Saturday, June 30, 2007

Philip Rieff Again:

Don't fret if this seems convoluted and abstruse. You can trust your visceral sense of it. In an effort to help, however, I've rearranged the sequence of the texts somewhat in order to make Rieff's point clearer than his posthumous editors have.
The liberal defense of these transgressions must inevitably bring liberalism itself crashing down, for in that defense, the liberals are defending the destruction of avoidance mechanisms which are necessary to the practice of liberalism itself. ...

The critical nineteenth- and early twentieth-century [anthropological] interest in taboo as a pejorative term for the interdictory structure of taboo in social organization has now resulted in a transgressive attack on all the interdicts, precisely among the educated classes. ...

... the true savagery comes after the success of the liberal and critical attack on the supposed irrationality of the laws of uncleanness and on the assumption that all prohibitions are somehow primitive and unjustifiable.

... It is the thrust against the interdicts that is giving the savage god his true opportunity.
From: Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us, p. 12-13.

I may not have a chance to post again before leaving Monday for the Colloquium on Violence and Religion conference in Amsterdam. If the opportunity arises for me to post from the conference, I will. Otherwise, I'll check in from Chicago after the conference. I'll be there meeting with a number of those helping us arrange for the Emmaus Road Initiative venue in Wheaton.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

From Faith to Politics to Gnosticism

"When mystery no longer counts," then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in a 1996 speech, "politics must be converted into religion."

When the Christian mysteries are lost -- the loss measured most accurately by the decay into ritual triviality of the Eucharistic mystery -- then politics becomes religion. Politics is no longer satisfied to be just politics, and it aspires to be everything, that is, totalitarian: Bolshevism, German National Socialism, Maoism, Islamism, and assorted fanatical and murderous ideologies.

When these fail -- the year 1989 is a convenient marker for the failure of most (but not all) of them -- many of those who cling to the underlying delusions on which they were premised turned to "nature." Like political absolutism, however, the "New Age" mentality that glorifies "nature" morphed in a heartbeat into an ideology that declared that the very idea of nature was too confining. Nature was to become whatever the autonomous individual decides it is.

The flight from Christianity -- and from Judeo-Christian morality -- inevitably progresses (regresses) toward moral and cultural incoherence, leaving the culture vulnerable to whatever predatory forces -- within or without -- retain (however perversely and ominously) a conviction that they are right and that the future belongs to them.

Recycling Rhetoric this time ...

Earlier I complimented Anthony Esolen for a piece of fine rhetoric, and more recently, apologizing for having so little time to monitor the blog, I recycled a piece by Russell Moore. This morning I do both: Here's a superb piece of rhetoric from the ever-lively Diogenes from Off the Record:

"A theologian is as likely as a waitress to be an apostate.
A stable hand is as likely as a bishop to die a martyr."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Recycling Blog Posts ...

How this piece ended up in my in box I don't know. It apparently first appeared in April. But given how busy I am now with other matters, and given how striking this piece by Russell D. Moore (one of the editors at Touchstone Magazine) is, I thought I would pass it along.

I would like to avoid cultural wars matters as much as possible, but -- as I have said many times from the podium -- to defend every Christian principle except the one currently under attack is to forsake one's duty to defend the faith.

I read today that the leading cause of death in Europe is abortion.

Here is where Moore's piece can be found.

My best.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Newsletter: Emmaus Road Initiative

Yesterday we sent out our periodic newsletter, this issue devoted exclusively to the Emmaus Road Initiative programs that we will begin in September.

If you didn't receive an email copy of the newsletter, there is a version of it on our website here and a printable PDF version here.

If you live in one of the eight cities where we will be holding monthly E.R.I. events, I hope you will want to join us. If you live elsewhere, you will notice that we will be helping to facilitate "virtual venues" wherever two or three (or more) are gathered. Just contact us.

The right words in the right order

The rhetorical arts can be hijacked for propagandistic purposes, but, properly deployed, rhetoric is the art of making truth memorable. An example is the recent post by Anthony Esolen on the Mere Comments blog of Touchstone Magazine. Lamenting the shriveling of the notion of reason into a narrow rationalism contemptuous of anything that cannot be easily measured or easily manipulated, Esolen writes: "This 'reason' can thus tell you how to build a Gothic cathedral, but cannot even begin to tell you why you would want to."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Emmaus Road Initiative

We will soon be sending out an email newsletter about the monthly Emmaus Road Initiative programs that are to begin this fall in eight cities. If you are not already on our email list (or if you aren't sure), type your email address at the top of the side bar to the right. If you are already on our list, you will be notified. If not, your address will be added to our list. You can easily remove yourself from the list at any time.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ayann Hirsi Ali

In my post about the Pepperdine conference on the European crisis, I neglected to mention that a surprising number of those who addressed the conference spoke glowingly of the moral leadership that Benedict XVI has exerted. As far as I could tell, none of those who heaped praise on Benedict were Catholics. They were Protestants, Jews, or, like the courageous Anyann Hirsi Ali, atheists.

In a speech to the National Press Club a couple of days ago, Ayann Hirsi Ali had this to say -- alluding to the famous quotation Benedict cited in his University of Regensberg speech:
The 21st century began with a battle of ideas, and this battle is about the values of the West versus those of Islam. Tony Blair and the Pope should not be embarrassed in saying it, and you should stop self-censoring. Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible; cultures and religions are not equal. And perhaps most important of all, Muslims are not half-wits who can respond only in violence. The Koran is not a great book; it is reactionary and full of misogyny. The Byzantine emperor's analysis of Muhammad was correct: he spread his faith by the sword.
Many of those with the responsibility for telling us the truth about this important matter spend most of their time hiding the truth from us.

John Paul II

On Tuesday, I had a meeting at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC. It was my first visit to the Center, which is in the throes of reorganization. Be that as it may, I had a most enjoyable meeting with the deputy director of the Center.

The next day, yesterday, in between two other meetings near the Catholic University campus, I took the opportunity to recollect myself in the Crypt chapel of the National Shrine, a place I love to visit. On leaving, I noticed a Pope John Paul II Cultural Center kiosk, so I wandered over. On the kiosk was this quotation from John Paul:
"... Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, is the center of human history and the key which unlocks the mystery of man and reveals his sublime calling."
Striking as this statement is, it is little more than a paraphrase of what I think is the heart and soul of the Second Vatican Council, namely paragraph #22 of Gaudium et Spes:
“Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light ... by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, [Christ] fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
The challenge is to account for this claim. As I recently wrote in a proposed paper for a conference at Notre Dame:
At the moment this extraordinary and often quoted passage was being promulgated, René Girard was laying the groundwork for its anthropological defense. Grateful though we must be for the philosophical inheritance on which Christian theologians and philosophers have so fruitfully drawn, if this spectacularly Christocentric declaration is to be made intelligible to post-Christian post-modernity, on the one hand, and to Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and so on, on the other, it will require the kind of intellectually robust and anthropologically multicultural exposition that René Girard has provided.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Kind words about Liz

Upon my return from California I found in the mail the most recent bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. In addition to announcing the upcoming conference in Amsterdam, it included a touching remembrance of Liz by Martha and René Girard:

Double click the image to enlarge it

Liz had a very special relationship with Martha and René, and I am grateful to them and to the editors of the COV&R bulletin for remembering her in this way.

Failed States and Religious Freedom

The journal Foreign Policy has a report on the increasing problem of failed states, a problem that is the most conspicuous symptom of the worldwide crisis of culture in the midst of which we are now living. The report includes this comment and this very instructive graphic:
Freedom of worship may be a cornerstone of democracy, but it may also be a key indicator of stability. Vulnerable states display a greater degree of religious intolerance, according to scores calculated by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Persecution of religious minorities in Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, and Uzbekistan has deprived millions of faithful of the freedom to follow their beliefs. But religious repression is often nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to muzzle the country’s civil society.
Double-click the image to see it enlarged. It says a great deal about our current situation.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Christian Uniqueness

Here is something then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in the mid-1980s, when there was widespread interest in the religious techniques and traditions of the East.
I believe that as far as religion is concerned, the present age will have to decide ultimately between the Asiatic religious worldview and the Christian faith. I have no doubt that both sides have a great deal to learn from each other. The issue may be which of the two can rescue more of the other’s authentic content. But in spite of this possibility of mutual exchange, no one will dispute the fact that the two ways are different. In a nutshell one could say that the goal of Asiatic contemplation is the escape from personality, whereas biblical prayer is essentially a relation between persons and hence ultimately the affirmation of the person.
This is a truly significant insight, and the key sentence is: "The issues may be which of the two can rescue more of the other's authentic content." That sentence is the key to understanding Christian uniqueness.

The lot marked out for me ...

I just returned from California after having to postpone my return twice in order to take care of a number of things on which Randy Coleman-Riese and I are working. I visited our San Diego hosts and returned feeling extremely good about our plans there. It looks as though we will have two venues each month in San Diego.

Because of the delayed return, I was scheduled to leave tomorrow morning (Monday) for Washington, DC, where I have several meetings this week, but I just couldn't handle only 12 hours at home. So I postponed my trip to Washington until Tuesday. There are several more trips this summer and more than I can count once the Emmaus Road Initiative series starts in September. Each month I will be going to Washington, DC; Hartford, CT; Seattle, WA; Santa Rosa, CA; San Diego, CA; Chicago/Wheaton, IL; Houston, TX; and Dallas, TX.

Driving back from the airport today, exhausted but gratified by what had happened on the trip west, a line from Psalm 16 -- the Psalm in Night Prayer for Thursdays -- was running through my head: "The lot marked out for me is my delight."

I'm grateful for the privilege of being able to do what I do and for the great good fortune of having such truly amazing friends with whom to be doing it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sacrificial Authority . . .

Perhaps ...

Perhaps it is the case that there are ultimately only two sources of authority:

1. One is rooted in how much pain and violence one is willing and able to inflict. It is the shimmering god-awful "authority" of the sacred executioner, the mafia don, the gang leader, the terrorist, the Führer.

2. The other is the authority that corresponds to the degree of pain and violence one is willing to endure for the sake of another, for God and God's children.

Because those who endure pain and hardship and violence have Christ as a co-sufferer, their authority will always outshine and ultimately outlast the authority that accrues to those who lord it over those in thrall to them.
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: "For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:35-39
The victory over evil has already been accomplished, ours is just the privilege of living in light of the victory.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

From Sonoma

I am in Sonoma now working, as I said in the earlier post, on the Emmaus Road Initiative program for the fall. While here, of course, I am visiting with family and old friends, having lived in Sonoma for 35 years before moving East to be near St. Joseph's Abbey.

Last night I had dinner with some of my oldest and dearest friends, among them George Wesolek, who wears many hats, among them the director of public policy for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Apropos an earlier post in which I exhibited more frustration than irenic charity about the Church's approach to the most vociferous proponents of abortion and even partial-birth abortion, George shared with me an open letter to Speaker Pelosi in response to her reaction to the Supreme Court's upholding of the ban on partial birth abortion.

I want to share it with you:
I am writing this letter to ask you to reconsider your position on partial birth abortion.

What brought me to this was reading your quote in Sunday’s Chronicle about the Supreme Court’s decision on Partial Birth Abortion. You said, “This isn’t really an abortion issue.” You went on to say that this is “about a procedure that any parent would want her daughter to have access to if she needed it.”(Chronicle, April 22)

Frankly, I am horrified by that statement and the callousness that it represents. I do not know any parents that would want their grandchild to be killed in such a brutal manner. We are, after all, talking about a viable, almost full term human being, a child of God. I quote the same Chronicle article for a description of the process. “Rather than the more common practice of dismembering the fetus in the womb, the doctor partly removes the intact fetus from the uterus before aborting it, usually by puncturing its skull.”

Even these somewhat antiseptic words cannot hide the reality of what is happening. First of all, I do not know anyone who calls their unborn child or grandchild a “fetus.” It is a baby. This is just common sense. Other terminology: disarticulating a fetus (ripping the baby’s limbs off so it can more easily be suctioned out), separating the calvarium (sever the head with scissors) is meant to hide what every fourth grade elementary student knows about human biology – that this is a unique, wholly contained human being with its own genetic code and DNA, never to be replicated. Where this reality becomes very clear is in the case of late-term infants. That is why so many Americans, even those who call themselves pro-choice, are against this particular procedure.

So how can you attempt to further obfuscate the issue by saying that it isn’t about abortion but, rather, it is about the Supreme Court meddling in medical decisions because an exception was not made for the health of the mother? I quote Kathleen Parker from the Washington Post (April 23) commenting on the ruling: “The main argument from the pro-choice side, and the constitutional issue at stake, has been that the partial-birth abortion is sometimes needed to protect the health of the mother. But in no single court case were doctors able to demonstrate that it was ever a medical necessity.” (my italics) Unfortunately, this gruesome procedure is chosen for a myriad of other reasons, from the baby being an inconvenience to the indication of abnormalities. In any case, medical testimony given throughout the history of the case said that other safe methods are available.

I believe that you are out of the mainstream by supporting this particular form of abortion. By doing this you make people of good will, especially people of faith who believe in the sanctity of all life, skeptical. All of the good work that you do on the many things that are also part of our obligation to uphold life…your advocacy for the poor, the immigrant, the health and safety of born children, your work for peace, become mere footnotes to the most foundational issue of all that you continue to avoid or to speak abstractly about as if it were a mere medical procedure.

As the leader of your party, you have responsibilities far beyond this not let it define you as out of step with a civilized society.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Pepperdine Conference

The conference at Pepperdine was remarkable, but I have very little time to remark on it at the moment. I am now in Sonoma working with Randy and other members of our board of directors on the monthly series of Emmaus Road Initiative programs which will begin in the fall.

Let me say just a word about the Pepperdine conference, however. The title of the conference was "The Collapse of Europe," and the chief concerns were: what appears to be the inability of the European political classes to recognize how imperiled their societies are by internal loss of conviction -- what several of the presenters called Europe's "civilizational exhaustion" -- and the rise of militant Islam and its genius for exploiting the equivocation with which it is being confronted.

Mark Steyn gave the opening talk, and it was a characteristically scintillating one -- immensely well-informed, witty, and sobering. Steyn is one of the most knowledgeable commentators we have, and hands-down the best writer among today's journalists. In personal conversation one feels that there is considerable moral substance beneath the sometimes hilarious and often satirical writing style.

Ayann Hirsi Ali, the courageous woman about whom you may have read, immigrated to The Netherlands from her native Somalia and within a few years was elected to the Dutch parliament. She rejected the Islam in which she was raised and spoke openly of its cruelty and violence. The fatwas were not long in being issued. She was eloquent and charming, a woman of great moral authenticity.

My friend Greg Davis spoke eloquently as well. Greg is the author of Religion of Peace? and the co-producer, along with Bryan Daly, of the remarkable film, Islam: What the West Needs to Know. He understands how central to the European dilemma is the continent's renunciation of its Christian religious heritage.

Daniel Pipes is a public intellectual and journalist, the Director of the Middle East Forum. His presentation that left an impression precisely because it was delivered with such a sense of seriousness. Pipes has been tracking on the dangers to the rest of the world associated with the rise of radical Islam, and what impressed me was that he spoke of the gravity of situation with a degree of gravitas that seemed to be demanded by it. When the issues involved are as alarming as are those related to the rise of Islamic jihad, it is often difficult to gauge the maturity and reliability of those who sound the alarm. I was reassured to realize that Pipes is as levelheaded and as thoughtful as he is well-informed.

Since I will be traveling to Amsterdam for the annual conference of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion on the first of July, I was particularly attentive to what Ayann Hirsi Ali and the Dutch filmmaker Leon de Winter had to say about the situation in The Netherlands.

One of the speakers was Hugh Hewitt, whom I know slightly since he did an NPR interview with René Girard and me in Los Angeles several years ago. In his presentation, he mentioned what he perceived to be in the offing, not explicitly perhaps, but tacitly: namely an offer on the part of radical Islam containing more or less the following terms: Abandon Israel to Hamas and Hezbolla and the threat to Europe will subside. The West may not accept this tacit offer in any overt way, of course, for that would make the moral horror of it all too clear. But the logic on which this bargain is based is a staple of the European political imagination. It may well be possible to make that logic politically operative without it having to rise to the level of moral thought. If out of fear and timidity and the spirit of appeasement the Europeans make that trade-off they will have repeated in the 21st century the 20th century crime which lies at the root of their cultural self-loathing.

As you can imagine, there is a great deal more on this subject, but, as I said, attention is now turned to the Emmaus Road Initiative programs for the fall.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Power of Witness

On Friday the First Things blog posted a homily that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus delivered at the annual Memorial Mass of the Military Vicariate at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on the Feast of the Ascension, 2007. I was struck by Fr. Neuhaus' marvelous summation of Christian realism. The following particularly rang true:
The principalities and powers still strut across the stage of history, trailing behind them the bloody carnage of their vain ambitions. So it has been through the centuries, and so it will be until Our Lord returns in glory. ...

We describe wars as just and wars as unjust, and it is necessary that we make such distinctions for clarity of mind and security of conscience. But, short of the coming Kingdom, all is provisional and approximate; all is riddled through with ambiguity, contradiction, and tragedy. That is how things are, and that is how things will be along the way of history’s long journey toward the perfect justice of Christ’s undisputed sovereignty.
Fr. Neuhaus concluded by reminding the assembled chaplains that "our only power ... is the power of witness. We should want no other. We need no other."


Saturday, June 09, 2007

From Southern California

I am unexpectedly in southern California in advance of a conference at Pepperdine University on the crisis in Europe and the rise of radical Islam. While these two themes are not of direct concern to the Cornerstone Forum, they are the two deeply interrelated world-historical events of our time. Our work in the years to come will have as its larger historical context these two profound and profoundly troubling historical developments. So I felt the opportunity to attend this conference was not one I should pass up.

In preparing for the conference, I have been thinking about the situation. Since I might have a few more thoughts in the aftermath of the conference, I thought I would take a moment tonight to share a preliminary one:

History repeats itself, but never exactly. There are parallels, however, that are glaring. The ominous and unambiguous signals accompanying the rise of German National Socialism in the 1930s failed to awaken the world to the scope of the catastrophe it signaled. As Hitler solidified his power, the horror that the Nazi commandeering of state power portended became so glaring that it took an act of will to ignore it. But ignore it many did.

Today there are thousands of hate-mongering Hitlers in the Islamic world (and in the West) spewing antisemitic venom and calling for indiscriminate murder of Jews (and others of course, but always and everywhere Jews first and foremost) with a fanaticism that would make a Nazi blush. But precisely because there are a thousand of these lunatics rather than just one, the the looming danger is diffused and more easily dismissed by those who are determined to do so.

If there are thousands of hate-mongering Imams trying to out-Hitler Hilter in the Islamic world, in the West there are thousands of Neville Chamberlain's resolved to look the other way and ready to grasp at straws.

What to do about this crisis? I cannot claim to know. But I do know that pretending that it is the resentment of the poor and oppressed, or that it is a response to American foreign policy, or an expression of the hatred of George Bush in the Arab world is sheer nonsense. (Today, an Al-Qaeda operation in Kashmir circulated a message calling for a jihad against India, for instance.)

These days I am preoccupied with a wide range of efforts we are making to insure that the Emmaus Road Initiative beginning in the fall will bear fruit. I do not intend to let what I learn at this conference distract me from that primary objective. But I do expect to learn things that will serve to underscore the urgency of the re-evangelization efforts we are trying to make.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Winding things up in San Diego

"Hell is other people." -- Jean-Paul Sartre

"Heaven is other people." -- Benedict XVI

I'm in San Diego meeting with our local collaborators here about a San Diego venue for the Emmaus Road Initiative beginning in September. Our meetings have been very, very encouraging.
I will be on the road for the next week. Postings to the blog will slow, as they have of late due to numerous other demands.

In the meantime, I thought you might be interested in the slight difference of opinion between Sartre and Benedict.

My best,


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Alas ....

My computer is AGAIN malfunctioning. I leave tomorrow for meetings on the west coast. I had wanted to post something before I left, but all I can do (using Liz's old laptop) is to ask your forbearance.

We are very fortunate to have some wonderful friends in San Diego who are gathering at the University of San Diego this Thursday to discuss the possibility of an Emmaus Road Initiative in San Diego. I join my old friends for the Girard seminar at Stanford on Friday, attend a conference at Pepperdine on Sunday, and return to Northern California on Monday to work with Randy and visit my children and grandchildren.

If my computer holds up, I'll post something along the way.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Outside the Box

The British historian Paul Johnson is one of those priceless intellectuals whose erudition is such, and whose depth of understanding is such, that he helps liberate the rest of us from mental habits of which we are otherwise hardly aware -- habits which subtly confine our thinking and cloud our judgment about the human predicament, past and future.

In a recent piece in the London Spectator (reprinted by Catholic Education Resources Center), Johnson said this:
One of the great errors of political taxonomy is to classify Hitler as right-wing. He, and still more his closest colleague, Goebbels, were socialists, and the fact they were nationalists first did not orient them more to the right. There are six indispensable hallmarks of a conservative. First, firm belief in one, beneficent and omnipotent God. Second, absolute morality as the basis of public law. Third, strict limits on the size of the state. Fourth, respect for a multiplicity of traditional power centres. Fifth, restraint and self-restraint in all things. Sixth, search for the right balance between the individual and the traditional units of society. Hitler broke all these rules: he was an atheistic pagan, a moral relativist, a totalitarian, an ultra-centralist, an uninhibited exhibitionist and a collectivist. In many ways Stalin was to the right of him. There is a seventh point. A conservative is not afraid of force, or of using it thoroughly. But always as a last resort. With Hitler it was the first.

This brings me to another puzzle of ideological classification. The phrase is often used by thoughtless people, TV interviewers, tabloid columnists, etc. ‘He is even to the right of Genghis Khan.’ The implication is that Genghis Khan is on the extreme right of the political spectrum. What is the origin of this belief? And when did the phrase come into use? I believe it is hardly more than half a century old. Hitler, again, is to blame. He is seen, falsely, as the epitome of ‘the Right’. He is also seen, more accurately, as a mass killer on an unprecedented scale. Before the 20th century, the classical perpetrator of terrorist massacre, pillage and the destruction of cities was Genghis Khan. He was not, however, seen as a political figure of either left or right — just as a savage barbarian. Hitler, however, was linked with him as a mass killer, and therefore Genghis took on Hitler’s political colouration. In fact, Stalin killed more people than Hitler, and Mao twice as many again, 70 million at the latest count. So logically, Genghis should have taken on this political colouration, and the phrase should run, ‘He’s even to the left of Genghis Khan.’
We are today facing a new resurgence of barbarism potentially as lethal and catastrophic as that over which Hitler, Stalin and Mao presided. By conveniently locating those past horrors on a political grid with which we feel comfortable, we dull our wits and betray our responsibilities. Thank goodness we have people like Johnson, people who know the depths to which we can sink if and when we shirk our responsibilities.