Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only half in jest . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Simon said...

René Girard is also a rubicon! Here are the links to a manifesto that was published today in Le Figaro and Il Foglio (with Girard as first signer).

Anonymous said...

It is hard to know just how much to weigh the "rubicon" emphasis on rubrics. Given the point that their gross abandonment does result in religious and cultural chaos, so the exaggeration of their importance impoverishes the very meaning they are entrusted to transmit. The implied liturgical "wreck" of the western church can be much laid at the feet of exaggeration of rubrics and the corresponding abandonment of meaningful evangelization.

Gil Bailie said...

Mario, you seem vexed by the possibility of idolatrous liturgical hyper-scrupulosity, and concerned about its unwelcome effect on evangelization. Your concern has merit, but it rests on a false dichotomy, indicated by the word "corresponding" in your post. You seem to assume that liturgical fidelity and evangelization are inversely related. In fact, the liturgical demise and the weakening of evangelical fervor have been simultaneous. One effect of faithful liturgies should be a more vibrant evangelization, and one effect of evangelization should be a greater reverence for the Church's sacramental and liturgical life.
I'm for both.

frjohnbraun said...

the thing about liturgy is that it is sticky, not meant to be open to intellectual analysis. How can we explain satisfactorily that the crucifixion of a man gave rise to the liturgical life which is, as Gil says, at the heart of our civilization?
It is stickly, also, or not only because, it is mystery in the sacramental sense, but still tied very much to what I learned from Gil and Rene Girard is a sense of the sacred that depends on, leans very hard upon, what I believe is a false dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Pope Benedict's recent decision that only someone within the sacrament of holy orders can "purify" the "sacred vessels" after communion is a salient example.
Of course I obey Benedict, even though I think his decision more than a little bizarre--a little too red letter--to borrow Gil's termonolgy(sp?)--both because the people need not be offended by what I think about a papal decision, but also because the mystery does take on flesh because slavish obedience does become, as Benedict said, the most deeply personal and sacramental experience of the Incarnation. Slavish obedience does not have much currency today, but then neither does the incarnation and its necessary kenosis.

Anonymous said...

Gil, I agree that it is a both and situation, evangelization and rubrics. We do differ, it seems, on emphasis, My concern is valid and historical. The word corresponding, however, does not necessarily indicate a dichotomy. The dictionary defines it as "similar in character, form, or function." I did not mean to imply that one has a direct cause and effect on the other. My point is that human beings have a limited amount of energy. When energy in a person or institution is allocated, it does, in fact and with some exceptions, take away from energy and effort given to other things. I see an exaggerated emphasis on rubrics as a historical condition afflicting, at least, the recent history of the Catholic Church. I have seen it especially in older priests who were told about how they could commit mortal sins in small deviations from the rubrics. I still see hyper-focus in many of our newly ordained priests. The energy seems to be placed in an exaggerated concern for correctness, with much less concern allocated for the proclamation of the Gospel message in an accessible and understandable way. I do not think you would deny that we have a large crisis in preaching in the Catholic Church. I would hope that we, as a church, can reach a good balance, as we both would hope. Your concern seems to be with rubrics and their gross abuse.... granted. I differ only in the diagnosis of the main affliction that should be of concern. In my humble opinion it is a crisis of meaninful preaching and evagelization that is of the main concern, rather than a crisis of rubrics.

frjohn said...

Mario: I heard a talk by Fr. Ronald Knot(sp?), a diocesan priest on staff at St. Meinred Serminary, Indiana, who is convinced that there is a crisis in good preaching. I suspect that this is not new, because I have memories of preaching prior to Vatican II. I think that many men who accept holy orders do so because they are attracted like bees to the flowers of the fields to the sacred in its most ancient sense. They simply cannot let loose of the control that rubrics affords, nor of the emotional security it affords them.
On the other hand, obedience to the rubrics can, and often does, free men for a profoundly moving encounter with God's act of salvation so that their preaching becomes a gospel. I have seen a relaxation, an ease and comfort in men who embrace the rubrics. It is best for us to remember that we are but men doing our best, then liturgy become craft in the sense that Robert Frost meant when he described the craft of poetry as riding easy in the harness.