Saturday, September 30, 2006

Romano Guardini

This from the great German theologian, Romano Guardini:

What the New Testament calls “faith” does not take on a religious attitude that might apply to various contents – something like an abstract category, like knowledge capable of apprehending a multitude of disparate objects while still remaining “knowledge.” Faith, in the Christian sense, has a unique and exclusive character. It is not an all-embracing notion which might be adapted to numerous modalities: Christian faith, Moslem faith, paganism of the ancient Greeks or Buddhism … The word designates a unique thing: the response given by man to God, who has come to him in Christ.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Let's Get Personal

In his characteristically insightful article, “Beyond ‘Unity’: An Approach to Inter-Spiritual Dialogue,” (Communio, Vol. XXXIII, Number 1, Spring 2006), Stratford Caldecott quotes a correspondent, John Médaille:
The one who gives without receiving (if such there could be) might be a great philanthropist, but is not a person; and one who receives without giving may become as rich as a great philanthropist, but is not a person; they are individuals, and they and all their works will be destroyed. To the extent that a person “holds on” to whatever he receives (and all that he has is something received), he remains an individual; to the extent that the individual refashions what he receives and gives it, he becomes a person. In this way, each person recapitulates the whole of being, which is nothing less than an interchange of love between the divine persons. What is “ours” will pass; what is given and received will endure.
I am reminded of the marvelous words of a former (now disgraced) bishop of my acquaintance, whose faith, tarnished as faith always is by those fortunate enough to have been given it: "Everything not given away is lost."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Selective Transgression

Following up on the Berlin cancellation of the Mozart opera for fear of the Muslim reaction: Roger Kimball of the New Criterion has a fine piece in which he says:
Our avant-gardist artistic establishment preens itself on being "transgressive," "challenging," "provocative," etc. But it prefers to exercise its anti-bourgeois animus within the coddled purlieus of bourgeois security. It has discovered that there is a big difference between exhibiting photographs of Christ on the cross in a bottle of urine or Madonna having herself "crucified" on her current concert tour and poking fun at Muhammad. The former earns you the delicious obloquy of the Catholic establishment while shoring up your credentials as a brave artistic and moral pioneer. The latter sends murderous hordes into the streets looking for something, or someone, to destroy.
Kimball’s whole article is here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Banalization of Evil ... Delusion of Guiltlessness

On Good Friday of 2005, shortly before John Paul II's death, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took John Paul's place as the celebrant of the traditional Stations of the Cross at the Roman Coliseum. The cardinal's reflections were truly magnificent, including this: "Before the face of the suffering Lord, the banalization of evil comes to an end." To which Jan-Heiner Tuck added in the current edition of Communio: "And with it the widespread delusion of guiltlessness. The questionable act of 'not having been the one,' which always ends up framing someone else, comes to a halt."

More on the Regensburg Lecture . . .

Yesterday one of Germany's leading opera companies canceled the performance of Mozart's Idomeneo because of fears over Islamic reprisals. The opera features a scene in which the heads of Christ, Buddha and Mohammed are carried onstage.
Kirsten Harms, the director of the Deutsche Oper, said that the Berlin state police had warned of a possible - but not certain - threat and that she decided it would be in the best interest of the safety of the opera house, its employees and patrons to cancel the production.
It is a precaution which circumstances will increasingly dictate. We must not miss the forest for the trees. This is what the Sharia law looks like in its nascent stage.

On a related matter: In the September 19th edition of the London Guardian, Madeleine Bunting wrote a blistering critique of Benedict XVI’s lecture at Regensburg University. The Guardian gave the article, entitled “A man with little sympathy for other faiths,” the following caption:
Pope Benedict is being portrayed as a naive, shy scholar who has accidentally antagonised two major world faiths in a matter of months. In fact he is a shrewd and ruthless operator, argues Madeleine Bunting - and he's dangerous.
The article went on to refer to the “papal stupidity” of making reference in his lecture to the unambiguously negative assessment of Islam by a Byzantine emperor whose world was about to be conquered by Muslim armies. She argued that the pope should have known that his words would cause a violent reaction in the Muslim world, and he should have avoided anything that might have that unwelcome result.
Even the most cursory knowledge of dialogue with Islam teaches - and as a Vatican Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI would have learned this long ago - that reverence for the Prophet is a non-negotiable.
Yesterday the answer to Ms. Bunting appeared. Lee Harris, writing in the online publication TCS Daily. As it happens, I quoted a piece Mr. Harris wrote in 2005 for the Hoover Institute’s Policy Review in an earlier post – The Shining Example. In his TCS Daily piece, he brought light to bear on what might have seemed to many Ms. Bunting’s interreligious sensitivities:
Suppose that the eminent English biologist Richard Dawkins delivered a speech at the University of Regensburg in which he attacked supporters of Creationism and Intelligent Design theory as "ignorant boobs" -- words that he has already applied in them in a written article. Now, let us imagine that Christian fundamentalists all over the United States, outraged by this inflammatory language, went on a violent rampage. Suppose that they lynched an elderly professor of biology, and attacked biology departments at several universities. Suppose that teachers of high school biology went about in fear of their lives, while many simply quit their jobs.

What kind of article would Madeleine Bunting write about such a hypothetical incident? Do you think she would violently condemn Richard Dawkins, writing something along the lines of:

"Even the most cursory knowledge of dialogue with Creationists teaches...that reverence for the Biblical account of man's creation is non-negotiable. What unites all Christian fundamentalists is a passionate devotion and commitment to the inerrancy of the Holy Bible."

Would Madeleine Bunting refer to Dawkins' speech as illustrating professorial stupidity? Would she imply that he was personally responsible for the death of the elderly American professor of biology, and describe the brutal murder as having been done "in retaliation" for Dawkins' remarks?
Earlier in the article, Harris had said:
The ethical issue that is raised by Madeleine Bunting is no trivial one, and it should gravely concern us all. Morally responsible human beings should always be aware of the consequences of both their words and their actions on others. Yet morally responsible human beings also have another duty, and it is an equally solemn one -- it is the duty that they owe to their intellectual conscience.
He concluded his piece with words addressed to Ms. Bunting:
Those who blame the man who speaks the truth as he sees it, instead of the man who commits murder in retaliation, would be wise to ponder well the moral consequences of their own words.
Read the whole article here.

P.S. The "Person" ...

Following on the previous post, a word about the mystery alluded to there.

The person is a synonym for neither the self, nor the body, nor the soul; rather it is the synthesis of them that occurs in relationship to an other. The mystery of the person is the mystery of consubstantiality. A person in the full Christian sense of the term is someone who is mysteriously consubstantial with another, whose identity cannot be reckoned except by reference to this other. This is where Trinitarian theology and Christological anthropology meet. One's identity can never find bedrock in oneself, and the whole business of the "identity crisis," about which so much ink was spilled in the latter decades of the 20th century, is testimony to this fact. One's identity is commensurate with the "ontological density" (Henri de Lubac's marvelous phrase) of the other with whom one's life is con-substantial. This is a subject on which it will be necessary to spill a good deal more ink in due course.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Mystery of the Person

In his meeting today with Muslim leaders and ambassadors, Pope Benedict XVI quoted his predecessor, John Paul II.
As Pope John Paul II said in his memorable speech to young people at Casablanca in Morocco, "Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favor peace and agreement between peoples"
The word reciprocity has been central to Benedict’s approach to the Muslim world. In an earlier post, I suggested that the absence of such reciprocity is glaring and that a quick look at religious freedom as found in Detroit, Michigan (which has a large and active Muslim population) and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia would be instructive in that regard. But the hope for such a reciprocity, as Benedict knows so well, lies not with some balancing act. Rather it lies with the anthropological presuppositions with which one’s religious view of reality is suffused.

Benedict then went on to say this to the assembled Muslim leaders:
Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that in the current world situation it is imperative that Christians and Muslims engage with one another in order to address the numerous challenges that present themselves to humanity, especially those concerning the defense and promotion of the dignity of the human person and of the rights ensuing from that dignity. When threats mount up against people and against peace, by recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them.
The problem, however, is with the word person, a word whose moral and spiritual pedigree is lost on virtually everyone who uses the term today, but which is by no means lost on Benedict. He has written brilliantly on the Christian provenance of the term. If the reciprocity with respect to religious freedom, which is so glaringly lacking in the Muslim world today, is to be achieved, some sense of the (uniquely Christian) mystery of the person will need to be assimilated by our Islamic brothers and sisters.

The word “person” entered into the vocabulary of Western culture only after Christian theologians, in speaking of the three Persons of the Trinity, gave the word persona a philosophical profundity never before associated with it. In bringing about this theological revolution, the theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries laid the groundwork for a revolution in human self-understanding which has yet to be fully appreciated, and which it may be the special privilege of 21st century Christianity to rediscover.

It is hardly a coincidence that the mystery of the person was discovered by those who were trying to understand the mystery of Christ – the mystery-of-the-person in-Person. This mystery was largely lost on the key pioneers of modern psychology, however, for they regarded biblical anthropology as intellectually passé. Faced with a rising tide of psychological distress, they theorized about the modern self, mistakenly assuming it to be a synonym for the person, and failing to realize that the task was, as the future Benedict XVI put it some years ago, to find “the true self elsewhere than in its empirical counterpart.”

As the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov insists, “the revelation of the person is the event of Christianity.” At the heart of Christianity, writes the theologian J. B. Metz, is a “revolutionary formation process for a new subjectivity,” a “new subjectivity” that it is especially important to understand today as the spiritually bereft post-modern self turns to increasingly desperate and despairing antics of self-redemption. The time has surely come to take a fresh look at the biblical understanding of the mystery of the person.

The work of René Girard now makes it possible for us to realize that what Karl Rahner said about non-biblical religions, namely that they are “christologies in search of a subject,” is true as well of the increasingly de-centered secular self. Like the Christian mysteries generally, the mystery of the person is deeply paradoxical. While it is unquestionably true that the sacramental understanding of the person is born of Christian experience and rooted in Christian scripture, Girard’s insights into the mimetic nature of human subjectivity now make it possible for us to recognize how anthropologically astute was Tertullian’s second century intuition that “the soul is naturally Christian.” That is to say, Christian anthropology – properly grounded in Trinitarian theology – accurately portrays the universal human dilemma. The Gospel knows us better than we know ourselves.

Friday, September 22, 2006

News You Cannot Google

History has a history. The experience of history as a promising journey into an uncharted but providential future -- religiously interpreted and shaped in part by the response of human freedom -- is the unique product of the biblical revelation and the human self-understanding that it fostered.

However distracted it always is by the glamour of evil and the titillation of historical conflicts, the desire to understand what is happening in history is a clumsy and crudely expressed desire to know the God who promised to accompany Abraham and his spiritual descendants and to sustain them in the face of their historical exigencies.

It probably isn’t coincidental that, as our biblical sensibilities have been secularized and we have grown spiritually malnourished, we have developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for “news,” which we consume as mindlessly and compulsively as those with severe calcium depletion eat chalk. This ravenous hunger for news is a symptom of our sense of historical disorientation. It’s a variation on the old adage about forgetting the ends and redoubling the means. Our appetite for news is driven by the completely unconscious and mistaken assumption that the most important thing to know in order to understand what is happening in history is what just happened. In truth, however, the most important thing to know about history is its dramatic structure -- its origin and especially its goal.

In his life, death, and resurrection, Christ recapitulates the drama of history and anticipates its eschatological resolution. The quest for what the historian Charles Norris Cochrane calls “the principle of historical intelligibility” finds its fulfillment, therefore, in the recognition of the christological dimension of historical reality.

The “cutting edge” of history is the very latest “news,” but the cutting edge is a bloody one. The alternative to the “cutting edge” of history is the quiet center of history, where the sacrificial violence that makes the cutting edge so bloody is being transformed into the sacramental reconciliation – slowly bringing together Gentile and Jew, male and female, masters and servants. There we have been given manna for the historical journey, rendered efficacious in a new and everlasting covenant inaugurated at the Last Supper -- nourishment worthy of the hunger we now famish by feeding on the chalk of the latest news.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Shining Example

Multiculturalism and the sundry bromides out of which it was patched together was based on the unadjudicated and unsubstantiated premise that any given culture is as anthropologically sound and as conducive to human flourishing as any other, and that there is no criteria for measuring the relative social, moral, political and spiritual value of disparate cultures. However warm and fuzzy that premise might be for Western elites, it shamelessly patronizes all cultures but the post-modern secular one, for virtually every culture in the history of the world – certainly every one that lasted for any length of time – has regarded itself as preferable to the cultural or tribal alternatives. Multiculturalists might be right to be dubious about these presumptions of superiority, but by dismissing the sensibilities of the cultures for which they claim to be solicitous they hardly demonstrate their vaunted cultural neutrality. In other words, multiculturalism’s whole ideological apparatus is riddled with inner contradictions; for it is designed more to make privileged Westerners feel less guilty about their privileges than to share these privileges with non-Westerners by humbling acknowledging where they came from.

You and I live in a culture that is indisputably toxic in many ways, but one that is at the same time deeply imprinted by Christianity, though that imprint is far from indelible and eroding rapidly. The Christian response to its host culture is always both critical and appreciative, for no culture is or can be fully and truly Christian. Culture can, however, be deeply indebted to Christianity, as Western culture has historically been. Through no merit of our own, we are the heirs of the evangelical missions that converted the Western edge of the Roman Empire centuries ago. There is no presumption in appreciating the great good fortune that is ours because of this providential fact.

Though he felt no compunction about criticizing its pagan ways, St. Paul was both proud of being a Roman citizen and respectful of its institutions and the legitimacy of the authority it exercised in its own realm. How much more should Christians and others appreciate the moral, social, political, and religious benefits they enjoy as members of a culture that would never have happened without Christianity. And with that appreciation should come a determination to hand these blessings on to their children and their children’s children. Instead, we are witnessing a massive evisceration of Western culture, creating a moral and spiritual vacuum which cultural forces of a far different sort are eager and increasingly impatient to fill.

In the Emmaus Road Initiative lecture series I gave last spring in a number of cities, I alluded to an essay by Lee Harris in which he wrote of the importance of a culture’s “shining example.” While not as profound as René Girard’s work on the role of mimesis in cultural life, Harris wrote persuasively of the importance, not just of “role models” but of those figures who represent the ultimate values of a society, the telos or goal toward which the culture encourages well-lived and well-ordered lives to aspire.

It should be obvious to all but the ideologically blinded that not all shining examples are equal, nor will the culture that looks to them for inspiration be equally well served by its devotion to them. Is the Ultimate Shining Example, for instance, the Buddha, or Muhammad, or Mao, or Jesus, or Kim Jong Il (North Korea’s Great Leader) … ?

The point is: It makes a difference.

What if your Shining Example was an ideological fanatic capable of coldly calculating the violent elimination of those regarded as retrograde to the consummation of some ridiculous utopian dream?

What if your culture’s Shining Example was a master of interior states of consciousness, a virtuoso of dispassionate detachment from the trials and tribulations of this world, whose central message was how, by quieting the mind and freeing yourself from desire, you can avoid suffering?

What if you culture’s Shining Example was a war lord and slave owner who ordered the assassination of his political enemies and who generally terrified the peoples he and his conquering army subjugated, slaughtering or socially subordinating those he regarded as infidels?

What if your Shining Example was a man of peace who spent his life healing and giving solace and comfort to the poor and the poor in spirit, and who walked defenselessly into the terrifying maw of worldly and religious violence to die there without lifting his hand or raising his voice?

Just as cultural Islam cannot be reduced to the biographical details of Muhammad’s life, neither can the Western culture be expected to be a perfect replica of Christ’s. The point is simply that the Shining Example is culturally decisive.

One cultural difference, paradoxically I suppose, is the degree to which any given culture inspires a genuine, and not just rhetorical, hospitality toward those from other cultures.

The superficial multicultural opposition between a culture’s religious identity and moral patrimony, on one hand, and its pluralist generosity and hospitality, on the other, is pure nonsense. It has been those cultures under Christian influence that have been the most hospitable to non-believers and those of other faiths. (Compare, for instance, the religious freedom enjoyed by those living in Detroit, Michigan and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.) The historical and cultural uniqueness this generosity represents is undeniable. The fact that it developed historically, rather than magically, and that the principle has been betrayed often enough, in no way diminishes its uniqueness. Nor is it forsaken by a host culture refusing to have its hospitality taken to be a license for its guests and newcomers to scrap the very spiritual resources that gave rise to the hospitality in the first place. In other words, it does not require acts of cultural suicide.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Christological Drama

“They will kill you claiming to be doing God's will.”

This today from Somalia: Sister Leonella, a Catholic nun who devoted her life to helping the sick in Africa, used to joke there was a bullet with her name engraved on it in Somalia. When the bullet came, she used her last breaths to forgive those responsible. “I forgive, I forgive,” she whispered in her native Italian just before she died Sunday in Mogadishu, the Somali capital … The shooting was not a random attack and could have been sparked by Muslim anger over recent remarks by Pope Benedict linking Islam and violence … Sister Leonella, whose birth name was Rosa Sgorbati, had lived and worked in Kenya and Somalia for 38 years.

The reason why the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church is because the most vicious and conspicuous attempts to expel the Gospel and those who embody it reenacts the drama that reveals it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The covered their ears and rushed at him.

"But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together." -- Acts 7:57
It’s been said that the difference between a diplomat and a serious and deep thinker is that when a diplomat sees light at the end of the tunnel he averts his eyes and prays for more tunnel. As the Italian journalist Sandro Magister has insightfully argued, the message that Pope Benedict XVI brings to the Church is: less diplomacy and more Gospel.

The truth the Gospel proclaims, and that Benedict made the theme of his first encyclical, is that God is Love. The point the pope was making in his Regensburg University lecture was that God is also Logos. Christian truth is a reasonable truth and Christian proselytizing relies on the persuasiveness of its apologists and recognizes the dignity of the individual conscience.

On Sunday, as the volcanic ash from an Islamic world once again in rage was wafting over the cable channels and the internet, Pope Benedict said this at his Angelus audience:
I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought. Yesterday, the cardinal secretary of state published a statement in this regard in which he explained the true meaning of my words. I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.
This was taken as an apology, and one needn’t quibble overmuch as to whether or not it qualifies as one. It is clear today, and I suspect that it will grow clearer as time passes, that the pope’s quotation from a 14th century Byzantine emperor was not an inadvertent one the 21st century pertinence of which, and the 21st century consequences of which, were completely unforeseen.

Did the pope realize that he might be putting his own life in peril, especially in light of his next foreign trip – to Istanbul, the center of Eastern Christianity until it fell to Muslim armies and Christianity virtually disappeared? Almost surely. Did he foresee that churches would be firebombed and Christians murdered in the streets of the Muslim world? I doubt it. Did he realize that those dangers existed? Probably. Did he think that if he waited or equivocated those dangers would recede in time? Not likely.

To choose between diplomacy and the Gospel is not to choose saccharine sentimentality and milquetoast moralism. It is rather to speak a truth the world has organized itself in order to avoid. That Benedict chose to speak that truth by way of a quotation from one of the last Christian rulers of Eastern Christianity, who ruled in the very city (then Constantinople, now Istanbul) which the pope will visit on his next foreign trip, was by no means coincidental. No one has ever accused Joseph Ratzinger of intellectual imprecision. Any high school sophomore reading the passage in his university lecture that has attracted so much attention could have predicted a strong reaction. It’s not likely to have eluded His Holiness.

The central purpose of Benedict’s lecture, as I said in an earlier post, was to remind the world and European culture specifically of the Christian insistence on reason, based as it is on the enduring belief that the God who is love is also Logos, that is, reason. The burden of this truth is that the irrational can never be part of God’s work in the world, and that violence is irrational. The specific quotation Benedict cited brought this insight into the sharpest relief: spreading religion with the sword is abominable. If historical Christians have occasionally committed that abomination, they have done so in conspicuous contradiction to the life and death of Christ, and their actions have been unambiguously rejected by the Church. That Mohammad spread Islam by the sword cannot be doubted, and that his doing so is today regarded as exemplary, is likewise obvious. The “moderate Muslims” who renounce the use of religious violence have earned their reputation for moderation largely by speaking in hushed tones.

Why would Benedict make such an apparent diplomatic faux pas when his very next foreign trip is to the Islamic world? Again Sandro Magister offers a plausible explanation:
As for Benedict XVI, he knows that he hasn’t made his trip to Turkey any easier. But it is the pope’s firm conviction that a visit prepared and carried out only under the shield of reticence, silence, purely ceremonial dialogue, and submission would have done more harm than good – both to the Church and to the Muslim world.
The challenge facing any Christian today, and which Benedict XVI has chosen to engage, is how to be open to charitable dialogue with religious believers of any and every kind while reminding those long-slumbering inhabitants of formerly Christian societies that their world will soon come to an end and their children and grandchildren pay a terrible price if they do not quickly realize how precious and indispensable to a free and happy life is the great gift that Christian faith is to those who have been given it and that a Christian cultural milieu is even to the non-believers fortunate enough to inhabit one.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Reasons" vs. Reason

The thrust and purpose of the now famous (infamous) lecture Pope Benedict XVI gave at Regensburg University was that, by abandoning a comprehensive understanding of rationality in favor of a truncated rationalism characterized by naïve empiricism and vulgar subjectivism, Europe was surrendering the resources indispensable to the survival of Western civilization. The lecture was a forthright critique of Western secularism run amok.

In the speech, the pope used the word “reason” 46 times, recalling, as he often has, the insistence by the Fathers of the early Church that the truth Christians proclaim is accessible to reason and that, consequently, Christian evangelization must rely on persuasion and never on violence or intimidation. Benedict is too keen a student of history to deny that Christians have sometimes failed to live according to this ancient understanding, but in his Regensburg University speech he was less interested in expressing remorse over the past sins of Christians than in critiquing the present folly of post-Christian Europe.

Though his primary concern was the moral and intellectual coherence of European civilization, the pope’s call for a return to a fuller and more spiritually attuned rationality had a bearing on the growing problem of interreligious tensions. For if there is to be true dialogue between religions and religious believers, the partners to that dialogue must be able to appeal to intellectual criteria not exclusively internal to their religious beliefs. In other words, only when the dialogue partners are willing to account for their religious claims in rational terms can there be a genuine dialogue. Benedict made that point perfectly clear in his lecture: “Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

The West needs to revive a more robust form of rationality, one not allergic to theological thought, if it is to become once again a truly rational civilization and not, as it has become lately, a hodge-podge of platitudinous sentimentality determined to wish away historical challenges it no longer has the moral and spiritual wherewithal to meet.

Benedict’s only reference to Islam was made, I think, for two reasons: First, to remind his audience that the alternative to rational dialogue – in contrast to the feel-good politically correct charades of recent memory – is coercion and, ultimately, violence, and secondly, as a highly pertinent reminder that the fate of European civilization will be determined either by the restored fervor of Christian faith or the zeal and reproductive superiority of its Muslim newcomers, and that the present status quo is quickly disappearing. In short, that the European moment of decision has come.

It was in this context that Benedict quoted from a recent book on Byzantium of the Middle Ages wherein is quoted the Byzantine Emperor in dialogue with a Persian Muslim. The Emperor alluded to an undeniable historical fact: Muhammad was a military conqueror whose implacability in the field of battle was widely celebrated and later emulated by his followers down through history. But the Emperor’s main point was also Benedict’s, namely that “violence is something unreasonable … incompatible with the nature of God …” The Vatican has made it clear that the pope meant no offense; his purpose was to warn of the dangers of irrationality, whatever form it might take – whether a ferocious jihadist form or a fatuous multicultural form.

Apropos of which, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was quoted by Reuters as saying: “There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. We are fundamentalists in Malaysia. We follow the true teachings of the religion and the true teachings do not teach us to bomb and kill people without reason.” Which invites reflection on the difference between “reasons” for violence and reason itself, which is swept away by violence. Reasons don’t lead to violence; violence (or more precisely the lust for violence) leads to reasons. Whether it is Slobodan Milosevic’s invocation of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 or the jihadist invocation of the Battle of Vienna in 1683 or the Twin Towers massacre in 2001, any idiot can find a reason, especially once the lust for violence has been aroused. Only a certified psychopath will kill for no reason, but the reasons typically used to justify violence have precious little to do with reason and everything to do with unleashing the lust for violence. Once unleashed, everyone involved will have reasons aplenty for joining the fray. In the midst of such a social contagion, Jesus said: “They hated me for no reason” (John 15:25).

When one sees the angry mobs protesting Benedict’s remarks, knowing that none of those with their fists in the air have read them and few of those reporting their rage have understood them, one thinks of these words of Christ.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Gathering and Scattering

“When all the crowds that had gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened, they went away beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).

The oldest and easiest path to social solidarity is the path that led to Golgotha: the community gathered together in its shared fear and loathing of another or others. The key to the success of this process is the unquestioned assumption of a moral gap separating the righteous inside and the reprobates outside the communal circle. The crowd that was gathered by this spectacle on Golgotha was privy to a revelation incompatible with the smooth working of this ancient gathering mechanism. Through a glass darkly those who gathered at the Cross glimpsed the innocence of the victim, which in Luke’s account is explicitly expressed by the Roman centurion. This is not just a juridical insight, it exposes as a lie the unspoken assumption that social unanimity is an infallible moral compass.

The Greek word for church, ecclesia, means the gathering of those called out. We might say: the gathering of those who have been scattered by the failure of a malfunctioning gathering principle. Among other things, the Church is an ongoing anthropological experiment in a new form of gathering, a new community made necessary by the crippling of humanity’s ancient reflexive source of social solidarity. Christianity’s gathering principle is Christ and the relationship to Christ which the members of the community experience individually and in their common worship and mission. Contrary to the worldly gathering principle, such a community needs no enemy against whom it can organize itself.

Meanwhile, half a million years of adaptation cannot be set aside, nor can the doctrine of original sin be wished away. Humanity’s social and psychological reflexes predispose us to revert to default forms of social solidarity, especially in times of cultural crisis. The situation is made even more morally problematic by the fact that, whatever small degree of success a society may have had in gathering with Christ rather than against its enemies and scapegoats, it will forever be threatened by real enemies within and without. The task of protecting the always fragile oasis of relative order and tranquility from its enemies – without succumbing in the process to the old anthropological principle – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – will always be with us.

The more ominous an enemy a society faces, the greater the danger that opposing a fierce adversary will become the society’s chief organizing principle, replacing the Christological center and thereby turning the society into yet another of the “kingdoms of this world.” To the extent that this occurs, the society begins to consume its own most precious spiritual resources in its effort to preserve the cultural artifacts in which these resources have been distilled and preserved.

Paul, who experienced that “where sin abounds, grace super-abounds,” asked therefore, “should I sin so that grace may abound?” Analogously, the presence of ferocious enemies can serve to awaken a negligent society to the value of the civil order and social harmony it might have taken for granted under less challenging circumstances. But such enemies can also have the opposite effect: they can cause a panic-stricken society to abandon its moral and cultural treasures in a frantic attempt to ward off its foes. The Roman poet Virgil describes such a moment as the Trojan citadel was being overrun by the Argive warriors. The Trojans dismantle their own fortress in a blind attempt to buy themselves a little time. The metaphor is painfully apposite to the crisis facing Western culture.

In turn the Trojans tear down roofs and towers
to fling as missiles; they can see the end
is near, but even at death’s point they still
prepare defense. They roll down gilded rafters,
our ancient fathers’ splendors . . .

Those faced with implacable enemies, two temptations loom large: to appease them and thereafter succumb to the appetite for total vindication that the appeasement merely whets or to use the ferocity of their barbarous enemies as justification for a reciprocal ferocity which, absent a more profound experience of communion, is spiritually indistinguishable from the aggression it seeks to repel. All these complexities are rendered considerably clearer when seen through the lens of Rene Girard's mimetic theory.

Benedict XVI and the Howls of Protest

On September 12th, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught and served as university vice president. The lecture was almost exclusively focused on the history of Western rationality and its lamentable degeneration in recent centuries into aridity, subjectivism , and suicidal forms of relativism. In raising this issue, however, Benedict alluded to a text which both captures the problem he addressed and sets in precisely the contemporary context most relevant to it. The howls of protest were not long in coming. In the passage that provoked them, Benedict made reference to a recorded dialogue about Christianity and Islam between the late 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II and an educated Persian.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2,256 reads: There is no compulsion in religion. It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threaten. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he turns to hi s interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death....

With this, the pope turned his attention to the crisis in Western culture generally and in European culture specifically, arguing, as he has on many prior occasions, that Christianity integrates faith and reason, that it is the synthesis of religion and the philosophical critique of religion. In Christianity, he went on to say, "reason and faith come together in a new way," and Christian theology is an "inquiry into the rationality of faith."

The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest of the many forms of jihadist fanaticism which the Brotherhood spawned, was but one of many outraged at the suggestion of a connection between Islam and irrationality and violence.

Christians have committed every sin known to mankind, irrational violence included, but orthodox Christianity has always maintained that the truth it proclaims is morally rational and intellectually accessible to rational inquiry. Even though Christian truth could never have been arrived at in the first instance by merely rational means, Christ is the Logos, and the Christian God is never irrational. By allowing rationality to degenerate into empiricism and subjectivism, the West has abandoned the key to its historical greatness, without which it will not withstand the rising tide of religious irrationality which now threatens to engulf it. That was Pope Benedict's point.

Those most offended by the pope's lecture are those who have refused to unequivocally condemn the intentional and indiscriminate mass murder of innocent civilians and the ritual beheading of infidels. They are indignant at the suggestion that their equivocation might be related to Islam's belief in a God who refuses to be constrained by any rational and moral principles, and who therefore has no compunction about compelling the imposition of religion by force.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Being Alone Together

God in Christ went to the place of the loneliest sinner in order to communicate with him in dereliction by God. – Hans Urs von Balthasar
Simon Weil once observed that Christians could go to their martyrdom singing, but Christ could not. In the same way, I suppose, Christians tend to console the forlorn with a compassionate embrace, bringing to them the warmth of human charity, whereas what Christ brings them is companionship in Godforsakenness distinguishable from their own only in its greater degree of ignominy and reprobation. Of the two, the former is more materially consoling, while the latter offers a form of communion that is the true bedrock of human solidarity.

Every morning I attend Lauds and Mass at a Trappist monastery in the company of a tiny handful of other communicants, most of whom I know only from the greeting of peace we share during Mass. If we happen to leave the Abbey church after Mass at the same time, hardly a word ever passes between us. What we share each morning is all the more deeply shared inasmuch as it is suffused with solitude. Don’t get me wrong: I am always happy to meet new friends and get to know them. Indeed, I miss my old friends very much. But were those I see at morning Mass to go out for breakfast after Mass and chat about what's happening in the world and about our plans for the day, we might end up knowing each other in a much more superficial way than we do now.

For almost 25 years, I went to daily Mass at St. Francis Solano parish in Sonoma, California, accompanied by a couple of dozen parishioners. St. Francis was not my home parish, and I knew only two or thee of the daily communicants, even though I saw them every day and felt a deep connection with them. Whenever I return to Sonoma, I go to Mass at St. Francis parish and often see some of the people with whom I shared daily Eucharist for so many years. We nod, smile, and perhaps give a little wave. To me it is a foretaste of heaven.
Communion is established on Good Friday, after the cry of dereliction, and before the tomb is burst open: in the wordless silence, beyond speech, of being together in the alone. – Hans Urs von Balthasar

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembering the 50th on the 5th

My father was killed in the Battle of the Bulge on January 7, 1945 a few months after I was born. I have not been particularly preoccupied with the details of that utterly senseless slaughter, though some years ago I was able to visit with the people with whom my father and his fellow soldiers spent the Christmas of 1944. My visit just happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe, and there was considerable attention given to the closing days of World War II at the time. I was received by the local farmers as a hero, as they bestowed on me the gratitude they felt for the sacrifices made by Americans on their behalf.

At no time during my visits with the Belgian farmers, or in what I saw and heard on the various BBC programs dealing with the liberation of Europe, do I recall the word “tragedy” being used. Was it a tragedy that 19,000 Americans lost their lives in a battle that had no chance of changing the outcome of the war? Well, at one level, yes. But the word “tragedy” might best be reserved for things like hurricane Katrina. Tragedies happen. When tanks roll and cannons fire and machine guns blaze and bombs fall, it’s because the decision has been made for those things to happen.

As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the mass murder that occurred on September 11, 2001, I have already heard the word “tragedy” used several times. No one can deny that the events of that day were terribly tragic for the families and friends of those who died in the attack, just as my father’s death in a German bombing raid was a terrible tragedy for my mother. Use of the word tragedy, however, can reinforce an already prevalent tendency to ignore the fact that those who died in lower Manhattan five years ago were killed by mass murderers, and their deaths were jubilantly celebrated by dancing in the streets in the Muslim world.

With apologies to those on the Cornerstone Forum email newsletter list, I would like to repeat what I said in the last newsletter:

CNN’s chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour recently spoke with Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer told her that he had learned that Osama bin Laden has recently been given permission by a cleric in Saudi Arabia to use nuclear weapons against the United States, “capping the casualties at 10 million.” The dumbfounded Amanpour asked Scheuer: “He’s had a approval, a religious approval for 10 million deaths?” “Yes,” Scheuer told her.

We have every reason to vigorously debate the morality of this or that domestic law or policy, on one hand, or this or that foreign policy or military adventure of our nation or any other nation, on the other. We needn’t agree with the policies of our own or any other government; it goes without saying that many will strongly disagree. It would be a very dangerous world if it were ever to be otherwise. That said, however, there is a world of difference between policies aimed at preserving and protecting a society – however misguided these policies might conceivably be – and policies that are explicitly and unapologetically murderous and genocidal.

We may disagree sharply on how to respond to the new forms of genocide that have emerged in our day. The actions of the U.S. and of other Western nations and institutions may at times be unconscionable, and vigilance is the watchword. It is not out of the question that, as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the West might commit appalling atrocities in its attempt to prevent the atrocities the jihadist are now planning and committing. The powerful mimetic dynamic that operates in such conflict is terribly dangerous and not to be overlooked. But to imagine that a moral equivalence exists today between the West and the jihadists is to forsake reality and renounce the only moral progress for which we can legitimately hope.

What we must never forget, of course, is that we are all God’s children; none of us is immune to the seductions that lead to hatred and violence. But awareness of our moral predicament and the fallibility of our judgment does not absolve us of our responsibility to protect the innocent as best we can from those maddened by racial hatred and pathological forms of religious zealotry. The more clearly we recognize the threats from which we must try to protect the innocent, the more reason we have to remember St. Paul’s reminder that it is not against flesh and blood that we struggle, but rather against spiritual forces to which we ourselves are never immune. That those who have fallen under the influence of these forces are brothers and sisters of ours does not mean that we should not repel them as best we can and prevent the damage they will otherwise cause, but it does mean that we must not loose sight of their humanity and our kinship with them.
For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. (Ephesians 6: 12-15)
Christians and Jews understand that history will all too often be the arena of crushed hopes and broken hearts. Knowing that, however, is the precondition for recognizing one of the greatest gifts of Christian faith, namely, the sure knowledge that where sin abounds, grace super-abounds, and that none of the suffering in history is meaningless, however inaccessible that meaning might be to those in the midst of the suffering. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That such cries are heard by a loving and all-caring God, a God who will in the end wipe away every tear, is the bedrock of Christian hope.

To those who struggled up the stairwell of the North and South towers of the World Trade Center with fire-fighting equipment, and to those, like my father, against whom Hitler's last mad murderousness spent itself, the world owes its respect and gratitude. In neither case did they die in a tragedy. They died rather in a struggle to preserve civilization and protect the innocent from the barbarians threatening them. We have not seen the last of such things, and we have almost certainly not seen the worst of them. If we are to face today's historical exigencies responsibly, we will need to summon an uncommon measure of faith and fortitude.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The apples don't fall far from the tree ...

Today is the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary. For some odd reason it brings to mind something I experienced about ten years ago. During my very minor 15 minutes of fame following the publication of Violence Unveiled, I was invited to take part in a gathering of the people who run the world, the powerful, the wealthy, the famous. It was all very heady. I ended up on a panel with Michel Gorbachev, chatting away about how to save the world. Well, you can imagine.

It was pretty clear then, and it became perfectly clear very shortly thereafter, that the conference was where Enlightenment liberalism had come to die, as its capacity to comprehend historical events and exert control over them was slipping inexorably away.

The conference was limited to perhaps two hundred participants, but the grand finale was open to the public and it attracted a large crowd. Dictated by ideological protocol of the most inviolable sort, it was a plenary session consisting of the superstar warhorses of the early days of feminism: Bella Abzug, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan (I think she was there), and I don’t remember who all. Included in the group, however, was Jane Goodall, the English primatologist and anthropologist. The women spoke in turn, each baiting the sympathetic audience with rhetorical flourishes that grew more radical and more hysterical with each speaker. All the clichés were there, punctuated by gales of laughter and applause. (The ironic incongruity of self-designated “prophets” being hailed by a wildly applauding audience was completely lost on all concerned.)

As it happened, Jane Goodall was the last to speak. She rose from her seat, stood ramrod straight and spoke softly and calmly, in complete contrast to the histrionics of those with whom she shared the stage. What she said was something like this (I paraphrase from memory):

As for what my fellow speakers have said: it’s not my area of expertise. I am an ethnologist who has spent many years studying primates in Africa. What I know about is the behavior of apes and gorillas and chimpanzees. What I can say that may be pertinent to this august gathering is this: when one studies the maturation of primates, trying to assess what would appear to be the requirements for successful or “happy” transitions into primate adulthood, it becomes clear that the single most important indicator of healthy adaptation is the quality of care and affection that infant and adolescent primate has received from its mother.

With that, Ms. Goodall sat down. You could have heard a pin drop in this auditorium of thousands of people.

Today, as I said, is the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary. To be fully incarnate, as Christ was, is to be subject to all the viscidities of human existence, one being the enormous influence on one’s life of one’s parents, most especially in the early years the mother’s influence.

All the affection the Church has shown for Mary over the centuries was reflected in the simple, calm words Dr. Goodall spoke those years ago. The great cathedrals of Europe and elsewhere, dedicated as a great many of them are to Mary, testify to the simple truth Jane Goodall spoke.


Conversion begins when I am recognized, in all of my mediocrity and ordinariness, by someone who recognizes Christ in me. Conversion in turn enables me, my mediocrity and ordinariness notwithstanding, to recognize Christ in those who haven't a clue about Christ and whose only access to Him is the puzzling sympathy and affection they see in my eyes and hear in my voice.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Fever of Life ...

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus rebuked the fever from which Peter’s mother-in-law was suffering and it left her (Luke 4:39).

The first reading provides an interesting juxtaposition, helpful perhaps in probing the riches of the Gospel reading. Paul writes to the quarrelsome Corinthian Christians:

… you are still of the flesh.
While there is jealousy and rivalry among you,
are you not of the flesh … (1 Corinthians 3:3)

Are we not invited by this juxtaposition of readings to see the Gospel’s reference to the fever and the apostle’s reference to the flesh as convergent. For is not life itself, the unregenerate life which Paul characterizes with the term flesh, a feverish existence? One thinks of the passage in the First Epistle of John, summing up worldliness: “… the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life …” (1 John 2:16). What is this if not the fever of life, life Paul characterizes as the life of the flesh?

It is, alas, a fever that afflicts more than just Peter’s mother-in-law; it afflicts us all. This understanding of the reference to fever helps frame Jesus’ reaction to the affliction in Luke’s account. Jesus rebukes the fever, as does Paul in his own way. It is, one might say, precisely this fever that Christ came to cure, and to do so, not by cooling its fervor, but by rescuing it from the human soap opera and redirecting toward the God in whose image we are made, whose living Icon Jesus is.

If the Pauline reference to the flesh and the Lucan reference to fever are allowed to converge, what we have is a picture of the human condition in which jealousy and rivalry are much more than merely two of the countless sins to which we are all prone. Rather in a sense they epitomize our situation. René Girard’s analysis of the problems associated with what he calls “mimetic desire” explore the fever from which we humans suffer in a particularly compelling way. Christ rebukes the fever by becoming the object of our mimetic desire, replacing the model-rival which St. Paul has found so destructively at work in the Corinthian community.

There is deeper meaning as well in the way Peter's mother-in-law responded once the fever has left her: she rose and began to serve. There is here a hint of the Resurrection and Pentecost. This is simply what happens when we are cured of the fever of life; we arise from the preoccupations of the melodrama and begin to serve. Everyone freed from the fever is, by that fact, assigned a mission.

All of this comes together again in a most moving way in the famous prayer that John Henry Newman prayed:

May the Lord support us all the day long,
Till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.

Then in his mercy may he give us
a safe lodging
and a holy rest,
and peace at last.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Edward Oakes, S.J.

Here is a recent reflection by Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J., a gifted theologian and one of the most thoughtful and reliable observers on the scene today.

The Folly of the Cross

The first reading at this morning’s Mass:

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God. (1 Cor 1:27-29)

In the Preface of the Mass for Martyrs, we have this marvelous echo of St. Paul: “You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to You, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

All this is part of the great inversion that Christianity announces: the last shall be first, the first last.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Enforcer

The California legislature has passed and Governor Schwarzenegger has signed a law eliminating state funding or assistance to any entity or program that in any way expresses disapproval of homosexual, transsexual, bisexual and transgender lifestyles. There is no provision for religious exception or a conscience clause that would exempt those with moral misgivings. Since virtually every educational institution in the state receives at least some state assistance, the legislation means that Christian schools, for example, from kindergarten to college, will have to choose between funding cuts, sometimes painful ones, and moral principle.

The legislation, supported exclusively by state Democrats, moreover requires, not just acquiescence, but promotion. Any agency receiving state assistance will be required to support and promote “gender identity” (transsexuality) and “sexual orientation” (bisexuality and homosexuality). The state’s penal code now includes this:

“Gender” means sex, and includes a person’s gender identity and gender related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s assigned sex at birth.

The word assigned in this penal code section is worth noting. If one’s sex is simply what some nodding hospital functionary arbitrarily “assigned” at birth, based on something as unreliable as the newborn’s physical genitalia, then later in life the person can re-assign his or her gender, basing the re-assignment on whatever he or she feels like at the moment. Like so much of the vacuous postmodern reality, it’s purely and simply a matter of paperwork. Reality is what we say it is. According to this law, a teacher can show up to teach second-graders in January as a man, in February as a woman, and in April as some combination of the two. Any principal or school administrator who raises an eyebrow had better make sure the school's lunch program is not receiving any states funds.

Regardless of how sincerely and earnestly we try to teach our children at home to be understanding of those who suffer from same-sex attraction, at school they will be taught that those (parents included) who refuse to regard, say, sodomy as morally, legally, and anthropologically indistinguishable from the nuptial embrace are vicious bigots, comparable in every respect to racists and hate mongers. Perhaps this Leninist program will advance to the stage where the young ones will be asked to report their parents for any signs of resistance to the program. Welcome to the world of diversity and tolerance now that power is in the hands of those who led the chorus.

Moral outrage is in order, but not primarily because a 3000 year-old principle of sexual morality is being waved away by the politically correct; who would have expected otherwise? The moral outrage should address the promethean presumption involved in yet again trying to alter reality with words. The 20th century ideologues tried to do that, and the catastrophe that followed was incalculable. In this case, the catastrophe may not play out on the military battlefields, as it did then, but spiritual and moral devastation is certain to follow. Our children and their children will be paying the price for a long, long time.

Culture: The Canary in the Gemeinschaft

In a lengthy article in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, Ralph Peters touches on one of the issues I raised at the last Girard seminar at Stanford and alluded to in the last Cornerstone Forum Newsletter. The issue is the erasure of cultural difference that accompanies today’s globalization and what the likely consequences of that erasure might be. Peters says some very pertinent things, for instance, that “there is a worldwide vacuum of purpose that the glittering trinkets of globalization cannot fill,” and: “The conviction that a new man freed of archaic identities and primitive loyalties can be created by human contrivance is an old illusion.” This illusion, having been entertained altogether too naively by the globalizing elites, is now collapsing into new forms of tribalism, which Peters conflates with magic or magical thinking, something he feels is likely to neither disappear nor be understood by the elites who convinced themselves that it would.

There is much merit to the argument Peters is making. It is a specification of the longstanding realization that humans are inherently religious beings, the default position on human religiosity being the primordial forms, from which biblical thought generally and the Christian revelation specifically exist to liberate us. There is a good deal of liberation from these primitive forms of the sacred yet to be done, and, even where the biblical and Christian leaven has been long at work, there remain vestiges of archaic religiosity which, under the pressure of social dislocations, are capable of revival and resurgence. One of the circumstances which favors the revival of these vestiges is the attenuation of a palpable sense of “we-ness,” a sense of social and religious belonging, and it is precisely this loss of social identity that has accompanied the globalization of the last few decades.

The mere fact that people exist “side by side, imprisoned on the same earth’s surface,” Hans Urs von Balthasar insists, does not constitute a viable community, and, if left with no bonds other than that, the soul will eventually rebel, seeking more palpable, visceral, and meaningful forms of communion. The impulse to retrieve such a communion can easily and quite naturally become retrogressive. A healthy sense of communio, von Balthasar argues, will be the precondition for all kinds of lively interactions, arguments, disagreements, and so on, the social container for a give-and-take, not an enforced sameness, which is what is currently being fostered by the globalizing elites wherever they have attained the power to do so.

Contrary to the anthropological naïveté of the social engineers, true community is not a social-contract arrangement. One’s family, or village, or nation are given. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it:

Those who are in “communion,” … do not enter into such a social relationship solely on their own initiative, each of his own private accord, determining its scope by the stipulations they make when they establish it. They are already in it from the start, already mutually dependent a priori, as a matter of course, not only to live together and contrive to get on with one another in the same domain, but also to carry out a common activity. … Otherwise, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – “Hell is other people.”

There is, Ralph Peters argues, widespread “popular discontent with pseudo-identities concocted by political elites.” Globalization, he writes, “enthralls and binds together a new aristocracy – the golden crust on the human loaf – but the remaining billions, who lack the culture and confidence to benefit from ‘one world,’ have begun to erect barricades against the internationalization of their affairs.” We are, he writes, “witnessing the return of the tribes – a global phenomenon, but the antithesis of globalization as described in pop bestsellers. The twin tribal identities, ethnic and religious brotherhood, are once again armed and dangerous.”

However much we might wish it were otherwise, it is nonetheless true that we humans love one another with different levels of intensity and commitment. Cultural realism requires us to recognize this fact. It’s like the law of gravity; ignoring it will not make it go away. Whatever subtle presuppositions might be operating in utopian forms of egalitarianism or meritocracy, the truth is that one always tends to love one’s spouse and one’s children better than one loves others. As Christians, we can and should try to compensate for this natural affective asymmetry, but the first thing one must do in order to compensate for it is to recognize its existence. Of course, most of us recognize the domestic version of it, but we may not realize that the family is simply the inner core of a series of concentric circles of particular affection which quite naturally exist. Extended families, clans, ethnicities, nationalities, religious affinities, and so on and so forth; these things are the bonds that bind us, fostering the social intimacies that make us human. Accepting them and appreciating them is not a synonym for xenophobia. Someone secure in his or her matrix of relationships will meet those embedded in unfamiliar cultural matrices with a good deal more openness than will those floating in a sea of social undifferentiation. If and when these bonds become too attenuated, a hunger for them is aroused which eventually may seek satisfaction by reviving archaic forms of it by way of hatred and violence.

What Peters means by “magic” is more or less what René Girard means by the sacred, using the word with an anthropological, not pious, connotation. To distinguish these contexts, Girard often uses the phrase “the primitive sacred” to refer to the combination of superstition, violence, and ritual upon which archaic societies (past and present) depended for the maintenance of social solidarity and political order. Whether it begins with the southern European Renaissance or it’s northern variant, the Reformation, the process we now call secularization has been underway for centuries. It was driven by Christian desacralization which it misunderstood and misappropriated. Now that that process has run its course, what is becoming clear is something I’ve been harping on for years: the secular is not a sustainable alternative to the (primitive) sacred. If those are the only two alternatives on offer, a top-down choice in favor of the secular will serve simply as the prelude to a bottom-up demand for the sacred, the ferocity of which will be a measure of secularism’s anthropological naïveté.

It is with this as historical backdrop that we can and must rediscover the absolutely unique anthropological significance of Christian sacramentality. For the true alternative to the (primitive) sacred is the distinctive form of sacramentality which it has been the historical privilege of catholic Christianity to awaken in believers and propose to the world. One is tempted to put it emphatically: Ultimately, the only alternative to magic is the Eucharist.

Again, Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The reality of Jesus’ eucharistic self-communication at his Last Supper and in the communion of those who take part in the meal which is established – not in any case magical, but sacramentally objective and inseparably constituting both communion with God in Christ and communion with one another (1 Cor 10:16ff); this opens out a possibility of living for others which exceeds purely human capacity because it is a sharing in Christ’s vicarious suffering for the Church (and thereby for all men) (Col 1:24), involving sharing a common lot with the Lord …

What is today becoming clear, and what Ralph Peters has seen through a glass darkly, is that the secular is a brief interregnum which will dissolve in due course into a religious revival, the only outstanding question is: around which religious tradition will that revival occur?

Neither ideological secularism nor the ferocious revivals of the sacred that recoil from its banality and vulgarity are capable of inspiring the spiritual and cultural revitalization that our present situation demands. The alternative to the contemporary secular wasteland is not the intoxication and fanaticism of sacred violence but the sacramental forms of religious self-donation that it has been the distinctive historical privilege of Christianity to foster.