Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Turbulent Tiber

Professor Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), was recently received into the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Beckwith's prominence in Evangelical circles (and beyond them as well) assured that the decision that he and his wife made would attract a good deal of attention, from both Catholics and Evangelicals. As a Roman Catholic who daily grows more grateful for the unearned and unmerited gift of faith and membership in the Mother Church, I am happy for Dr. Beckwith and his wife.

But I do not think that we Catholics should do an end-zone dance about this.

I have had the great good fortune to have had ongoing conversations with Evangelicals whose faith I admire greatly and whose contributions on the subject of faith and culture have been informative and inspiring. In general I feel that Catholics could use an evangelical nudge at least as much as Evangelicals could use a catholic one. (I myself am in constant need of both.)

"I find it almost uncanny that theology is so often engaged in banal and egoistic frictions today," wrote then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 20 years ago, "when the waters have risen to humanity’s very neck and the death knell of theology may actually have sounded."

Here's a suggestion: why don't we Catholics and Evangelicals (and anyone else who wants in on the process) treat ourselves to a little good-humored holy competition: While remaining in serious dialogue with one another, let's see how well each of our traditions can accomplish the task before is: namely, to give a credible -- which is to say, existentially edifying -- account of the truth of Christianity. I might add, just to make the contest a little more interesting: the whole truth.

Here's something that might balance things a bit. Let's call it, well ... works righteousness. It's from something then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote 20 years ago.
Recently, I entertained two South American bishops, with whom I discussed both their social projects and their pastoral experiences and efforts. They told me of the intensive proselytizing with which the hundred or so Christian denominations of the reformed churches have encroached upon the traditional Catholicism of the land and are changing its religious face. In the course of the conversation, they spoke of a remarkable event that they considered symptomatic and that had forced them to examine their conscience as to the course taken by the Catholic Church of South America since the end of Vatican Council II. They reported that representatives of several [largely “indigenous”] villages had come to the Catholic bishop to tell him that they had now joined a Protestant community. They took the opportunity to thank the bishop for all the social undertakings by which he had accomplished many fine things for them through the years and which they greatly appreciated. “But we need a religion, too,” they said, “and that is why we have become Protestants.”
This was the result, then-Cardinal Ratzinger observed, of the decision of the postconciliar Church in Latin America “that these countries should first be developed and then evangelized,” an inversion of the Church’s purpose that the Protestant evangelists did not make. “But men really do not live by bread alone,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “and cannot wait to have their other needs fulfilled until bread is no longer a problem.”

Those who undertake this task will likely be appreciative of parallel or converging efforts of others.

As a professor (whose name I cannot recall) at Wheaton College said to me several years ago on my first visit to Wheaton: "When Christ comes next time, he'll be looking for bride and not a harem."

It won't hurt to keep that in mind.

Monday, May 28, 2007

More on the Epistemology of Faith . . .

During his 40 days in the desert, Jesus was tempted to do things that would make the truth of his claims and the meaning of his existence irrefutable. He declined. His followers down through the centuries have sometimes tried to do what Jesus refused to do.

But irrefutability is overrated. Christian faith appeals to freedom and to love, both of which require the absence of irrefutability, what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls "the purely worldly power of persuasion." The truth of Christianity is simply Christ -- the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- the Truth that will set you free.

The kind of evidential power with which God manifests himself must be of the highest kind, precisely in virtue of the fact that it allows freedom because it makes men free. And it wants to overpower a lover that answers in freedom only in its own way -- by the evidential power of love ...
Balthasar cites Blaise Pascal as the thinker who best understood this, quoting this from Pascal's Pensées: "Perfect clarity would please reason but harm the will. The proud man must be humbled."

Balthasar goes so far as to say the "only that person can truly recognize the Messiah who knows how to keep his secret."

This is not of course to ignore the command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Rather it is to realize that the value of that preaching will depend primarily on how faithfully the lives of those who preach it have been conformed to Christ and only secondarily on how objectively persuasive their argumentation might be.

The secret that must be kept is an open secret, but it will elude those who try to discover it solely on the basis of a "purely worldly power of persuasion."

Remembering with gratitude . . .

Today we remember those who have given their lives in an effort to make the world a safer and freer and more peaceful place. Among these I count my father, who was killed in World War II, and Tim Shea, the son of two of my oldest and dearest friends, who was killed in Iraq in 2005.

But we might also remember today, not only all who have died in battle, but all who continue to step into harm's way in order to make our lives safer. I think not only of those in military uniform, but also of those serving in police and fire departments, those in public safety. We don't often stop to realize how the relatively peaceful lives we live are made possible by their courage. I think as well of my own daughter Aña, a paramedic who works the night shift on a rescue crew in an inner city.

We who live in such relative safety owe a great debt to those who make the world a safer place.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Science of Facts & Epistemology of Truth

A number of very smart people have made very conspicuous fools of themselves lately by not recognizing a truth expressed with such lapidary economy by Benedict XVI in his marvelous new book, Jesus of Nazareth:
The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.
For an extended meditation on this insight, see Leon Kass' essay in the April edition of Commentary, "Science, Religion, and the Human Future" (subscription required). Two of my most trusted friends, Ron Austin and Tom Olp, recommended Dr. Kass' article to me within 30 minutes of each other yesterday. Benedict gets the nod for succinctness, but Leon Kass draws out the implications of the Pope's remark.

Leon Kass:
The substantive limits of science follow from certain fundamental aspects of scientific knowledge and from science’s assumptions about what sorts of things are scientifically knowable. They stem from science’s own self-proclaimed conceptual limitations — limitations to which neither religious nor philosophical thought is subject. This is not because, science being rational, it is incapable of dealing with the passionate or sub-rational or spiritual or supernatural aspects of being. It is, on the contrary, because the rationality of science is but a partial and highly specialized rationality, concocted for the purpose of gaining only that kind of knowledge for which it was devised, and applied to only those aspects of the world that can be captured by such rationalized notions. The peculiar reason of science is not the natural reason of everyday life captured in ordinary speech, and it is also not the reason of philosophy or religious thought, both of which are tied to—even as they seek to take us beyond — the world as we experience it.
Or as Hans Urs von Balthasar put it half a century ago:
To an epoch in which anthropology has been recognized as the key to philosophy, it is self-contradictory to foster an intelligence that approaches things from a merely rationalistic and technical point of view, indeed it completely misunderstands its own being. ... In the anthropological period the highest objectivity can be attained only by the highest personal risk of man himself.
Balthasar comes close to matching Benedict in succinctness when he writes:
A theory of knowledge that resolutely starts from the case that sets the norm of all knowledge, i.e. the meeting between persons, saves itself a good many problems.

Be not conformed to the spirit of this age ...

Here's then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reflecting on the turmoil -- in the world and in the Church -- which threw so many of the moral, religious and cultural structures into confusion.
That all-too-guileless progressivism of the first postconciliar years [years just after the Second Vatican Council - 1962-1965], which happily proclaimed its solidarity with everything modern, with everything that promised progress, and strove with the self-conscious zeal of a model schoolboy to prove the compatibility of what is Christian with all that is modern, to demonstrate the loyalty of Christians to the trends of contemporary life -- that progressivism has today come under suspicion of being merely the apotheosis of the late-capitalistic bourgeoisie, on which, instead of attacking it critically, it sheds a kind of religious glow. Granted, a relatively harmless little demon has thereby been surreptitiously replaced by seven increasingly harmful ones, but the disillusionment can be salutary. For it becomes more and more clear, in the harsh lightning of the storm aroused by such criticism, that man's existence and his world are not so pleasantly peaceful in their pursuit of progress that one would readily choose to be converted to such a world -- if one is to serve it, one must criticize it, one must change it. A Christianity that believes it has no other function than to be completely in tune with the spirit of the times has nothing to say and no meaning to offer. It can abdicate without more ado.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Tolerance Vigilantes . . .


I wrote most of the following blog post almost three weeks ago. In the meantime, my computer crashed, requiring a long and laborious process of restoration, from which I was distracted by trips to Houston, Dallas, Chicago and San Diego (where I am at the moment). But the most substantial reason for the delay of this blog post is my reluctance about being drawn into the culture war trenches. For years I opted as best I could for the easy way out: declaring myself above the fray, but in the end the “neither liberal nor conservative” position is just a leaf out of Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil” handbook on post-moral post-modernity.

In the defense of faith – and, secondarily, the defense of the cultural civilities that faith fostered – one has to take a stand, especially when the enemies of these things begin to turn the screws, as they are doing now.

A newspaper here in San Diego carried a story today that convinced me to post this blog entry. At the risk of making it the longest blog entry I have probably ever posted, here are excerpts from the California Catholic Daily story, headlined: Sex Carnival at UC Davis:

"Students looking for a good time should stop by the Quad, where Sex Fest '07 will be pleasuring participants with all kinds of sexual carnival games," said Richard Procter, writing in the University of California, Davis newspaper, California Aggie.

Activities at the May 22 event are to include condom relay races, a condom balloon toss, condom jewelry, the opportunity for photographs with Captain Condom, and an event to see who can put a condom on a wooden penis model the fastest.

"Condom jewelry is really fun,” said Sexual Health Program coordinator Arielle Fleischer. Students will be provided with unlubricated condoms, "so your hands don't get all gross!" quipped Fleischer. Students will be provided with craft materials, including sequins and glitter, with which to fashion condom earrings, bracelets, and other kitsch.

The idea isn’t being packaged as sexual infantilization -- despite the Kiddie Adventure Day Camp ambiance -- but as an initiative to promote “safe sex.” Fleischer expressed the hope that "all the games in which students interact with condoms make them more comfortable with them; we'd like to decrease the stigma associated with condoms."
Youthful idealism: Righting wrongs, and so on. Where are the list of urgent matters to be addressed on today's college campuses would you put decreasing the stigma associated with condoms? Stigma?
Among the information UC Davis students are virtually guaranteed not to receive are the findings of Dr. Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist at UCLA Student Psychological Services. Her professional work has convinced her that the casual sexual "hook up" culture on campus is leading to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and a crippling of the ability to love, trust, or translate sexual energy into a lasting personal commitment.

"Women students especially are suffering emotional disorientation as a result of using, or being used by others in shallow relationships. This is damaging to students' self-respect, even if the sexual 'using' is agreed-upon and mutual," Grossman explained in a recent talk show on Chicago’s WGN Radio. Despite all the “fun,” she says, "we are losing the war on depression on campus.”


The Connecticut state Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill on April 25th that requires all hospitals — including the state's four Catholic facilities — to provide rape victims with the abortifacient drug also known as the morning after pill. The drug prevents the implantation of living embryos, and is therefore simply a chemical abortion, ending the life of a biological human being. Catholic moral theology forbids this or any other form of abortion, but the state of Connecticut has decided, based on the now normative fiction that abortion is "a woman's right," that when the choice is between the "right" to an abortion and religious freedom, religious freedom loses.

Once upon a time there was a handsome young prince. When he grew up, he began searching for a wife, but could not find a princess he wanted to marry. One day, he met another prince—and fell in love. The two men married and lived happily ever after. ... When the fairy tale—which ended with the newly married “couple” kissing—was read to Massachusetts first graders, Christian parents were outraged.
The parents sued the Lexington school district for allowing their 6-year-olds to be taught sexual morality that not only flatly contradicts the moral teaching of the parents, but that flies in the face of Judeo-Christian moral norms universally recognized just a few short years ago. Predictably, however, the federal judge in the case, Mark Wolf, dismissed the lawsuit.

So, who gets to be the arbiter of morality for 6-year-olds in Massachusetts? And to what does this moral revolution appeal for its authority? Has there been a plebiscite?

A couple doors down the hall from Mr. Johnson's classroom at Westview High School in Rancho Peñasquitos, a suburb of San Diego, a teacher has a picture of the grunge rock band Nirvana on her door. Other teachers have slogans from sports celebrities and cartoon characters. Teacher Brad Johnson has decorated his assigned homeroom with pictures of families and nature, and banners relating to American history, such as God Bless America.

That last item, the school district told Johnson in January of this year, is banned and must be removed from the classroom. Why? Because the Poway Unified School District is under the impression that any reference to "Creator," "Creation," or "God" is prohibited by law.

The following phrases struck the school board as objectionable: “In God We Trust,” the official motto of the United States; “One Nation Under God,” from the Pledge of Allegiance; “God Bless America,” a patriotic song considered to be the unofficial national anthem of the United States; “God Shed His Grace On Thee,” a line from America the Beautiful; and “All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator,” an excerpt from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

... Johnson points out that seven different principals, approximately 4,000 students in grades 9 - 12, and 1,000 parents have seen these banners in his classroom since 1982 with never a single complaint.

A piece of legislation that seems as wholesome as motherhood and apple pie, entitled -- Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (LLEHCPA) -- passed the House of Representatives on May 3rd. The bill affords "sexual orientation" -- homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, cross-dressing, and so on -- special legal protection. It's sponsors argue as though, and the bill makes it seem as though, all that the bill will do is prevent unfair treatment.

In fact, however, the bill will silence those who object to homosexual acts or the moral and anthropological absurdities of transsexuality. It will criminalize the public expression of moral principles on which Christians and Jews and just about every other religion and every other culture in the history of the world have always agreed. Here is what Robert Gagnon, an acknowledged expert in this area, predicts:
Any public words against homosexual practice will be treated legally as words that incite others to violence and/or discrimination against homosexual persons, and thus subject to criminal prosecution.
The bill is supported overwhelmingly by House Democrats, and when a amendment was proposed by a Republican member declaring that nothing in the bill should be construed as an abridgment of the religious freedom of any person or group, the amendment was rejected by the majority. This is what the progressive erosion of religious liberty looks like, and those who believe it will go no further than this have not been paying attention.

Robert Gagnon:
Numerous outcomes, some that will be manifested in the very short-term and others in the long-term, will arise from giving special federal protections to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” These include:

Large fines if one owns a business and does not allow GLBT (“gay,” lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) activists to make use of the business’s services to advance the GLBT agenda; moreover, having to pay the court costs of the government agency that prosecutes the case.

Forced indoctrination of children as young as kindergarten in the public school systems into the acceptability of homosexual and transgendered behavior and the labeling of their parents’ contrary religious views as “bigotry” and “hatred,” through required readings, “GLBT studies,” and mandatory attendance at special diversity convocations or diversity workshops; also, mandatory “sensitivity training” for all teachers on the value of sexual orientation diversity.

Home-schooled children not being allowed to receive certification if their parents do not teach a curriculum that incorporates appreciation for "sexual diversity."

Loss of federal funds, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds for student loans, for any Christian college or seminary that does not hire homosexually active teachers, or that forbids students to engage in homosexual practice, or that allows a teacher at its institution to speak against homosexual practice; ultimately, the threat of loss of accreditation for Christian colleges that do not condone homosexual behavior and transgenderism; likewise, loss of tax-exempt status for any church that promotes such teaching.

Students and employees required to get counseling for the alleged mental health condition of “homophobia” or risk expulsion.

Imposition of national gay marriage by the courts, through appeal to this newly formed federal civil liberties category of “sexual orientation.”
Lest you think Gagnon an alarmist, we have solid historical experience with this sort of legislation. For several years the California Penal Code has treated "sexual orientation" as if it were as inalterable as granite and as malleable as puddy, defining "sexual orientation" as including "bisexuality" and "gender," and defining gender this way: "a person's gender identity and gender related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person's assigned sex at birth."

Gender stereotypes begin, by this definition, when the delivery nurse arbitrarily "assigns" the newborn a gender, relying on nothing more substantial than a quick glance at the child's genitals. How, exactly, has such foresighted legislation advanced the cause of civilization?
"California first put transsexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality into the 'hate crimes' section of the state's Penal Code, then applied this strange definition of 'gender' to every other part of the law," said Randy Thomasson, president of Campaign for Children and Families (CCF), a leading California-based pro-family organization. "Today, California has transsexual kindergarten teachers and laws threatening $150,000 in government fines against anyone who refuses to hire a man wearing women's clothing. It's all because of 'hate crimes' laws that include the phrases 'gender identity' and 'sexual orientation,' which have morphed California law into an intolerant hammer against moral citizens.
What Melanie Phillips said about European capitulation to radical Islam is true -- mutatis mutandis -- of the moral capitulation in Western society to a sexual anthropology as absurd and as sure to prove culturally fatal in the long run as jihadist fanaticism: "That noise you hear is the rumbling of an agenda that drives all before it. It is not a pretty sound."

For a sane and sober reflection on these matters, see Roger Scruton's recent piece in the London Telegraph.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Philip Rieff

"The lies are grandiose, for they can never be lived modestly, as the truths can be lived."

More anon.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What once separated might now unite

My computer problems persist, but there is hope that much of the data lost in my computer crash can be recovered. My travel schedule is another thing keeping me from more regular blog posts. I leave for the West coast again on Monday. In the meantime, here is something I thought you might find interesting. I certainly did.

As it was with his pontifical predecessor, the need to move toward the restoration of Christian unity is central to how Benedict XVI sees his pontificate. Writing in the 1980s, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argued that an important part of that work will be the renewed attention to the Church Fathers, representing as they do the common ancestors of the Eastern Church (which is most especially devoted to the Church Fathers) as well as the Catholic, Protestant and Reformed Churches of West.

When, Cardinal Ratzinger asked, did the patristic age end? Put slightly differently, the question is: what is the decisive date of the division between the Eastern and Western Churches? In trying to answer this question, he made a most remarkable observation:
… the end of Fourth Ecumenical Council does indeed represent a certain watershed. Nevertheless, the era of Church councils approved by both East and West persisted; the unity of faith and communio continued to express itself in the unity of common theological thought. The year 1054, on the other hand, is too peripheral and incidental a date to be meaningful as a reference point; the event of that year only made clear outwardly what had long existed in fact: that East and West spoke different languages, thought in different theologies – that, in other words, there still existed particular theologies but no “ecumenical theology” such as had existed in the time of the Fathers. We would have to say, then, that the patristic age ended with the changed intellectual climate marked by the Migrations and by the hostile spread of Islam; as an outward sign of the latter, we can point to the pope’s turning to the Carolingian Empire, by which the old ecumenism was finally destroyed and – together with the creation of the church-state – the new self-understanding of the West, the fundamental constellation of the Middle Ages, was created.
Only lately have we begun to reckon with the persistent historical impact on Christianity and the cultures it nourished of “the hostile spread of Islam.” That Islamic hostility might have contributed to the most significant division within Christianity is quite remarkable. Perhaps we can hope, however, that the current manifestation of this hostility will contribute to the cause of Christian unity.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Chicago / Wheaton

I am in the Chicago area for meetings. My computer problems remain. Meetings in Houston, Dallas and here have gone extremely well, far beyond my expectations. Our Emmaus Road Initiative will have a lively venues in these places: One large venue in Houston, two in Dallas, three in Wheaton.

I will return to my office midweek, and turn to the computer problems. I hope soon afterward to begin putting the pieces back together and be back to more regularly blogging as soon as possible.

Thanks for continuing to check in.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Doing the best I can ...


I just returned from Hartford, Connecticut. It looks good for a monthly Emmaus Road Initiative series there beginning in September. Tomorrow morning early, I leave for Houston, Dallas, and Chicago to meet with a number of people there to plan monthly E.R.I. sessions in those places as well.

The bad news is that I'm reeling from a catastrophic computer crash, one that took out the backup drive as well. It may have, shall we say, life-altering consequences. Little can be done in any event until I return from the trip. If there are no posts for a while, that's why.

If you're full of compassion and in the mood for prayer, keep me and my hard-drive woes in your prayers. If, like me, you need a little comic relief to keep things like this in perspective, here's a photo of one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century -- Hans Urs von Balthasar -- at Disneyland:

Sunday, May 06, 2007

"One less thing ..."

Something for the Lord's Day:

Writing in the 1980s, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) quoted a humorous couplet from the German poet, Wilhelm Busch. I don't read German, and I don't have the German original, but the English translation I have doesn't quite work. So I have "translated" it, retaining I'm quite sure its essence:
Once your worldly reputation is in tatters,
You'll have more time for what really matters.
Cardinal Ratzinger quoted the Wilhelm Busch version of this couplet during those years when he was widely and falsely accused of being an ecclesiastical Neanderthal. It's quite clear to those who bother to read what he wrote during those years that he used his extra time wisely.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Surrendering Europe

I assure you that it is with a heavy heart that I follow-up the last blog post with this one. Please understand that I share such things, not just to bemoan the ways things are going. There is too much whining going on as is. The purpose is to convince those who are still sleepwalking through this crisis that it is a real crisis, a civilizational crisis of the first order of magnitude, and that everything we hold dear hangs in the balance.

Yesterday my attention was called to a comment posted on the Gates of Vienna weblog, one of the several weblogs dedicated to alerting Europeans (and others) to the mounting threat posed by the radicalization of Islam. Responding to a blog entry about the British "brain-drain," a British blogger who goes by the name of Alien Anthropologist had this to say:
Almost every friend who has a high-paid job and useful skills is looking at emigrating from Britain, waiting for their visa, or has already gone, and I’ll be off across the Atlantic myself in a couple of months. I’d add that includes skilled and integrated Muslim friends who have no more desire to stay here than I do; many saw the writing on the wall with the London bombings and I’d hate to see them getting hurt in a backlash against Muslim extremists.

Someone mentioned that one reason people aren’t willing to fight for Britain is because it doesn’t exist anymore, and I’d agree with that; the Britain of 2007 bears little resemblance to the country where I grew up, and almost anything a Briton of 1907 might recognize here has been destroyed by a few decades of ‘progressive’ policies which deliberately set out to do exactly that. Britons fifty years ago were happy to fight for King and Country — as I would have been myself — but few people today are going to fight for Tony Blair and the EU.

So, as I see it, the future for Britain is either Islamic rule or civil war, with the latter more likely. Since I don’t fancy either of those options, I’d rather make a stand in a country that still has more options ...
This is a footnote to yesterday's blog post. A sad one, to be sure. If it helps to stir us awake, however; if it makes us more aware of the social, political, and cultural consequences of the loss of our religious tradition, then it will have served a useful purpose.

"The question is, not how we can establish a trouble-free existence," wrote then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "but what is worth the trouble and what is not."

Friday, May 04, 2007

Passing along a couple of items:

This from Christopher Orlet:
Behind multiculturalism was the conceit that various tribes, races, and sects embracing radically different or opposing values -- indeed encouraged to embrace different values -- might live together in peace and harmony. What's more, one and all would be richer for the association. And since we are all reasonable modern people ancient grudges and historical injustices would be as forgotten as, say, Walter Mondale's running mate. Under multiculturalism the Earth would be a peaceable kingdom once more, an Eden before the fall.
Only it didn't quite work out that way. It seems tribes, races, and sects do hold grudges. Sometimes for a thousand years. And as for sharing different values, many Muslim immigrants and their Saudi and Egyptian spiritual advisors were not as big on multiculturalism as were the West's intellectuals and politicos. The former's secular European neighbors were not regarded as distinct cultural groups with equal cultural and political status, but godless infidels and Zionist apes and swine.
Yes, that's Big Ben in the background,
for many the symbol of the United Kingdom and London its capitol.
The foreground is London citizens hoisting a Hezbollah flag.

And this from Roger Kimball:
Western democratic society is rooted in a particular vision of what Aristotle called "the good for man." The question is: Do we, as a society, still have confidence in the animating values of the vision? Do we possess the requisite will to defend them? Or was François Revel right when he said that "Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it"? The jury is still out on those questions.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Message in a Bottle

To Whom It May Concern:

[To European culture today -- while it can still be spoken of in the singular -- and to North American culture in the near future]:

From Philip Rieff:
A multiculture is an anti-culture. ... the historical task of a culture is always and everywhere the same: the creation of a world in which its inhabitants may find themselves at home and yet accommodate the stranger without yielding their habitus to him.
T. S. Eliot's "where there is no temple, there shall be no homes" finds its perfect echo in Rieff's "Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing."

Lest the word "sacred" trigger in my fellow Girardians a needless knee-jerk reaction, what both Eliot and Rieff are saying is simply that all culture is rooted in cult, and that without reference to transcendence made vibrant and materially manifest in the culture, the culture will succumb to the iron law of both human affairs and physics, namely, that nature abhors a vacuum.

So, finally, Philip Rieff: "As teaching agents of sacred order, and inescapably within it, the moral demands we must teach, if we are teachers, are those eternal truths by which all social orders endure."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


The word "tradition" and the word "treason" come from the same root.

The very name "modernity" self-consciously used to describe the period of the last several centuries in Western cultural history clearly exemplifies the spirit that has dominated these centuries, and the "postmodernism" that has lately been offered as its sequel -- as it's name makes obvious -- is nothing more than the same spirit, in Shakespeare's words, having eaten everything else in sight, at last eating up itself.

The spirit that animates both these phases of our cultural history is an anti-traditional spirit, rooted in the assumption that liberation from the past is the key to happiness and progress. This "liberationist" spirit has fostered a remarkable degree of economic and political improvements, but it must be said that the most impressive of these are due more to the residual presence of a Judeo-Christian ethos than to the forces that have insisted on its irrelevance.

Slowly but surely, however, the underlying presuppositions of the modern and postmodern eras have led to a loss of cohesion and cultural integrity, resulting in a situation today in the West which is little more than licensed autonomy enforced with increasingly draconian methods, all aimed at neutralizing or penalizing the public presence of traditional religious or moral judgments: what Pope Benedict called "the dictatorship of relativism."

All of this plays out as the culture war, which, however reluctant one is to enter its lists, can no more be avoided than can other kinds of war. The bumper sticker which reads: Stop the War, for instance, seems to presuppose that this can be done by simply laying down one's arms. Which, in a way, is true, for it would simply concede the contest to those who have not laid down their arms, thus bringing the war between them to an end. One doesn't have to be a political philosopher, much less a member of some neo-con cabal, to realize that war ended on those terms might lead to a very unhappy state of affairs.

So ... the unavoidability of the culture war. The passions aroused by that war, however, should not blind us to our responsibility to our descendants. I am even tempted to describe the belligerents in today's culture war as those who are primarily concerned with making the culture more congenial to their own impulses, desires, aptitudes, and preoccupations, on one hand, and, on the other, those primarily concerned with the cultural, moral, and spiritual needs of those who will come after them. I know howls of protest will be forthcoming about that; but I must say this is exactly how it seems to me.

The precise point I want to make is about the very nature of both tradition and culture. Both are received from the distant past, not concocted in the present or in the recent past. That is why we must try to resolve any differences between ourselves, our contemporaries, our ancestors, and our descendants in favor of our ancestors. Paradoxically, that is the only way we can resolve them in favor of our descendants. For what our descendants will most desperately need is an inheritance, a tradition, a moral, religious, and cultural patrimony that has the weight of centuries of affirmation, reflection, scrutiny, and living experience. Anything less ballasted than that will surely be washed away in the cultural tsunamis which are doubtless coming in the decades just ahead.

To hand on to the next generation a culture cobbled together out of the fashions and ideological enthusiasms of the last few decades is to betray them in the most irresponsible way, for such a culture is no culture at all, and it will do them no good. This is why the New Testament warns against the "spirit of this age," not because of the peculiar toxins at work in the late-first century Greco-Roman culture when the New Testament was being written, but precisely because every age produces its own unique myths and rituals for warding off the truth that Christians are charged with announcing to the world, and Christians are warned to be wary of them, in season and out.

What makes a tradition a living tradition is not that it has been recently updated to conform to the latest fashions, but quite the contrary, that it brings into play longstandng moral and spiritual realities to which the world will forever be hostile and for lack of which it will become mad and murderous. If such a tradition is to remain alive, it will do so, not by customizing itself to the point of being indistinguishable from its surrounding society, but by delving ever deeper into its reservoir of truth and bringing forth fresh new ways of understanding these truths.

We owe our children and our children's children nothing less.