Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: excerpts (page 1 of 1)

excerpt from my journal

I want to write a post about why my “Cosmotechnics” essay ended up being a dead end for me. Though I need to think harder about just why I believe that’s the case. I was looking for a way to think about technology that did not involve critique or enthusiasm but rather a kind of ironic detachment. But having made that point I think I exhausted the relevance of Daoism to me. Daoism could teach me ironic detachment from Technopoly but it could not teach me how to get from such detachment to the love of God and my neighbor. 

N. B. I’m posting this excerpt instead of writing that post. 

excerpt from my Sent folder: the day of reckoning

About fifteen years ago I started moving away from the standard research essay assignment. In my Literary Theory classes I assigned dialogues; in Christianity and Fantasy I asked students to make critical editions of texts; since I got to Baylor I’ve used dialogues in some classes and in others have given take-home exams asking people to do close-reading explications of passages I’ve chosen for them. The LLMs do not yet know how to do any of these things, so I am not having to think too much about their effects on my classes; my chief challenge is to avoid smug self-satisfaction. But I remind myself that the day of reckoning is surely coming for me also.

(And yes, I know this courts that smugness, but: I stopped assigning research essays because what my students gave me was so maddeningly predictable — predictable because formulaic — that I just couldn’t bear to grade them any more, not after thirty-plus years of doing it. Now I think: the predictability was in some crucial pedagogical respects the whole point, and so of course LLMs can do those assignments!)

excerpt from my Sent folder: progressive

I do believe in what Cardinal Newman called the “development of doctrine” — though not precisely in the way that Newman did — but I am skeptical of the idea of “progressive revelation.” It leads to the belief that whatever is progressive — whatever has developed, has emerged — is ipso facto revelation. But if you don’t believe that, then you have to be able to distinguish between progressive developments that really are authentic expressions of the Gospel and those that aren’t. And in order to do that you have to criteria for deciding, and those criteria will necessarily not involve the notion of what’s “progressive” because the progressive is precisely what you’re evaluating. The idea of progressive revelation is therefore a problem, not a solution.

excerpts from my Sent folder: angels

This is from an email conversation with my friend Adam Roberts about a recent post of his. N.B.: We’re in medias res here. 

It doesn’t take long to get into intractable difficulties, does it? I don’t know the solution to any of them, of course, but the most obvious one goes something like this, I think:

Though Milton’s God is not always identical with what I would call the Christian God, I do believe he’s in the general vicinity when he says that he made all the rational creatures “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” This suggests that obedience can only be valuable and beautiful when a creature possesses the moral imagination to consider and reject disobedience. You could even say that this is what rational freedom is: the exercise of moral imagination. A creature cannot be virtuous unless it can imagine being vicious.

And imagining sin is not the same as doing it, which is to say that there is some distinction between imagination and will; and that in turn means (as everyone who reflects on these matters ultimately realizes) is it difficult to say when the Fall actually happens, for angels or humans. It’s the crossing of this invisible line from imagining something to willing it. For Milton’s Satan it seems to have happened at the moment that he “thought himself impaired.” (Presumably something very similar happens to all the other rebel angels — if they fell only because they were tempted by Lucifer, then presumably God would extend the same grace to them that he extends to humans.)


  1. All rational creatures have both the strength to stand and the freedom to fall; 
  2. Their moral imagination allows them to understand what falling might be; 
  3. Satan and the other rebel angels move on their own from imagining to willing disobedience; 
  4. Adam and Eve also make that move, but as a result of external temptation; 
  5. Therefore, God extends grace to Adam and Eve but not to the angels. 

I think that’s coherent, if not necessarily convincing; though of course it leaves a thousand other questions unanswered (e.g. Milton gets himself into an enormous amount of trouble, I think, by having Eve so openly chafe against the authority of Adam).

But to pull back from this scene for a moment: The various scenarios you outline in a previous email — your delineation of (a) kinds created (b) numbers created (c) proportions of the Obedient and the Disobedient — confine themselves to this world, and we don’t know whether this world is the only one populated by rational creatures with moral imagination. So CSL imagines a whole solar system of such creatures and suggests that our world is the only fallen one. What if we extend that to the whole galaxy, the whole universe? Setting aside Fermi’s Paradox, this could be an unimaginably vast universe absolutely full of rational creatures praising their Creator and rejoicing in their obedience to Him … while we alone are the broken ones. Earth, then, becomes the cosmic version of the tiny closet in which the one poor child suffers in Omelas.

excerpt from my Sent folder: “September 1, 1939”

In the end, I think, everything has worked out nicely; Auden performed the rite of renunciation that he needed, for internal reasons, to perform, and the poem remains, as it has always remained, widely available to readers. It’s worth remembering that he merely, from 1945 on, declined to include the poem in editions of his Collected Poems. Another Time, the book in which it appeared, remained in print; the poem has been anthologized a thousand times; no one who wants to read it has ever been prevented from doing so. In light of those facts, the level of controversy that his renunciation generates is rather fascinating, I find.

excerpt from my Sent folder: Morgenbesser

I have many, many thoughts about Morgenbesser. I have often thought of writing little vignettes about him doing mundane things in New York City: “Morgenbesser Eats a Pastrami on Rye,” “Morgenbesser Takes In a Knicks Game,” “Morgenbesser Observes the World Trade Center.” Each vignette would be an opportunity for one of those absurd-but-maybe-also-profound Morgenbesserisms.

One of my favorites among the real ones: Someone told Morgenbesser that the most essential philosophical question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He replied, “So what if there was nothing? You’d still complain!”

Or is that a real one? You can’t tell, so many stories seem to attach to him. But it seems to me that his primary achievement in life was to perform Morgenbesser in such a way that he became a magnetic attractor of a certain kind of story. And in that sense, even the stories that aren’t true are true. They embody Morgenbesser whether they “actually” happened to him or not.

excerpt from my Sent folder: strawberries

Adam, I have a story to tell you. It concerns strawberries.

When I was a boy in Birmingham, Alabama, one of my great-aunts lived in the countryside about forty miles north, and we would visit her regularly. I had maybe a dozen great-aunts, most of them formidable Southern ladies schooled in poverty, but this one was an iron-willed widow farmer who rejoiced in the name Bethalee Basenberg. She mainly grew sweet corn and tomatoes, but had a sideline in a few other things, including strawberries and sugar cane.

Now, like all civilized people with a decent palate, I loved strawberries — but perhaps I carried it to an extreme. I loved strawberries more than any other food. On one visit, when I was ten or eleven years old, Aunt Bethalee allowed me to pick a bag of ripe strawberries and a few canes to take back to the city, and I was absolutely in heaven.

When we got home I put the strawberries in a bowl and squeezed the nectar from the canes over them, then took the bowl to my room and plopped down on the bed with a new book I had just begun: Dune. I ate and read, ate and red.

But I overdid the eating. (One cannot, of course overdo the reading.) I became violently ill and vomited red vomit, over and over again. I had never been that miserable before, and rarely have since.

Afterwards, I became nauseated when I looked at, or even just thought about, … Dune.

Apparently some executive decision-making region of my brain knew that I loved strawberries too much to be nauseated by them, so it shifted the nausea-induction to Frank Herbert’s innocent book. I continued to eat strawberries whenever they were presented to me, and did so with delight, but I set DUNE aside — I was maybe a hundred pages in — for decades. Even as an adult I got queasy when I looked at it. I was in my forties before I worked up the resolve to go back and finish it.

Vive les fraises!

excerpt from my Sent folder: the Hitchens unit

You know, we could really get into the spirit of modern administration and come up with a way to measure the influence of public intellectuals. Perhaps the scale could be based on the Hitchens unit, one Hitchens (h) being the amount of public mindspace occupied by Christopher Hitchens in one year. I could then say that in the most recent fiscal year I delivered 0.02h, down, alas, from the previous year’s 0.035h. I could also articulate a Five-Year Plan for getting annual delivery up to 0.1h, with my really long-term goal being the achievement of a lifetime score of 1h

excerpt from my Sent folder: mythos

About that Current Affairs essay … I think it’s pretty much wholly wrong. It’s true that fundamentalist Christianity is insistently literal about anything in the Bible that looks like historical narrative (seven literal days of creation, yes the sun did too stand still in the sky, etc.), but even more dominant than Pentateuchal literalism in the fundamentalist mindest is a fascination with prophecy, and especially with the Book of Revelation (plus parts of Daniel and Ezekiel) as a blueprint for the End Times — but the blueprint is legible only if its symbolism is properly deciphered. And especially in the 70s and 80s, such deciphering involved the most mythologically baroque interpretations imaginable. Precisely nobody thought that guys actually named Gog and Magog were going to show up when the parousia was near. When you claim, as Hal Lindsey did, that the the book of Daniel prophesied the European Common Market, your hermeneutical vice is not excessive literalism.  

The problem with things like D&D was not that they were mythoi as opposed to logoi, but rather that they were alternative mythoi — they were scary because they were potentially appealing in the same way that prophecy culture was supposed to be, by involving me as a kind of participant observer in a big coherent story. 

This would take a long time to explain, but I think the mythos/logos contrast is far less useful for describing the pathologies of fundamentalist exegesis in particular and fundamentalist culture more broadly than Kermode’s distinction in The Sense of an Ending between fictions and myths. Not that I would expect fundamentalists (or any other interpreters of Scripture) to see their exegeses as fictive! — but Kermode is brilliant, I think, on the ways that properly provisional narratives or explanations harden, calcify, into fixed myths.

excerpt from my Sent folder: orbit

These are things I think about a lot. I can only answer briefly now, because having returned home I am in serious catch-up mode, so just a couple of thoughts: I really like the space-program metaphors Walker Percy uses in Lost in the Cosmos: the idea that circumstances can sometimes throw us, not into the world as Heidegger had it, but out of our lifeworld, out into a deep-space orbit, from which we don’t know how to return. Thus what Percy calls the problem of “re-entry”: take too shallow an angle and you bounce back out into space; take too steep an angle and you burn up.

I think a lot of people in our world are terrified of being cast out into an orbit from which they don’t know how to return, so they use social media to perform, daily, their obedience, their fealty to the Zeitgeist. Because once cast out, how could they ever get back?

In Underworld Don DeLillo has Lenny Bruce say, “Love me unconditionally or I die. These are the terms of our engagement.” (And because he didn’t get it, Lenny was cast into deep-space orbit, and burned up on attempted re-entry.) But what people today know in their bones is that love is never unconditional. So they strive ceaselessly to meet the conditions. Which would be a great opportunity for Christian witness, if we had a church that wasn’t too busy fighting the culture wars to remind people of the one who says, “Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

excerpt from my Sent folder: forgiveness

(Reply to an email from a friend who engaged with my recent posts on this subject)

Thanks so much for this excellent and gracious pushback! It helps me to think more clearly.

Let me start with this: “Truth-telling, in various senses, is a precondition for forgiveness.” I can’t be sure without more specificity, but I am inclined to say that, in Christian and biblical terms, that is not an accurate statement.

Now, to be sure, there is a sense in which truth-telling is coterminous with forgiveness. When someone says to me “I forgive you,” that is a kind of performative utterance which also states, implicitly but inescapably, that I have done something that requires forgiveness. (It is of course possible for someone to announce that she has forgiven another person when in fact that other person has done her no wrong, in which case there would be no truth-telling involved, but we’ll set that aside for now.)

But the truth-telling need not precede the forgiveness. When Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who were killing him, he did not first confront them with a list of their offenses and demand a response. When he tells us that we must forgive our offending brother seventy times seven times, he does not add an instruction about truth-telling exercises. He just says to forgive.

But then he also adds, in other places, instructions for achieving reconciliation, as does Paul. So when you put those passages together, here’s the picture that I think you get: Reconciliation is a process that begins with forgiveness and proceeds to truth-telling.

Am I wrong?

Two other points:

First, I don’t think I’m conflating personal and corporate forgiveness. In the kinds of situations I’m envisioning, people like me are asked to acknowledge our complicity in systemic racism. I am not asked to confess to and be absolved of the systemic racism itself — which is appropriate, because there’s no meaningful way in which I could do that — but to my complicity in it. So it remains a personal exchange.

Second, you were exactly right to point to my slippage in invoking the life appropriate to the ekklesia in this non-ecclesial context. I need to be more clear about my views there, which are: Christian colleges and institutions are not the church and should not try to do the things that churches do, for instance, administer the sacraments or promulgate doctrine. Their character and authority are always in a sense derivative of the prior authority of Scripture and/or some body of believers. However, insofar as they claim to be Christian in character they are obliged to behave, insofar as they are able, in ways consistent with the commandments Jesus Christ and his apostles give to the Church.To take an extreme example, it would be absurd to say, “Yes, in our churches we are supposed to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us, but in non-ecclesial contexts we are free to bear grudges forever.”

People often say things like, “Well, you can’t expect him to forgive her after what she did to him.” And in many situations I don’t expect it. Forgiveness is hard, and gets exponentially harder in proportion to the seriousness of the offenses. Sometimes I see people forgiving others and think “If I were in their shoes I don’t think I could do that.” Sometimes people might take decades to get to the point of forgiving someone, if they get there at all.

And you know what would make that process infinitely easier? If the offenders were to come to those they offended and say, “I hurt you. Will you please forgive me? Can I do anything to make it up to you?” That is, in an ideal situation the process of reconciliation will be initiated by the offender asking forgiveness, not the offended offering it. But as far as I can tell, even when that kind of confessing and penitent initiation is not forthcoming, Christians are commanded to forgive. I don’t expect them to, especially when they have been badly hurt, but I don’t see how to avoid admitting that the commandment is what it is.

Of course, the circuit of forgiveness, as it were, cannot be completed unless that forgiveness is both offered and accepted. In a really important sense Hell is the refusal to be forgiven. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is piercing on this topic.

I go on and on about all this because I think it’s really easy for us to carve out exceptions — to say that the rules are different in ecclesial and non-ecclesial contexts, that the rules are different in corporate as opposed to personal contexts, that the rules are different when people have been really badly hurt — and that’s how you end up in a situation in which nobody forgives anybody.

UPDATE: My correspondent here is my friend Nathan Cartagena, whose pushback on my posts has been both charitable and firm. Here are some points from a subsequent message of his that I want to take on board — or rather: read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest:

  • Is reconciliation “a process that begins with forgiveness and proceeds to truth-telling”? Perhaps not always. Yes, Jesus does this as he hangs on the cross; on the other hand, this does not seem to be the practice of the Hebrew prophets.
  • Forgiveness gets entangled with several other actions, including restoration as well as reconciliation. “Paul didn’t tell the Corinthians to forgive the guy sleeping with his mother-in law. Perhaps he assumed they knew to. But he does say to excommunicate him; and eventually Paul commands the Corinthians to restore him. Seems the restoring involves righting individual and communal injustices.” (Yep.)
  • When Paul rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11) was forgiveness involved? (An interesting question! Paul told Peter he was wrong, but one can be wrong without sinning. We should certainly say that Peter needed to accept correction, but it’s not clear from the text that he needed to be forgiven.)
  • When we’re looking at Jesus’s own behavior, to what extent do we need to consider his unique triple role as prophet, priest, and king. Do things look different to those of us who are none of those things?
  • Ditto with Paul, who is an apostle. Does he by virtue of that divinely-appointed role handle things differently than we should?
  • Perhaps we should consider forgiveness as an act and a process. (Yes indeed. When Jesus tells his followers to forgive those who sin against them “seventy times seven” times, it’s not at all clear that every time they do so it’s in response to some new sin. Perhaps we have to get up every morning and forgive those who have sinned against us all over again. And if so, we shouldn’t complain if those we have offended must pursue a long process of forgiving us.)
  • In terms of the larger social issues, in this country the debates are perhaps unhelpfully focused on two groups, black and white Americans, leaving everyone else out of the discussion.

I will reflect prayerfully on all of these points. Thanks, Nathan!

Excerpt from my Sent folder: quarantine and quizzes

Hello friends,

A handful of you have told me that you’ll need to be quarantined for a while — I’m sorry to hear it. Here’s hoping for clean tests and a quick return!

If you find yourself in this situation, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Email me to let me know at least a couple of hours before each class you will miss. Please do so even if you have already emailed me. I get torrential downpours of email and things can get swept away by the tides.
  2. Give your email a useful subject line, like “HEADS UP: ABSENCE FROM CLASS.”
  3. Just as class begins, check your email to see if there is a reading quiz. If there is, then take the usual allotted time — one minute per question — to answer, and simply reply to the email. Then, as we go over the quiz in class, grade it as usual and send me another reply with your grade.
  4. Then open up Zoom and join the meeting I have invited you to. I’ll usually send the invite while people are taking the quiz, but if there is no quiz then I’ll send the invite just before class begins.

A couple of additional notes.

Please do not cheat on your quizzes. Last semester when I had to administer email quizzes several people confessed to me that they had cheated. For this reason, I won’t accept quizzes if they are timestamped more than a minute or two beyond the allotted time.

Finally, if you are ill or otherwise indisposed, please do not ask me to add you to the Zoom list. If you want to get a friend to Zoom you in, you may, but otherwise let’s treat illness just the way we did before Zoom was invented. That is, some days you don’t feel well and miss class, after which you get notes from friends, etc.

I’m actually rather concerned about the problems the use of Zoom creates, and I’m not sure what I am going to do in the future. Allowing people to Zoom into class whenever they feel like it creates many bad incentives: the incentive not to participate fully in class, the incentive to pay more attention to your messages app than to the books we’re discussing, the incentive to cheat on quizzes. I’m afraid that the widespread use of Zoom will force me to change methods of teaching I’ve developed over the past thirty-eight years, and that makes me a little sad, because I think the methods I’ve developed really help you to learn.

Blessings to all,


excerpt from my Sent folder: crumped

I think regularly about Orwell’s “Why I Write,” and especially about the fourth of his four reasons for writing: “Political purpose … Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” I have always in this broad sense been a political writer. Mainly I have tried to commend, in various ways, a principled yet generous, conservative yet open, living-out of commitment to evangelical Christianity, Anglicanism, and humane learning. (Not always in that order.) And evangelical Christianity, Anglicanism, and humane learning have all crumped.

Have you come across that word? I hadn’t heard it before Covid. Apparently it refers to a patient’s sharp, steep decline — not a complete and irreversible crash, but a plunge into serious danger. Everything I care about and have written to defend has crumped, is crumping, will crump.

excerpt from my Sent folder: to my editors

Oh, don’t worry, y’all, I’ll be a pro. (Remember, this is my 15th book, or thereabouts. Not my first or even my dozenth rodeo.) There are two moments in the process of publishing a book — when I first have to open MS Word, and when the Author Questionnaire arrives — when I tell myself I’m going to retire from publishing and just blog for the rest of my life. But then I give myself a shake and a big tumbler of whiskey and recover both my professionalism and my gratitude for this opportunity. 

excerpt from my Sent folder: criticism

Well, first of all, it’s important to remember that a lot of criticism of your work really doesn’t have anything to do with your work or you. Your words may provide for some a launch pad to say something they want to say anyhow — these are the people who come to lectures and during the Q&A say “This is really more of a comment than a question” — and for others it’s an opportunity to strut and fret their hour upon the social-media stage, or to preen and flex in the mirror that your text provides them. It’s not about you, it’s about them, and in any case they’ll be on to something else that displeases them in an hour or two. So who cares?

But if someone takes the trouble to pay attention to what you’ve written, to grasp your argument and to show where they think it goes wrong, or to bring in evidence that you’ve neglected (or didn’t know about) — the price of that kind of thing is above rubies. But it’s very very rare.

excerpt from my Sent folder: localism

More broadly, you should understand that I am a deeply committed localist and doubt the legitimacy of all nation-states and all ecclesiastical structures larger than the diocese (and ideally the old city-sized diocese, not the hypertrophied things we have today). I don’t think there should be any polis larger than McLennan County, and within that local structure I advocate a fruitful hybrid of distributism and anarcho-syndicalism. And yes, I’m serious.

I have sometimes said that future generations will refer to this period of history as the Late Roman Era, because church and state alike have borrowed their understanding of political action and political legitimacy from the Roman model. When the church decided that the Roman administrative structure was what it should imitate, it drank from a poisoned chalice. (Hodie venenum effusum est in ecclesiam Christi.) The church should have seen the Roman way of organizing and disciplining people across great distances as the antithesis of the ecclesia, not something to imitate.

In the first 200 years or so of the Way, the church at Rome considered itself bound to offer other churches prayer, encouragement, and sometimes money. It was first not in power but in service. Then its bishops increasingly began to demand obedience from other dioceses. That was the Original Ecclesial Sin from which we have never recovered.

Or so I think.

excerpt from my Sent folder: civility

I think the question [of whether civility is a Christian virtue] hinges on whether “civility” is a useful shorthand proxy for a series of traits that certainly are Christian virtues: patience, forbearance, kindness, generosity, turning the other cheek, blessing those who spitefully use you, etc.


excerpt from my Sent folder: Twitter

I left Twitter because I watched people who spent a lot of time on Twitter get stupider and stupider, and it finally occurred to me that I was probably getting stupider too. And after some reflection I decided that I couldn’t afford to get any stupider. 

excerpt from my Sent Folder: to someone who wants to be a writer

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Wanting to “be a writer” is, generally speaking, not a good sign. That suggests not a commitment to a vocation but wanting to see yourself, or to be seen by others, in a particular way. By contrast, to have a story that you’re desperate to tell; to have some truth you want to serve, and share with others; to find the crafting of sentences irresistible — those are good signs, because they suggest a person turned outward rather than inward, and the most worthwhile writing is done by people who are turned outward.
  2. Writing that matters will therefore be in service to something or someone, and in order to serve well, you must undergo training and discipline. You have to learn things. You have to have a full mind as well as a lively heart. First you must develop the expertise of crafting sentences, and this can only be done by, first, reading and reading and reading. There is no other path than hard-earned expertise to producing anything that’s worth the time and attention of readers. Why should anybody care what you think? You must earn their care through especially vivid writing, or especially clear thinking, or especially detailed knowledge — or (ideally) some combination of the above.
  3. It takes many years to develop any genuine expertise. That doesn’t mean you don’t share your thoughts along the way, but remembering it should keep your expectations in line. Remember, Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was thirty; all those previous years were spent in preparation.
  4. Normally I despise self-help books and “creativity” books, but there are two exceptions, and both of them are by the same person, Austin Kleon: Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. Small books, but really wise. They’ll lead you to some other good things, also.

excerpt from my Sent folder: Gollum

… let me tell you why Gollum has been on my mind for the last 24 hours or so. Once Gollum takes the Ring, he could slip it on his finger and hightail it out of there, but what does he do? He dances. He takes a victory lap. He celebrates too soon, and so falls to his death. You know who this reminds me of? ERIC DIER. The parallels are so obvious. Dier scores a goal — which should have been disallowed for offside, mind you — and then shushes the crowd and taunts his opponents. Which at that moment results merely in a few handbags, but later results in his playing a part in not one but TWO Arsenal goals (one deflects off him, the other happens after he brainlessly tries to intercept a ball he can’t reach), which is to say, as the inevitable consequence of his dancing and celebrating he falls into a pit of fire where he is burned beyond recognition.

People just don’t learn from Moral Fiction, do they? If I were an Arsenal supporter I’d make much hay from this.

excerpt from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

excerpt from my Sent folder: authority

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

excerpt from my Sent folder: the Mortara case

No, Cessario is quite explicit about this: “Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing.” Not merely a Christian upbringing, but specifically a Catholic one. In terms of canon law and the law of Vatican City, what mattered about Mortara’s case was not that the Mortaras were Jewish but that they were not Catholic. Though it’s hard for me to believe that the actuating motive here wasn’t antisemitism, if David Kertzer is right in his book on the case, Pio Nono might have been even stricter with a Protestant family:

Events of 1848-49 only strengthened Pius IX’s opposition to the idea of freedom of religion. He was committed to the principle of the Catholic state, one in which any other religion had to be viewed with suspicion and closely regulated, if not banned. This principle extended not only to the Jews but to other Christian denominations as well. Indeed, the Pope was more favorably inclined toward the Jews, who represented no threat to the Holy Church, than toward the Protestants, who did. To the complaints of those who said that the Jews were poorly treated in the Papal States, the Pope and his defenders could argue that, on the contrary, they were accorded privileged treatment, allowed to have their own synagogues and practice their religion undisturbed. By contrast, Protestants were not permitted such freedoms, and Rome itself had no real Protestant church, other than a converted granary outside town used by diplomatic personnel and other foreigners. Papal police stood guard at its doors to ensure that no native went inside.

There are of course legitimate arguments to be had about whether true Christian faith is compatible with the liberal order, whether separation of church and state is a good idea, what Pio Nono’s true motives were, and so on — but there’s no doubt that the politico-theological principle at stake in the Mortara case does not concern the relations between Christians and Jews but rather the relations between the Catholic Church and everybody else.

excerpt from my Sent folder: myth

I still think my analysis in that essay is useful, but I wrote it before what happened in Charlottesville, and long before Roy Moore’s Senate campaign, and if I were writing it now I’d write something rather different. I’d want to reckon with the counter-myths of covert or overt racism — in some cases plain old white supremacy — that affect life on campus even when the people involved don’t have any investment in university life and can, like Spencer, walk away after they’ve lit a few fires. My friend Chad Wellmon not only teaches at UVA but lives with his family on the Lawn, and when the neo-Klansmen stomped in with their tiki torches chanting their threats, you can imagine how his small children felt. But those people had no business on the grounds in the first place — they were supposed to be protesting the city of Charlottesville’s actions — they just wanted to intimidate, and since a public university is a public place, they could move freely into its space even when their only goal was to frighten.

Similarly, as I observed the Alabama Senate campaign I was struck by how completely Roy Moore’s supporters operated from within their own mythical core, how completely impervious they were to argument or debate (this is true of some of his opponents too, of course). My point is simply that these contests of competing myths happen throughout our society and the university can’t be isolated or protected from them. That is, we can’t fix the university-specific problems I pointed to without addressing some of the larger social issues. That people associated with a university would invite a hateful mythmonger like Richard Spencer to campus is a tragedy; but it’s a greater tragedy that someone like Spencer is a public figure at all. That’s not something that even the best university administration can fix.

(I might add that when people say that they want conservative ideas to be represented on campus and then invite Ann Coulter or Milo or Richard Spencer to speak, they have zero interest in ideas. They just want to spit in their neighbor’s soup.)

excerpt from my Sent folder: on Rod Dreher and the BenOp

… I just don’t think the question of whether Rod is “the right messenger” for the Benedict Option is a fruitful one. Still less do I want to speculate about what he “really” wants to do or achieve. If you were to read the book, you’d see that it’s not about Rod. It’s fundamentally concerned to describe a series of experiments in Christian community which Rod has observed. Yes, Rod makes plenty of editorial comments, but the heart of the book is simply reporting. As I have said over and over again, the way for us to have a fruitful conversation about the BenOp is to look at those communities: Do any of them seem to you to be a healthy, an appropriate, an adequate Christian response to the challenges of late modernity? If so, why? If not, why not? And in either case, what can we learn from them in our own attempts to live faithfully in interesting times?

(I’ve written a lot here about the BenOp — click on the tag below for more.)

excerpt from my Sent folder: kids these days

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

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

excerpt from my Sent folder: execution

I’m absolutist about these matters, I guess. I think universal rules for police should be:

  • If someone is unarmed, you can’t execute him.
  • If someone is behaving strangely, even extremely strangely, you can’t execute him.
  • If you think that someone might possibly be armed, you can’t execute him.
  • If someone refuses to obey your orders, you can’t execute him.
  • If someone runs away from you, you can’t execute him.
  • If you shoot at anyone in any of the above circumstances, you will be fired. (Maybe prosecuted too, but that’s outside the scope of a police department.)
  • If you find the above rules unfair, or are unable to follow them, you need to go into another line of work.

excerpt from my Sent folder: liturgy

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

excerpt from my Sent folder: Wendell Berry

About Berry, first of all, I don’t think he has ever had an especially broad audience — his message is too discomfiting for that. And while I approve and even celebrate the message, I don’t think there’s anything specially Christian about it. Berry, it seems to me, is a reincarnation of an early Roman: he worships his household gods, and if the Bible happens to say anything that supports the worship of those gods, he quotes it, and insofar as it does not, he ignores it. Like Rachel, he would have smuggled the teraphim in the baggage rather than trust wholly in the God of Israel. St. Paul’s talk of the cosmopolitanism of one whose politeuma is in heaven — I don’t think we’ll hear from Wendell about that, though I am immensely grateful for what we do hear from him.

excerpt from my Sent folder: singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

… I would say that openly Christian writers are often welcome at the WSJ, as long as they don’t say anything that contradicts the foundational beliefs of the WSJ (primarily free marketism). But then the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the NYRB, at least for Marilynne Robinson: she can speak as a Christian because she pronounces her devotion to secularism. And my treatment of these issues in Harper’s is historical and social: if I tried to make a theologically grounded case for the political value of Christian intellectuals, Harper’s wouldn’t even look at it. I don’t in any way blame them for that; but it’s a factor that creates certain strategic challenges for me.

The problem for Christians, as I see it, is being “audible and free” as Christians without having to swear fealty to, or at least refrain from all criticism of, political and social positions that ground their legitimacy altogether elsewhere than in the Christian understanding of the world. Christians are welcome in many choirs as long as they agree to sing the songs written by non-Christians. If they want to sing their own songs, then they’ll probably have to do that in their own venues.

Again, that’s no tragedy, and I don’t know that it’s anyone’s fault, and I’m not even sure that it deserves my lamentation.* But I would love to have more opportunities to speak in distinctively Christian ways to people who don’t know much about Christianity, or who know all that they think they want to know.

*As my friend and colleague Scott Moore said to me the other day, in the time of Christian intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray and the like American society had an unspoken agreement to pretend to listen to what Christians have to say, and now they don’t pretend any more. Maybe that’s an advance.

excerpt from my Sent folder: on Constantinianism

[in response to an email from a reader of this essay]

But in answer to your question — “isn’t this a better state of affairs?” — I’d like split the question into two vectors.

Is it better for us, for American Christians? In many ways, yes. Being severed from the arrogance and complacency that afflicted us in the Constantinian era is usefully humbling. (By the way, I too like Lewis much better than Niebuhr, and I think a main reason for that is that Lewis knew he was living in a post-Constantinian world and Niebuhr didn’t.)

But is it better for the world, for the saeculum? I tend to think not. What the Athenians said to Paul on the Areopagus (“We will hear more from you about all this”) is a heck of a lot better than what we hear from Rorty (“The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen”). Sometimes, at least, people who pretend to listen can end up actually listening; but if they refuse to listen at all I don’t know how they can be reached.

So we need to be always striving to find ways to be heard without thinking that we’re owed a hearing.

excerpt from my Sent folder: on Imagination

“Imagination” became a word to conjure with in the Romantic era, thanks largely to Coleridge, with some help from Shelley, but it’s interesting to note that in the early modern period it’s usually, if not invariably, pejorative: e.g. Tyndale has Paul denouncing people who are “full of vanities in their imaginations” (Romans 1) and saying “we overthrow imaginations” (2 Corinthians 10). It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for years, because I have an inchoate theory about how imagination is a dangerous thing in an enchanted world but a necessary thing in a disenchanted one.

In any case, we need some kind of language to describe the mental investment of the listener or reader in generating a lively sense of what he or she is encountering artistically — the sort of constructive ability of the receiving mind to capture which Coleridge coins the adjective “esemplastic.” I wonder if the language used in cultivating The Art of Memory (the title of Frances Yates’s great book) in the early modern period, which was so relentlessly visual, would be helpful to you…

excerpt from my Sent folder (5)

I developed a hatred for neckties in my youth, when I worked for several years in a bookstore that required me to wear at all times a big plastic name tag and a tie — even though I did most of my work in the stock room. (Once I severed the lower reaches of a tie while opening a box of books with a box cutter.) I would regularly loosen the tie so as not to be choked as I was bending and lifting, and my manager would just as regularly order me to tighten it again.

I took out my frustrations on these requirements by wearing on my name tag the name RASKOLNIKOV. Then one day a lady came up to me as I was shelving books, gently touched my arm, beamed at me, and said in a near-whisper, “It’s so brave of you not to Anglicize your name.”

excerpt from my Sent folder (4)

Anyway, here’s my take: Most academics who were raised as Christians and remain so have gone through a process of sifting their inheritance, taking what they perceive to be the wheat and burning the chaff. And they want to make it possible for their students to do the same. But I think they may not realize how hard that is for many students to do: a given student can easily go from thinking that all of the beliefs she inherited from their parents and her home church are wheat to thinking they are all chaff. When we’re introducing our students to new ideas, to a more capacious model of what Christianity is and can be — and this is something we all do for our students, whether we’re on the liberal or the conservative end of the theological spectrum, and whether we are intentional about it or not — we need always to be aware that as students try to accommodate this new knowledge, these new-to-them models of faith, their whole Christian lives can go up in flames. This is something we can’t afford to forget, ever.

excerpt from my Sent folder (3)

… As someone who was raised in a functionally non-Christian family and became a Christian in college, I have something like an anthropological take on those of you who were raised in the faith. But X strikes me as one of those people who just can’t get past his conservative-evangelical upbringing: there’s so much about it that he hates and wants to repudiate, but whenever he tries to throw it away it ends up sticking to his hand, so back in his pocket it goes. This gets repeated with slight variations for decades.

I think it’s a matter of wanting to retain absolutely everything that’s good about an evangelical upbringing and discarding absolutely everything that’s bad, but life doesn’t work that way. You’re going to end up keeping some things you wish you could lose and losing some things you wish you could keep. Sad but inevitably true.

excerpt from my Sent folder (2)

… I’ve written a couple of angry things in defense of Wheaton, since I left, but I think my having left made it possible for me to get away with the anger. It’s harder to make that work from the inside.

Moreover, what’s really needed here is not anything that could be construed as a defense of particular administrative actions — and even if you deny that you’re doing that, in the residual heat of last week’s news that’s how such a piece will be perceived — but rather an explanation of why places like Wheaton deserve to exist within the widely varied landscape of American higher education. And by “deserve to exist,” I mean on an equal footing with other institutions. You say that Wheaton isn’t going anywhere, and that’s probably true, but a great many other Christian colleges may well, in the coming decade or two, have to close their doors because they lack the financial resources and reputational stature to respond effectively to legal challenges, denial of federal student-loan funding, and de-accreditation. At the very least, religious schools will be threatened with constant demands that they bow to Caesar; even if they can get legal verdicts in their favor that will only be after great expense; and I find it impossible to imagine a future in which religious institutions won’t always be dealing with discrimination suits.

If we who teach at religiously-based institutions have any chance of maintaining the status quo, we’ll need to articulate that more general account of what schools like Wheaton do and why even those who have no religious belief, or even sympathy with religious belief, should value that work.

excerpt from my Sent folder (1)

… When I think about the larger context of all this, I am always reminded of something Lewis says in a preface to Mere Christianity: that he got the strongest support and commendation for his project from Christians of all types who loved and were faithful to their own tradition. The deeper the Methodist got into Methodism, and the deeper the Catholic got into Catholicism, and the deeper the Orthodox got into Orthodoxy, the closer they got to one another. It was the people who stood at or near the periphery of their own tradition who were most suspicious about historic, orthodox, “mere” Christianity.

So I don’t think any particular tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, will survive the coming attacks unless it goes deep into its own resources; and I think if it does go deep into its own resources, it will thrive, in character and substance if not in sheer numbers. But this will not happen at the level of any tradition as a whole; it will happen at the level of the parish, the local community. Right now, I don’t see such “going deep” to be any more likely in one tradition than another. And I don’t think it will ever be the norm.

The Christian communities that thrive will

  • be radically Christ-centered always;
  • refuse to be therapeutic, but rather emphasize the worship we owe to the God who made and redeemed us;
  • connect imaginatively and substantively with Christians throughout the past and around the world;
  • be open to all, but reserve leadership to those who are willing to commit to radical obedience;
  • turn the other cheek and go cheerfully on when attacked by the world; and
  • recognize these practices in other communities, even those outside their tradition.