Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Sole Sufferer

In his discussion of "Rhenish-Flemish Mysticism," Hans Urs von Balthasar refers to a passage in the writings of Heinrich Suso:
In a great prayer Suso praises God in "the pains of all wounds, the groans of all the sick, the sighing of all who mourn, the tears of all who weep, the insults borne by all the oppressed;" this is possible because God the Son is "the sole Sufferer": thus all who suffer should form a circle around him, thirstily drinking from him who is the "overflowing wellspring of grace." [Theo-Drama, Vol. V, p. 456.]
A few pages earlier, von Balthasar quoted another of the Rhineland mystics, the 14th century Johannes Tauler, who wrote: "we do not follow God by experiencing a sense of well-being but by taking up our Cross."

Liz had a seizure tonight. She recovered, but we welcome your prayers and are grateful for them.

The Future of Europe

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Bernard Lewis made it clear:
Islam could soon be the dominant force in a Europe which, in the name of political correctness, has abdicated the battle for cultural and religious control, Prof. Bernard Lewis, the world-renowned Middle Eastern and Islamic scholar, said on Sunday.

The Muslims "seem to be about to take over Europe," Lewis said at a special briefing with the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post. Asked what this meant for the continent's Jews, he responded, "The outlook for the Jewish communities of Europe is dim." Soon, he warned, the only pertinent question regarding Europe's future would be, "Will it be an Islamized Europe or Europeanized Islam?" The growing sway of Islam in Europe was of particular concern given the rising support within the Islamic world for extremist and terrorist movements, said Lewis.
Has anything so enormous, so precious, and so irreplaceable ever been more wantonly forsaken and betrayed by its own privileged beneficiaries than has the Christian underpinnings of Western civilization in our time? It takes ones breath away. If only we would realize what we have done or allowed to be done to the cultures in which our children and grandchildren will be obliged to live. No salvaging effort will bear fruit that does not start with contrition.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The human condition -- on a personal note

I've often thought, and several times said (whether on this weblog or not I cannot recall) that those of us who live with all the conveniences would do well to have to do our laundry at a laundromat at least every once in a while. Perhaps it is my blue-collar upbringing, but I feel at home in a laundromat, almost as much as I do in church. In my case, the danger of romanticizing either is not great. But for a graduate course in subjects that can be studied at the undergraduate level in laundromats, an emergency room in an urban hospital late on a Saturday night is hard to beat.

Complications related to Liz's illness and the numerous medications she is enduring because of it took us to the emergency room on Saturday night. Crowded conditions and the various procedures and diagnostic tests Liz had to undergo kept us at the hospital until 6:30 a.m. Sunday. While Liz was being diagnosed and given an emergency MRI, I sat in her wheelchair in one of the little curtained-off cubicals trying (against impossible odds) to get at least a few minutes of sleep.

The curtain of the cubical where I sat was opened, and I was able to see and hear the choppy segments of the emergency room drama. To the din of blaring televisions (a ubiquitous curse in most places in the typical hospital today), sirens, intercom staff messages, shouts of patients who were in pain, or on drugs, or drunk, or all three, I tried (largely unsuccessfully) to sleep. (Wheelchairs are not made for sleep.)

At one point, two of the patients, males in their 30s who seemed to be high on something or other, went for each other, triggering an avalanche of testosterone, as uniformed security personnel, men in street clothes and surgery scrubs emerged from every corridor. The shouting died down, and, after milling around for a few minutes, most drifted off to resume their assigned roles.

All the while, I was wondering how Liz was handling the exhaustion and the diagnostic tests, and worrying that her tumor might have gotten into her spinal column. (Mercifully, it had not.)

Back home on Sunday morning for a few short hours of sleep and then a day like most other days, quiet and revolving around Liz's needs. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, before dinner each night Liz and I have always had a period of prayer and reflection and personal sharing. We call it "port time" because it invariably includes a glass of port or an equivalent libation. Liz isn't able to read these days, so I have lately been reading a few paragraphs each night from something of spiritual interest to us. For the last couple of weeks or so I have been reading from Romano Guardini's The Lord.

As it happened, on Sunday night, when I turned to where I had left off the night before, it was at Guardini's discussion of the Beatitudes, and more precisely the following paragraph, in which the great German theologian reflects on the Beatitudes as Christ's manifesto for a new order of existence:
To participate in this new order, man must open his heart. He must free himself from the clutches of natural existence and advance to meet the things to come. He must eradicate the old, deeply rooted claim that this world is sufficient unto itself, the essential and only reality; he must admit that earthly existence even at its best is stained and discredited in the eyes of God. Naturally such self-emancipation is particularly difficult for those for whom the world holds the most delights-for the powerful and creative, for all who have a large share in earth's greatness and beauty. These are the rich, the sated, the laughing, the praised and honored ones-hence, the woe that threatens them. On the other hand, blessings on the poor, the mournful, the hungry and persecuted, not because their condition in itself is blessed, but because it helps them to realize that more than just this world exists. Need teaches them only too well how inadequate existence is, and once taught, they turn more easily from earth to heaven for something better. [The Lord, p. 72]
Fresh from my long vigil at the emergency room, this marvelous paragraph seemed to me to capture the sum and substance of Christian faith. All the more so is this the case, inasmuch as Guardini took pains to warn against sentimentalizing Christ's transvaluation of all values. "We must guard against one thing only," he insists, "sentimentality." (Something that would survive in the emergency room for about 30 seconds.)
Nothing on earth ever, of itself, guarantees heaven. Poverty can make men greedier than wealth. ... Hunger can harden; pain can drive to despair; contempt can inwardly destroy. ... But on the whole, Jesus' "Blessed are you" is correct. He spoke from experience: it was the poor, the suffering, the despised publicans, sinners and harlots who at least attempted to believe. The powerful, the learned, the wealthy, the secure were provoked by his message, or laughed at him, or hated him, whom they considered a danger to the political existence of the nation.
The Church is humanity's emergency room, where the weak and the wounded, the reckless and the raging, the broken and the frightened are thrown together to be ministered to by others only marginally healthier or holier than those to whom they minister.

At this very moment, as I am tying these words, Liz is sitting on the sofa nearby looking intently at an image of the Mother of Sorrows which was carved by our friend Vonn Hartung and which hangs in our living-room. Mary, with her heart pierced by the sword, is the icon of the Church: the Mother of Sorrows, under whose protection we huddle together with all the other needy ones.

How blessed we are to be under her protection and in the care of Mother Church.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Scylla and Charybdis

In a post on the Mirror of Justice weblog, Rick Garnett, who teaches at Notre Dame Law School, quoted this passage from a recent column by Chicago Cardinal George.
. . . There are many good people whose path to holiness is shaped by religious individualism and private interpretation of what God has revealed. They are, however, called Protestants. When an informed and committed group of Catholics, such as the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, comes up with an agenda for discussion that is, historically, Protestant, an important point is being made. Catholics assimilated to American culture, which is historically Protestant, are now living with great tension between how their culture shapes them and what their Catholic faith tells them to hold.

. . . The Second Vatican Council wasn’t called to turn Catholics into Protestants. It was called to ask God to bring all Christ’s followers into unity of faith so that the world would believe who Christ is and live with him in his Body, the Church. . . .

. . . What seems clear to me is that God is calling us to be authentically Catholic in our faith and also, perhaps paradoxically, Protestant in our culture. We live where we are, not in some ideal world where everything works smoothly. Those who withdraw into sectarian enclaves, even in the name of orthodoxy but without respect for or obedience to the mediators called bishops, are simply repeating the Protestant Reformation with Catholic tags. The one thing necessary is to live with discerning hearts and minds. We need to keep asking ourselves what is influencing our ways of thought, our decisions, our feelings and affections. A life of constant discernment is not always easy, but it’s joyful because it means living with the Holy Spirit, whose presence brings truth and consolation and unity. . . .
Professor Garnett then adds this:
This is interesting, and not just for its possible relevance to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" projects (about which I am very enthusiastic). Cardinal George seems to be warning about both (a) a tendency to retreat, perhaps smugly, into self-styled "orthodox" enclaves, and (b) the confusion of "renewal" with individualism.
I, too, am very enthusiastic about "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," and clarifications like the one that Cardinal George made in his column are a most welcome contribution to it, as is the attention Professor Garnett has called to it and his succinct summary of it.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

What much of the world sees ...

In the introduction to his The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, Dinesh d'Souza criticizes the ideological Left for providing the non-Western world with all the most venomous anti-Western rhetorical flourishes. One glaring and unmistakable example is this:
In his October 30, 2004 videotaped message, apparently timed to precede the presidential election, Bin Laden drew liberally from themes in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 to condemn the Bush administration. Bin Laden denounced Bush for election-rigging in Florida, for going to war to enrich oil companies and defense contracts like Halliburton, for curtailing civil liberties under the Patriot Act, and for reading stories to school-children while the World Trade Center burned. Apart from the rhetorical flourishes of “Praise be to Allah,” Bin Laden sounds exactly like Michael Moore.
The other contribution D'Souza claims that the Left has made to the jihadist cause is that it has contributed to a moral degradation that the jihadists have exploited. I have only read the online introductory chapter of D'Souza's book, but others argue that he has overstated his case, seeming to suggest that the jihadists are in some way justified by the West's moral decline and that those who feel an obligation to defend the West should see traditional Muslims as better allies than their libertine Liberal compatriots. If this is so, I would agree that this is carrying the argument too far. What D'Souza gets right, as far as I'm concerned, is that what the rest of the world sees when it looks at contemporary Western (American) culture is something a good deal less edifying than Jeffersonian democracy, motherhood, and apple pie. It's the sexual hysteria into which what I called in the earlier post the Alfred Kinsey libertine Left has led the culture.
We should not dismiss the Islamic or traditional critique so easily. In fact, as our own domestic and cultural debate shows, we know that many of the concerns raised by the radical Muslims are widely-shared in our own society. Indeed, many conservative and religious Americans agree with the Islamic fundamentalists that American culture has become increasingly vulgar, trivial and disgusting. I am not merely referring to the reality shows where contestants eat maggots or the talk shows where guests reveal the humiliating details of their sex lives. I am also referring to “high culture,” to liberal culture that offers itself as refined and sophisticated.

Here, for example, is a brief excerpt from Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” a play that won rave reviews and Hollywood accolades and is now routinely performed (according to its own publicity materials) in “more than 20 countries, including China and Turkey.” In the book version of the play — now sold in translation in Pakistan, India, and Egypt — Ensler offers what she terms “Vagina Occurrences”: “Glenn Close gets 2,500 people to stand up and chant the word cunt…There is now a Cunt Workshop at Wesleyan University…Roseanne performs ‘What Does Your Vagina Smell Like?” in her underwear for two thousand people…Alanis Morisette and Audra McDonald sing the cunt piece.” And so on. If all of this makes many Americans uncomfortable and embarrassed — which may be part of Ensler’s objective — one can only imagine how it is received in traditional cultures where the public recitation of such themes and language is considered a grotesque violation of manners and morals. Nor is Ensler an extreme example. If the garbage heap of American excess leaves many Americans feeling dirty and defiled at home, what gives America the right to dump it on the rest of the world?
Again, this is not to say that the fanatics willing to kill innocent Westerners are motivated by moral scruple, but only that, in silencing their co-religionists or coercing their cooperation, the moral decadence of the West works in their favor. There is no doubt that the jihadists would be as eager to destroy a Norman Rockwell America as they would an Eve Ensler one, but the eclipse of the former by the latter has provided them with a very advantageous recruiting device among traditional Muslims who might be otherwise less easily rallied to their cause.

D'Souza continues:
The debate over popular culture points to a deeper issue. For the past quarter-century we have been having a “culture war” in this country which has, until now, been viewed as a debate with only domestic ramifications. I believe that it has momentous global consequences as well. When we debate hot-button issues like abortion, school prayer, divorce, gay marriage, and so on, we are debating two radically different views of liberty and morality. Issues like divorce and family breakdown are important in themselves, yet they are ultimately symptoms of a great moral shift that has occurred in American society, one that continues to divide and polarize this country, and one that is at the root of the anti-Americanism of traditional cultures.
In the last post, I quoted a portion of d'Souza's reference to Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. Here is that quote in its fuller context:
The cultural shift can be described in this way. Some years ago I read Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, which describes the virtues of the World War II generation. I asked myself whether this was truly the “greatest” generation. Was it greater than the generation of the American founding? Greater than the civil war generation? I don’t think so. The significant thing about the World War II generation was that it was the last generation. Last in what way? It was the last generation to embrace an external code of traditional morality. Indeed this generation’s great failure was that it was unable to inculcate this moral code in its children. Thus the frugal, self-disciplined, deferred-gratification generation of World War II produced the spoiled children of the 1960s — the Clinton generation.
Which is to say: my generation, we members of which still have a few years left in which to try to rectify the moral and cultural catastrophe that we actively celebrated or passively allowed to take place on our watch.

The introductory chapter of D'Souza's book can be read in its entirety here, and an interesting critique of it is here.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The (Last) Great Generation

My parents were part of what Tom Brokaw, in his book by that name, called the greatest generation. Like so many others, my father was killed in Europe's last great effort to resist a murderous and heartless tyranny. My mother never took her wedding ring off, worked as a secretary at the Catholic parish where I attended grammar school, and was a daily communicant. The greatness was disguised in the most ordinary of forms, but it stands out against the backdrop of what happened subsequently, when we were inundated by the moral and cultural tsunami that washed up in the late 1960s. Unlike a literal tsunami, the moral one left most of the physical structures in place. In that sense it was more like a neutron bomb, which is reputed to kill all living things while leaving the physical infrastructure standing.

These things were brought to mind this morning by the first reading in today's Mass, from the introduction of St. Paul's second letter to Timothy, in which he wrote to Timothy:
... I recall your sincere faith
that first lived in your grandmother Lois
and in your mother Eunice
and that I am confident lives also in you.
Here is a genealogy of faith that has been the greatest of all sources of Christian devotion and the incalculable blessings that accompany it. William Butler Yeats may have slightly overstated matters when he said that no one can write poetry except in the language in which he first spoke the familiar form of the word for mother, and the religious corollary is likewise only one of the ways Christian faith is transmitted. There are countless Christians who came to their faith in adult life without the benefit of a Christian upbringing. Nevertheless, the most natural and beautiful way to receive the gift of faith is, so to speak, at our mother's breast or on our mother's knee. I say, "so to speak," because, as a father, I am keenly aware of the father's role in the transmission of faith, a role that is especially important today when fatherlessness -- both literal and metaphorical -- is such a conspicuous cultural reality.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the tsunami rolled across the heartland from both coasts. What was vaguely called patriarchy was most definitely out, something that served to obscure the fact that the great tragedy of that period was fatherlessness. On the other hand, there was a great wave of nostalgia for matriarchy. All this, of course, was taking place in the rarefied atmosphere ideological fashion. Back on earth, what was actually and conspicuously happening was the radical renunciation of both paternal and maternal responsibilities, that is to say, the responsibilities of adulthood.

In his The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, Dinesh d'Souza makes a reference to Brokaw's book that is apposite.
Some years ago I read Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, which describes the virtues of the World War II generation. I asked myself whether this was truly the “greatest” generation. Was it greater than the generation of the American founding? Greater than the civil war generation? I don’t think so. The significant thing about the World War II generation was that it was the last generation. Last in what way? It was the last generation to embrace an external code of traditional morality. Indeed this generation’s great failure was that it was unable to inculcate this moral code in its children.
I want to return to d'Souza's argument in a subsequent post. In the meantime, I offer the comment above in the hope that it will provide others of my generation what it provided me: an occasion for the examination of conscience, on one hand, and a reminder, on the other, of the great debt I owe to those who were for me what Lois and Eunice were for Timothy.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Conversion of St. Paul

Today is the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, an occasion to re-call the call which changes one's life. It is an appropriate occasion for sharing something I have just received from a young Australian friend of mine who has responded to such a call and who has just been accepted to the seminary.
Upon hearing of my acceptance into the seminary I began telling a few of my friends at work about it. Given that I work at a science centre I was expecting a bit of flak, but most folks have been genuinely positive or at least respectful. In recent days however there have been a couple of guys--who I generally get on well with--who have been fairly hostile to the idea (it would seem that they are of the opinion that science and religion are fundamentally opposed). My first response to one of them was fairly diplomatic, though upon receiving an even more provocative e-mail from the other guy I found myself becoming quite angry, though I couldn't pin-point exactly why.

Later that day, I was calling a few old friends to tell them about my upcoming move into the seminary. One of the people I rang had once been my most serious girlfriend, though I haven't had much contact with her of late. We had a brief chat, and it turns out that she had gotten married the previous day (she left for her honeymoon the next morning). I was very happy for her, and the timing seemed an appropriate book-end of sorts to my new direction. Later on I mentally revisited our relationship a bit, and in the context of her marriage it was not long before I had figured why I was so upset with the guys at work, and I have since e-mailed them about it.

In short, the traditional metaphor of "marrying the Church" that is used to describe those entering the priesthood or religious life began to take on a personal relevance. I could see that my current position is in many ways the equivalent of having just become engaged: upon having fallen in love with something that the guys at work clearly lacked any experience of, I have begun preparing to make a life-long commitment (one that is devoted to the service of others).

In reviewing some of the derogatory statements they had made about the Church, I imagined how I might have responded if they had spoken in such a way about my wife-to-be if I had just become engaged. They mightn't like the "fiancé" I have chosen, but I love her damn it, and I was in no mood to politely explain myself to them until they were prepared to act with some basic respect and decency towards me regarding my choice of "life partner".

Anyway, this may help explain my recent sensitivity towards criticism of the Church. I know the human mess is still there, but I've fallen in love, and I thus probably have something of the protective passion that a recently-engaged man would have for his fiancé.
Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, now Brother Simeon of St. Joseph's Abbey down the road from me, writes -- in his book, Love's Sacred Order -- about St. Paul straining his Greek vocabulary "as he looks for new words and generates a wealth of semantic markers to cover the whole arena of 'love' and convey the very particular manner of relationship brought into the world by the mystery of Christ acting within us."
The Church in Paul's vision thus becomes the locus for the fullness of human life transformed by the outpouring into our hearts of divine Charity. The Church, as Lumen Gentium teaches, is truly called to be the redeemed form of the human race, the holy place and house and family where every good thing reaches its full potential by being energized by the creative and recreative power of the Holy Spirit breathed into use by Christ at Pentecost by virtue of his Resurrection. The Church is the living evidence of the ultimate development of the human family according to God's Heart, beyond blood-kinship, beyond tribe, beyond race, nation and all ideology. [57]
My friend has fallen in love, and he is on his way to the altar. I admire him enormously. Join me in prayers on his behalf. He is just what the Church -- and the world the Church exists to sanctify -- needs.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hunting the last taboo ...

The hunt continues for the last taboo. Of course it will be the one against child-sacrifice, which has already been rehabilitated and made socially normative as a woman's choice. But meanwhile, hunting down those intolerant and oppressive sexual taboos continues. Just when you thought that there couldn't possibly be any more taboos to break. Mark Gordon reports:
Now word comes that Robert Redford’s oh-so-groovy Sundance Film Festival will screen “Zoo,” a sympathetic documentary of men who have sex with Arabian horses.

The Sundance Festival’s official reviewer of “Zoo” calls the film “visual poetry,” and declares that “the cinematic language invented for the film permits us to examine where we draw the line, how much perversity we can tolerate in others. In a broader sense, ‘Zoo’ is really about thresholds. What can we stand to know, and, more importantly, what can we stand to accept?”
Read all of Mark's reflections here.

Lest someone think that the director of this film, Robinson Devor, is either an amoral moron or a unflinching cynic, he finds a way to assure the reporter for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that he has both moral scruples and a refined aesthetic sensibility, the former for animal rights and the latter for the marvels of nature.
"I'm not in there wrestling with the legal or animal cruelty issues," he said. Rather, he envisioned a film like his others: "I count on the natural world pulling my films through. I thought the marriage of this completely strange mind-set and the beauty of the natural world could be something interesting."
What a relief to learn that Mr. Devor has his cruelty-to-animals moral certification up to date. One might have otherwise approached his work with a degree of skepticism.

Those out to obliterate the last remnants of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition are determined. They now have reason to believe that most of their liberal enablers -- fearing association with "Victorian" prudishness or "the Christian right" -- will never wince, and those who do will take care to wince in a way that is indistinguishable from a wink.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Roe v. Wade: The Tragedy of Our Age

All those responsible for leading this young woman to this act of shamelessness have a great deal to answer for.

Some years ago, the New York Times Bruce Bawer, whom I quoted in the last post (below), reviewed a biography of Anaïs Nin by Deirdre Bair. Discussing Nin's marriage to the American banker, Hugh (Hugo) Guiler, Bawer wrote:
Nin, who found Guiler sexually unsatisfactory, did not return his loyalty; after their 1924 removal from New York to Paris, she began a lifelong series of sexual derelictions, flirting shamelessly at Hugo’s business parties . . . coupling with her father . . . sleeping (or so she claimed) with her brother Thorvald, putting moves on her brother Joaquín’s spiritual counselor and seducing most of her psychoanalysts (including an infatuated Otto Rank...)”
In 1931 when Nin met Henry Miller, whom she adopted as lover and disciple. Bawer again:
Impregnated by either Henry or Hugo, she took medication to induce an abortion, had a still-born girl and made diary entries that reveal a chilling inhumanity. (“Here,” she said when Miller visited her in the hospital and announced his forthcoming book, “is a birth which is of greater interest to me.”
In the 1960s, everyone was avidly reading Anaïs Nin. Among the budding feminists of the time, her words were holy writ. In many ways, Nin was the mother (if the metaphor can be forgiven here) of the radical feminists that were soon to emerge, and under whose influence countless young women, like the one pictured above, were catechized and robbed of both their feminity and their dignity.

Filling the Vacuum . . .

Virgil tells Dante what it was that caused the Assyrian Queen, Semiramis, to be tormented in the region of the Inferno reserved for the lustful. Her sin, however, seems to have been more than just lust, which for Dante is the least deadly sin. Semiramis' sin seems to have been her attempt to endow her erotic recklessness with social and legal respectability.
Her vice of lust became so customary
that she made license licit in her laws
to free her from the scandal she had caused. -- Inferno V
Dante puts sodomites in another, lower place in the Inferno, but it is this tendency to make licentiousness licit that has such a strong contemporary analogue in the push to create the legislative fiction that homoerotic activity and the nuptial embrace are but two equally natural and legitimate forms of the same thing. The homosexual activists are late-comers to this moral coup d'etat. It was heterosexuals who made an art of turning sexuality into a recreational activity not to be unduly hampered by middle-class hangups, much less the sacramental dignity with which traditional Christianity endowed it. But late-coming homosexuals have mastered the art with great aplomb and obvious relish.

They are not, however, the only ones who want to replace key elements of the Western tradition with exotic moral codes more to their own liking. A surprising number of Muslims, especially in Europe, where their numbers are much greater than here, tell pollsters that they favor laws more in keeping with Islam's Sharia.

I mentioned in an earlier post the odd alliance between Jihadists and Leftists in Europe, where the political Left retains more of its Marxist roots than does the North American Left, which tends today to be a life-style libertine Left -- hyper-liberals with illiberal temperaments, content to throw off traditional moral constraints only to impose the new orthodoxy with sanctimonious contempt for those who resist. (In future posts I would like to return to this strange alliance if and when time permits.)

Herbert Marcuse's amalgamation of these two manifestations of Leftist activism still persists, of course, but the relatively greater weight of Karl Marx in Europe and Alfred Kinsey on this side of the Atlantic can still be detected. (I use Kinsey to personify the sexual revolution his reckless behavior exemplified and his unscientific writings served to exempt from moral scrutiny.) The Alfred Kinsey version of Marxism is not as likely to ally itself as readily with the Jihadists, but stranger things (not many) have happened. The multicultural world, however, is a carnival of such strangeness. There are jurisdictions in Europe today, for instance, where one is more likely to attract the attention of law enforcement agencies by calling into question the morality of homoerotic behavior than by calling Jews pigs and monkeys.

Inasmuch as Dante put Muhammad in the Inferno as a schismatic, he is surely on the Muslim short list of pernicious influences from which the young must be protected once the textbook committees can be made as solicitous of Islamic sensibilities as they have shown themselves to be of today's Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) pieties. (And solicitude for one is very often accompanied by solicitude for the other -- one of the genuine oddities of the multicultural mentality.)

It's conceivable that the day will come when dropping Dante from the curriculum will be among the few things on which Muslims and the LGBT activists will agree. Like the elimination of Cordelia by her sisters in King Lear, however, or the elimination of Pompey in Antony and Cleopatra, once Dante and everything he represents is set aside, the concordat between those wishing to be rid of these things will collapse into intense hostility. Foreseeing precisely this as the result of the elimination of Pompey, Antony's lieutenant, Enobarbus remarks:
Then, world, thou hast a pair of chaps, no more;
And throw between them all the food thou hast,
They'll grind the one the other.
Bruce Bawer, is an American literary critic, translator, poet, living in Europe. He has written about being gay in America. His most recent book is While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within. I would be surprised if Mr. Bawer and I see eye-to-eye on every issue, but I think he's surely right about this one:
Multiculturalism is deeply, perversely irrational. If you’re a multiculturalist, it’s verboten even to notice, acknowledge, and express concern about murderous hatred directed against you and yours by the officially oppressed. For a multiculturalist, any act or statement by a member of an officially oppressed group, however morally reprehensible, is to be understood either as a legitimate reaction against “our” prejudice (or our forebears’ colonialism) or as a legitimate aspect of an alien culture that we, in our pitiful narrowness, have failed to understand and respect – which is, of course, our obligation.
For a snapshot of how incoherent the world becomes when allowed to arrange itself according to the multicultural logic, there's this from the ever-quotable Mark Steyn in a December, 2004 London Daily Telegraph piece:
Last year, I was strolling down the boulevard de Maisonneuve in Montreal and saw across the street a Muslim woman, covered from head to toe in black, struggling home with her groceries past a "condom boutique" whose front window was advertising massive discounts on a, er, item of useful gay-sex paraphernalia. I wish I'd had a digital camera: there, in a single image, were the internal contradictions of the multicultural society. It seems highly improbable to me that gay hedonism and creeping sharia can co-exist for long.
The two greatest challenges to Western culture at the moment are from the Koran-quoting fanatics at the gates and the indulgent and irresponsible sexual liberationists within. It is not out of the realm of possibility that, after they beat up on Dante or the Pope for a while -- and when they no longer have George Bush around to cement their loopy alliance -- they'll grind the one the other, very likely crushing civility in Europe in the process. Since the sexual revolutionaries haven't bothered to produce the requisite numbers of offspring to maintain parity, were such a showdown to occur, the demographics would surely favor the jihadists. They would do most of the grinding.

From the ravaged world that would likely result, the Judeo-Christian moral tradition will look like what it has always been: an anthropologically sound summons to human nobility and dignity, a refuge from barbarism and tyranny, and a spur to human flourishing and freedom the likes of which the world has never seen.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Going up the Down's staircase

Apropos the earlier post about the Canadian and U. S. societies of obstetricians and gynecologists calling for more testing for Down's syndrome, Patricia E. Bauer had a piece in the January 14th edition of the Washington Post that is not to be missed.

The article that begins with this:
She was a fresh-faced young woman with a couple of adorable kids, whiling away an hour in the sandbox at the park near my home. So was I, or so I thought. New in town, I had come to the park in hopes of finding some friends for myself and my little ones.

Her eyes flicked over to where my daughter sat, shovel gripped in a tiny fist, and then traveled quickly away. The remark that followed was directed to the woman next to her, but her voice carried clearly across the playground. "Isn't it a shame," she said, an eyebrow cocked in Margaret's direction, "that everyone doesn't get amnio?"
Ends with this:
Plastic shovels no longer captivate Margaret. She's more interested in her school roommates, her part-time job, the Red Sox and, at least recently, wrestling on TV. She knows how to hold an audience and how to bring down the house with a one-liner. And, like most of my relatives, she knows how to be an absolute pill some of the time. Such is life.

That day in the sandbox, I went home and cried. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know whether the woman was right. Today, I know. She was wrong.
Leila over at Off the Record brought it to our attention, and something she said is perhaps the more important thing of all, the mystery hidden in plain view:
It’s a paradoxical truth that suffering brings joy; that our best experiences were not planned by us – we don’t really know what happiness is until we look back.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Eschatological Realism & Naive Idealism

Professor Jospeh Ratzinger:
It is above all at times of greatest crisis in human history that we find men concerned with the theology of history. The first great Christian theology of history, Augustine's De Civitate Dei contra paganos, emerged from the crisis of the Roman empire, in which the life of that age had found an orderly and apparently definitive form. Since that time, the attempt to come to terms with history theologically has never been foreign to Western theology. [Introduction to The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, v.]
Ricardo Quinones parallels Ratzinger's remark about the correlation of great crises and concern for the theology of history by paraphrasing Hamlet: “Disaster does make historians of us all.” If the disasters are ominous enough, they make theologians of those most aware of how rooted in persistent and perennial human sin these crises are.

How seriously one comes to grips with historical crises will largely depend, it seems to me, on whether or not one recognizes the fallen condition of humanity, on one hand, and our eschatological destiny, on the other. Those who fail to fully appreciate either of these things tend to find hope in ideologies of one sort or another and the utopian mirages they imagine possible, all of which shimmer like shook foil for a day or so and then are blown away by the cold winds of the disaster they made it their secret business to ignore.

The Christian alternative to such chimerical idealisms is a moral realism set against an eschatological horizon. We are fallen creatures, and our fallen condition will not be appreciably mitigated, and never eliminated, by the sundry social, cultural, moral or pedagogical programs in which we tend place our hope. But we are called (by name) to grow toward a spiritual fulfillment which we can at best only very imperfectly approximate in this life -- "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Any and every historical and cultural approximation of that "kingdom not of this world" -- however inevitably clumsy -- will be but the aggregated effect of countless personal efforts to approximate it.

Those who are making these efforts, be they ever so unnoticed and unsung, are doing more with their lives than the world in its standard worldliness could ever fathom.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Just Testing ...

In one of his early films -- which one, I forget; they're all the same -- Woody Allen plays both a Cossack soldier and a Jewish rabbi on a battlefield with explosions going off all around them. The soldier is panicking. The rabbi calmly reassures him: God is just testing us. "Why," asks the frantic soldier, "doesn't he give us a written [test]?"

It doesn't work that way.

In my post on Tuesday of this week, I said: "Evil overtakes us in small, seeming innocuous ways, each incremental development merely the logical extension of a state of affairs to which everyone has previously grown accustomed."

Here is one of the little baby steps (if you'll pardon the irony) toward the Brave New World of 21st century Eugenics -- so seemingly kinder and gentler and incremental than the old-fashioned Nazi sort, but, for that reason, far less likely to provoke a moral reaction. Reported by Lifesite:
In the same month, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) are recommending that all pregnant women, not just those over 35, should be screened, including with invasive procedures such as amniocentesis, to discover whether they have a risk of bearing a child with Down’s Syndrome.
What precisely is the reason for the test? What can be done with the information the test provides? Only two things: nothing and abortion. Since the former option (nothing) is what will happen without the test, the test only exists to favor the latter option. Anyone who thinks that this is merely science is not paying attention.
While the ACOG media release does not directly mention abortion as the usual fate of the “screened” babies, a SOGC official readily admits that the Canadian recommendation was specifically intended to give women the option to abort a child with Down’s Syndrome.
“Yes, it's going to lead to more termination, but it's going to be fair to these women who are 24 who say, 'How come I have to raise an infant with Down's syndrome, whereas my cousin who was 35 didn't have to?’” Dr. Andre Lalonde, the executive vice president of the SOGC, told the National Post.
The Canadian society of obstetricians and gynaecologists recommends that all women be "given" amniocentesis, and that women over 40 should "automatically be given" amniocentesis. One wonders what the word "automatically" means here. Is there a distinction between being given amniocentesis and being automatically given amniocentesis? If so, what is it? Whatever it is, you can be sure of the direction in which the eugenic screws are turning.

A few years after this regime is in place, a parent walking down the street with a Down's syndrome child will not only be a rare sight, but it will no longer invite the sympathy and even admiration of onlookers. Rather, we will have learned to regard the bringing of Down's syndrome children into the world as an act of social irresponsibility. Eventually, social disincentives will be deemed necessary to discourage this from happening: the withdrawal of social services for those reckless enough ("heartlessness" will no doubt be the catch-phrase) to allow a Down's syndrome child to be born, and so on.

The spokesman for the Canadian medical association admitted that "it's going to lead to more termination," but, typically, there was hardly a hint as to what that word might really mean. The ACOG recommendation goes so far as to say that the discovery of Down's syndrome would result in "pregnancy loss." What, one must ask, is being unacknowledged by this acknowledgement? First there is the verb: the test "would result" in pregnancy loss. Notice the passive voice. No reference to a moral agent. And as for the noun: What is it exactly that is lost when a woman suffers a pregnancy loss?

It is just a test. Indeed, we are being tested, and it is not a written test. When a pregnant woman suffers a spontaneous abortion, we say -- saddened to have to say it -- that she lost her baby. When a mother hires an abortionist to kill the baby she is carrying and remove its little body piece by piece from her womb we say she suffered a "pregnancy loss." In societies where the popular will has political influence, tyrannies and travesties always begin with the corruption of language. It is up to the poet and the moralist to join forces, insisting on a correspondence between the words we use and the reality to which they ostensibly point.

A related matter:

I quoted Robert George in the earlier post, who warned against the "move towards treating human life like a commodity." A giant step in that direction was the first legislative priority of the 2007 Congress. The new House of Representatives leadership rushed through a bill that would allow federal funding for the creation and destruction of embryonic human life for the purpose of medical research, a slope so steep and so slippery that it constitutes a plunge into a heartless sacrificial world that will quickly become a medical status quo.

Having grown accustomed to millions of aborted babies each year, we are now ready for the next phase: cloning humans in order to cannibalize them, though self-professed sophisticates will regard the use of such scientifically correct language as proof that those who use it are members of the "religious right" or the flat earth society, enemies of progress in any case. In fact, to speak in such terms is simply to refuse to go along with the progressive anesthetizing of our moral sensibilities, without which scientific discoveries and technological innovations will produce catastrophes all out of proportion to their professed benefits.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Eschatological Horizon

Only by keeping an eschatologial horizon can we properly conduct ourselves in history. Only by keeping one eye on the next life can we meet our responsibilies in this one. Christianity is impossible without a robust eschatological awareness.

Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The image of the ripening grain and the harvest that is such a constant theme in the parables of Jesus says ... [that] ... heaven is not only the future but always the perfecting factor and the present. The more the heavenly dimension governs and penetrates an earthly life in terms of mind, action and self-surrender, the riper this life is for heaven and the less God's refining fire will have to burn away (1 Cor. 3:14).
Here are two little ways I have found for keeping the eschatological horizon in view:

1. Periodically remind oneself of this: Sooner than I think, I'll be looking back on all this. I must try to conduct myself so as to minimize the contrition I will feel when I do.

2. (from, I think it was, Nicholas Berdyaev): Treat the living as though they are dying and the dead as though they are alive.

I can't resist ...

Attention to matters closer to home and closer to my heart prevent me from being as attentive to this my otherwise daily contact with the outside world as I would like to be. While shaving, however, I saw this from the inimitable Diogenes, and I couldn't resist sharing it with you. It's not the height of Christian charity, but there is a barb of truth in it for all of us:
Whenever a liberal is driven to quote the Bible the way the orthodox do -- i.e., as a reliable communication of God's will that must direct our conduct, as opposed to an impressionistic portrait of ancient Palestine's experience of the experience of the experience of God -- you know he's got his back to the wall.
I know this from personal experience. I inhaled the liberalism of our age for most of my adult life, and I have lately had my back to the wall. I realize only too well how the latter can cure the former of its vacuity.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Signs of the Times - Part III

In the January 6th edition of The Washington Post there appeared an article on the latest wrinkle in the eugenics revolution:
A Texas company has started producing batches of ready-made embryos that single women and infertile couples can order after reviewing detailed information about the race, education, appearance, personality and other characteristics of the egg and sperm donors. …

But the embryo brokerage, which calls itself "the world's first human embryo bank," raises alarm among some fertility experts and bioethicists, who say the service marks another disturbing step toward commercialization of human reproduction and "designer babies." …

"We're increasingly treating children like commodities," said Mark A. Rothstein, a bioethicist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "It's like you're ordering a computer from Dell: You give them the specs, and they put it in the mail. I don't think we should consider mail-order computers and other products the same way we consider children." …

The cost, convenience, prospects of success and ability to vet the donors all are attractive to Ryan's clients -- potentially not only infertile couples and single women but also gay men and lesbian couples. …

"People have long warned we were moving toward a 'Brave New World,' " said Robert P. George of Princeton University, who serves on the President's Council on Bioethics. "This is just more evidence that we haven't been able to restrain this move towards treating human life like a commodity. This buying and selling of eggs and sperm and now embryos based on IQ points and PhDs and other traits really moves us in the direction of eugenics." …
Children are now being fashioned to suit the preferences of their non-biological parents. Imagine a 16-year-old -- or, for that matter, a 30-year-old -- having to come to grips with the fact that his or her gender, IQ, eye-color, physical characteristics, athletic or musical abilities, and ensemble of genetic traits and predispositions were selected from available options by "parents" who were not , in fact, his or her biological parents after all. Thirty seconds reflection on this is enough to convince one that this dream is a nightmare.

As if this were not bizarre enough, it was later reported -- in a study just published in the journal Fertility and Sterility -- that some fertility clinics have helped clients select embryos with disabilities or defects -- chosen to match the inherited disability of the child's future parent(s) -- such as deafness or dwarfism. It is not the first time those who are deaf or dwarfed or in some other way disabled have been reported to have elected to impose their disability on their offspring.

It may turn out that the greatest problem we face as this Brave New World overtakes us -- wearing down our revulsion and taking on an aura of normality -- is that the extreme misuses of genetic technology (at least until we grow accustomed to them) will run interference for the routine uses. The moral hideousness of the former will make the latter seem relatively innocuous by comparison.

This is precisely how moral catastrophes ripen. Does anyone think that Auschwitz or Buchenwald just appeared one day on the Polish and German landscape? No. Evil overtakes us in small, seeming innocuous ways, each incremental development merely the logical extension of a state of affairs to which everyone has previously grown accustomed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dr. King's Dream

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. changed my life. I heard of his death on that rainy April in 1968. I was driving my little Volkswagen on a country road in West Virginia, the radio station barely audible from where I was at the time. I was on my way to Washington, DC. The program was interrupted by a news broadcast saying the Dr. King had been shot and killed in Memphis. My heart sank. When I got to Washington two or three hours later, the city was on fire. There was rioting and burning everywhere; the wailing sirens and garish glow from the fires was surreal. I'll never forget it. How the world has changed since then.

Twenty-four years later, on another April evening, another city was burning. Someone who had been, as I was, deeply moved by Martin Luther King, Jr's moral challenge to American society was watching the news coverage of the riot from his hospital bed.

On April 29, 1992, tennis star Arthur Ashe lay in a hospital dying of AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion. The TV monitor was tuned to the news of the riots that broke out in South Central Los Angeles when the police accused of brutally beating Rodney King were found not-guilty by a court in Simi Valley. The rage and the reason for unleashing it found each other, and a riot ensued that demolished large portions of South Central Los Angeles. Ashe was shocked, as were most people, by the terrible behavior of the police officers who beat Rodney King, but he was witnessing something that caused him even more moral revulsion. Two rival gang members from the area of the riot were being interviewed about the beating of the white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who just happened to have driven his truck into the area of the riot, and who was dragged from his truck and beaten by several of the rioters. When the gang members were asked about Denny’s beating, they didn’t respond as Ashe assumed they would. He had expected them “to concede that the beating of Denny was unjustifiable, that it had been wrong!” “Their response was exactly the opposite. Denny meant nothing to them. His innocence meant nothing to them,” Ashe continued, anguished by what he was witnessing. “The principle of right and wrong meant nothing to them.”
Watching the television screen and listening to these two young black men, I felt sick. That’s not us, I thought. That’s just not US. It was as if spirits from another planet had come to earth and invaded black bodies. We were once a people of dignity and morality; we wanted the world to be fair to us, and we tried, on the whole, to be fair to the world. Now I was looking at the new order, which is based squarely on revenge, not justice, with morality discarded. Instead of settling on what is right, or just, or moral, the idea is to get even. . . .
What went wrong within black America? We might as well ask what went wrong with America as a whole. What happened to blacks is, to be sure, only a heightened degree of the national weakening of morality and standards. . . .
What went wrong with black America, and what went wrong with America as a whole, Ashe concluded was that the moral authority that once resided in the Black Church in America, and that was championed by men like Martin Luther King, Jr., had been surrendered. It had ended up in the hands of political firebrands whose message was not justice but vengeance.

Fifty years ago blacks in American society suffered far more discrimination, racism, and poverty. They had available far fewer legal protections and government programs. Materially, their suffering was greater. But the crime rate was far lower, the out of wedlock births minuscule compared to today, the incarceration rate a fraction of what it is today. Even after factoring in all the mitigating factors to which those who think all moral problems the product of economic injustice or political inequality will with some justification call attention, the transformation that has taken place in the black community in America is staggering. To what can it be attributed?

These are hard realities, and those determined not to recognize them for what they are reassures themselves that their motive for overlooking them racial sensitivity. But what we are reluctant to recognize is not the racism of minorities, for they are no less prone to this sin than are others. The determination of both whites and blacks to look the other way is rooted in our reluctance to realize that it is Christianity that has been lost to an alarming degree in both the black and white communities. Arthur Ashe's words bear repeating:
What went wrong within black America? We might as well ask what went wrong with America as a whole. What happened to blacks is, to be sure, only a heightened degree of the national weakening of morality and standards. . . .
On a happier note:

Liz and I have been taking at least one non-medical outing a week, on Sunday afternoon to a movie theater. A couple of weeks ago we saw a splendid film, not a great film, mind you, but still and all a warmly entertaining, well-acted and inspiring film nonetheless. It was "Pursuit of Happyness" staring Will Smith.

It wasn't until I thought about it later that some of the most remarkable things about the film occurred to me. These things came back to me this morning as I was thinking about the civil rights struggle in this country and Martin Luther King, Jr's famous "I have a dream" speech.

"Pursuit of Happyness" is about a young black man struggling to make a living to support himself and his family. His wife leaves him with his small son and his fortunes go from bad to worse. I won't spoil the plot, which is predictable enough but still nicely done. What is unpredictable and quite out of character for a Hollywood film is that though the main character is a black man and the business world to which he aspires is clearly a white-run world, the film never mentions race. Even more astonishing, perhaps, it resists the standard Hollywood depiction of business or corporate life as revolting.

All the markers are there. A typical director could have written a script with a black lead trying to pull himself out of a dead-end and provide for his young son in his sleep. It would have shown that racism was to blame for most his problems and that greedy and unscrupulous corporate executives were to blame for the rest of them. The Will Smith film does neither. It is a story of a loving father overcoming obstacles by behaving honorably and working hard and not giving up.

It's a piece at least of Dr. King's dream, and it's still alive, thank God.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Signs of the Times - Part II

This post was to be uploaded the day after the January 5th post, "Signs of the Times - Part I," but I was hampered by chores and haunted by misgivings. But here it is, in between chores (I'm sitting in a waiting room where Liz is undergoing treatment) and with some lingering misgivings.

A demographic death-spiral and the moral and cultural disorientations that have lately been the ideological fashion have combined to all but insure that Islam will be the dominant religious force in Europe within a few short decades. As Mark Steyn puts it, "every Continental under the age of 40 – okay, make that 60, if not 75 – is all but guaranteed to end his days living in an Islamified Eurabia." Press reports suggest that majority Muslim enclaves now exist in Europe over which law enforcement personnel have effectively relinquished control and where non-Muslims and especially Jews enter at their own risk. In any case, Jews are once again having to look over their shoulders in Europe. The secular humanism that thought itself the inevitable heir to the European legacy in the post-Christian era has produced what Steyn calls "the gaping nullity of contemporary European identity."

If consummated, this process will undoubtedly bring to an end Europe's love affair with diversity, which has had such a sentimental appeal for those who considered the task of preserving the West's religious and cultural heritage to be both morally inconvenient and politically embarrassing.

The U.S. is not, happily, in the same situation. So it was of relatively little cultural consequence when an incoming Congressional Representative from Minnesota, Keith Ellison, took his oath of office by placing his hand on the book he regards as the supreme religious authority, the Quran. Neither the cooing nor the catcalls caught the minor meaning of the event. This was the first use of the Muslim scriptures in such a ceremony, but the refusal to be sworn in on the Bible is not unprecedented.

Some years ago, Mr. Ellison found a new religious home in Islam by way of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. There's nothing wrong with that; a person's religious convictions are to be respected. Religious freedom is the primary political freedom. Any and all who find Islam's truth-claims worthy of their adherence have every right, within the normal limits of civility, to affirm those claims and to proclaim their validity from the rooftops. (If this right was respected in Muslim societies, where for the most part it is not, the world would be a better place.)

While the use of the Islamic holy book is unremarkable in one sense, it is not entirely unproblematic. We need to seize every occasion circumstance offers to reflect on the historical and cultural currents at work in our world, and, however minor by comparison with other events, this is one such occasion. The accusation flies at the drop of a hat, of course, but it is not "Islamophobic" to ask a few questions about it.

Question #1. When next someone insists on taking the oath of office on, say, Mary Baker Eddy's, Science and Health, or Plato's Republic, or Darwin's Origin of the Species, or Hitler's Mein Kamph, or a paperback edition of collected Doonesbury cartoons, on what basis will the demand be judged out of bounds?

Like the marriage fiasco: by rendering cultural norms infinitely malleable and subordinating them to individual preference, we effectively dismantle the shared polity by reference to which a truly vibrant pluralistic society can flourish. Once we refuse to build on foundations, there's nothing left but shifting sand.

Question #2. When one takes an oath to meet his or her responsibilities as a public official in a Western pluralistic democracy, is there reason to be concerned if the oath is sworn on a book that explicitly rejects the "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" that has long served as the bedrock of the West's distinction between political and religious authority -- a book that purports to reveal the final and unalterable will of Allah for the human race, that demands the religious control of political life, and that commands its adherents to convert (if possible) and subdue (if necessary) all non-Muslims to Islamic rule?

Question #3. What is to be made of the fact that, in this case and in Europe, Muslim politicians are finding a political home among those whose policies are most antithetical to the longstanding moral and cultural traditions of western culture?

In the early years of Mr. Ellison's conversion, he expressed his new religious enthusiasm with an air of racial superiority and in terms that were explicitly anti-Semitic. He has just successfully run for office as a member in good standing of the Democratic party. Had a conservative Republican humbly repented of sentiments analogous to those of Mr. Ellison's early days as a Muslim, the chances of his being elected, especially in a liberal congressional district, would have been nil. Yet these things proved no handicap for Mr. Ellison. Why? Mr. Ellison is a member of both a racial and a religious minority. These qualities have the power to absolve many otherwise politically fatal offenses for liberals of a certain stripe.

To describe Islamic thought as illiberal is neither inaccurate nor insulting, especially if the Quran is used as the measure of such things. (Nor is it to confuse it with traditional western conservatism, which is, for the most part, a truer heir of the classical liberal tradition than is today's libertine Left.) Islam is and has always been illiberal precisely in the sense that the future for which it hopes is a replica of its former glories, real or imagined. How, then, do we account for the alliance between an unapologetically illiberal religious tradition and political parties that increasingly espouse hyper-liberal and assertively secular points of view?

Europe is the alchemical retort in which this political concoction is being brewed. It is there where a seemingly unlikely alliance is emerging between the secular Left, on one hand, and, on the other, a politically emboldened Islam which makes no secret of its determination to refashion European culture along Muslim lines. Who would have predicted such an alliance? It begs for explanation.

The principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend at least helps to explain such things. Hatred of George Bush, of American hegemony, of "capitalism" ("globalization"), of "the Christian right," and sundry other effigies ritually hoisted aloft by jihadists and Leftists alike has an enormously unifying and galvanizing effect. In Europe the unifying effect of this sort of shared antipathy is almost certainly a factor in the alliance.

The Norwegian journalist, Fjordman, an insightful commentator on European cultural developments, recently characterized the situation this way:
Leftists and Muslims have a mutual short-term interest in keeping the Leftist parties in power, and a mutual long-term interest in weakening the traditional culture of Europe. During this third Islamic Jihad, the third Islamic attempt to conquer and subdue the West, Leftists all over Europe seem to be opening the gates of Europe from within. "You want to conquer Europe? That's ok. Just vote for us and help us get rid of capitalism and eradicate the Christian heritage of Europe, and we'll let you in. In the meantime, you can enjoy some welfare goodies, and we will ban opposition to this undertaking as racism and hate speech."
Bat Ye’or, the well-known author of Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide and Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, offers this summary of the European Left:
The Left shares a visceral anti-Americanism and a totalitarian propensity with the general Arab population. ... But above all, the Left uses these immigrants to help destroy the traditional Judeo-Christian values of a vacillating, demographically impoverished Europe plagued by anti-Semitism.
None of this, let me emphasize, applies to Mr. Ellison. He has apparently conducted himself with political restraint and equanimity. As I said, the freshman Congressman's use of the Quran in his swearing-in ceremony is simply an occasion for reflecting on historical and cultural trends.

I know little of Mr. Ellison's political views except what can be inferred from his party affiliation. While the Republican party is hardly a repository of Christian truth, the Democratic party's commitment to abortion on demand (from conception to the moment of birth), to the creation and destruction of embryonic life for medical research, and to policies that will unquestionably lead to the functional destruction of institution of marriage, make it an odd political home for any serious traditionalist, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

That said, however, and giving Mr. Ellison the benefit of the doubt, let's just say that if he has managed to buck the Quran's demand that all political life be forcefully subordinated to Islamic law, and if he has belatedly bucked the vulgar anti-Semitism with which even "moderate" Islam is today rife, then he just might have the force of character to buck his party's vacuous moral relativism and anthropological naivete. Were he able to do this, then Mr. Ellison would become a very good public servant indeed. One hopes he does and wishes him well.

It is, admittedly, a long list of ifs, but there are also other reasons for hope. Reports suggest (if I'm not mistaken) that Congressman Ellison was raised a Catholic by a devout mother. Those of us who believe that the culture that protects the freedom of religion -- and that imposes no religious test for participation in its political life -- will soon cease to do these things if it fails to publicly acknowledge its debt to the religious tradition that fostered these protections in the first place -- those of us who believe this may be permitted to hope that what Walker Percy said about a successful hypothetical novelist might be true as well of a successful young Minnesota politician:
“Show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a young Communist at Columbia and I'll show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn, who slapped him clean out of his seat for disrespect to the Eucharist, than he owes to all of Marxist dialect.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Because of death ...

It is my privilege these days to be serving a full-time apprenticeship in the school of availability. The greater its seeming burdens, the more profoundly gratifying it is. It leaves precious little time, however, for the reading and reflection to which I am constitutionally drawn. Often enough the only time during the day when I am able to quiet my spirit and gather my thoughts is during morning Lauds and Mass at the monastery down the road. As a result, a number of my posts have been prompted by the daily liturgical readings.

For a while now I have thought about posting something about one of the most theologically influential verses in the New Testament, Romans 5:12, on which Augustine famously depended for his teaching on original sin. The first reading for this morning's Mass brought me back to it. The passage that caught my eye was this:
Since the children share in blood and Flesh,
Jesus likewise shared in them,
that through death he might destroy the one
who has the power of death, that is, the Devil,
and free those who through fear of death
had been subject to slavery all their life.
These verses express perfectly our predicament as fallen creatures and the pivotal importance of Paul's allusion to it in the fifth chapter of Romans. The Revised Standard translation of that verse is:
Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned.
It was not idle theological curiosity that gave rise to the doctrines of Christian faith. Rather these doctrines were forged in the furnace of often fierce theological controversies, and this is certainly true of Augustine's interpretation of Romans 5:12. The Bishop of Hippo waged a bitter struggle against Pelagius and the Pelagian teaching which, though it may have been more nuanced than later readers of Augustine are led to believe, nevertheless fostered a rather more optimistic assessment of the human predicament than Augustine and the Catholic tradition that followed him felt warranted. Citing Paul's "all men have sinned" as a result of the sin of Adam, Augustine insisted that all humans have inherited the guilt of Adam. (There is obviously much to be said on that, sin being necessarily a willful and conscious act, but that is for another day perhaps.)

The Eastern Church, and many of the Eastern Fathers, found in Romans 5:12 another meaning, one not necessarily incompatible with the now standard Augustinian reading, but one that nevertheless gives a significantly different emphasis. Weblogs are not the ideal place for exegetical complexities, nor am I an exegete. Here, however, are the outlines of the matter as I understand them. (I draw on the work of the Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff.)

Meyendorff argues that the Western Church's Latin translation of the Greek for "because all men have sinned" -- in quo omnes peccaverunt -- is subject to question. The original Greek is eph ho panes hemarton. "The form eph ho -- a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho -- can be translated as 'because,'" writes Meyendorff, who then points out that the pronoun can as well be masculine as neuter, and that, if a masculine pronoun, it would refer back, not to sin, but to death. Meyendroff:
The sentence then may have a meaning which seems improbable to a reader trained in Augustine, but which is indeed the meaning most Greek Fathers accepted: "As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned."
Meyendorff proceeds to quote a number of the Easter Church Fathers in defense of this translation, an example being this from Theodoret of Cyrus: "mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred."

But I think we can do better than that. It seems that the upshot of the Eastern Church's reading, if Meyendorff is accurate here, is that sinfulness is the consequence of death, or perhaps better, the fear of death that suffuses life with a suppressible dread from which mortal creatures flee, and, in doing so, flee from God, from themselves, and from one another -- Christ having died to "free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life" (Hebrews 2:15).

What is sin if not the expression of the creature's deep-seated self-regard and attempt to manipulate circumstances and others for selfish self-preservation and self-aggrandizement? As such, sin is life lived under the fear of self-annihilation, as the author of Hebrews suggests. If this is so, nothing short of the Resurrection could free humanity from the grip of sin and death. Neither the eat, drink and be merry ruse of the shallow worldlings, nor the morbid stoicism of the "realist," nor the death-romanticism of the nihilist finally avails.

Rather than throw in completely with what Meyendorff argues is the Eastern Church's position, I would rather want to find common ground, and it is not far to seek. Sin darkens the mind and shrinks the soul; it contracts the horizon, imprisoning the spirit. Sebastian Moore once said that death as the ultimate horizon lets sin make as much sense as sin can make. But then sin has the effect of making death the ultimate horizon. It blinds the sinner to the very eschatological horizon that would, Moore implies, render sin senseless were it to be visible.

So "the power of sin" and "the power of death" form a kind of moebius strip from the mesmerizing tangle of which we humans are incapable of extricating ourselves.

It has long been said, and it is being said more frequently lately, that the Church flies on two wings, constituted by the Eastern and Western traditions. It seems to me that this is exemplified by the two distinct approaches to that crucial passage in Romans, if only we can allow these traditions to mutually enhance one another.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Belated thoughts on the Epiphany

In the Lord's Prayer we pray that "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In the highest heaven, the will of God is simply God. But God is not simply God; rather God is Triune God. In heaven, the will of God is pure unobstructed mutual self-donation. This kenotic selflessness is foreign here on earth, where we fallen and sinful and mortal and willful creatures live. We are deformed by sin and self-regard, by fear. The will of God was done on earth once however; and it was done the only way it could have been: by God, by the Incarnation, by a human manifestation of Trinitiarian self-gift. Christ, "though he was in the form of God," lived in humble submission to His Father's will; but He did that preicsely because that's how the Trinitarian God lives; that's how we who are made in God's image are meant to live; that's what will actually make us happy, however cruciform our happiness might necessarily be.

In Christ the form of God took on human form, and Christians are instructed to con-form to this Christological form. The Epiphany is to continue with Christians themselves, with all our faults and failings, manifesting as best we can some clumsy Christological hint of the mystery of a God-centered life, the Life that is Trinitarian in heaven and Christological here on earth.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Superficial Eventfulness

Apropos the earlier post, Custody of the Eyes: Romano Guardini:
For the greatest things are accomplished in silence -- not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice. Spiritual conception happens when the heart is quickened by love, and the free will stirs to action. The silent forces are the strong forces. [The Lord, ch. 3].
The "clamor and display of superficial eventfulness" -- what a marvelous phrase! Isn't that the contemporary addiction? Isn't that the curiositas St. Bernard regarded as the first sin?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Mystery of Redemption

The Christian faith in the resurrection of the body is neither a naive belief in bodily resuscitation nor a synonym for immortality in the Platonic sense. The mystery remains unfathomable, of course, but what minimally can be said is that the "body" that is resurrected has a earthly history and that this history has decisive consequences. This "body" is the locus of mortal man's "personhood," which is, in turn, the locus of his or her relationships, moral actions, and life experience. It is not left behind when the biological body dies. It lives on in the only way that corporeal things can: corporally, incorporated with an Other and others.

As the First Letter of John puts it:
God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
Whoever possesses the Son has life;
whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life.
A few verses earlier John asks:
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Inasmuch as the Gospel of Christ inverts and conflates the victors and the vanquished, we here touch on the great mystery, a mystery on which Hans Urs von Balthasar reflects, doing what great theologians get paid to do:
The recipient of grace must belong, in some particular way, to the ranks of the "victors" as described in the Book of Revelation if he is to share in the wondrous things God wishes to give him.
The victors in the Book of Revelation are those who have undergone "the great ordeal" -- victims now recognized as victors, but not just literally persecuted victims, but those as well whose lives "in some way have resembled that of Christ." One thinks of the old adage: If it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? "There must be a certain wholesome shipwreck of the soul for Christ's sake," wrote the Church Father Origen, "as a prelude to a blessed rescue."

As von Balthasar suggests above, death and the stripping away that precedes it extends the opportunity to undergo the "wholesome shipwreck" to everyone.
All these unmerited goods would remain external, alien and strange to the recipient if he could not discern some link -- however surprising -- with an earthly destiny that he had affirmed or at least endured; his earthly destiny must in some way have resembled that of Christ, whether he was aware of it or not, even if only in the stripping that precedes death. [Theo-Drama, Vol. V, 379-80]
Death is both the dreaded effect of our fallen condition and the opportunity of last resort to participate in the Christological drama which frees us from our fallenness -- our participation in that drama extended by a merciful God to each and every human being by virtue of his mortality. It is, as von Balthasar says, "a case of transforming the mortal world, precisely through the radicality of death, into a world that will not pass away."

Friday, January 05, 2007

Signs of the Times - Part I

This from Spain:
Spain's bishops are alarmed by ambitious plans to recreate the city of Cordoba - once the heart of the ancient Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus - as a pilgrimage site for Muslims throughout Europe.

Plans include the construction of a half-size replica of Cordoba's eighth century great mosque, according to the head of Cordoba's Muslim Association. Funds for the project are being sought from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and Muslim organisations in Morocco and Egypt.Other big mosques are reportedly planned for Medina Azahara near Cordoba, Seville and Granada.

The bishops of those cities are alarmed at the construction of ostentatious mosques, fearing that the church's waning influence may be further eclipsed by resurgent Islam financed from abroad. Up to one million Muslims are estimated to live in Spain. Many are drawn by a romantic nostalgia for the lost paradise of Al-Andalus, the caliphate that ruled Spain for more than five centuries. ...

Spain's Muslims have been long respectful towards civil and ecclesiastical authorities, but as numbers have grown they have turned to more radical leaders. An alliance of Spanish converts, pro-Moroccan and pro-Saudi leaders took control of one of Spain's two main Islamic federations last year. Half of the new leaders are imams from Saudi-funded mosques in Madrid and Fuengirola. ...

Hundreds of mosques have popped up all over Spain. But churches, and many residents, complain that big, shiny mosques are more than just centres for culture and worship, and say they are funded by undemocratic countries promoting Islamic radicalism.
The whole story is here.

The evidence mounts daily. The Enlightenment dream of the passing away of religion is long dead, and the secular multiculturalist dream into which the Enlightenment illusion conveniently morphed in the face of evidence to the contrary is dying and, in the process, exposing the shame of those who opted for it so cravenly.

If the Christian foundations of Europe are not restored and Europeans, especially young Europeans, made aware of the personal, cultural, and moral value Christian faith, the great-grandchildren of today's breezy secularists (few in number though they will be) will almost certainly be raised in a world more Taliban than tolerant.

Perhaps the secularists who are condemning their own descendants to such a fate can take a little solace in the fact that their descendants will have little access to the real history of the world they inhabit and precious little appreciation for what might have been had their predecessors been less drunk on an empty ideology.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"Teach all nations ..."

One of the New Testament passage that stands out prominently in the recent writings, addresses, and homilies of Benedict XVI, as it did in John Paul II's pontificate, it is 1 Peter 3:15-16:
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.
Pope Benedict recently referred to this passage in speaking with the German Bishops about their dialogue with Muslims. Our Islamic brothers and sisters, Benedict asserted, "have the right to receive our humble and firm testimony on behalf of Jesus Christ," testimony that we must have the courage to deliver "with persuasive force."

The more one learns about the violence and ferocity of Muhammad and about the unalterable Qur'anic legacy he left for his later followers, the more one realizes that the greatest act of real charity a Christian can perform for his Muslim brothers and sisters is to try – with charity and all due respect – to convert them to Christianity; that is to say: to speak the truth to them. It is passing strange that so many Christians have come to believe that it is more charitable to reassure Muslims (condescendingly) that theirs is a religion of peace, one that is presumably in no need of what Christian faith has to offer above and beyond its fawning admiration and uncritical acceptance. At least our Muslim brothers and sisters do us the favor of trying to convert us, albeit too often menacingly, with violence or the threat of violence.

I’ve had major city taxi drivers urge their Islamic beliefs on me with a fervor that would cost Christians their lives in Saudi Arabia and other places in the world. In these tyrannical societies, therefore, one can hardly fault Christians for using discretion with regard to Jesus’ command to “go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Christians in Islamic societies imperil their own lives when they try to follow this central tenet of their faith, and they endanger the lives of any Muslims they might succeed in converting. The comparable failure of Christians in the West is less respectable. Our efforts at inclusion are virtuous only up to the point where they violate our responsibility as Christians.

Writing about the controversy following Pope Benedict’s Regensburg University lecture, a writer for the Asia Times, quoted in the November 2006 edition of Touchstone Magazine [p. 59] argues that jihad “is the fundamental sacrament of Islam, the Muslim cognate of the Lord’s Supper in Christianity, that is, the unique form of sacrifice by which the individual believer communes with the Transcendent. To denounce jihad on theological grounds is a blow at the foundations of Islam, in effect a papal call for the conversion of the Muslims.”

That is a truly charitable position for a Christian to take, and most serious Christians know so in their heart of hearts. But it is not an easy position to take, shorn as it is of the feel-good acceptance of the conspicuously unacceptable, which amounts to declaring the innocuous superfluousness of Christianity.

Sadly, most Christians lack the faith required to re-evangelize themselves, their children, and their perfectly harmless fellow backsliding Christians. How can they be expected to evangelize others until the cooling embers of Christian faith are stirred again to flame?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Something is taking place ..."

My New Year's posting mentioned Joseph Ratzinger's early book on St. Bonaventure's theology of history, which was written at about the time that René Girard was working out the mimetic anthropology that would eventually throw so much light on the historical meaning of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Apropos of the link between the work of these two important scholars is this from the future pope:
Certainly Scripture is closed objectively. But its meaning is advancing in a steady growth through history; and this growth is not yet closed. As the physical world contains seeds, so also Scripture contains "seeds"; that is, seeds of meaning. And this meaning develops in a constant process of grown in time. Consequently, we are able to interpret many things which the Fathers could not have known because for them these things still lay in the dark future while for us they are accessible as past history. Still other things remain dark for us. And so, new knowledge arises constantly from Scripture. Something is taking place; and this happening, this history, continues onward as long as there is history at all. ... In this way, the exegesis of Scripture becomes a theology of history; the clarification of the past leads to prophecy concerning the future. [The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, p. 9]
In Girard's case, the exegesis of Scripture, performed in light of anthropological data "which the Fathers could not have known," became a theory of culture which coaxed out of the Scriptural canon a new understanding of the unparalleled meaning and significance of the Gospel.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Having it both ways . . .

The first reading at last Friday's morning's Mass, commemorating the heroic martyrdom of Thomas Becket, was from the First Letter of John, and it included this: "Whoever says, 'I know him,' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." It is, of course, a judgment that probably falls on us all, as it most certainly falls on me. But the more conspicuous is the discrepancy between one's assertion of fidelity and one's adherence to the moral responsibilities that properly accompany it, and the more prominently on display is this discrepancy, the more others are scandalized by it.

Apropos the earlier 20-20 Hindsight post, here are a few of the critical votes cast by the most prominent Catholic in Washington today:
* Voted YES on allowing human embryonic stem cell research.

* Voted NO on restricting interstate transport of minors to get abortions.

* Voted NO on making it a crime to harm a fetus during another crime.

* Voted NO on banning partial-birth abortion except to save mother’s life.

* Voted NO on forbidding human cloning for reproduction & medical research.

* Voted NO on funding for health providers who don't provide abortion info.

* Voted NO on federal crime to harm fetus while committing other crimes.

* Voted NO on banning partial-birth abortions.

* Voted NO on barring transporting minors to get an abortion.

* Rated 100% by NARAL, indicating a perfect pro-abortion voting record.
There are dozens of Catholic politicians in Congress with voting records almost as shamelessly at odds with the central pillar of the Church's moral teaching as is Congresswoman Pelosi's. Most have bishops practiced in the dubious art of looking the other way at the appropriate moment.

Of all the many principles that constitute the Church's social and moral teachings, the sanctity of life and the mandate to protect the most innocent and most vulnerable from being killed in their mother's wombs is paramount. The Church's position on war, political injustice, discrimination, immigration, economic inequality, and so on, are all matters of prudential judgment with which the Church as a moral teacher is quite legitimately concerned, but for which she does not take a stand that is in any way comparable to her stand on the sanctity of life. These other matters are the proper concern of competent authorities in the secular realm. To try to justify the flagrant repudiation of the Church's preeminent moral imperative by pointing to a vote or two on tax policy or immigration or minimum wage is itself symptomatic of the moral incoherence which takes its most shocking form in the campaign to turn the killing of innocents into a victory for someone else's "rights."

"It is only if human life is respected from conception to death that the ethics of peace is also possible and credible," writes Benedict XVI; "it is only then that non-violence can express itself in every direction; only then that we truly welcome creation, and only then that we can arrive at true justice."

The faithful in the pews have been scandalized long enough by politicians who flout the sanctity of life in the most egregious way while enjoying the congeniality extended to them by members of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy and the honors bestowed on them by Catholic colleges and universities.

Here's something apropros from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:
Without the Catholic Church, there would be no pro-life movement in America, and without the pro-life movement in America, there would be no pro-life movement in the world. This must never be forgotten. Today evangelicals and Catholics together, along with many others, are leading a pro-life cause that is attracting a new generation of young people who find it hard to believe that so many of their parents were so supine in going along with what John Paul II taught the world to recognize as "the culture of death." [First Things, January 2007]
History will almost certainly judge our tolerance of the intolerable (and the moral sleight of hand that justified it) harshly, but history is not the judge that ought most to concern those of us who claim allegiance to the One who was first recognized by the child in Elizabeth's womb.