Sunday, December 31, 2006

Custody of the Eyes

In a recent reflection (again) in the Magnificat, a remark by the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper caught my eye, if you'll pardon the pun (which you won't have noticed until you read what Pieper said):
The cultivation of the natural desire to see assumes the character of a measure of self-preservation and self-defense. And then studiositas (diligence) means especially this: that a person resists the nearly inescapable temption to indiscipline with all the power of selfless self-protection, that he radically closes off the inner space of his life against the pressing of unruly pseudoreality of empty sights and sounds - in order that, through and only through this asceticism of perception, he might safeguard or recoup that which truly constitutes man's living existence: to perceive the reality of God and of creation and to shape himself and the world by the truth that discloses itself only in silence. (Magnificat, Christmas 2006, p.95-6)
Such observations bring to mind Dante's depiction of the envious in the Purgatorio with their eyes wired shut to prevent them from lusting after the gaudy baubles of the world (made alluring by the fact that others desire them or seem pleased that they do), the parenthesis being a Girardian elaboration on the theme. But it also reminds me of something I read a few weeks ago in a recently published book by my friend Ann Astell entitled, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ann is a medievalist and a deeply faithful woman, and her erudition and insight grace every page of her remarkable book. I found her treatment of the theological anthropology of Bernard of Clairvaux especially fascinating.

For Bernard, Ann tells us, the first sin is curiositas (curiosity) and the cure for it is humility.
For St. Bernard the starting point is always the reality of the fallen human condition, which is characterized by an ingrained curiositas and concupiscentia, defects that are two sides, as it were, of a single coin. Both constitute a disordered relationship to the other person, whom we are called to know and to love. Curiositas, an undue preoccupation with the affairs of others, constitutes a defective aspectus (attitude of mind or regard). Concupiscentia, a distorted (emotion, passion, drive) of longing, desires the other inordinately and craves what belongs to the other. Curiositas is cura (care or concern) grown wrong; cupiditas is the misdirection of love that results from it ... [67-8]
As flagrantly as our age urges the renunciation of traditional Christian virtues, especially in its trivialization and vulgarization of sexual intimacy, that attack on virtue is made possible because we have become inordinately preoccupied with others, and we have fallen under the mimetic spell of countless models. Adam's inattention consists, writes the poet Denise Levertov, of:
his confused attention to everything,
impassioned by multiplicity, his despair.
Multiplicity, his despair ...

For St. Bernard, the "principle reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh" was this:
He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, but first drawing them into the salutary love of his humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love. [Astell, p. 86]
The soul at prayer should have before it a sacred image of the God-man, in his birth or infancy or as he was teaching or dying, or rising, or ascending. Whatever form it takes, this image must bind the soul with the love of virtue and expel carnal vices, eliminate temptations and quiet desires. [85]
In case you've been tardy in coming up with a New Year's resolution. That's Bernard's suggestion.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Suffering and Joy

In the reflection accompanying yesterday's lectionary readings in the Magnificat, a passage from Karl Adam included this:
The Christian never toils and suffers and dies alone, that word is absent from his vocabulary. Christianity is a living and a dying in full fellowship with Christ and his members. (p. 106).
As I have said earlier, I try to keep more personal posts to a minimum. Inasmuch as my life these days revolves around caring for Liz, I hope you will pardon yet another personal offering. It is another passage from John Paul II’s 1984 Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, which I have been reading to Liz each evening as we share what we call our "prayer and port time," including, as it does, readings from the Divine Office and a small (and sometimes not so small) glass of port.

John Paul II:
A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering, a feeling that is sometimes very strongly rooted in human suffering. This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly, but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. … It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption. [§27]
"More than anything else ..."

Each evening, the port, the prayer, and the wisdom of a man who knew suffering and to whom Liz has looked for inspiration throughout her ordeal does wonders for us both.

Dictatorship of Relativism

The Brussels Journal monitors the collapse of European culture occasioned by the evacuation of its Christian underpinnings. In today's posting, BJ quotes a piece in the British press by Brendan O'Neill.
In elevating tolerance above all else – as an end in itself, the value to end all values – the authorities are effectively making a virtue of a vacuum, and attempting to put a positive spin on the profound uncertainty about what Britain stands for today. So the collapse of common values gets re-presented as ‘diversity’, and the inability to say what Britain represents is sexed-up and repackaged as ‘tolerance’ for other cultures and ways of life. Tolerance becomes a default position, adopted not from a standpoint of openness and experimentation, but from a position of doubt.

Secondly, and more ominously, Official Tolerance is censorious rather than genuinely tolerant. It is about stifling debate rather than encouraging it. It is a demand that we do not rock the boat or ask probing questions, instead just respecting everything. Except, that is, those who are judged to be intolerant. They can be slapped down and censored with impunity. Tolerance has become a new moral code that you transgress at your own risk.
Remember then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's "dictatorship of relativism"?

Saddam's Execution

News that Saddam Hussein's execution may be imminent is sad news, regardless of what a psychopathic murderer and torturer he was. It is sadder still that we in this society still tolerate state executions when we have the means for preventing evil-doers from causing harm (even to their fellow prisoners).

While many Iraqis will no doubt take heart at Saddam's execution, seeing it as a sign that the worst abuses of the Hussein regime are over, many will find it an excuse for more violence. Even at the level of sacrificial ritual, it will not "work." But it would be ludicrous to succumb to politically correct sentimentality and view Saddam as a martyr. We can leave that to the Sunnis fanatics.

To sincerely pray for Saddam in his final days or moments is to simply fulfill one's Christian duty toward a fellow sinner who will soon be in need, as we all will, of God's mercy.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tenderness . . .

I came upon this photo among those I took in October when Liz and I attended the papal audience in Rome, and I felt the urge to share it with you. The girl's face is so beautiful, and Benedict was as kind as he was when he gave Liz a personal blessing just after her first brain surgery in 2005. His personal tenderness is really extraordinary, though this little girl could melt a heart of stone.

Democracy and Islam

In earlier posts, I have risked looking foolish by venturing an opinion or two on international issues. In one post I suggested that the Iraqi quagmire has its roots in the Bush administration's overly generous but anthropologically flawed perpetuation of Enlightenment liberalism's naive underestimation of the role of Christianity is laying the groundwork for the success of both democratic institutions and the market economy. Though the economic market might fair better in a culture religiously rooted in Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist traditions than might the democratic marketplace of ideas, neither democratic institutions nor market economies are likely to produce the fruits that they produced when laid on the moral foundations provided by Christianity.

Apropos of this, in a recent exploration of what he calls the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, the Norwegian journalist, Fjordman, concluded with this:
U.S. President George W. Bush said he would accept it if Iraqis voted to create an Islamic fundamentalist government in democratic elections. "I will be disappointed, but democracy is democracy."

Is it really equivalent, Mr. Bush?

This brings us back to Plato's criticism of democracy as just an advanced form of mob rule. And without any constraints, checks and balances, that definition is correct. Benjamin Franklin said that "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!" This is why he and the other Founding Fathers wanted the USA to be a constitutional Republic, not a pure democracy.

It is strange that the United States wanted to export to Iraq a naïve concept of democracy, one that provided too few rights and guarantees for individuals and minorities, one that their own Founding Fathers had specifically rejected for precisely that reason. And this did not even include an assessment of Islam, in which harassing and persecuting minorities and suppressing individual liberty is a matter of principle.
Those of us who enjoy the unmerited privilege of living in a society shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition commit the error that apparently Marie Antoinette never actually committed. We espouse a breezy "let them eat cake" attitude toward those who aspire to the social and material benefits we enjoy, blissfully unaware of the religious underpinnings without which democracy reverts to mob rule and the market to vulgar pandering.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

20-20 Hindsight - Today's Kairos Moment

In his Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote of the way a particular historical situation compels Christians to speak a perennial truth with special forcefulness. The Greek term for such moments is kairos, what von Hildebrand terms "the call of the hour." At such moments in history, von Hildebrand writes "the historical thematicity makes the promulgation of certain truths especially urgent."
Such a moment, for example, was the coming to power of National Socialism in Germany. The condemnation of totalitarianism and racism was called for at this very moment. Though these things were evil as such, and would have been evil in any historical period, condemnation of them was made thematic by the fact that National Socialism assumed power in 1933. Before then, the bishops had indeed condemned National Socialism, and membership in the party carried the penalty of excommunication. Unfortunately, however, the German bishops in 1933 failed to uphold this condemnation at the very hour when an even more solemn condemnation was called for. [76-77]
Condemning the Church for its failures (real and imagined) in confronting Hitler has become something of a cottage industry, a hobby of those who would not dare utter a politically incorrect word in the safety of the faculty lounge. But it is these same critics who loudly insist that the Church's position today on abortion and other moral issues represents an unwarranted interference of religion in political life. One simply can't have it both ways.

All of this only makes von Hildebrand's insights all the more prescience, inasmuch as he expressed them in a book published in 1967. They are conspicuously relevant to two neuralgic issues in our cultural life today: abortion most especially and the deconstruction of the traditional family. From a Christian point of view, what distinguishes these issues from all the other pressing moral concerns of our day is that they involve overt challenges not only to the unbroken Judeo-Christian moral tradition but to the anthropological reality which that tradition brings to religious fulfillment.

In addition to the standard human fecklessness, von Hildebrand argued that "an antipathy to the condemnation of secular 'orthodoxies' and religious deviations characterizes the mentality of our time."
Condemnation and the unmasking of errors is widely seen today as something hostile to love. [78]
Christians confronted with the moral quandary of a kairos moment, will find what von Hildebrand calls "a false irenicism" attractive, as many bishops have.
Instead of helping to convey the true message of Christ, our effort to adjust to the mentality of the other may so transform that message that acceptance of it no longer requires a conversion. [82]
What might be analogous today to the situation that the German bishops faced at Fulda in 1933? It seems to me it is the question that the Catholic bishops face concerning whether politicians who profit politically from their self-identification as Catholics but who are unwavering supporters of abortion on demand and who actively oppose the Church on a sundry of sexual morality issues should be allowed to publicly parade their mockery of Catholic moral doctrine by presenting themselves for the reception of the Eucharist. This is not "using the Eucharist as a political weapon" any more than it would have been to refuse communion to the officers of the Third Reich. The savagery of the latter may have been less hidden by pseudo-medical apparatus and less plausibly justified by moral obfuscations and a dissembling vocabulary than that of the former, but it is the former that has set the record for the slaughter of the innocent in our age.

To repeat:
Unfortunately, however, the German bishops in 1933 failed to uphold this condemnation at the very hour when an even more solemn condemnation was called for.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

St. Stephen

On this feast of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, some thoughts on the role of suffering in Christian life.

In his 1984 apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II wrote at length on this theme. Christ, the late pope argued, gave humanity the Gospel of Suffering:
Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily ''
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering!
The Master does not conceal the prospect of suffering from his disciples and followers. On the contrary, he reveals it with all frankness, indicating at the same time the supernatural assistance that will accompany them in the midst of persecutions and tribulations " for his name's sake."
The differentiation between persecutions and tribulations is felicitous, for it serves to remind one that the daily cross is more likely to take the form of tribulation than persecution, but that such tribulation is nevertheless an opportunity to "make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ."
Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace.
Anticipating his own physical deterioration in a way he could not have envisioned in 1984, John Paul goes on speak of suffering as bringing about the spiritual maturation of the one who suffers.
When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.
A few thoughts on this Feast of St. Stephen, whose faith matured in the face of persecution and whose sufferings led to St. Paul's conversion.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

The Joy of Sharing Joy

My daughter Aña is now a paramedic on an emergency response unit in Springfield, Massachusetts. She's come a long way from that Christmas many years ago when this photo was taken. I love the photo with a father's love for his daughter; that goes without saying. But there's another reason I love this photo. I have always felt that Aña's excitement on discovering the doll that Santa brought her exemplified the joy appropriate to Christmas, the joy that Simeon expresses in Luke's gospel, the joy that we go into debt every year in our fond and foolish attempt to both simulate and celebrate.

In this photograph, Aña is excited, not because she has a new toy, but because she has a new friend. Look at her face. That is how we Christians should feel when the mystery of the Incarnation finally dawns on us. Christianity exists to unwrap this breathtakingly beautiful gift, the gift of Christ present in our world and the Spirit of Christ "who dwells in our hearts," God's great gift to humanity.

The excitement appropriate to the recognition of this gift should be contagious, as it is here. Notice that Aña is not looking at her new doll; she is looking at those she loves. Aña's joy is the joy of sharing her joy. It is our duty and privilege to do likewise with the gift of faith.

Have a wonderful Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Freedom and Fulfillment

The gift of freedom, the mark of our having been made in the image and likeness of God, has been given to man, writes Dietrich von Hildebrand, so that he may "surrender to God in a way that carries the full sanction of his personality."

Humility: Wellspring of Virtue, p.14.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Apropos a prior post ...

Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal has a piece today that fills in details apropos my more general post entitled "The Crutch of Disbelief" below. The Henninger piece is here.

A Primer for the New Year

This is no stocking stuffer. It belongs more in the category of a New Year's resolution. In any case, before I forget, I want to recommend an extremely valuable article by Mary Eberstadt entitled "The Scapegoats Among Us." It's here. It's a bit longer than most, but well worth taking the time to absorb.

More as time permits.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Crutch of Disbelief . . .

Many people believe either that Christianity is nonsense or that any form of it that would be recognizable to the Christians of the past is too out of step with the age and too politically dangerous to be tolerated. They believe these things, not because they have given much thought to them, but because it is a huge comfort to them to believe them, a crutch, a cozy little belief that helps them make it through the day and sleep at night untroubled by anything more serious than how to derive as much pleasure and comfort from life as possible and to make it last as long as they can.

If Christians were as patronizing as their contemporary critics often are, they might decide not to disturb the warm blanket of comfort in which many non-believers wrap themselves. But, alas, there's too much at stake for that kind of indifference. Our children and grandchildren will have to live in the world that is being shaped in large measure by these reductionists. And, anyway, sooner or later the exigencies of life shatter our comforting myths, even and especially our comforting agnostic ones.

As the poet Philip Larkin put it: "What remains when disbelief is gone?"

The great French theologian, Henri de Lubac, has an answer, one worth keeping in mind when thinking about the issue I raised in the earlier post about the new Quetzalcoatl sculpture in San Francisco. De Lubac writes:
As soon as man ceases to be in contact with great mystical or religious forces, does he not inevitably come under the yoke of a harsher and blinder force, which leads him to perdition? It is what Vico called the age of ‘deliberate barbarism’, and that is the age in which we live.
The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, p. 90.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Marian "Yes"

What the Cistercian monk, Fr. Mark Daniel Kirby, said this morning on his Vultus Christi weblog that inspires me to share a Christmas greeting touching on matters very close to the heart.

Dom Marco wrote:
One does not approach the Virgin of the Annunciation without discovering the Mother of Sorrows. The joyful “Yes” to Love conceived beneath the Virgin’s heart flowers into the sorrowful “Yes” to Love crucified, and the glorious “Yes” to Love risen from the tomb.
I have tried to use this weblog to further the objectives of the Cornerstone Forum, my exultations over the recent birth of my new granddaughter and a rare mention of more personal matters to the contrary notwithstanding. Though I have managed to post to the blog fairly regularly, I have usually done so by hastily composing a few thoughts in the wee hours of the morning, for, as some know, my beloved wife Liz is suffering from a brain tumor and is in need of regular care and attention.

So serious is Liz's health condition that any Christmas greeting from me that failed to acknowledge it would be unacceptably impersonal. So I hope it will not be thought maudlin or inappropriate to the sentiments usually associated with Christmas for me to interrupt the regular weblog postings to share a Christmas greeting that bespeaks the realities with which Liz and I are now confronted.

To return to Dom Marco's observation, what connects the Virgin of the Annunciation and the Mother of Sorrows is what Christ spoke of as being "handed over," something that, for a Christian, has nothing whatsoever to do with stoic resignation. The one being "handed over" can, as Christ did, pray fervently to be spared the cup of suffering and death, while at the same time subordinating one's heartfelt petition to the will of God. It is in this spirit that Liz and I are living this Advent season, awaiting Christ.

Be it done unto me according to your word.

We, too, have a role in the Christmas story.

Preparing a place in our crowded lives
for the inbreaking of Christ.

It begins with Advent:
with patience, with waiting,

with practicing the presence of God.

With Warmest Christmas Wishes,
from Liz and Gil Bailie

A few years ago, a friend gave Liz a reproduction of the painting of the woman at prayer. It captures the Marian spirit quite well and the Elizabethan spirit perfectly. It seemed the most appropriate image for this year's Christmas and Advent greeting.

Thank you for keeping Liz in your prayers.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

News from the City of St. Francis

A front page blurb for a feature story within last Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle read: "Aztec Snake God Lords It Over a Mission District Mini-Park." The article read in part:
One Sunday last month, costumed dancers unveiled the revitalized park opposite the Brava Theater. The garden was an artful set designed for play, but it contained a secret: a stunning concrete and mosaic Quetzalcoatl, the mythic feathered sea serpent of the Aztecs.

It took center stage before excited children, parents and even Mayor Gavin Newsom (escorted by mounted police). The snake, dipping in and out of the rubberized paving that surrounds it, nimbly skirts slender jets of water that spout, erratically, straight up from the ground like Old Faithful. Its easy-to-climb, 10-foot-long head is studded with mirrors, flower-shaped tiles, and bits of glass and porcelain carefully set in place by volunteers assisting husband-and-wife designers Mark Roller and Colette Crutcher.
It's all quite charming, of course, and multicultural to a fault. The timing was a bit off, however, for the cheerful celebration of Quetzalcoatl took place in uncomfortable proximity to the central feast of the other Latino cultural heritage, Our Lady of Guadalupe. To make matters even more convoluted, within a few days of the celebration, Mel Gibson's Apocolypto opened in the theaters.
One thinks of Henry Adam's comparison of the Virgin and the Dynamo in his "Education of Henry Adams," in which he wondered whether the dynamo, which seemed to be the symbol par excellence of the new empirical and materialist age, would be a culturally fruitful as was the one to whom so many of the great European cathedrals were dedicated. The devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe was an explicit rejection of Quetzalcoatl and all his works, a central mythic figure in the mesoamerican cultures which were so savagely sacrificial.

Gibson's latest film has perhaps more to say about the cultural meaning of Christianity than did his The Passion of Christ. Like the earlier film, Gibson dwells at interminable length on scenes of endurance, a strange preoccupation of his, but in most respects the film is truly extraordinary. It depicts the state of the pre-Columbian cultures of the south in terms that will surely be unwelcome by the rose-colored-glasses multiculturalists among us, and it hits deftly at the end that help is on the way in the form of those who were to bring Christianity to that blood-drenched land.
Coincidently, yesterday, my old friend George Wesolek, a Cornerstone Forum board member and a man who is deeply involved in the cultural tensions with which San Francisco is now beset, sent me an email to which he had attached the LifesiteNews article originally entitled "Pro-Life Meaning of Our Lady of Guadalupe," which I heartily recommend to you. Here's a sample:
Academic William Tsamis writes that "in 1487, at the dedication of the great temple which stood in what is today Mexico City, a massive ritual sacrifice took place in which over 10,000 people perished on the temple's altars -- the killing was continual, four at a time, from sunrise to sunset."

The horrific practices of human sacrifice and the concentration on sacrifice of children, since they were considered 'pure', came to an end not only with the conquest of the Spaniards, but with the conversion of the native people of the Americas to Christianity. That happened to a large extent thanks to what Catholics and others believe was an apparition from heaven of Mary pregnant with the Christ Child - referred to as 'Our Lady of Guadalupe'. ...

For many in the pro-life movement, incidentally not only Catholics, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is seen as a symbol of hope for ending our modern-day human sacrifice of abortion which now far exceeds in number and kind the brutalities practiced by the Aztecs and Mayans.

U.S. philosopher Peter Kreeft, in his book Three Approaches to Abortion, makes the connection. He writes, "About 500 years ago, a strikingly similar culture of death reigned in Aztec Mexico. Some historians estimate that one out of every three children . . . were ritually sacrificed to their bloodthirsty and demanding god . . . exactly the same proportion of children conceived in America who are aborted today"
From Our Lady of Guadalupe to Quetzalcoatl: Cultural history in reverse.

Conservatives of the rubicon* variety will not be charmed.

*Rubicon (here and here)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pros and Rubicons

(This post is a PS to the one just below it. If you haven't seen the earlier post, you might want to take a glance at it first.)

My trusty friend and Cornerstone Forum collaborator, Randy Coleman-Riese, suggests that it will not take the unkind long to find a hook for their denigrations: a rube. Says Randy: "the Encarta dictionary defines this as 'an offensive term for somebody who is regarded as naive or unsophisticated, especially from a rural area who is not used to city ways.'"

Rustics like those from backwater places like Nazareth?

Mercifully, Randy adds this: "Is this what is meant by being a fool for Christ?"

It's perfect. It doesn't get any better than this.

What better way to (preemptively) turn the other cheek (while keeping the tongue in it) than to provide even the laziest of detractors with a pre-installed, user-friendly mockery macro. One click and it launches.

Rubicon it is.

O, we few, we happy few ...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only half in jest . . .

In an amusing effort on the part of the mainstream media to account for an intellectually robust revival of conservative thought, considered a contradiction in terms by many in the academy and the fourth estate, terms like "neocon" and "theocon" have been employed, almost always with a distinctively pejorative connotation.

The early definition of "neocon" as a liberal who has been mugged is fair enough, especially if one recognizes the attacks of September 11, 2001 as the greatest such mugging to date. But there are features of the classic neocon worldview with which I do not feel comfortable. "Theocon" works better, but it, too, has certain connotations (especially in the glazed eyes of those who use it disparagingly), which are somewhat problematic.

In today's context, however, there's little doubt that I'm a conservative. For one thing, I believe that all real human progress is moral progress. Any advances in political science, economics, technology and the arts that are not accompanied by a greater moral acuity will breed perils proportionate to the apparent advances. Inasmuch as conservativism today strives to retain those moral instruments and the cultural institutions that foster true progress, it seems to me that one or another form of conservativism is synonymous with adulthood in our crisis-ridden world.

But if neither neocon nor theocon quite fit, what might be the appropriate label for the sort of conservativism with which I feel myself most comfortable? In the spirit of this journalistic age, let me propose an alternate label, offered only half in jest: Neither a neocon nor a theocon, I think I am rather a rubicon.

Now, for the time being, I'm the only rubicon there is, so I have a little window of opportunity in which I can define the thing without objections arising from other rubicons. Let me seize the moment, and describe what I think constitutes this strange form of conservatism. As I use it, the term has two quite distinct innuendos.

1. As the adage about Caesar's "crossing of the Rubicon" suggests, a rubicon is someone who realizes that a decisive turning point has occurred and that a return to the status quo ante is no longer possible. A rubicon, therefore, will not indulge in a nostalgic reverie about the restoration of the ancien régime; rather he knows that the responsibility he has to pass on a vibrant tradition will have to be met in new ways and in the context of a new historical and cultural situation.

A rubicon is someone who has little interest in politics and little appetite for the culture wars. He is, by distasteful necessity, a draftee in the struggle to preserve the foundations of civil order and to remain faithful to religious principle. Once in the lists, however, he does his best to hold his ground as faithfully as he can.

Moreover, the rubicon realizes, belatedly, that those who have opened this breach with the tradition he cherishes will not be satisfied with the concessions which seemed at first to be the goal of their assault. A rubicon is someone who wakes up one fine day only to realize that that state has decided that his children must be systematically disabused of the moral principles by which he lives and which he has taken pains to pass on to them. A rubicon is someone who realizes, again belatedly, that his culture is under a serious assault from enemies within and without, and that the historical success and momentary preeminence of the culture built on Judeo-Christian foundations does not in any way guarantee that it will emerge triumphant from the present challenge.

2. But there is another implication in the term rubicon, more etymologically fanciful but in some sense even more defining. A rubicon is someone who realizes, either intuitively or by bitter experience, that the burning heart of the tradition that nurtures everything he holds dear is ultimately liturgical. A rubicon is someone, therefore, who has come to a deep appreciation for rubrics, whether they are the liturgical rubrics of Christian sacramental life or the traditional constitutional rubrics of political liberalism which are currently being twisted in knots by domestic postmodern apparatchiks and mocked by the West's external enemies, whose fascist tendencies are daily more in evidence. Of these rubrics, of course, the true blue rubicon will always and everywhere give his primary attention to the liturgical rubrics, that red-letter essence of Christian worship which is the true font of the bounty enjoyed by those cultures fortunate enough to have been hosts to these liturgies.

Given the importance the rubicon gives to the liturgical and sacramental tradition from which he draws his own sustenance, and the preservation of which is his primary concern, I will conclude this overview of the rubicon (hastily, before converts to the rubicon position begin to refine and possibly distort this pristine definition), with a word on rubrics, or, more precisely, on how disastrously Christian liturgical life has declined, at least in my Roman Catholic neck of these dark woods, as it has neglected the rubrics. (My own privileges in this respect are almost embarrassing, inasmuch as I have available to me, as the vast majority of my brethren do not, a Trappist monastery just down the road.) Be that as it may, it is the larger cultural crisis that concerns us rubicons, our own liturgical privileges notwithstanding.

In the December issue of First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus quoted Peter Berger, a Lutheran, as saying of the post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy:
If a thoroughly malicious sociologist, bent on injuring the Catholic community as much as possible, had been an adviser to the Church [during the Council], he could hardly have done a better jog.
The mystery that has been forgotten, in both the liturgical life of the Church and the moral life of the culture, is -- to quote Benedict XVI, speaking conspicuously of the Christian tradition, but in words that have a bearing as well on our moral and cultural inheritance -- that:
Humble submission to what goes before us releases authentic freedom and leads us to the true summit of our vocation as human beings. [The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 156.]
"The greatness of the liturgy depends," writes Benedict a few pages later, "on its unspontaneity" (my emphasis). And the key to this greatness, and to the "authentic freedom" which is the "true summit of our vocation as human beings," is, a rubicon is eager to aver, the rubrics. If I share many of the moral and political concerns of "red state" political conservatives, it is only because, deep down, these concerns are more in concert with the historical, moral and cultural revolution of which I am happy to be a part, a revolution at the heart of which is the Christian liturgical life which has as its heart, and as warrant of its fidelity, the rubrics.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cure Worse than the Disease

While I deal with (among other things) a crashed computer, let me just pass along a little Girard 101:

Some people don't show off as along as there's somebody around to notice that they're not showing off.

That's what Girard calls "raising the coefficient of illusion to the next power."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I posted this image after I found it in a shop in Rome. As I probably said in that post, it captures the special joy and meaning of a friendship grounded in mutual faith. Liz and I lead a more or less monastic existence, especially now that she is ill and I rarely leave her side. So my life is a good deal less social than it once was; though it was never all that gregarious. Be that as it may, it has been my great good fortune to have a few friends with whom I am privileged to share a relationship analogous to the one between John Paul and the future Benedict captured in the photo above and the one between John Paul and Msgr. Luigi Giussani (the founder of Communio and Liberation) below.

One of these friendships is with Randy Coleman-Riese, the Cornerstone Forum executive director. When he was received into the Catholic Church, as a very modest token of my admiration, I gave him a copy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Co-Workers for the Truth. He has been kind enough to share with me from time to time passages that he has found especially meaningful or pertinent to matters with which one or the other of us is concerned at the moment. One such passage which he sent a few weeks ago floated to the surface again this morning and struck me as something I would like to share with you by way of a mutual tribute to Randy and to Benedict. In a radio broadcast in 1978, Joseph Ratzinger (who was, I think, an Archbishop at the time) said this:
One who can offer nothing to mitigate the suffering of humanity but the expectation that that suffering will one day come to an end has no answer to the most crucial of all questions. On the contrary, by such an answer he affirms suffering as something entirely meaningless and thereby confers on it its devastating horror. What humanity needs is a community that supports the individual in death as well as in life and can make his suffering meaningful.
To be part of such a community -- one comprising both the living and the dead -- and to be blessed with a few of the special friendships it nurtures, is one of the great unearned blessings of life.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pale Unsatisfied Ones

A short notice in the Contra Costa Times on Sunday, December 10th, reported on a survey:
TAKING A BREAK from asking Americans about politics and war, the Zogby Interactive poll surveyed 12,806 of us last month to find out how we prefer our holiday, er, Christmas, greetings.

The poll was conducted after Wal-Mart changed its corporate mind this year and told store clerks that they can greet customers with "Merry Christmas," instead of the benign "Happy Holidays" that was decreed last year.

Zogby found that 95 percent of respondents said they are not offended by being greeted with a "Merry Christmas" while shopping. Change the greeting to "Happy Holidays," though, and 46 percent said they take offense.

One in three respondents who identified themselves as Jewish said they were upset when they heard "Merry Christmas" as were 10 percent of those of non-Christian faiths or who did not identify themselves with a religion.

Of course, partisan politics is never far away. Zogby found 8 percent of Democrats are more likely to take offense at "Merry Christmas" compared with fewer than 1 percent of Republicans and 1 percent of independents.
If this survey is remotely accurate, those who strain the gnat trying not to offend have a problem on their hands. Seven times more people are offended by these efforts than are satisfied with them. After all, more than 75% of the U.S. citizens identify themselves with Christianity; the figures for Judaism and Islam are just above 1% each, the latter more likely to grow in numbers and less likely to be religiously non-observant than the former. There's a difference, of course, inasmuch as Christianity and Judaism are joined at the hip and always will be. But, as the columnist Burt Prelutsky stressed in the column I quoted in an earlier post, both the historical and the demographic facts make it perfectly clear that the U.S. remains a predominantly Christian(ized) society, though there are some who think they hear, with Matthew Arnold, the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of faith. That's probably what they hear alright, but the tide has a good ways to go before it's out, and it's return cannot be ruled out.

William Butler Yeats famously saw the receding of faith and coincident with it the blood-dimmed tide rising, the best lacking all conviction while the worst growing full of passionate intensity. But he also sensed, at least poetically, that once smitten with Christianity, the world cannot simply walk away from it for long, though it's inadvertent return might take a cruel and parodic form: the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. But "The Second Coming" isn't Yeats' only reflection on the Christ-haunted condition of the post-Christian world. Here's another:

The Magi
by William Butler Yeats
Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Putting the Irish poet to present use, I would say that Yeats has aptly captured the spirit of the begrudging Magi of our time, those drawn to the calendrical crèche, not to pay tribute -- bringing, not gifts, but grudges -- appearing beside the manger with the instinct of savvy politicians, determined to crowd into the photo-op alongside Christ. What these pale unsatisfied ones are unsatisfied with is the incomparable attraction of Christ himself, exerting as he does a pull on the human heart that is as subtle as it is ultimately irresistible -- "When I am lifted up, I will draw all humanity to myself," an attractive power that is already present in the nativity story, working on those who are sincerely seeking truth, as were the Magi in Matthew's Gospel.

Today the manger scene is crowded with unwitting Magi -- indifferent, pale and unsatisfied -- come to appropriate some of the cultural energy that these 2000 years later still streams into the world and into our hearts at the commemoration of Christ's birth. Seen through the eyes of faith, and with the generosity that is one of the gifts of faith, these often exasperating efforts to neutralize Christmas and eviscerate its religious meaning are unintended tributes to it.

Religious Jews often show considerable respect for religious Christians. The spirit of mutual respect required of Christians with regard to other religions is always in order, but it is especially called for between Christians and Jews. Hanukkah is an ancient holiday for Jews, but few would deny that it has been lately raised to prominence by virtue of its proximity to Christmas on the calendar. This is not some conspiracy; it is quite natural for Jews living in a largely Christian society to want to have a celebration that does not violate their religious sensibilities. Jews have long celebrated the rededication of the Temple after a Jewish military victory over their Syrian conquerors who had defiled the Temple by dedicating it to Zeus. But it is passing strange that this celebration by a small (albeit religiously kindred) minority has been all but officially raised to virtually equal status with Christmas in our society.

But once the principle of procrustean equality is made inviolable, historical realities and demographic facts count for little. At that point, everyone crowds into the calendrical crèche -- those celebrating Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, you name it -- hoping to find once more, being by Christianity's patrimony unsatisfied, the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor, a Yeats trope fully as ominous as the rough beast slouching. If Christian faith is allowed to retreat "down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world," as Arnold put it, and as seems to be happening in Europe, then one fine day we'll wake up to find a very rough beast slouching our way, as rough perhaps as the one Hitler mounted, its way prepared by the myriad little ways in which we have allowed our religious foundations to be eroded, often with the best of intentions, but not always so.

Truths poorly proved are still true

In his discussion of the role of philosophical inquiry in Christian life, Dietrich von Hildebrand lists as one of Christianity's perennial philosophical tasks that of "replacing weak arguments for an important truth with convincing ones." He writes:
This is an especially urgent work, for ... many naively believe that significant insights are false because the arguments that have been advanced in their support are not valid.
This, I think, is where René Girard's work comes in, for his anthropological insights contribute importantly to the ongoing Christian effort to account for the ineffable mystery to which Christians are obliged to give witness.

Christmas in Seattle

Following up on yesterday's CNN story. The Christmas trees return.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Grinch's Grinch

Today CNN carried a story (so reminiscent of dozens of others) from Seattle, which began with these lines:
All nine Christmas trees have been removed from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport instead of adding a giant Jewish menorah to the holiday display as a rabbi had requested.

Maintenance workers boxed up the trees during the graveyard shift early Saturday, when airport bosses believed few people would notice.

"We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," said airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt.
The story ended with this:
"They've darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up," said Bogomilsky's lawyer, Harvey Grad. "There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch."
On the same day, published a column by Burt Prelutsky entitled: "The Jewish grinch who stole Christmas." Here are salient excerpts:
I never thought I’d live to see the day that Christmas would become a dirty word. You think it hasn’t? Then why is it that people are being prevented from saying it in polite society for fear that it will offend? …

I blame my fellow Jews. When it comes to pushing the multicultural, anti-Christian, agenda, you find Jewish judges, Jewish journalists, and the ACLU, at the forefront.
Being Jewish, I should report, Christmas was never celebrated by my family. But what was there not to like about the holiday? To begin with, it provided a welcome two week break from school. The decorated trees were nice, the lights were beautiful, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a great movie, and some of the best Christmas songs were even written by Jews. …

It is the ACLU, which is overwhelmingly Jewish in terms of membership and funding, that is leading the attack against Christianity in America. It is they who have conned far too many people into believing that the phrase “separation of church and state” actually exists somewhere in the Constitution. …

I am getting the idea that too many Jews won’t be happy until they pull off their own version of the Spanish Inquisition, forcing Christians to either deny their faith and convert to agnosticism or suffer the consequences.

I should point out that many of these people abhor Judaism every bit as much as they do Christianity. They’re the ones who behave as if atheism were a calling. They’re the nutcakes who go berserk if anyone even says, “In God we trust” or mentions that the Declaration of Independence refers to a Creator with a capital “C.” By this time, I’m only surprised that they haven’t begun a campaign to do away with Sunday as a day of rest. After all, it’s only for religious reasons – Christian reasons – that Sunday, and not Tuesday or Wednesday, is so designated.

This is a Christian nation, my friends. And all of us are fortunate it is one, and that so many millions of Americans have seen fit to live up to the highest precepts of their religion. It should never be forgotten that, in the main, it was Christian soldiers who fought and died to defeat Nazi Germany and who liberated the concentration camps.

Speaking as a member of a minority group – and one of the smaller ones at that – I say it behooves those of us who don’t accept Jesus Christ as our savior to show some gratitude to those who do, and to start respecting the values and traditions of the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens, just as we keep insisting that they respect ours.

Merry Christmas, my friends.
My duties take me away from my desk once again, but I hope to post something more on this tragicomedy very shortly. In the meantime, Merry Christmas. Though we must resist this cultural sabotage, we must never allow the greeting "Merry Christmas" to become a battle cry in the culture wars. The birth we celebrate, let me say again, is the birth of the One in whom we discover the conditionality and the contingent nature of our ethnic and religious squabbles: Neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but all one in Christ. Our "Merry Christmas" greeting, though it almost sticks in the throat these days, must resonate with that universal spirit without allowing itself to be turned into multicultural mush.

More anon.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Worshipers and Stonethrowers

Most people in our lukewarm age will find von Balthasar's contrast (in the prior post) between worshipers and stone-throwers too stark. Our tendency is to temper such distinctions. What we fail to realize is that all our more agreeable distinctions move ineluctably in the direction of worshipers and stone-throwers. There are many stone-throwers who began as worshipers and many worshipers who were once stone-throwers.

Jesus' question: "Whom do you say that I am?" remains humanity's central conundrum. The first impulse of fallen humanity upon hearing the question is to reach for a stone. Those who have never felt that impulse may not as yet have experienced the full implications of Jesus' question.

Our world abounds with erstwhile worshipers who have taken up stones to throw at Christianity and the Church, but it is also abounds in stone-throwers who are one stone away from a conversion of the heart. It is, after all, the former stone-throwers, like Paul, who came to experience a reconciliation heretofore unknown to the world -- the peace that passes understanding -- in which there is no longer either Greek or Jew, male or female, servant or master, but all are one in Christ.

But getting to that universal reconciliation begins with the stark distinction von Balthasar insists was provoked by Christ, between worshipers and stone-throwers.

The Polar(izing) Express

In his book on prayer, Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of the effect of Jesus on those he encountered. He polarized them "into worshippers and stone-throwers."

So it remains today: a sign of contradiction. "Do you think I came to bring peace? ..."

This is not because Christ welcomed the conflict. "Blessed are those who are not scandalized by me."

The struggle for truth is a struggle against the moral law of gravity. It takes place within us and among us.

The arrival of Christ in our midst meant that the struggle was now out in the open. "Whom do you say that I am?"

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Threatened by Assimilation

I'm trying, believe me I am, to get off this topic, but suddenly there's no escape from the Trojan Horse metaphor. Yesterday, a post on the Brussels Journal was entitled: "Trojan Horse: Ankara Influenced Dutch Election Results." Quoting:
Yesterday evening, the Dutch television program Nova caused considerable embarrassment in the Netherlands by revealing how the Turkish government influenced last months’ Dutch general elections. ...

In an e-mail, sent from a government address in Ankara, the Turks in the Netherlands were asked to vote for Koser Kaya [a Turkish-born politician whose party denies the Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians in 1915]. The e-mail was sent by Ali Alaybeyoglu, the advisor to Mehmet Aydin, the Turkish minister of Religious Affairs. The first paragraph reads:

“We all realize that no-one can represent Turks better than Turks. The Turkish community is threatened by assimilation. If we do not unite and vote for a common candidate our position will only worsen in future.”
"Threatened by assimilation," threatened by the process which produced the miracle of the melting pot in what was once the world's greatest experiment in cultural pluralism.

An earlier post on the same weblog reported on the latest census figures for the home of the European Union, the transnational organization that has refused to acknowledge the Christian roots of European civilization, no doubt for fear that it might be offensive:
Most popular name for newborn boys in Brussels, the “capital of Europe,” in 2005: Mohamed ...
No fear of assimilation here. As David Aikman of the Trinity Forum said in something I quoted in an earlier post:
Islamic aspirations for Europe, whether voiced by Islamic leaders outside of the continent or by Islamic community leaders inside it, are unabashedly to Islamicize the entire continent little by little.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Speaking (below) of Trojan Horses ...

Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote a book entitled: "Trojan Horse in the City of God."

Dietrich von Hildebrand:
... we bury the Christian faith and Christian life when we attempt to overcome the sterility of a legalistic religion by turning from the spirit of Christ to the saeculum, by substituting for the holy fire of Christ the secular enthusiasm, by forgetting the supernatural vitality of the saints and embracing the nervous, hectic, profane preoccupations of the modern world. ...

The progressives tend to believe that narrowness is the only kind of mediocrity. They forget that being blind to those things which are antagonistic to true greatness and true culture and lavishing enthusiasm on shallow worldliness are expressions of a more blatant mediocrity and are even more incompatible with religion.
Trojan Horse in the City of God, p. 58, 59.

“Quae relligio? Aut quae machina belli?”

"Is it religious or an instrument of war?" asked Priam the king of Troy about the giant wooden horse the Greeks had offered as a gift to the Trojans.

In a post on October 21st entitled "Distant Mirrors" I reflected briefly on Bernini's sculpture of Aeneas escaping the destruction of Troy carrying his father and leading his son by the hand. I suggested that it was the story of cultural destruction, the slow-motion version of which is happening to Western culture today. I am reminded again of this theme by Sandro Magister's online journal Chiesa.

Laocoön was a Trojan priest who recognized the Trojan Horse for what it was, an assault on Trojan civilization. Unable to convince his fellow Trojans ("Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."), he threw his spear at the Trojan Horse. It stuck quivering in the side of the wooden horse, offending the gods to whom the Greeks relied for help. These gods sent serpents to destroy Laocoön and his sons. Once Laocoön was silenced, the Greek conquest of Troy could proceed.

As Sandro Magister points out, the magnificent sculpture of Laocoön and his sons was discovered as St. Peter's Basilica was being built in 1506, the anniversary of which is now being celebrated. Pope Julius II, out of great respect for Greco-Roman antiquity and confident of Christianity's role as the new civilizing agent in world history, brought the sculpture to the Vatican, the first of the great collection that is now the Vatican Museum.

While in Rome in October, Liz and I marveled at this extraordinary masterpiece from the first century BC. A few weeks earlier, Pope Benedict had given his now famous Regensburg lecture, and the howls of protest were still hanging in the air -- the martyrs and the torched churches still a vivid memory. Benedict it seemed, like Laocoön, was paying for his courage in telling the truth to those preferring something more comforting.

Virgil describes a similar preference for soothing interpretations of events. Laocoön's fate seemed to prove that he was just an old man too blind to the multicultural promises at hand to be any longer trusted.
... Laocoön
has justly paid the penalty — they say —
for outrage, since his spearhead had profaned
the sacred oak, his cursed shaft been cast
against the horse’s back.
The festive mood quickly returns:
We break the walls and bare the battlements.
We set to work; beneath the horse’s feet
we fasten sliding wheels; about its neck
we stretch out ropes of hemp. And fat with weapons,
the engine of our fate climbs up the rampart.
And boys and unwed girls surround it singing
their sacred chants, so glad to touch the cable.

. . . four times it stalled
before the gateway, at the very threshold;
four times the arms clashed loud inside its belly.
Nevertheless, heedless, blind by frenzy,
we press right on and set the inauspicious
monster inside the sacred fortress.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature abhors a religious vacuum. If, as David Aikman (quoted in yesterday's post) said, "European intellectuals appear to have made a philosophical choice: anything but Christianity," then the resulting vacuum will be filled with something else.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

ABC - Anything But Christianity

David Aikman has an insightful piece on the Trinity Forum online journal Implications. In it he writes:
In the summer of 2006, following the uncovering in the UK of a plot to blow up several US-bound aircraft flying out of London’s Heathrow airport, President Bush used a closely similar phrase, “Islamic fascism.”

In Europe, the term was bleeped out of media discourse. When one critic of Islamist militance used it on a BBC interview, the interview was promptly terminated.
Try to image anything remotely comparable happening when what is being criticized is Christianity or any of its cultural manifestations.

The fundamental mistake of the European Enlightenment was to think that humans were hardwired with the moral, social, cultural and spiritual sensibilities which were in fact the fruits of centuries of Christian influence. Western culture continues to make this mistake. "European intellectual elites," Aikman writes, "assumed that 'tolerance' was a self-evident social virtue, the natural outgrowth of a secular society that, by and large, had come to reject the absolutes and the certainties of Christianity — and indeed of all religions. But with every concession to Islamic demands for the Islamicization of institutions and traditions in Europe, they discovered that no concession was ever adequate."

The truth is, however, that: "In the entire world today there is not one Muslim-majority country that is genuinely pluralistic." And Europe's pluralistic spirit is being seriously compromised by those who are its supposed beneficiaries. As Stanley Kurtz put it in a recent piece in NRODT: "the West's watery multiculturalism has proven incapable of inspiring loyalty among immigrants, who are assimilating Europe to Islam instead."

David Aikman:
Islamic aspirations for Europe, whether voiced by Islamic leaders outside of the continent or by Islamic community leaders inside it, are unabashedly to Islamicize the entire continent little by little.
Europeans cannot be expected to "tolerate" the intolerant forever. Another problem arises, and Aikman points to it:
Of course, there is always the danger of a xenophobic, nativist backlash against immigrants in general. In the past, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded France’s extreme right-wing National Front Party, targeted immigrants with his inflammatory rhetoric. Those immigrants, of course, included Muslims. But as French society turned more openly against Israel — and more surreptitiously against Jews in its midst — than against Muslim immigrants, Le Pen began to move towards a de facto alliance with France’s most militant Islamic groups. They, after all, were most vociferously against Israel and the Jews of France.
These are perilous times, and those who take a rosy view of developments in Europe and elsewhere in the cultural West are diminishing in number and snatching at straws. For except for an intelligent and compassionate reawakening of the Christian faith that shaped Western civilization in the first place, all else is straw. Aikman:
From the refusal to acknowledge the Christian ingredient in Europe’s cultural evolution in the European Union’s proposed constitution to an almost breathtaking public disdain for any religious discourse throughout the continent, European intellectuals appear to have made a philosophical choice: anything but Christianity.

The Cross

A sword shall pierce your heart ...

Christmas is the beginning of the Passion drama in which we have all been given a role to play.

Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The cross is the first aim of the incarnation, indispensable as long as the world continues, and whatever share is given in the joy of the resurrection it cannot replace the duty of finding redemption through the cross and of sharing deeply in the passion itself.
Explorations in Theology, Vol. I, 113.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Randon Thoughts on Resentment Again ...

Time permits only random thoughts, for which I apologize.

In a post on Tuesday, I touched on the question of resentment and Roger Scruton's analysis of Jihadist resentment. In a recent essay, Victor Davis Hanson dealt in part with a similar concern. Hanson wrote in part:
Like fascism or Communism, Islamism galvanizes millions with its reductionist claims of Western liberal culpability for widely diverse Muslim gripes from Afghanistan to the West Bank. Rather than seeing a plethora of grievances that can be individually addressed, it is more valuable and accurate to understand the problem as a general complaint that in turn manifests itself in different regions and circumstances.
As for the Jihadists' choice of accusations, Hanson plausibly argues that they "brilliantly drew on boilerplate anti-Western arguments from Western elites, and when they recycled tired charges of imperialism, racism, and colonialism they found them surprisingly effective at undermining Western morale." In other words, those suffering from resentment caused by Western social, political, economic and technological superiority turned to the hated West to find the ideological tropes with which to justify their rage. Ironies like this abound in the house-of-mirrors world where resentments define reality.

Even though a resentment expresses itself in terms of this or that perceived grievance, no amelioration of the aggrieved conditions and no concessions aimed at lessening the animosity achieve their aim. Quite the contrary in fact. This is characteristic of resentment: every attempt to appease it has the effect of arousing it the more. This is true whether the resentment in question is that of foreign ideologies, like that of the Jihadists, or the ideological anti-Western bias with which so many privileged Westerners are enamored. They do not want to persuade their ideological enemies; they want to crush them. Even when, with the luck of the draw, they complain of legitimate injustices, the resentment that animates these complains insures that whatever is done to rectify the the injustice will result in more vehement complaints driven by more ferocious vows of retribution.

As for the Western elites who provide the boiler-plate anti-Western justifications, Eric Gans had this to say the other day on the GABlog:
I have long been struck by the extreme political views of many of the most successful academicians, views that, far from acting as a handicap, are a factor in their success. Nothing attracts university faculty as much as being allowed to participate vicariously in an unsparing denunciation of everything their lives really depend on; only then can they enjoy their SUVs in peace.
That so much resentment is found among those who enjoy so many of the privileges of Western culture requires a psychological analysis. Mine (for today at any rate) would be this: once one has ruled certain social and cultural phenomenon morally off-limits and insulated from moral misgivings (political correctness), then the only alternative to admitting one's moral insouciance is to find some other "cause" that will simulate the exercise of moral rectitude (in the same way that a stairmaster simulates climbing), preferably a "cause" which condemns miscreants who can be trusted not to respond to the condemnation in any serious or meaningful way.

The more we suppress moral misgivings and turn those we cannot suppress toward more politically acceptable surrogate evil-doers, the more irrational and psychologically dubious our hatred of the adversary will become. This is true of Jihadists and of the ideologues Eric Gans has witnessed at close quarters over many years and colorfully described in his blog post.

- - - -

While I'm bringing up old business, let me conclude this post with an important observation Roger Scruton made in the article from which I quoted in the earlier post about resentment. The proper response to the raging resentment of the Jihadists, Scruton argues, is simple "to bear witness once again to the religious roots of our civilisation."
Christians certainly have the duty to show that their civilisation is based upon faith, that their greatest achievements are not sky scrapers, Macdonald's and the international banking system, but the works of spiritual grace and high culture that transmit eternal meanings. They have the duty to give life anew to the Christian message, which calls us not to material comfort but to sacrifice and compassion.

The Holiday that dares not speak its name ...

This from the London Telegraph, a survey taken in England, not Pakistan:
A survey of 2,300 employers found that 74 per cent had banned decorations because they were worried about offending other faiths...
What's of such grave concern is not the mention of You-Know-Who -- to whom the seasonal "holiday" was once dedicated -- but the mere public display of things like Santa Clauses and X-mas trees.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Roger Scruton and Resentment

To pretend that something is true when in one's heart one knows it isn't -- for instance that "Islam is (unambiguously) a religion of peace," or that the homosexual act is the moral equivalent of the nuptial embrace, or that non-whites are too crippled by historical injustices to be treated as equals by a truly color-blind system of justice -- to pretend that what the heart knows to be false is true is to stoke the fires of resentment, poisoning thereby one's own spirit and infecting in one way or another the moral and political life of one's society with the same poison.

Humility does not require the artificial suppression of moral revulsion or healthy indignation at mendacity, callous cruelty, and injustice. Turning one's cheek to one's own oppressor is one thing, turning one's back on the powerless victims of oppression is another. Humility must never be mistaken for spinelessness.

Today in the purportedly liberated West there is a great deal of psychological repression going on. What is being suppressed is the ordinary moral response to morally problematic developments. The effect of this repression is the building up of unacknowledged resentment, a kind of distorted and unhealthy moral reaction that all too readily poisons its carriers and the society which enforces the moral equivocation that produces it.

To give expression to one's moral concerns is to free oneself from such resentment. These moral concerns may be extremely powerful, and they make awaken considerable zeal, but if they are not poisoned by resentment they can coexist with a genuine concern for the moral agents whose behavior aroused them and a persistent hope for a morally acceptable reconciliation with them.

These thoughts came to me as I read a fine essay by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, an essay published in Oasis, a journal published in Venice in Italian, English, French, Arabic and Urdu. The title of Scruton's article is "How to Combat the Culture of Resentment." While it deals with the resentment driving Islamic fanaticism around the world, it brought to mind the pent-up resentment of many in the West who have felt obliged by the politically correct spirit of the age to choke back moral sentiments that turn toxic when choked back.

Below are a few salient excerpts from Roger Scruton's article, beginning with his opening gambit:
The attacks of 11 September were attacks against America and her people. These were not strategic attacks aimed at achieving some social or political object: they were an expression of hate. Some subsequent comments tried to rationalise this hatred by interpreting it as a response to the presence of American troops in the holy lands of Islam or as a response to favours granted to Israel. These rationalisations were supported by Islamists themselves but in terms that did not refer to any kind of negotiation. There is no statement, whether explicit or implicit, according to which America would cease to be a target if it withdrew from countries of Muslims or stopped supporting the State of Israel: quite the contrary.
Later in the article:
Resentment and hatred seem noble sentiments when they are seen as divine commandments, and even if faith has not had a role in the production of such emotions it can play an important role in making them respectable. Christians are taught to avoid hatred, to forgive enemies and to live in justice and mutual charity. This, however, has not saved them from hating and feeling resentment in the name of God: the history of anti-Semitism in Europe is certainly proof of this.
It was the following passage in Scruton's essay that led to my earlier remarks. After writing of the resentment felt by Muslims toward a modern world that seems alien to them and their world view, he wrote:
This resentment of the modern world is nothing new. It is present in most of European and American modernist literature and in much radical politics. It inevitably has America in its sights, promoting the false but seductive illusion that America is the corrupt version of a lifestyle which in some purer form could offer hope for the future.
Resentment easily converts itself into sacred violence of the sort that Girard has so aptly diagnosed, but it does so ever more readily when it meets no resistance; that is the point Scruton wants to make.
From the facts in Lebanon we have learnt that Western journalists tend to argue that the Christian communities are in some way anachronistic, do not deserve their place in Middle East society, and do not deserve our support.
Resentment, Scruton writes, "triumphs precisely when its deceptive vision of itself, as the voice of God against enemies, is confirmed by not finding any resistance. Resentment is cured by respect and respect often means opposition." He concludes his essay:
The will to defend the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of the Lebanon, the Assyrian churches of the Fertile Crescent and so on against the Islamic forces that surround them could lead Muslims in the West to see that they too are a religious minority amongst people who do not share their beliefs but who nonetheless are in a condition of existential dialogue with them. It is beginning with this recognition that one can begin dialogue.
The whole essay is here.

The Profile Photo

David and Joyce Bock are old friends. David is one of the kindest and gentlest of men, and Joyce a font of energy and indefatigable good cheer. For years they have struggled with David's Parkinson's disease with great dignity and good humor.

A few years ago, David and Joyce attended a talk I gave, and Joyce took the photograph we have used in the weblog profile to the right.

I'm grateful to Joyce for having taken the photo, for it is, I think, me at my best. It goes without saying that I am not always at my best, which is one good reason for putting it on the weblog, even though doing so is presumptuous. For regularly coming upon this photograph does me a world of good. It reminds me of my place in the story, and that reminds me of the words Shakespeare put into the mouth of Enobarbus, redolent with a Christian meaning of which Enobarbus would have been ignorant, but with which Shakespeare was keenly conscious:
... he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fallen lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place i' the story.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Light Shines in the Darkness

Under the recent popes, the central ecumenical concern has been the division of the Church that took place in 1054, when the Eastern and Western Churches split in bitter animosity. Healing this division without abandoning principle on either side is the top priority of the Vatican, compared with which the ecumenical importance of the Catholic-Protestant split is less significant. Benedict XVI's trip to Turkey was clearly an effort to further the ties between the Eastern and Western Church. The fact that the meeting between them took place in a country where Islamic intolerance has reduced the Christian presence from what it was at the beginning of the 20th century -- 50% of the population -- to what it is today -- less than 1% of the population -- served to underscore the importance of the ecumenical journey that was given new hope by the pope's trip.

In his remarks after attending the five hour Liturgy of St John Chrysostom celebrated by Bartholomew I on November 30th, Pope Benedict said this:
This Divine Liturgy celebrated on the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Patron Saint of the Church of Constantinople, brings us back to the early Church, to the age of the Apostles. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew relate how Jesus called the two brothers, Simon, whom Jesus calls Cephas or Peter, and Andrew: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19, Mk 1:17). The Fourth Gospel also presents Andrew as the first to be called, “ho protoklitos”, as he is known in the Byzantine tradition. It is Andrew who then brings his brother Simon to Jesus (cf. Jn 1:40f.).

Today, in this Patriarchal Church of Saint George, we are able to experience once again the communion and call of the two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, in the meeting of the Successor of Peter and his Brother in the episcopal ministry, the head of this Church traditionally founded by the Apostle Andrew. Our fraternal encounter highlights the special relationship uniting the Churches of Rome and Constantinople as Sister Churches.
He concluded his remarks by saying: "May our encounter today serve as an impetus and joyful anticipation of the gift of full communion. And may the Spirit of God accompany us on our journey!"

Having quoted and linked to reports from Joshua Trevino in two prior posts, I want to again call your attention to his extraordinary account of the encounter between Pope Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. Here are the last three paragraphs of Joshua Trevino's eye-witness report:
Patriarch Bartholomew I arrives, decked in brilliant finery and surrounded by black-clad deacons and Metropolitans. Pope Benedict XVI arrives, dressed in thick red robes, and accompanied by bright red-and-purple Cardinals. The Liturgy, which has already been underway for an hour, assumes a new pitch. The lights brighten. The gold upon the icons flare. We pray. We worship for another four hours, with varying levels of comprehension of the thousand-year-old Greek of the Liturgy. I scurry about from point to point, taking photographs and looking on in awe.

Finally, it comes time for Communion. My father asks me if I will go, and I reply that I probably should not. He urges me to, and I give in. Now, we file forward, toward the Ecumenical Patriarch His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, holder of the last office of the Eastern Empire, who gives us the Body of Christ. Mere feet away, Benedict XVI sits on the Papal throne, looking down upon us supplicants. I am overcome and cannot glance toward him. Behind me, others have more courage: they break from the line, rush forward, and kiss Benedict’s hand. He is calm and gentle. He smiles and clasps their hands, saying a few words in German and English, before urging them to go receive the Eucharist. It is profoundly moving too see these devout Orthodox who have come to pay homage to the bishop of the New Roman, and who are so overwhelmed with the presence and love of the bishop of the Rome that they must give him the same. The small space encompasses a universe, and we are at its center.

Bartholomew ascends to the iconostasis and welcomes Benedict in Greek. Benedict, aware of the cameras surrounding him, replies in English. We must, he says, recall Europe to its Christian heritage before it is too late – and we must do it together. Then they emerge into the cold sunlight of a cold day. They ascend to a balcony overlooking the courtyard where we gather in expectation. They speak briefly. And then, they clasp hands, Pope and Patriarch, smile and raise their arms together. Tears come to my eyes, and I am shocked to see several media personnel crying openly. For an instant, the Church is one. For a shadow of a second, the dreams of Christendom are again real.
The whole piece is here.

Seen through worldly eyes glazed over by the spirit of the age, the meeting between Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I was hardly even news. Those journalists in attendance, however sophisticated their technology, were for the most part members of generation of journalists who were virtually trained to overlook the historical significance of religious developments, and, again for the most part, they did just that.

Trevino again:
But not only the faithful are there: there is also the media of the world, armed with telephoto lenses and cameras, and looking shabby in the way that media typically do. It does not occur to them to dress appropriately – one may wish, after all, to look presentable before the putative Vicar of Christ on Earth – but then, it wouldn’t. They crowd onto platforms along the periphery of the chapel, and wait.
Here we have two cultures peering across a great abyss at one another, not the Eastern and Western Churches, for between them there was a remarkable degree of sacramental accord. The abyss was between the media-saturated global culture, represented by the shabbily dressed journalists fidgeting with their equipment, and the universal Church, represented by the stately gravitas of the successors of Andrew and Peter. The former trivializing everything it touches, turning even great tragedies into the stuff of idle chatter, the latter dignifying the most mundane struggles of life and the perennial questions of the heart by incorporating them into a drama of incomparable grandeur and seriousness.

How important was this meeting between the successors of Peter and Andrew? We won't know for sure for at least a century or two. Meanwhile, we have every reason to take heart from what happened at the church of St. George under the thuggish glare of an intolerant culture. The light shines in the darkness.

Wedding Anniversary

Today my son and daughter-in-law, Hunt and Yuni Bailie, celebrate their wedding anniversary, a celebration made especially happy by the arrival on November 24th of their first child, a daughter, Jordan Elizabeth, about whom her grandfather gushed in an earlier post.

Hunt and Yuni on their wedding day

Hunt, Yuni and Jordan just after her birth

Saturday, December 02, 2006

To make an end is to make a beginning.

For years I have found the Church's liturgical calendar more helpful than the secularized Gregorian calendar in reckoning my place in the temporal order. The liturgical seasons have an effect on me that may be slightly more subtle than the effect of the earth's four seasons, but which nevertheless works at a deeper level.

This being the case -- and with considerable thanks to the way the liturgical cycle resonates in the monastic liturgies at St. Joseph's Abbey -- I'm keenly aware of the transition now underway from Ordinary Time to Advent, today being the last day of Ordinary Time and tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent.

The theme of the last weeks of Ordinary Time is the Apocalypse, the end time, Christ's Second Coming, the Final Judgment. Both the scriptures and the prayer life of the Church often speak of this end time in terms at the same time ominous and expectant. Christ, we are repeatedly assured, will "come in glory," revealing the grandeur that was hidden from all but a few (at the Transfiguration, for instance) when he lived among us.

I have a slightly different take on this theme. For I imagine that the "glory" revealed by the Second Coming will not be the worldly glory that comes easily to mind when we hear references to it in the scriptures and liturgy. As I think of it, if anything Christ will come in an even more humble state; the difference between his earthly life and his second coming will be that at his second coming what will be revealed is precisely the glory inherent in his humility. The judgment that will fall upon all who behold him will be to fully realize that the first will be last and the last first, that humility and glory are one and the same thing.

The last Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Roman lectionary is the Feast of Christ the King, at which it is important to remember that His kingdom is "not of this world," not only because it is eschatological, but because it is the inverse of worldly kingdoms.

Thus it is that the apocalyptic theme on which the Church's "Ordinary Time" concludes is an appropriate prelude to the Advent theme, which is so magnificently expressed in the Lucan infancy narrative with its contrast between Caesar ("the divine") Augustus arrayed at the center of his luxurious Empire with the pomp and worldly glory of his powerful office, on one hand, and the helpless infant born in a cow-shed in the remote and culturally inferior (by Roman assessment) backwater of the Empire, on the other. This is the beginning of the first coming, but it is harbinger of the Second Coming as well.

In East Coker, T. S. Eliot wrote:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
Happy Advent.