sixties the student protesters wanted to dismantle the existing institutional structures, whereas today’s protesters usually just want management to take their side. But the overall terms of engagement are remarkably similar, and that’s frustrating for an older person, for the same reason (ironically enough) that it’s frustrating to hear grandpa tell the same story over and over again. It’s a maddening repetition — the first time as farce and the second as farcier.

And then you reflect that not only has no one learned anything from the previous instantiation of these debates, most of the people shouting at each other today don’t even know that the debates took place. They’re mouthing the words of their predecessors — in some cases they’re even mouthing the words of their earlier selves — but the relentless presentism of our social media environment creates what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia. You can’t learn from the past if you don’t know what happened in it. So yeah, I’m gradually turning into a grumpy old man. Because nobody learns anything.

The only thing that anybody knows how to do when a new conflict arises, and this is just as true of the conflict in Ukraine as it is of any other, is to insist that these tragic events only prove my politics. That’s it, that’s all anybody has got. There are no circumstances, no matter how dreadful, sufficiently dramatic to make anyone fall off of their hobbyhorse. (That site hasn’t been updated in a decade, because what would be the point?)

So they were as far as I can tell two ways to go. One is increasing frustration and the other is detachment. Or … perhaps I should say that there are three possible responses: frustration, nihilistic detachment, and the detachment that seeks peace.

These are precisely the concerns of T. S. Eliot’s valedictory poem, “Little Gidding,” in which he makes a version of my threefold distinction:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives — unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.

Of course, “attachment” is not the same thing as frustration — but frustration arises from attachment. If you didn’t care you would walk away or tune a person out rather than hanging around to be an asshole. You would be indifferent (and maybe the targets of your frustration would prefer that). A little earlier in “Little Gidding,” when Eliot encounters

some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many,

he learns what that particular variety of attachment leads to:

“the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.”

Is there a way to avoid this dark fate? Yes:

“ From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”

Until you submit to that refining fire, your frustration, your impotent rage — no matter how correct you are — does nothing to help others and brings only misery to you. That your frustration has a legitimate cause means nothing when seen from this perspective. So I’ve been thinking about this passage regularly for more than a decade now — since I wrote my treatise “Against Stupidity” a decade ago, a treatise in which I argue for the canonization of Jonathan Swift. (I still advocate that elevation, by the way.)

And there’s a passage from another work that I often think of in this context: Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. It involves an encounter between Jayber, the barber in the small town of Port William, and a neighbor named Troy Chatham, who sees the world rather differently than Jayber does. In this scene the men in Jayber’s barbershop discuss the then-current protests against the war in Vietnam.

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said — it was about the third thing said — “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.” […]

It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”

I said, “Jesus Christ.”

And Troy said, “Oh.”

It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

That’s quite a sting in the tail of that anecdote.

The first step, I guess, is to know what the Bible teaches, what the Lord commands of us. The second step is to understand that if I can shame and silence my neighbor with a Bible verse but have not love, I am no better than a clanging cymbal. The third step, the terrifying step, is to hold my tongue until I can love the Troy Chathams in my life. Else I will end up in the condition prophesied for Eliot by his master’s admonitory ghost.

It’s a hard path to walk, this Way of avoiding both indifference and “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly.” But the hard path is the only real Way. (All the others circle back on themselves.) So I try every day to follow it. I don’t think I could manage even that if I did not have an Advocate to accompany me, to encourage me, and to guide me.

Doubt may be considered one of the consequences of original sin, but it also protects us against its more deleterious effects. It is important for us to be uncertain about the deep motives for our own deeds and the grounds of our convictions, since this is the only device that protects us against an old justifying fanaticism and intolerance. We should remember that the perfect unity of man is impossible, otherwise we would try to impose this unity by any means available, and our foolish visions of perfection would evaporate in violence and end in a theocratic or totalitarian caricature of unity which claimed to make the Great Impossible an actuality. The greater our hopes for humanity, the more we are ready to sacrifice, and this too seems very rational. As Anatole France once remarked, never have so many been murdered in the name of a doctrine as in the name of the principle that human beings are naturally good. […]

There are reasons why we need Christianity, but not just any kind of Christianity. We do not need a Christianity that makes political revolution, that rushes to cooperate with so-called sexual liberation, that approves our concupiscence or praises our violence. There are enough forces in the world to do all these things without the aid of Christianity. We need a Christianity that will help us move beyond the immediate pressures of life, that gives us insight into the basic limits of the human condition and the capacity to accept them, a Christianity that teaches us the simple truth that there is not only a tomorrow but a day after tomorrow as well, and and that the difference between success and failure is rarely distinguishable. We need a Christianity that is not gold, or purple, or red, but grey.

— Leszek Kołakowski, “Can the Devil Be Saved?” (1974)

seeds and means of renewal

895px Giotto Legend of St Francis 06 Dream of Innocent III

In a recent column, David Brooks writes extensively and thoughtfully about the prospects for the renewal of the moribund evangelical movement. He cites some reasons for hope — though the signals are weak at the moment — but also points to some concerns:

Over the past few years, I’ve joined and observed a few of the conferences and gatherings organized by Christians who are trying to figure out how to start this renewal. Inevitably there were a few sessions diagnosing the problems, then a final one in which people were supposed to suggest solutions. I would summarize the final sessions this way: “Mumble, mumble, mumble. Well, it was nice to see y’all!”

Yeah. I think the primary reason for this confusion is that evangelical leaders are the products of the institutions of that movement — colleges, seminaries, various parachurch organizations — and those institutions either have failed to provide serious intellectual equipment or, when they done their jobs well, their voices have been drowned out by the entrepreneurial/marketing noisemakers who insist that the building of churches is exactly like the building of businesses.

If the evangelical church, or the church more generally, is going to be renewed, it will need to find leaders who are (a) deeply grounded in Christian theology and practice, (b) attentive to the contours and demands of our ambient culture, and (c) able to think imaginatively about the complex ways that (a) and (b) interact.

For the last several years, I have, on this blog and elsewhere, tried to create a framework for how to do just this kind of work and in the process begin to renew Christ’s church. As far as I can tell, this project has had absolutely no impact on anyone. I am not sure why. I just know that my writing has always been much better received by non-Christians than by my fellow believers; the latter seem not to know what to make of my ideas — perhaps because they don’t obviously belong to any particular school or tradition? I dunno. Maybe I just don’t have anything useful to say. But I keep trying anyway.

Let me gather together links to some of my thinking on these topics, in what I think is a useful order:

There’s much more if you follow the tags on this post.

Pope Benedict XVI:

Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete.’ In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet he, placing his right hand on him, says to him: “Do not be afraid! It is I …” (cf. Rev 1:12-17).

Martin Niemöller, writing to his wife from Moabit Prison in Berlin, 18 August 1937: “You don’t have to worry about me; I live my day and it’s never long, and should there be occasional rough weather and storms on the surface, at a diving depth of twenty meters there is total calm.” 

Christianity in sum

I’ve mentioned in my newsletter how deeply I have been touched and healed in recent months by the Church of England’s Daily Prayer. This morning as I was listening to Morning Prayer — that is, the service for the fourth of February (that link should take you directly to the recorded service plus the text) — and it occurred to me that this one service contains almost everything you would need to understand the ancient Christian faith in all its beauty and all its strangeness: gorgeous music crying out to God; the précis of revelation (general and special alike) in that greatest of ancient lyric poems, Psalm 19; the scandal and offense of the Binding of Isaac; the hope beyond hope of the Resurrection narrative; and the sparely beautiful liturgical structure in which they are all embedded. It’s all there, in little more than 20 minutes: a summation of the whole story in which we Christians participate. 

If Christians are ever again taken seriously in this country, it won’t be because they own the libs and rout the woke; it won’t be because they triumph over their enemies and enjoy the spoils of victory; it will be, it only will be, because Christians act like this. There is one Way. And whether we take it is our only truly meaningful choice. 

practices

In an earlier post I mentioned Lauren Winner’s book The Dangers of Christian Practice. Let me try to summarize that book’s argument:

For a very long time it was characteristic of Protestants (pastors, theologians, ordinary laypeople) to see Christianity as a matter of the heart — or, perhaps, as an orientation of the will towards God. This was accompanied by a denigration of classic Christian practices — prayer, fasting, penance, silence — as merely external manifestations of religiosity. Then came a “repristination” of traditional Christian practices: “When a Christian theologian (or a ‘popular’ Christian devotional writer) writes about a ‘Christian practice,’ she is almost always commending something to you.” What’s missing from this commendation is the possibility — indeed, the inevitability — that even the most essential and time-honored practices will go awry. For instance, celebrations of fasting rarely if ever acknowledge the ways that for some people fasting can become entwined with eating disorders. What’s required now is a depristination of practice: an awareness of the ways that the cultivation of Christian practices does not escape our sinfulness and brokenness — that such cultivation will necessarily lead to “characteristic damage,” damage not incidental to such practices or occurring thanks to a deviation from them, but rather intrinsic to their embrace by sinners.

Now, Winner makes many important caveats along the way: that she is not making an argument against the cultivation of traditional Christian practices, that by the grace of God even “damaged gifts” can bring blessing. With the arguments and the caveats taken together, this is an important book, and clearly correct in its chief points.

So. Now what?

  1. Among certain non-Catholic Christians, there is a kind of sentimentality about “Catholic” practices. Get over it. No practice, no church, no denomination, no communion, allows You to escape You.
  2. Properly chastened — and properly aware of the particular dangers of the practices that allow you to do what you would want to do anyway — continue to cultivate them. They have arisen and been developed over many centuries for Reasons.
  3. Long ago Stanley Hauerwas, in response to the frequently-heard insistence that “the Christian church needs a social strategy,” insisted that the Christian church is a social strategy. Christians who in good faith and with self-skepticism practice the traditional Christian disciplines are ipso facto pursuing a social strategy. Let’s not forget it.
  4. In an email to me, Leah Libresco Sargeant mentioned the recent tendency among U. S. Catholic bishops — and maybe bishops elsewhere, I don’t know — to move Holy Days of Obligation that occur during the week to Sundays.  Leah commented, “I don’t like shifting Holy Days of Obligation from Thursday to Sunday — it’s good for sacred time to interrupt ordinary time. We need reminders of that hierarchy.” We need the practices that set us in tension with the practices of everyday life under technocratic capitalism. And we need them even if those tensions are, for us, near occasions of sin.

Karth Barth, in a 1934 talk

For what we have experienced in Germany during these latter days — this remarkable apostasy of the Church to nationalism, and I am sure that every one of you is horrified and says in his heart: I thank thee, God, that I am not a German Christian! — I assure you that it will be the end of your road, too. It has its beginning with “Christian life” and ends in paganism. For, if you once admit, “Not only God but I also,” and if your heart is with the latter — and friends, that’s where you have it! — there is no stopping it. Let me assure you that there are many sincere and very lovely people among the German Christians. But it did not save them falling prey to this error.

Let me warn you now. If you make a start with “God and…” you are opening the doors to every demon….

In Germany we have learned by experience that the one thing that offered a chance to face the real enemy and refuse his claim was the simple message: God is the only Helper! It was the simple Either-Or which was refused a while ago. Learn in time what may here be learned. You are still soldiers in the barracks. Real firing has not yet begun for you. Some day you may be called to the front line. Perhaps there you will remember our discussion. You may then gain a better understanding of what you do not seem to be able to grasp today. One-sidedness will be your only chance.

the mirror

The good folks at Plough have produced an e-book featuring two early Christian texts, and Rowan Williams has written an introduction to it that I believe essential reading for Christians in our moment. I love this kind of piece — a clear and patient exposition of ideas from the past that never once mentions current events but brilliantly illuminates the questions that face us. Please do read it all, but here are some choice nuggets: 

  • “If you look at the eyewitness accounts of martyrdom in these early centuries – ­documents like the wonderful record of the martyrs of Scilli in North Africa in AD 180 – you can see what the real issue was. These Christians, most of them probably domestic slaves, had to explain to the magistrate that they were quite happy to pray for the imperial state, and even to pay taxes, but that they could not grant the state their absolute allegiance…. What made their demand new and shocking was that it was not made on the basis of ethnic identity, but on the bare fact of conviction and conscience. For the first time in human history, individuals claimed the liberty to define the limits of their political loyalty, and to test that loyalty by spiritual and ethical standards.”  
  • “The early Christian movement … was not revolutionary in the sense that it was trying to change the government. Its challenge was more serious: it was the claim to hold any and every government to account, to test its integrity, and to give and withhold compliance accordingly. But it would be wrong to think of this, as we are tempted to do in our era, in terms of individual conscience. It was about the right of a community to set its own standards and to form its members in the light of what had been given to them by an authority higher than the empire. The early Christians believed that if Jesus of Nazareth was ‘Lord,’ no one else could be lord over him, and therefore no one could overrule his authority.” 
  • “The theology of the early centuries thus comes very directly out of this one great central conviction about political authority: if Jesus is Lord, no one else ultimately is, and so those who belong with Jesus, who share his life through the common life of the worshiping community, have a solidarity and a loyalty that goes beyond the chance identity of national or political life…. Humans love largely because of fellow-feeling, but God’s love is such that it never depends on having something in common. The creator has in one sense nothing in common with his creation – how could he? But he is completely free to exercise his essential being, which is love, wherever he wills. And this teaches us that we too must learn to love beyond the boundaries of common interest and natural sympathy and, like God, love those who don’t seem to have anything in common with us.” 
  • “One of the lasting legacies of the early church, then, is the recognition that doctrine, prayer, and ethics don’t exist in tidy separate compartments: each one shapes the others. And in the church in any age, we should not be surprised if we become hazy about our doctrine at a time when we are less clear about our priorities as a community, or if we become less passionate about service, forgiveness, and peace when we have stopped thinking clearly about the true and eternal character of God.” 

tribulation

Hannah Anderson in Christianity Today:

Just as we do not choose our biological families of origin, there’s a sense in which we do not choose our religious families of origin either. Those of us who have been birthed or shaped by evangelicalism will never not be affected by it. You can be a former evangelical or a postevangelical. You can be a neo-evangelical. You can be a recovering evangelical — even a reforming evangelical. But you will never not be defined by your relationship to evangelicalism.

At the same time, acknowledging your evangelical roots does not mean turning a blind eye to the challenges facing the movement, nor does it mean defining evangelicalism so narrowly that you can absolve yourself of responsibility for it. To extend the family metaphor, evangelicalism may be comprised of your crazy cousins, embarrassing uncles, and perhaps even dysfunctional homes, but it’s still your family.

One thing that I almost never see in the current Discourse about evangelicalism is an acknowledgement by people who were raised evangelical that their upbringing might have provided something, anything to be grateful for. When I hear people denouncing their evangelical or fundamentalist “family,” I remember something Auden said about Kierkegaard: “The Danish Lutheran Church may have been as worldly as Kierkegaard thought it was, but if it had not existed he would never have heard of the Gospels, in which he found the standards by which he condemned it.” 

For decades now I have been puzzled, bemused, and sometimes frustrated by people who speak as though being raised a fundamentalist Christian is a uniquely terrible tribulation. And I have met many such people. I was not raised evangelical myself, and only in a nominal sense was I raised a Christian. We knew we were Baptists, because denomination was a social marker in Alabama sixty years ago, but we very rarely went to church. (Occasionally someone would feel a sense of responsibility and we’d attend for three or four weeks in a row, but then a year or more might pass before we returned.) We didn’t pray; I don’t believe I ever prayed or was prayed for at home. At some point in my childhood — during one of those brief spasms of church attendance, I suppose — I learned John 3:16, for which I’m very grateful! But I didn’t learn the Lord’s Prayer until I became interested in Christianity in college. 

Moreover, my father was in and out of prison throughout my childhood, and the best years were the ones when he was locked up, because when he was home he was usually drunk and when drunk was often violent. Once, when I was 12 or 13, I injured my arm playing a pickup football game and came home holding it gingerly, which for some reason caused him to fly into a rage and smash my injured arm with his fist. The next day we learned that my arm was broken. On another occasion he became angry with me for something and snatched my glasses off my face and crumpled them in his hand. I’m very nearsighted, so I stumbled around at school for the next couple of weeks until he allowed my mother to buy me a new pair. He never once in all his life told me he loved me; never once offered me a word of praise. My mother, while peaceable, was mostly silent and didn’t express affection either, though I’m now sure that she felt it. (Curiously, I never once saw my father angry with my mother.) We lived with my paternal grandmother, who was very loving towards me; without her, I don’t know how I could have made it into adulthood in one piece. My father regularly berated her for “spoiling” me. 

That was home life. At school, because I started first grade at age five and skipped second grade, I was two years younger than my classmates and therefore the subject of relentless bullying until in high school I finally grew to slightly-above-average height. So I spent my childhood in more-or-less constant fear. My only refuges were (a) my books and (b) the friends I hung out with during school vacations. On days without school I made a point of leaving our house right after breakfast every day and not returning until dinner. I spent a lot of time hanging out in friends’ houses or yards and sitting under trees with books, dreading the time when I had to return home. (Another thing I’m grateful for, as I have often remarked: we had a house full of cheap paperbacks so there was always something to read.)  

I don’t know how much it would have helped if anyone had taught me to cry out to God for support, or explained that Jesus encouraged those who are heavily-burdened to come to him for rest, or noted that he had sent the Holy Spirit to comfort his disciples. But such instruction wouldn’t have hurt; and it might have been a lifeline.

So when people whose parents loved them and expressed that love, cared for them and prayed for them, encouraged them in goodness and consoled them when they were hurt, tell me that their upbringing was terrible because those same parents were legalists and fundamentalists, well … let’s just say that I have a somewhat different perspective. I am not referring, of course, to those who suffered genuine abuse, and I see how abuse done in the name of God can be especially traumatizing. But those whose parents were merely legalistic and moralistic, narrow in their views, suspicious of mainstream culture, strict about movies and music — sure, all that’s not cool. But it could have been so, so much worse.

To those people, I say: While you’re rejoicing in your discovery of a more gracious and merciful God than your parents taught you to believe in — which is indeed something to rejoice in! — try to extend to them some of the same grace and mercy that you’ve received. And while duly noting what they failed to teach you, seek to have some gratitude for what they managed to provide. It was more and better than a lot of us get. 

A brother once came to one of the desert fathers saying, “My mind is intent on God.” The old man replied: “It is no great matter that thy mind should be with God; but if thou didst see thyself less than any of His creatures, that were something.” I am sure Dr Niebuhr knows this: I am not sure, though, that he is sufficiently ashamed. The danger of being a professional exposer of the bogus is that, encountering it so often, one may come in time to cease to believe in the reality it counterfeits.

One has an uneasy suspicion that, were Dr Niebuhr to meet the genuine, he might be as embarrassed as an eighteenth-century bishop or as an army chaplain. The question is: Does he believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints, or doesn’t he? 

— W. H. Auden, in a review of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity and Power Politics (The Nation, 4 January 1941). Let the reader understand. 

O God, who endowed your servant Hugh with a wise and cheerful boldness and taught him to commend to earthly rulers the discipline of a holy life: give us grace like him to be bold in the service of the gospel, putting our confidence in Christ alone, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

the beginning of politics

Leah Libresco Sargeant on an “illiberalism of the weak”

To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person [which is the person imagined by liberalism] who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity. 

This is a strong and vital word. But genuinely to hear it we will have to dethrone the two idols that almost everyone with a political opinion worships: My People and Winning. The goal of almost every political activist and pundit is the same: My people must win, and those who are not my people must lose. Do not be deceived by talk of the “common good,” because the often quite explicit message of the common-good conservatives is: My people are the ones who know what the common good is, and that common good can only be achieved if my people win. A politics of weakness and dependence, a politics of bearing one another’s burdens, can only begin when those two idols are slain. 


UPDATE: Rowan Williams, from a review of God: An Anatomy, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou: 

Stavrakopoulou … takes Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous picture of the dead (and prematurely decaying) body of Christ as illustrating the way in which Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy ends up in a conspicuously unbiblical position, presenting human bodies as “repulsive” (her word), unfit to portray the divine. But – apart from the fact that in Holbein’s lifetime the glory of the human form as representing divinity was being reaffirmed by artists in southern Europe as never before – the point of a picture like this, or of any other representation of the torment and suffering of Jesus, was to say that “the divine” does not shrink from or abandon the human body when it is humiliated and tortured.

In contrast to an archaic, religious sacralising of the perfect, glowing, muscular, dominant body, there is a central strand in Jewish and Christian imagination which insists that bodies marked by weakness, failure, the violence of others, disease or disability are not somehow shut out from a share in human – and divine – significance. They have value and meaning; they may judge us and call us to action. The biblical texts are certainly not short of the mythical glorifications of male power that Stavrakopoulou discusses; but they also repeatedly explore divine solidarity with vulnerable bodies, powerless bodies. Is this a less “real” dimension of the Bible? Even a reader with no theological commitments might pause before writing it off.

Christians and the biopolitical

Matthew Loftus:

Christians must develop and encourage practices of suffering that accompany those in pain, like Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross during Christ’s passion. The ethical imperatives of the Church are only intelligible to a watching world to the degree that Christians are willing to walk alongside those who suffer and bear their pain with them. Without these practices of accompaniment, Christian moral teaching about issues like abortion or assisted reproductive technology is a cold set of rules enforced by people who have the privilege of not having to bear their cost. It is through these experiences — and not just experiences with those who forsake an accessible but immoral technological intervention, but also accompaniment with the poor, the imprisoned, and those whose suffering cannot be relieved by any human means — that Christians are able to experience growth through suffering and acquire the perspective from below that shapes their advocacy for those who need the work-towards-shalom the most. 

A powerful essay. 

The themes of that essay do not immediately seem directly related to the themes of this interview with Loftus, but I think they are. Responding to claims by some doctors that we should ration Covid care to favor the vaccinated and disfavor the unvaccinated, Loftus, himself a physician, says, 

I think it is a matter of justice not to ration care away from the unvaccinated, because to do so, I think, is to pass a judgment on someone’s other personal health decisions that we would never apply in any other case. All health care is a mixture of trying to provide justice while also being merciful to others. It’s impossible to be a good health-care worker and not be willing to be merciful with people who, quite frankly, got themselves into the trouble that they’re in and had many opportunities not to do so. But it’s also a matter of justice in giving that person what they need to survive or, if not to survive, to die in a way that honors the person they are. 

Loftus is pointing here to a version of what Scott Alexander, in one of the more useful ethical essays I have read in the past decade, calls “isolated demands for rigor.” When doctors treat people for health problems that arise from obesity, they don’t withhold care until they learn whether those people have some kind of genetic predisposition to obesity or are fat because they eat at McDonald’s every day — they just treat the patients. Oncologists don’t give better treatment to lung cancer patients who smoke less or don’t smoke at all. We only think to subject the unvaccinated-against-Covid to that kind of strict scrutiny because the discourse around Covid has become so pathologically tribalized and moralized. 

But Christians in particular have a very strong reason not to employ such strict scrutiny: We believe in a God who sought out and saved “people who, quite frankly, got themselves into the trouble that they’re in.” In an earlier reflection on this general subject, I mentioned Eve Tushnet’s wise comment that “mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is.” The rationing of medical care away from the unvaccinated is structural mercilessness. It is anti-shalom

James O’Donnell

Detachment and objectivity are not to be found in the Confessions. Analysis of divine affairs is not only not kept apart from self-analysis, but the two streams are run together in what often appears to first readers to be an uncontrolled and illogical melange. This book’s fascination for modern readers stems in large part from its vivid portrayal of a man in the presence of his God, of God and the self intimately related but still separated by sin, and of a struggle for mastery within the self longing for final peace. It is an extraordinary book, no matter how studied.

The rest of Augustine’s life was spent writing books of a more conventional sort. He would analyze in painstaking detail the inner workings of the Trinity, the whole course of salvation history, and the delicate commerce between God and man in the workings of grace and the will, all in an objective, detached, and impersonal style. What is different about them is that they were written by a man who had already written the Confessions, made his peace with God insofar as that was possible, and drawn from that peace (the forerunner of heavenly rest) the confidence he needed to stand at the altar and preach or to sit in his study dictating works of polemic and instruction for the world to read….

The Confessions are not to be read merely as a look back at Augustine’s spiritual development; rather the text itself is an essential stage in that development, and a work aware both of what had already passed into history and of what lay ahead. No other work of Christian literature does what Augustine accomplishes in this volume; only Dante’s Commedia even rivals it.

John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong is dead. If he had been an intelligent man, he would have developed more coherent and logical arguments against the Christian faith; if he had been a charitable man, he would have refrained from attempting to destroy the faith of Christians; if he had been an honest man, he would have resigned his orders fifty years or more ago. May God have mercy on his soul.

a church in crisis

Russell Moore:

First-century Athens, Greece, was just as intellectually averse to Christianity as twenty-first-century Athens, Georgia – and far more sexually “liberated” too. And the gospel went forth and the churches grew. The problem now is not that people think the church’s way of life is too demanding, too morally rigorous, but that they have come to think the church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings. The problem is not that they reject the idea that God could send anyone to hell but that, when they see the church covering up predatory behavior in its institutions, they have evidence that the church believes God would not send “our kind of people” to hell.

If people reject the church because they reject Jesus and the gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised. But what happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel? People have always left the church because they want to gratify the flesh, but what happens when people leave because they believe the church exists to gratify the flesh – in orgies of sex or anger or materialism? That’s a far different problem. What if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus? That’s a crisis. 

For those of us who would love to see genuine Christian renewal in America — and not just people deciding to call themselves “evangelical” because they support Donald Trump — Russell Moore’s voice is an absolutely essential one. 

Last week I read Kate Shellnutt’s long and carefully reported piece on the conflicts at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and afterwards something was vaguely nagging at my mind. After reading Russell Moore’s essay I finally figured out what it is: The entire controversy at BBC is essentially a struggle about which group gets to rebuke another group. People are fighting at church over their right to rebuke their sisters and brothers.   

Why does the American church today “disapprove of Jesus”? There are many reasons, but I think the essential one, the one from which everything else flows, is this: Jesus tells us to worry about our own moral and spiritual condition rather than that of our neighbor. He tells me to attend to the log in my own eye before I worry about the speck in someone else’s. If my neighbor abuses me, I am to pray for him and bless him. Rather than thanking God that I am not like that [black person, homosexual, Trump supporter] over there, I am to pray “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” 

When Christians begin to obey, or just begin trying to obey, Jesus in these matters, then we’ll have taken the first and essential step towards restoring our legitimacy. But until we take the commandments of Jesus seriously, why should we expect anyone else to? 

beyond the strongman

In a previous post I wrote:

This tension between the ancient vessels of culture and what they contain is not indefinitely sustainable: in the long run, either we will adjust our thinking and feeling to match the shapes of our familiar institutions, or we will reshape those institutions so that they suit our thoughts and feelings. The latter is quite obviously what’s happening, because new institutions — the catechizing and propagandizing ones, which cunningly present themselves as non- or trans-institutional — are co-opting the old ones. “The media creates us in its image” — but the existing institutions are incompatible with the shape in which we are being remade. So they must either be transformed or destroyed.

I want to link this with an earlier post on the idea of a “long march through the institutions”:

You sometimes hear Dutschke’s phrase from conservative commentators frustrated by the success of the left in making just such a march through American civil society, through the media and the arts and the universities. They are correct that this has happened, but they rarely draw the appropriate conclusions from it. Instead of imitating the patience and persistence of the leftist marchers, they long for a strongman, a Trump or an Orban, to relieve them of the responsibility for reshaping civil society. If reshaping those institutions seems hard, then why not dream of someone powerful enough to blow them up and start over? Dreams of an omnicompetent strongman are the natural refuge of people too lazy and feckless to begin, much less complete, a long march.

What’s the purpose of a strongman? The strongman props up the decaying institutions on which we have come to depend. The strongman postpones the day of reckoning. The strongman kicks the can down the road so we can go peacefully to our graves knowing that institutional collapse will be our grandchildren’s problem to deal with, not ours. Sweet dreams to us.

You know what the Trumpistas and Orbanistas remind me of? Denethor. Last year, I gestured at some of the issues I’m here concerned with in a post about intellectual/political “fascist architecture,” about the ways in which laziness leads to hopelessness and hopelessness to a kind of nihilistic wrath:

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

For all Denethor’s talk of “honour,” his behavior is shameful. But there are two reasonable and, yes, honorable alternatives to authoritarian nihilism, especially for my fellow Christians. (Much of what I say in the following paragraphs also applies to cultural conservatives more generally.)

The first is to seek the renewal of those institutions that are not too far gone for rescue — genuine renewal, not turning them into puppets for strongmen. For guidelines to that project, see my posts on Invitation and Repair.

The second is, when institutions cannot be renewed, to follow the example of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who strove to create for himself an environment in which he could, in the face of cultural indifference or opposition, thrive as an artist. “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.” Let Stephen be our model, even though his enemy — I am not unaware of the irony — was the Church, along with his nation and his family. Stephen is our model because he thought hard about how to survive, and even thrive, while still in thrall to Powers he could not directly challenge.

Silence: Not a permanent silence, but a refusal to speak at the frantic pace set by social media; silence as the first option — the preferential option for the poor in spirit, you might say; silence as a form of patience, a form of reflection, a form of prayer. A refusal to be baited; a renewal of the old and forgotten virtue called “keeping my counsel.”

Exile: The idea of the Church in exile is an increasingly popular one these days, and for good reason. I’m a little suspicious of some of its potential implications, but overall, I think, we do well to think of ourselves not simply as on pilgrimage — though yes, always that, we are a pilgrim people — but more specifically as pilgrims who are also exiles, who are on the way because we have been cast out of the place where we had hoped to rest. (Call it Christendom, America the Christian Nation, what you will.) Whether this casting out is primarily due to our sins or the ruthlessness of our enemies is something we can debate as we walk, though my counsel is that we should always focus primarily on where we have missed the mark, because that leads to repentance and amendment of life. Moreover, while some exiles are simple this one is complex, because we have not all been exiled to the same place. The body of Christ is not just wounded but divided: our exile is of that particularly painful type known as Diaspora. In such circumstances we travel light, our luggage reduced to the barest essentials; we regularly send out messengers to seek the brothers and sisters whom we have lost; and we relentlessly recite to ourselves the terms that mark our identity. These are the prime virtues of a people in exile.

Cunning: Many traditional communities rely heavily on the kind of person that in England used to be called “cunning men” and “cunning women” — every American Indian community likewise had its “wise woman.” If you had a bad tooth, of course, you’d go to the surgeon — who was usually also a barber — and he’d yank it out. But you’d go to the cunning folk if you didn’t know what was wrong with you, or if anything was wrong with you at all, other than a suspicion that something was wrong with you. The cunning folk had no technique — if they had technique they’d belong to some proper profession — but could draw on experience, and a body of lore passed down from generation to generation, and a certain undefinable shrewdness: a nose for trouble. The cunning man or woman needs, above all, attentiveness and imagination — especially in relation to the beauty hidden in filth. We Christians are in likewise desperate need, not of better techniques for management of our “diminished thing” called the church — as though our highest ambition were to make our spiritual nest egg last just a little bit longer; kicking that can down the road — but of theological and pastoral cunning. What do we have to lose but our chains?

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