Watch this clip. It’s Victoria Osteen, the co-pastor of Lakewood Church, the nondenominational Houston megatemple that’s America’s largest congregation. It claims over 40,000 in average weekly attendance at their church, located in a former basketball arena:
“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God — I mean, that’s one way to look at it — we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That the thing that gives Him the greatest joy.
So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
When I saw that clip last week on my Facebook feed, I rolled my eyes, but I didn’t bother posting it here. This is nothing new for the Osteens. But a Baptist reader sent it to me today, and said it seems to have galvanized Protestant leaders to speak out against Osteenism. If so, good.
The Osteens are easy targets, of course, but it’s worth asking why it is that so very many people follow this pair, when their preaching seems completely opposed to the Gospel. They live in a $10.5 million, 17,000 square foot mansion. They are reportedly worth $40 million (Joel Osteen says he has not taken a salary from his church since 2005; he lives on royalties from his bestsellers, and related material).
Back in 2006, Time magazine published a cover story on the prosperity gospel. I recently found it, and was startled by this:
For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. [Emphasis mine -- RD]
I knew that prosperity preaching was a big deal, but I didn’t know that it was such a big deal. More from that story:
The movement’s renaissance has infuriated a number of prominent pastors, theologians and commentators. Fellow megapastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life has outsold Osteen’s by a ratio of 7 to 1, finds the very basis of Prosperity laughable. “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”, he snorts. “There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”
Great line. One more bit:
Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s Prothero.
This was important for me to read, I think. I am so cut off from prosperity gospel Christianity, and from Evangelicalism, that I really didn’t see that this stuff was such a threat. When I’ve seen prosperity preachers like Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and T.D. Jakes on TV, I’ve wondered, “How could anybody believe this stuff?” Well, a lot of people do, many more than I thought. I better understand what my Baptist friend was telling me a week or two ago, about how he thought Evangelicalism faced a crack-up in the near future over an inability to deal with the moral challenges of wealth and materialism.
I believe that much of Mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism have become yes-men for the culture, but when confronted by the popularity of prosperity and prosperity-lite forms of Christianity, it’s hard to gainsay with Stephen Prothero of BU says.
Here’s an interesting twist: you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most people at the Osteens’ Houston church vote Republican (I don’t know if they do; I’m only saying that it wouldn’t be surprising if that were true). The idea of “prosperity gospel” and “Republican” go together in the minds of many people.
But I think it’s a safe bet to say that most people at black pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes’s Potter’s House megachurch in suburban Dallas do not vote GOP. Same deal with the crowd at World Changers Church, the magnificently named black pastor Creflo Dollar’s Atlanta megachurch (which he co-pastors with his wife Taffi). Here’s an interesting bit from a 2006 Texas Monthly story on Jakes (which is actually fairly complimentary to Jakes; he sounds like a much more grounded preacher than the Osteens, though still in the prosperity mold):
The Potter’s House is still largely a black church, reaching down to rescue the fallen and disadvantaged but devoting much of its effort to providing support and encouragement to upwardly mobile African Americans—an extremely important cultural task. It seems easier and is certainly more common for a white preacher such as Houston’s Joel Osteen to attract large numbers of blacks and Hispanics than for a black preacher such as Jakes to attract significant numbers of whites and Hispanics.
Would you have guessed that Joel Osteen pastors an ethnically diverse congregation? Texas Monthly‘s Martin said in a related interview that Osteen’s church has equal numbers of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. What I don’t know about megachurch Pentecostal Christianity is a lot. That’s a world that is so alien to me. I need to understand it better, and why it is so powerful.
Let me ask you Evangelical readers: Do you see the prosperity gospel as a threat to the integrity of your churches? Why or why not?
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reportedly told a European official that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted to, adding a new dimension to the tensions building in Ukraine as Russian forces become more involved in the fighting there.
As NATO leaders gather in Wales for a summit meeting, Mr. Putin’s remarks and the increasing presence of Russian military units in Ukraine have posed a stark new challenge to the alliance about how to respond to Moscow’s apparent willingness to exert military force to achieve its foreign policy goals.
The Kremlin did not deny the remark, which was published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Monday, but on Tuesday it denounced the European official, José Manuel Barroso, for leaking details of what Mr. Putin understood to be a private telephone call.
“Whether these words were said or not, in my viewpoint, the quote given is taken out of context, and it had an absolutely different meaning,” said Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide, according to the Interfax news service.
I find it difficult to imagine a context in which these words would be any less troubling.
I have refrained from commenting lately on the Russia-Ukraine dispute because of its complexity. As you know, it has been my opinion that Putin has been unfairly criticized in the West, at times. And it is my opinion that the West foolishly exploited Russia’s post-Soviet weakness to advance its sphere of influence to Russia’s own border. I think Daniel Larison is correct here:
The U.S. and its allies are never going to care more about Ukraine than Russia, and they are never going to be willing to take any major risks on behalf of Ukraine. That was true when the crisis began last year, and nothing has changed since then. Several Western governments carelessly pursued a contest for influence with Russia in Ukraine without having any intention of dedicating the resources or taking the risks that such a contest required, and they did so without ever considering how negatively Russia would react to the attempt. Now that we can see how disastrously this has turned out, it makes absolutely no sense to repeat the error by encouraging Ukraine to fight an unwinnable war.
This is true. And yet, it’s important to say that Russia is behaving as an imperialist power here. Putin’s war on Ukraine is an imperialist war. We are not in a position to stop it, and shouldn’t even try. But we had better see Putin’s Russia for what it is: imperialist.
What did Ta-Nehisi Coates do on his summer vacation? He went to French camp and descended further into gloom. His report on having spent this past summer in a French immersion environment at Middlebury College reminds me both of what I love in his writing and why I find him hard to read anymore. Excerpt:
Acquiring a second language is hard. I have been told that it is easier for children, but I am not so sure if this is for reasons of biology or because adults have so much more to learn. Still, it remains true that the vast majority of students at Middlebury were younger than me, and not just younger, but fiercer. My classmates were, in the main, the kind of high-achieving college students who elect to spend their summer vacation taking on eight hours a day of schoolwork. There was no difference in work ethic between us. If I spent more time studying than my classmates, that fact should not be taken as an accolade but as a marker of my inefficiency.
They had something over me, and that something was a culture, which is to say a suite of practices so ingrained as to be ritualistic. The scholastic achievers knew how to quickly memorize a poem in a language they did not understand. They knew that recopying a handout a few days before an exam helped them digest the information. They knew to bring a pencil, not a pen, to that exam. They knew that you could (with the professor’s permission) record lectures and take pictures of the blackboard.
This culture of scholastic achievement had not been acquired yesterday. The same set of practices had allowed my classmates to succeed in high school, and had likely been reinforced by other scholastic achievers around them. I am sure many of them had parents who were scholastic high-achievers. This is how social capital reinforces itself and compounds. It is not merely one high achieving child, but a flock of high achieving children, each backed by high-achieving parents. I once talked to a woman who spoke German, English and French and had done so since she was a child. How did this happen, I asked? “Everyone in my world spoke multiple languages,” she explained. “It was just what you did.”
OK. But I suspect I would have a similar reaction if I went to Middlebury for the summer. I made good grades throughout school, but did not develop good study habits. When I ran into classes that were really hard, one’s that defeated my ability to wing my way around, I failed, or very nearly did. This wasn’t because of a deficit of culture. This was because of me. Still, I grant his point here, though I would add that anyone in or approaching middle age (TNC is 37) is going to have a less plastic brain than classmates in their early 20s, and is going to move more slowly.
Anyway, being surrounded by all those young people who grasped French more quickly than he did causes him to blame the government:
Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.
For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”
And so a white family born into the lower middle class can expect to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures. A black family with a middle class salary can expect to live around a critical mass of poor people, and mostly see the same things they (and the poor people around them) are working hard to escape. This too compounds.
He’s right, of course, about what segregation and racism did in a systematic way to black Americans, but I think he’s off, and off in a way that matters, about what lower middle class white families can expect. Remember Tabi, the poor white girl from Pennsylvania that the Washington Post profiled? She was struggling mightily to break free from the poverty culture that was everywhere around her, and reinforced by her mother, her siblings, and just about everybody. Does TNC seriously think that Tabi would have it easier than he if she ended up at Middlebury for the summer?
Let’s say that Tabi isn’t lower middle class; she’s just poor, and therefore not an ideal example. I’ll consider my own case. My family was somewhere between lower middle and middle class. My dad worked as a health inspector; my mom drove a school bus. We lived in rural south Louisiana. I knew exactly one kid growing up who could be called rich, and he didn’t flaunt it. My folks expected my sister and me to make good grades, and we did, but all of this was disconnected from any broader intellectual culture. I don’t say that to fault them at all; my mom and dad were very good about buying me whatever books I wanted, and I’m grateful to them for it. The point I’m making is that in the family and local culture in which I was raised, the purpose of education was to be able to go to college and to get a good job. The end.
The idea that we, and people like us, could have expected “to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures” is completely ridiculous, about two tics away from Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me clip. There were exactly two cultures visible to a child like me: the culture of white people, and the culture of black people. We shared a lot of things in common (like, well, school; there was one school, and we all attended it), but we were also quite different. In neither case did a child, black or white, see affluence and its culture. I suppose lower middle class looks affluent to someone who lives on welfare, but the point is, a white kid raised in West Feliciana in the 1970s and early 1980s had little or no intellectual culture of the sort that TNC imagines. The highest goal you aspired to was to attend LSU. Almost nobody thought of the Ivy League. When a friend of mine got into Brown, I was astonished that she had even thought to apply.
As longtime readers know, my late sister and I had a long-running feud in which she patrolled the borders of our relationship, looking for signs of my putting on airs. If she were here today, and I told her that I was going to French camp at Middlebury for two months, I would never hear the end of it. If she were here to see that I was headed to Italy to research Dante next month, I would feel the scornful lash. Just last night I told my dad about my planned trip, and about the book I’m writing about Dante. He was polite about it, but I could tell he was thinking, “More of the same bullshit from that boy.”
All of which to say is that TNC imagining that white people get exposed to a wider range of cultures, including intellectual and academically-inclined cultures, simply by virtue of being white, is the kind of thing believed by someone whose primary experience of white people is working at the offices of The Atlantic, and hanging out with the kind of white people who read The Atlantic. I remember the first time I was ever exposed to that world. It was the fall semester of 1988, and I was doing an internship in DC for a political consultant, through the LSU Journalism School. I spent that fall a nervous wreck, constantly aware of all I lacked. The young people I encountered all seemed so much smarter and worldlier than I was. I remember being invited to an after-work party of some sort at Eastern Market, on Capitol Hill; it was a big mixer for young Democratic types (as I was then). It took everything I had to walk up to the entrance, but I lingered there watching people my age go in, and just … couldn’t. I turned and walked back home, and felt my shame and cowardice. Almost 30 years later, I sit here at my breakfast table with my stomach knotting up, recalling it. I thought everybody I saw was smarter than me and better than me, and that it was all so bloody obvious. I could never be like them. Never.
I eventually grew up. Years later — only five years later — I was living on Capitol Hill working as a reporter, and feeling right at home. I remember the first time I walked past Eastern Market as a Hill resident, feeling the vast difference between that time and the time before. The main difference was in my attitude. Somehow, I realized that most of the people my age that I met and socialized with were more or less like me. True, some had come from privilege, and gone to excellent schools, and moved more fluidly in the world of politics and academia than I did. But this was my world too. I had to do more to get caught up with young people who were acculturated to feel right at home in this world, but like so many other ambitious twentysomethings in DC, I did it.
My family back home didn’t care. I don’t say that in a mean or aggrieved way. It wasn’t that they were disdainful, exactly; it was simply that they couldn’t conceive of the world I had entered: why it was important to me, or why it was important at all. I may as well have been off trading in rugs in Samarkand, or something. I remember having my feelings hurt when I would go home for the holidays, and nobody asked me about my work. It would not have occurred to them to do so. That wasn’t their culture. I had stepped outside of it, and was on my own.
TNC writes of a moment of breakthrough at French camp:
In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.
I love it when he writes this way. He had another line, this one about his younger classmates, that I identified with: “And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud.” These are moments in his writing of such humanity, of how a love of art and literature forges a deep human connection. When TAC’s Noah Millman blogs about Shakespeare, I envy him in some ways, because he loves Shakespeare passionately, as I wish I did. But I have not made time to love Shakespeare. There are so many things I have not made time to love, and there is no one to blame for that but myself.
Then TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!
I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist. TNC thinks it has done that for him, I guess. Recalling his past self, he writes:
I saw no reason to learn French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti.
I had to be a nationalist before I could be a humanist.
What does that mean? That he had to learn to love his people before he could love all the world? I guess I understand that, but if a rural white Southerner had the same thought, what would TNC think of him? I know good and well what the overclass that TNC spent his summer with would think of that Southern kid.
Anyway, it seems that TNC is, in fact, learning French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti. I don’t know how else to read his conclusion, referencing Audre Lorde’s line, that the meaning of his summer spent immersed in the language of Baudelaire, Racine, and Rimbaud is to be found in how it empowers him to resist white supremacy. That does not sound like power to me. That sounds like impoverishment.
He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it. I suspect this all has to do with the way he felt walking across the Luxembourg Gardens on his first time in Paris:
I felt myself as horrifyingly singular there. A language is more than grammar and words, is the movement of The People, their sense of appropriate laughter, their very conception of space. In Paris the public space was a backyard for The People and The People’s language was not mine. Even if I learned the grammar and vocab so part of it must be off-limits to me. it could never really be “mine.” I had a native language of my own. I felt like a distant friend crashing a family reunion. Except the family was this entire sector of the city. I could feel their nameless, invisible bonds all around me, tripping my every step.
I was no more a part of French culture than TNC, and understood the French language not much better than he did. Yet I felt liberated by the pleasure of feeling singular there in the Luxembourg Gardens, in a foreign place, in a place that never would be mine, but didn’t have to be for me to experience joy in it. He reminds me of the 18-year-old me that felt shame approaching the doorway to Eastern Market.
This past spring, an editor at ISI’s Intercollegiate Review wrote to ask, “What lessons from Dante do you wish you had known when you were around 19 or 20? While this is obviously very personal, I’m thinking less of your own experience per se, but universally what Dante can teach people not midway upon the journey of life, but at the starting point; not lost in a dark wood, but facing the path ahead with optimism.”
I responded with this essay, which has just been published. I focused on three lessons from Inferno, because “Inferno is the book most relevant to young adults, most of whom will not have yet made the errors of passion that landed the middle-aged Dante in the dark wood.” Here’s an excerpt:
Believe in yourself. Many graduates hear some version of that advice in their commencement address. It’s as common as dirt and shapes virtually the entire Disney film catalogue. The pilgrim Dante hears it as well, deep in the heart of Hell, from his beloved teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini, thrilled to see his pupil passing through.
Brunetto suffers in the circle of the Sodomites, though Dante never mentions his old master’s sexual activity. Theirs is a tender meeting, with Brunetto full of praise for Dante’s work. “Follow your constellation,” the old man says, “and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory.”
It is terrific flattery, and it comes from a Florentine who was greatly admired in his day as a writer, scholar, and civic leader. Addressing Brunetto with great respect and affection, Dante says, “You taught me how man makes himself eternal.”
It’s enough to make the reader forget that Brunetto is damned. If Dante isn’t talking about sexual immorality, why is Brunetto in Hell? It becomes clearer later in Purgatorio, when Dante meets other Italian artists and learns that art pursued for the sake of personal glory, as distinct from the service of God or some other high cause, is in vain. Brunetto is a vain man, a writer who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work—and a spiritually blind teacher who sees Dante’s fame as bringing glory to himself.
How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, the fortune, and the glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather of the good they can do for others and, if they are religious, the glory they can bring to God through their service? Dante Alighieri’s early verse was good, but he would today be as forgotten as Brunetto Latini if he had not written the Commedia, which he composed for transcendent ends. Few if any of us will accomplish a feat like that, but what good we may do in this world, and what glory may remain after we leave it, will come only if we serve something greater than ourselves.
One reader of this essay wrote to say that Brunetto was, in fact, in the Circle of the Sodomites for sodomy. Yes, I think that is true. But it’s fascinating that in writing about his literary version’s meeting with Brunetto, sex never comes up. We are meant, I think, to see that Brunetto’s sodomy is a misuse of his generative powers — “violence against nature,” Dante calls it — and that this misuse has a parallel in how Brunetto has misused his generative powers as a writer and artist. Brunetto counsels Dante to serve himself and his own desires, and to dedicate his writing to achieving personal fame. As we learn later, in Purgatorio, this is the road to spiritual death. God — that is, broadly speaking, transcendent values — is the only proper end to which artists should dedicate their creations. This is not at all to say that they should only write religious works, but rather to say that to create only for the sake of magnifying your own fame is a sterile act. What’s interesting about how Dante (the poet) handles this issue is that sodomy was apparently not a temptation he faced, but his mentor Brunetto attempted to seduce him into a kind of artistic sodomy.
Read the entire essay. I advise Millennials to learn from Francesca da Rimini and Ulysses.
If you have read Dante, what is the most useful advice for 19 and 20 year olds from the Commedia? Explain yourself.
Tonight the LSU Tigers have their season opener against Wisconsin (one hopes that Uncle Chuckie is not misusing his psionics helmet from the Cosimanian Orthodox Vatican in Milwaukee). In honor of the return of SEC football, I present to you a Fox Sports commentary sent to me by a friend and Auburn graduate: Why Alabama Has The Dumbest Fan Base In America. Excerpts:
When news broke that authorities had arrested a man for poisoning the trees at Auburn, millions of Alabama fans secretly thought to themselves, “God, I hope it’s not Uncle Ray.”
That’s because Harvey Updyke could have easily been in many Bama families.
The Alabama fan base is a fractious mix of two distinct groups who can’t really stand each other.
At the top of the list is the 10-15% of the fan base that could actually be admitted to Alabama or attended the school.
This group hates most of the rest of the Alabama fan base with a passionate fury.
Right now they are reading this column and silently nodding.
The other 85% of Bama fans are incapable of coherent thought and have a deep-seated insecurity about all things in life. Alabama football comprises, and this is not an exaggeration, 99% of their self esteem.
This group of Alabama fans resents those who actually attended the school and calls them, “elitists.” (To be an “elitist” in Alabama you have to graduate high school, avoid having kids until you’re 22, and shop at Target instead of Wal-Mart. Seriously, that’s an Alabama elitist.). Auburn fans, a distinct minority in the state, are really nothing like Alabama fans. That’s because by and large Auburn fans are associated in some way with Auburn. 95% of the idiots in Alabama root for the Crimson Tide.
What’s the dumbest stereotypical Bama fan like in his element?
He’s a 38 year old grandfather and he owns fourteen shirts, thirteen of which have to do with Alabama football’s mythical national titles.
An important aspect of his life is that everyone must know that Alabama is his favorite team at every moment of his life. His truck, his trailer, his clothing, his animals, his arm, his parole papers — all of them must include a reference to his Alabama fandom.
To not do this would be unacceptable.
Read the whole thing, especially if you are a Southerner who is not an Alabama fan. That means you, Tiger Nation.
Y’all been to Hank’s House Of Houndstooth yet?
One more thing, then I’m out. It’s really impossible to watch this too often:
But you know, much as I am obligated to hate Alabama and Nick Saban and all his pomps and works, if Alabama plays for the national championship against a non-SEC team, it’s “Bama Up” for me.
In our ongoing tour of Dante’s Paradiso on this blog, one of you the other day, Liam, said you can see the seeds of nominalism within these late cantos of Paradiso, by which he meant (correct me if I’m wrong, Liam) that the metaphysical system Dante constructs here is so complex and baroque that it collapses under its own weight. That is, it makes sense that people would be attracted to a simpler way to understand the relationship between God and the world than the “metaphysical realism” of Dante and the Scholastics.
I can see the point, but what if metaphysical realism is true? Yes, Dante’s construct in Paradiso is quite complicated, but is there a way to make it simple enough to be understandable, and in a way that the ordinary reader can make use of in his life? This is a question I’m going to have to face when I sit down this fall to write my Dante book.
This week, I stumbled across a book that gave me real insight into this problem. As you know, we moved to a new house recently. The moving process unearthed, so to speak, books of mine that have been out of sight and out of mind for a while. One of them is a book I bought five years ago, when I was reading about Taoism and its parallels to Orthodox Christianity. The contemporary Orthodox priest-monk Damascene wrote a book called Christ The Eternal Tao, in which he interprets the basic Taoist message in Christian terms. The basic idea is that outside of the Hebrew tradition, Taoism is the most complete understanding of what Christianity teaches, and, rightly understood, prepares one to accept the truth of the Gospel. The book by no means teaches syncretism, but rather identifies aspects of Taoist thought that correspond to the way Orthodox Christianity understands the spiritual path. Tao simply means “the Way”; in Chinese bibles, Jesus’s words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” come out as, “I am the Tao, the Truth, and the Life.” For Taoists, yielding to the tao is the path to restoring harmony between body, soul, and the cosmological order, which isn’t necessarily deistic.
You can easily see how this corresponds to what Dante has been after: life as a struggle to reconcile our own souls to the cosmological and metaphysical order, which is laid down and undergirded by God. In the beginning of the Commedia, Dante finds himself in a dark wood of confusion and fear, his escape routes blocked; he has lost the “straight path” — that is, the tao. In Dante’s thought, as in Christianity, if we follow the tao of Christ, we will find our way out of our own dark wood, and move steadily toward enlightenment — which is to say, union with God — culminating in gaining heaven.
Anyway, the volume I found on my shelf the other day is called Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary. It is a collection of essential writings from the Taoist tradition. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up, or why I turned to the pages that I did, but what I read there illuminated the Dantean teaching in a way that I want to share.
There’s a section in the book of the translated sayings of Ancestor Lü, a Taoist sage who lived during what in the West was the early medieval period. Here are some passages to consider:
The Great Way is very difficult to express in words. Because it is hard to speak of, just look into beginninglessness, the beginninglessness beginning. When you reach the point where there is not even any beginninglessness, and not even any nonexistene of beginninglessness, this is the primordial. The primordial Way cannot be assessed; there is nothing in it that can be assessed. What verbal explanation is there for it? We cannot explain it, yet we do explain it — where does the explanation come from? The Way that can be explained is only in doing. What is doing? It is attained by nondoing. This nondoing begins in doing.
Ancestor Lü explains that establishing communion between heaven and earth begins with contemplation, with emptying out the self and coming to understand the autonomous self as part of Nature’s order. Think of how the damned in Dante share a single characteristic: they all reject the tao, and think of themselves as the end of all striving. That is, they perceived their selves as sovereign, and did not see themselves as ultimately connected to others, except in an instrumental way, and did not see all souls as part of a cosmological and metaphysical order established and sustained by God. What the Ancestor says here, understood in Christian terms, is that it is impossible to attain the Way by reason alone; it cannot be encompassed by our rational minds, nor fully captured in our language. It can only be recognized. Think of how in our recent Dante readings, the poet has been saying that ultimate reality lies beyond the ability of reason to access unaided by revelation, and how language cannot convey it adequately.
We can establish a relationship with the Way, however. The Ancestor says that to begin the contemplative path under the authority of a true teacher. It is important to have an orthodox spiritual master so you can rely on the integrity of the path revealed through him. Through “true transmission,” the student experiences “an opening up in the darkness,” which reveals the true path of illumination. This may be said to correspond to an infusion of divine grace, granting the gift of faith.
The Ancestor says that the Way is revealed to others through our righteous deeds. But good works are not the same thing as the Way. That is, you can’t be said to possess the Way without good works as the fruit of your spiritual labors, but good works alone are no guarantee of having found the Way. “Without learning the Great Way there is no purpose to accumulating deeds,” he writes. This is also something we discern in Dante: Good works — which I would say includes works of art as well as moral deeds — only have value insofar as they are grounded in consciousness of God, and lead us to greater unity with Him. Being a humanitarian is a fine thing, but if our ultimate goal is unity with God — or, in Taoist terms, the Way — then we must not see deeds as ends, but as means to an ultimate end.
For the Ancestor, those who have achieved union with the Way must be evangelical about it:
Then they came back [from enlightenment] and sat, silently carrying on mystic work, gazing above and examining below, realizing the mystery of mysteries. Yet they still did not become complacent: they mixed in with the ordinary world and carried out various undertakings and performed various deeds in the cities, towns, and villages. Thinking their works were still shallow, they made yet broader commitments, to carry out unlimited undertakings and accomplish unlimited deeds. They vowed that all people throughout the ages, those with knowledge and those without, would hear of the Great Way and ascend to the ultimate goal.
As we have seen, and as we will see in these final cantos of the Commedia just ahead, Dante receives a prophetic charge from heaven to return to earth and tell everyone what he has seen and heard on his journey. The pilgrimage was for his benefit, true, to bring him back to the Way, but through him, the Way must be revealed to others. He must testify to it. This he does by writing the Commedia.
Ancestor Lü says that everyone has within himself “the primordial,” but the sense obscure it. All five senses, and the body, are called “the six robbers,” because they hide the Way from us. Through asceticism, the soul disciplines the body, making the senses subject to the spirit. Without asceticism, says the Ancestor, you cannot attain the Way. This, of course, is thoroughly Dantean. Sensuality produces confusion. It’s not that the body is evil — it certainly is not — but rather that our senses cannot be relied on to show us what is really real. They produce confusion unless rightly ordered by the spirit.
And the great enemy of those who would attain the Way are the passions — that is, desire. Ancestor Lü:
Once fundamental reality is lost sight of, then emotions run wild. But the seed of all emotions is craving. Why is this? Because craving is at the root of emotion. If you don’t crave anything, you don’t want anything; if you don’t want anything, how can you be attracted to anything [cf. the nun Piccàrda in Paradiso 3 and 4: “Brother, the power of love subdues our will so that we long for only what we have and thirst for nothing else"]? If you are not attracted to anything, you are not repulsed by anything; if you have neither attraction nor repulsion, what anger can there be? When there is no anger, fear does not occur; without fear, sadness disappears.
So we know that craving is the root of emotions. If you try to control emotions forcibly without extirpating the root, you control nothing but outgrowths. This is like a flood of water: if you try to dam it without stopping the source of clearing the flow, eventually you’ll be drowned. It is also like a blazing fire: if you try to beat it out without removing its fuel or cutting off its path, you’ll just increased the force of the flames, so that you’ll be threatened at every turn. It is also like the waves of the ocean, one following another, endlessly.
The Ancestor continues:
The emotions are a huge bolt, and craving is the lock on the bolt. When you cut through the lock and take away the bolt, you can get beyond the barrier and go in peace, freely, without hindrance. Mastering understanding of the ultimate Way, you then ascend to exalted reality.
Recall Dante at the summit of Mount Purgatory, in Canto 27, after he has been purged of all his passions. Virgil says: “I crown and miter you lord of yourself.” The pilgrim has achieved complete mastery of his own passions. But this is not the same thing (in Dante) as discovering the Way. It is only the necessary precondition for ascending into perfection. In Dante, desire is not a bad thing; in fact, through desire God’s love moves through the world. Desire — passion — is not to be cast out, but rather perfected in love. That’s what the journey through Paradiso shows. Ancestor Lü makes a wise, and thoroughly Dantean, observation when he says that we will get nowhere along the Way if we fail to see that our problems come not from particular passions, but from passion itself — that is, understanding that disordered desire (loving the wrong things, or loving the right things in the wrong way) is the source of all our troubles.
We must govern our minds to guard against the passions, says the Ancestor:
What is governing the mind? The mind is originally pure, the mind is originally calm; openness and freedom are both basic qualities of the mind. When we govern the mind, this means we should keep it as it is in its original fundamental state, clear as a mountain stream, pure, fresh, unpolluted, silent as an immense canyon, free from clamor, vast as the universe, immeasurable in extent, open as a great desert, its bound unknown.
In this way, the mind with nothing in it is like charcoal or still water: charcoal can burn, still water can reflect. It may also be likened to a clear mirror, with no images in it once objects are gone. It is also like enlightenment, constituting the root of the Way. When the clear mirror is always polished and enlightenment is refreshed from time to time, the clear mirror is cold, and the heart of enlightenment leaves its impression. Being cold means all objects disappear; when the heart leaves its impression, all paths arise.
Again, I think of Piccàrda here. But her inner stillness is not for the sake of emptiness, but rather to create a space within, a space that is filled by God, who is Love. Taoism, I repeat, is not Christianity; we shouldn’t expect Ancestor Lü to agree with Dante, or with Christianity on this point. But it is remarkable how the Ancestor says that emptying oneself out, as he prescribes, can be an obstacle to realizing the Way. The Ancestor says that for the Confucians, good deeds, respect, and duty can also be obstacles to true understanding, because the Confucians mistake a part for the whole. The Buddhists seek emptiness for its own sake, not realizing that achieving emptiness is only meaningful if one seeks to fill the empty space with something. Similarly in Taoism, achieving complete detachment from the passions is not the same thing as the Way, any more than Dante’s reaching the Earthly Paradise at the summit of Mount Purgatory is the same thing as finding heaven. If we think that being “good” (mastering our passions, doing good deeds, etc.) is the realization of the Way, we fall into error.
Scripture and Tradition can also be obstacles to the Way, says the Ancestor. The “writings” exist to help us grasp the ultimate. If you take Taoist Scripture literally, you can lose the way to the Way:
So what ancient adepts set up as truths were mostly in the form of indirect allusions. For example, the terms water and fire, furnace and cauldron, girl and boy, dragon and tiger, yin and yang, and mysterious female — all are allusions to something else. … So writings are not real explanations of the Way. When you personally realize the Way, you can dispense with all the writings.
Another way to think of this point is to say it is a warning against making an idol of sacred writing, and of sacred books. The ultimate cannot be fully expressed in language. Sacred language, and sacred writing, exist to serve as a map to lead us to the Ultimate (which, of course, for Christians is the living God). In the same way, says the Ancestor, beginners had better make sure to start on the way to the Way in the care of a reliable tradition. Tradition, like Scripture, can be an obstacle to the Way if it is unorthodox. Dante believed that in Roman Catholicism, he had found the only orthodox authoritative tradition. This is why he affirmed it in spite of the great corruption of the popes and the priests of his era.
In Christian theology, the apophatic tradition points to God by saying what He is not — this, as opposed to the cataphatic tradition, which points to God by saying what He is. Here is an apophatic statement from the Ancestor about Ultimate Reality, which the Taoists cannot call God, but which Christians, and readers of Dante, will recognize:
The mystery of mysteries is nonexistent, yet exists; it is empty, yet substantial. It is not more in sages, not less in the ignorant. Heaven is within it, yet even heaven does not know it; earth receives its current, yet even earth does not recognize it. It penetrates the depths of all things, yet they go on unawares. Its presence is not presence, its passing is not passing. how can this mystery of mysteries be conceived of, how can it be imagined? If you penetrate the essence, it is mystery upon mystery.
In Christian metaphysical terms, this paradoxical language can be understood broadly to say that God is the ground of all being; there is nothing that is not in God. God cannot be encompassed by reason; we can never hope to understand Him, though we can hope to unite with Him. His presence is in all things; therefore, the great mission of all of us is to harmonize our wills with His, which is to say, recognizing our place in the created order, and opening ourselves to the “current” of the Holy Spirit, which passes through us as love.
Finally, this passage from Ancestor Lü struck a resonant chord within me as a reader of Dante:
The Tao is entered by way of sincerity. When you reach complete sincerity, the Tao is not far off. Therefore a classic says, “Before practicing the way of immortality, first practice the way of humanity.”
In Dante, the Way is entered by way of humility. When you reach complete humility, the Way is not far off. Before practicing the way of immortality, first practice the way of humanity — which for the Christian who wants to achieve holiness, means doing plain things, like making changes in one’s everyday life to put humility into action. That means refusing arrogance, egotism, selfishness. I believe someone — C.S. Lewis? — said that if you find that you struggle to believe in Christianity, try humbling yourself intellectually and living for month as if Christianity were true. You might be surprised by the Way that opens up before you once you humble yourself enough to admit that It’s Not About You. By doing these things, and humbling yourself enough to be sincerely open, you may find that “nondoing” — the movement God’s grace — may illuminate you and show you the Way.
To be perfectly clear, Taoism is not Christianity, and Dante was a Christian, not a Taoist. Nevertheless, reading these passages from Ancestor Lü gave me added insight into what Dante’s way, which is the traditional Christian path to holiness. Dante is philosophically heavy, but as we have seen all along, and as we will especially see in these last four cantos of Paradiso, the philosophical weight and complexity are attempts to illuminate Ultimate Reality, which goes far beyond our finite ability to speak of. Recall Thomas Aquinas’s mystical vision near the end of his life, which caused him to put down his pen and write no more; as far as we know, he never told anyone what was revealed to him, but he did say that it made all his theological and philosophical writings seem “as straw.” In this way, Dante tells us that a world exists beyond what we can physically sense, that it is God, and that it encompasses and interpenetrates all being. We humans have fallen out of communion with God, and therefore with cosmic order.
Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the incarnation of the Way; through Him, the cosmic order is revealed, and the Way is made flesh. Through knowing him, through uniting ourselves to him, we establish a living relationship with God and all His creation. Good deeds are important, but they are not the Way, and if we think they are, will not find the Way. Right thinking is important, but it is not the Way, and if we think orthodoxy is sufficient, we will never find the Way. The Way is not a proposition; it is a way of life. But it is more than a way of life; it is a living, dynamic relationship with God, who is everywhere present and fills all things, but who is in his essence also transcendent (that is, nowhere present, outside of time and creation) and is no thing. The Way is a transformative relationship with Him, one whose ultimate end is theosis, that is, to be perfectly filled by the Holy Spirit, and made like God. We can only achieve this perfection in Heaven, but the road toward it begins right here, right now, with humility, and ascetic labor (prayer, fasting, self-denial) to allow the Holy Spirit to change us, to draw us out of ourselves and toward the Way.
I believe Dante would say that poetry, theology, philosophy, metaphysics, are all helpful maps pointing to the Way, but they are not the Way. There is only one correct end in all existence, and that is God. Anything else — church, country, Scripture, tribe, family, art, scholarship, and above all, the Self — is an idol, if treated a sufficient in itself, as a whole truth, not a partial truth. Treated, in other words, as God. The beginning of theosis is to recognize, in humility, that only God is God, and we only become ourselves by submitting to Him, and to the order He established, which is an order based on dynamic Love. Only in Him is our peace.
For non-Christians, I hope this post connecting Taoist teaching to the Commedia shows the consonance of traditional thought. The Commedia is an irreducably Christian work, but there are truths accessible within it to readers who do not share the Christian faith. For readers who feel confused by all the metaphysical particulars we have been exploring in these past few Paradiso cantos, perhaps going at it from a Taoist point of view can restore perspective.
As for Christians, it is perfectly understandable that, frustrated by the spiritual dryness in the churches today, they would look to the East for enlightenment. But by doing so, they neglect the great treasures within the ancient Christian tradition. I believe this way of thinking and transformation has been best preserved in Orthodox Christianity; the book The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides is a terrific introduction for modern people to the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. But it is also a way that is present in Western Christianity, though it has become obscured by the centuries since the Great Schism. Dante’s Commedia is unquestionably a masterpiece of the Christian civilization of the West — Dante was faithfully and loyally Catholic, not Orthodox — but it is also a poem that explores the path of ascesis and theosis in a way that, in my view, has far more in common with Orthodoxy than with contemporary Christianity, Catholic and Protestant. By embedding in a poem of matchless beauty and ingenuity in metaphysical realism, and in a very old way of thinking about and living out what it means to be fully human and fully Christian, Dante reveals a path of spiritual healing, of harmony, of integration, and of wholeness that can change your life.
It did mine.
UPDATE: A couple of you have reported lost comments on this thread. I can’t find them. Something strange has happened to the comments thread. Please don’t leave one; for some reason, they’re not posting. I apologize.
Allison Pearson of the Telegraph gives voice to a certain form of outrage emerging in the wake of the Rotherham scandal:
The Labour Party, in particular, is mired in shame over “cultural sensitivity” in Rotherham. Especially, cynics might point out, a sensitivity to the culture of Muslims whose votes they don’t want to lose. Denis MacShane, MP for Rotherham from 1994 to 2012, actually admitted to the BBC’s World At One that “there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat, if I may put it like that. Perhaps, yes, as a true Guardian reader and liberal Leftie, I suppose I didn’t want to raise that too hard.” Much better to hang on to your impeccable liberal credentials than save a few girls from being raped, eh, Denis?
Equally horrifying is the suggestion that certain Pakistani councillors asked social workers to reveal the addresses of the shelters where some of the abused girls were hiding. The former deputy leader of the council, Jahangir Akhtar, is accused of “ignoring a politically inconvenient truth” by insisting there was not a deep-rooted problem of Pakistani-heritage perpetrators targeting young white girls. The inquiry was told that influential Pakistani councillors acted as “barriers to communication” on grooming issues.
Front-line youth workers who submitted reports in 2002, 2003 and 2006 expressing their alarm at the scale of the child sex-offending say the town hall told them to keep quiet about the ethnicity of the perpetrators in the interests of “community cohesion”.
Fear of appearing racist trumped fears of more children being abused. Not only were negligent officials not prosecuted, they prospered. Shaun Wright, a former Labour councillor who was in charge of Rotherham children’s services during a five-year period when a blind eye was turned to the worst case of mass child abuse in British history, is now South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner. Oh, Jonathan Swift, thou shouldst be writing at this hour!
She goes on to slam a Pakistani community leader who, on an interview show, said that to focus on the identities of the alleged perpetrators only distracts from the suffering of the children. Read the whole thing.
Pearson is right about how we blind ourselves to things we prefer not to see, because these things violate our orthodoxies. This is no different from the way police forces in the US often turned a blind eye to instances of Catholic priests molesting children. If the molestations were true, then the community at large would have to face facts it preferred not to face. This is a constant in human affairs. There is nothing special about the Rotherham establishment wishing to avoid seeing what was right in front of its nose. This is absolutely not to excuse it, but only to help explain it.
My guess is that it is as unfair and as inaccurate to blame the rape of girls by Pakistani Muslim men on Islam as it was (is) to blame the rape of children by priests on Catholicism. But it is crucial to examine how the culture among Pakistani Muslims may have aided and abetted these criminals. With the Catholic abuse scandal, it became clear that the culture among Catholics of clericalism, as well as remnants of an immigrant impulse to circle the wagons against outsiders, helped keep the abuses secret. In Catholicism, there is nothing in the religion that prescribes abusing children and keeping the abuse of children secret. But the culture of Catholicism facilitated the abuse, as (generally speaking) bishops, other priests, and laypeople conflated protecting the Church and its teachings with shielding it from scandal.
I suspect a similar thing has been going on among the Muslims of Rotherham. It is difficult to look squarely at this sort of thing without either engaging in anti-Muslim prejudice, or its distorting opposite, anti-anti-Muslim prejudice. Clearly the latter has been a more important factor among establishment Rotherham. Last year, the Rotherham Council apologized to a foster family for having removed children from its care after it became known that the mother and father were supporters of the UK Independence Party:
In November after the case made national headlines, the council’s strategic director of children and young people’s services, Joyce Thacker, told the BBC that her decision had been influenced by Ukip immigration policy, which she said called for the end of the “active promotion of multiculturalism”.
Sources close to the case subsequently told the Guardian that there were multiple legal and social reasons why the council wanted to ensure the children be placed with foster parents who spoke their own eastern European language.
The placement with the Ukip-supporting foster couple was not intended to be long-term. It was an emergency move amid allegations that the children’s birth father had sexually abused two of his daughters and had held a knife to his wife’s head while she was holding their baby. According to the birth parents, the children were taken in a raid by police and social workers last year.
That second paragraph sounds like total butt-covering. Anyway, note that the Council’s agents removed abused and endangered children from the care of a foster family solely because a council bureaucrat judged that the parents’ political beliefs put the kids in danger precisely because it contradicted liberal dogma on multiculturalism. Look at Joyce Thacker’s interview with the BBC, from the BBC account:
The couple, who have been approved foster parents for seven years, were eight weeks into the placement when they were approached by social workers about their membership of the party.
The wife told the Daily Telegraph: “I was dumbfounded. Then my question to both of them was, ‘What has UKIP got to do with having the children removed?’
“Then one of them said, ‘Well, UKIP have got racist policies.’ The implication was that we were racist. [The social worker] said UKIP does not like European people and wants them all out of the country to be returned to their own countries.”
The paper says the woman denied she was racist but the children were taken away by the end of the week.
She said the social worker told her: “We would not have placed these children with you had we known you were members of UKIP because it wouldn’t have been the right cultural match.”
The couple said they had been “stigmatised and slandered”.
Ms Thacker said she did not regret the decision, which was reached after “a lot of soul searching”.
“These children are not UK children and we were not aware of the foster parents having strong political views. There are some strong views in the UKIP party and we have to think of the future of the children.”
She added during an interview with BBC Radio 4′s Today: “I have to look at the children’s cultural and ethnic needs.
Is it really so hard to believe that there was a culture of indifference in Rotherham government to children abused by Pakistanis, informed in part by multiculti codswallop? Is it really so hard to believe that Pakistanis in Rotherham government tried to cover up to protect the image of the community?
Writing in The Guardian, Lola Okalosie, who has worked with abused children, speculates that there might be a different manifestation of racism at work within the police force itself:
Much has been made of officials’ oversensitivity to accusations of racism. Much less discussed has been how these often poor white girls were considered disposable by authorities because they had transgressed the colour divide. In towns brimming with racial tension, it is often women’s bodies – black, white and brown – that are so fiercely contested by rival communities.
I have worked within schools where poor white girls being groomed were, despite brilliant work from pastoral teams, viewed as complicit in their own exploitation by some staff. What did they expect from mixing with the “Asian boys”? These children were fair game because they had crossed the colour and cultural line. Doing so had rendered them beyond respectability and thus all relevance.
If Okolosie is onto something here, then the white child victims had rendered themselves trash to the internal culture of local white police because the girls had been defiled by sexual contact with Asian men. We don’t know this to be true, but it sounds plausible to me. When I was growing up in the South, the unwritten rule was that white girls did not fool around with black boys, because to cross the color line sexually was for a white girl to render herself untouchable. Sick, I know, but that’s how it was, and no doubt still is for many. Race and sexuality are always combustible combinations, and not just among whites. If you ever saw the Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever, the scene in the beauty shop in which the black women tear into the idea of white women dating black men is really raw. At least I think it was in that movie.
Here’s another potential factor, though one that may be less applicable to Rotherham, but still worth considering. Several years ago, New Zealand police investigator (and practicing Christian) Daniel Walker wrote a book about global sex trafficking, which he went undercover to investigate. In this excerpt on Patheos, he talks about the phenomenon in Atlanta, and why it persists:
All of the information I gathered during my time in Atlanta was given to the law enforcement authorities: federal, state and city. All were aware of the sex slavery occurring within their respective jurisdictions, and each one expressed the same frustration and sense of powerlessness at doing anything about it. They each recounted the many meetings they had attended in order to communicate their concerns to the Atlanta Visitors Bureau and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
The law enforcement officers were united in their sentiment that while the leaders of their city were always polite and listened to evidence of the growing sexual exploitation of women and children in Atlanta, they were ultimately completely ineffectual in doing anything about it. Most disheartening of all for some of the police officers involved was the knowledge that when a young girl runs away from her home in the city of Atlanta, statistically the police have only forty-eight hours to find her before she is recruited into prostitution.
Those police officers tasked with combating the growth of such exploitation said that the criminal gangs involved were completely ruthless and very well-organized. Often the men who joined the gangs were more afraid of their own gang than they were of going to jail. Many of the ethnic gangs were said to be very close-knit and only targeted male customers from within their own ethnic communities, making them very difficult to infiltrate by the law enforcement community. The officers explained that at every Atlanta Convention Center event and outside every hotel, patrons would be handed information cards promoting and advertising the sexual services of those women and children enslaved in the industry.
Most alarming for me was to learn what happened during an operation set up to target some of the escort agencies involved. When it became apparent during the investigation that some of the male clients were senior members of the Atlanta city council and U.S. Senators, the operation was quickly shut down. Those officers involved were reassigned.
So, assuming this account is true, it sounds like the problem in Atlanta is in part one of members of the political and business establishment being compromised by involvement with it, and the business establishment wanting to keep Atlanta a favorite destination for conventioneers.
What does all this have to do with Rotherham? Who knows. I don’t think we should be satisfied with simple answers. There rarely is a simple answer for something like this. As in the Catholic abuse scandal, various interested parties will favor the simplistic explanation that favors the views they held before the revelation. This kind of approach doesn’t illuminate; it obscures.
Still, there can be no serious doubt that political correctness played a role in perpetuating this outrage. It should be identified and repudiated, once and for all, and those who advocate for it throughout British life — journalists, social workers, academics, politicians, all of them — should never again be listened to on the subject, and their views given no standing in British public life. The cost is too high. The lives of these 1,400 girls are more important than protecting any group’s reputation. If these criminals bring disgrace onto the Pakistani community in the UK and its leaders, well, then the Pakistani community in the UK and its leaders need to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and go out of their way to help authorities identify and prosecute the criminals.
Whether they like it or not, anything less than that is seen by outsiders as complicity. Hiding behind defensive accusations of “racism” or “Islamophobia” is as futile and pathetic as Catholics who tried to deflect the awful truth about the abuse scandal by accusing outsiders of anti-Catholicism. It only makes things worse.
What interests me most about this Rotherham case are ones I think about all the time, in other contexts:
How do we know what we know?
What strategies do we deploy to keep ourselves from knowing what we don’t wish to know?
How can we overcome them?
UPDATE: A reader sends this from Al Jazeera. Excerpt:
Hussain said the Muslim community needed to do more to break down barriers to talking about sexual issues through education programmes and greater awareness of the dangers that young people faced.
“The fact is that, in the Pakistani Muslim community, sexualisation in general is a taboo subject. So you have something that is undercover because it is taboo, and then when you have someone acting in a criminal manner it is even more undercover.”
Gohir said British Asian girls were also at risk because men from within their own communities were able to manipulate cultural norms to prevent them from reporting abuse, and called for more research into why men of Pakistani heritage kept cropping up in child sex cases.
“Our report indicates that where Asian men can get hold of Asian girls they will probably prefer Asian girls because they are deemed lower risk and less likely to report. Predators know these girls are really, really vulnerable because of honour and shame issues. They will rape them and photograph and film it and then blackmail them.”
UPDATE.2: A reader sends in this Guardian column by Ruzwana Bashir, a successful British entrepreneur of Pakistani heritage who, 10 years after her childhood abuse by a neighbor, went back to her small town near Rotherham to out her molester. Excerpt:
It was only after a decade away from Skipton that I was finally able to garner the courage to return and testify against my abuser. When I first told my mother about the abuse I’d suffered, she was absolutely devastated. The root of her anger was clear: I was heaping unbound shame on to my family by trying to bring the perpetrator to justice. In trying to stop him from exploiting more children, I was ensuring my parents and my siblings would be ostracised. She begged me not to go to the police station.
If I’d still been living in Skipton, surrounded by a community who would either blame me for the abuse or label me a liar, I’m not sure I could have rejected her demands.
She goes on to say that her accusation brought forward another British Pakistani woman who had been molested by the same man. Their testimony put him away. But they were subsequently shunned by the community.
I cannot imagine the pain of one’s own mother (or father) believing that one should accept sexual molestation rather than expose the family to the “shame” of demanding justice. What a sick, sick culture.
All of Baton Rouge is talking about the murder of Scott Rogers, a local TV host who has been a figure on the scene for over a decade. Rogers was found shot to death in his bed this week. His presumed murder, a man named Matthew Hodgkinson, turned the gun on himself and fired. He is now in critical condition in a local hospital, on life support.
Rogers was a slight, cheerful Brit who produced his own weekly TV series focusing on community life. He would interview people from local charities about their work — nothing controversial. He specialized in being bland and beloved, emceeing at fundraisers and similar events. It seems that nobody had a bad word to say about him. When news of his death got out, it was a shock. His alleged killer, Hodgkinson, was his business partner as well as his son-in-law.
Now a very different story is emerging. From the Baton Rouge Advocate:
Facing harsh criticism amid allegations that he sexually abused children in England, Scott Rogers fled to Texas in the mid-1990s before settling down in Baton Rouge, building from scratch a reputation as an ebullient local television host known for his extensive work promoting nonprofit organizations and civic agencies.
Until Wednesday, when the authorities said Rogers was fatally shot in what appears to be a murder-attempted suicide at his St. Gabriel home, the local celebrity’s history in England was unknown to even some of his closest professional associates. Recently, though, his past caught up with him, leading to a federal investigation into whether Rogers submitted fraudulent naturalization and adoption paperwork, said Seth Dornier, Rogers’ attorney.
On the same day a grand jury heard testimony related to the federal investigation, Rogers, 52, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head, Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said. Matthew Hodgkinson, Rogers’ son-in-law through what Stassi has described as a sham marriage to Rogers’ daughter, also suffered a gunshot wound inside that Daisy Avenue home that day. Sheriff’s Office reports indicate Hodgkinson shot Rogers then turned the gun on himself.
There are little children involved:
Another man who lived in the St. Gabriel home with Rogers and Hodgkinson appeared on a public radio program Thursday morning, telling host Jim Engster that both he and Hodgkinson were sexually abused by Rogers as teenagers in England. The men moved to America with him, remaining entangled with Rogers for more than 20 years.
Less than two weeks ago, federal authorities took custody of two children living in Rogers’ home. One was Rogers’ 10-year-old adopted son, and the other was a 2-year-old boy Rogers was in the process of adopting, said Dornier, the attorney Rogers hired Monday to represent him in the pending child study case.
Bryan Cox, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement based in New Orleans, said the Homeland Security Investigations office in Baton Rouge assisted the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services with removing two boys from the home pursuant to a state court order.
Read the whole thing. It’s going to get even more twisted, sounds like. We haven’t yet heard from the daughter.
I don’t suppose there’s much to say at this point, absent more information, except that it never ceases to amaze me how diabolically devious people can be. Rogers was clearly a sociopath. I’ve never seen his program, but I found a clip on YouTube of an interview he did on his show a few years ago, and he looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. You just never know about people, do you? Rogers even helped start a church. It was all the perfect cover. His charity work was a massive sleight of hand. But here’s what I can’t figure out: if you have this kind of background, and are engaged in that high-stakes level of deception, why do you make yourself a local media celebrity? Maybe Rogers got a thrill from the lying. Or maybe he figured it was easiest to hide in plain sight.
UPDATE: Talking about hiding in plain sight! A reader sends this commendation of Rogers by the Louisiana legislature, listing his seemingly countless civic deeds. The accused child molester even wrote children’s books.
Prof. Ralph Wood (pictured above), from his book, Flannery O’Connor And The Christ-Haunted South:
O’Connor is reputed to have altered, with her typical candor, the final word of the dominical saying found in John 8:32: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Even when rejecting the Gospel, we remain irremediably defined and de-centered by it. Hence O’Connor’s celebrated reply when asked why Southern fiction contains such a surfeit of freaks: “I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” In the Bible belt, there is a transcendent norm for measuring anomalies. The biblical plumbline reveals that the real deviant is not the shouting street preacher but the thoroughly well-adjusted man, the completely self-controlled woman, the utterly successful American.
Now. What if I told you that a cable network was going to air a reality program in which a couple goes inside a box, mated while an expert panel chats amiably, waiting for them to finish, then the couple emerges to join the panel to talk about the sex they just had? Would you think that this was an outtake from Idiocracy?
WE tv announced Thursday that it has ordered nine episodes of “Sex Box,” adapted from the British series of the same name, that will air in 2015. The premise of the show, set in front of a studio audience: Couples go into a soundproof box without cameras. They have sex. Then, they have a frank and honest discussion about what just happened with a group of therapists and sex experts — in front of the studio audience.
The premise aired last fall in Britain — the first episode is on YouTube if you dare. It’s as awkward as you imagine.
“Scientists and researchers cite that people are more trusting and open in the moments immediately after sex due to the body’s natural release of oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone,’ the network said in the release. “As a result, post coital couples therapy is more powerful and effective.”
Okay then. In the announcement, WE tv president Marc Juris calls ‘Sex Box’ “one of the most unique and compelling show concepts we’ve ever seen.”
Why don’t they just call it Humpers? That too elegant and allusive for WEtv?
Imagine that you are Marc Juris, and you have one life to live, and you get to the end of that life, and you survey what you’ve done with what you’ve been given, and you see … Sex Box.
I think the point of a good life is not to be Marc Juris. Or anybody associated with garbage like this; the panel engaging in the postcoital deconstruction are Beverly Hills psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish, a va-va-va-voomy Pensacola TV preacher named Dr. (sic) Yvonne Capehart, and a “doctor of clinical sexology” named Chris Donaghue, whose forthcoming book will boldly focus “on being sex positive, which means challenging our sex phobic and sex negative culture.”
Well, thank goodness. I had wondered when somebody would have the courage to challenge our sex phobic and sex negative culture.
Freaks, the lot of them.
Sex Box is the sort of trivial outrage that normally I would have marked down as a View From The Prytania, if I had noted it at all. Reading about it on my Facebook feed made me feel sad for some reason, probably because I had read an essay this morning on The Imaginative Conservative website. It was a short talk by Prof. Bradley Birzer, in which he introduces himself to his new university community by calling himself a “conservative humanist.” Excerpt:
But, what about that label, “conservative”? Well, let me explain—as I see it—what a conservative is NOT.
- A real conservative is not a loud, platinized, remade and plastically remolded talking head on Fox.
- A real conservative is not that guy on the radio who seems to hate everything and everyone.
- And, a real conservative never wants to bomb another people “back to the stone age.”
My own tradition of conservatism—whether I live up to it or do it justice—is one that is, for all intents and purposes, humanist. I believe there is a line of continuity from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Virgil to St. John to St. Augustine to the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, and the Beowulf poet, to Thomas Aquinas to Petrarch to Thomas More to Edmund Burke. The last one hundred years saw a fierce and mighty revival of the humanist tradition, embracing and unifying (more or less) T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk, to name a few.
George Orwell, both shocked and impressed by the movement, noted in December 1943 that it was nothing more than neo-reactionary: a strange mix of traditionalism in poetry and literature, religious orthodoxy in ethics, and anarchy in politics and economics. I must admit, though I have never called myself a neo-reactionary, almost all those who Orwell reluctantly admired are certainly heroes of mine.
But as I see it, the conservative or humanist—or, the conservative humanist, if you will, only possesses one job and one duty, when all is said and done, and she or he performs it to the best of her or his ability: A conservative attempts to conserve what is most humane in all spheres of life: in economics, in education, in the military, in the culture, in faith, in business, in government, and in community. The conservative is, at the most fundamental level, a humanist, reminding each and every one of us what it means to be human.
Boy, did that resonate with me. I read that and thought that a good way to go through life is to ask yourself, when confronted by a morally or aesthetically murky situation, “What would Flannery O’Connor do?” What would strike her as the wise course of action? Or: “What would Tolkien do?” Would he watch this? Would he read that? Why or why not?
I can’t imagine anyone I admire wanting to have anything to do with something as trashy as Sex Box. More and more, I can’t imagine anyone I admire wanting to have anything to do with contemporary American popular culture, except to warn people off of it. The French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy famously said in one of his novels that the only real tragedy in life is not to be a saint. I think a corollary to that is that the only real tragedy in life is not to be a humanist, whether you are a Christian humanist or the secular kind. Things like Sex Box are anti-human, and anti-humane. Putting it in those terms may elevate a scummy reality show far beyond what it deserves, but I want to suggest that simply rolling our eyes at something like that is insufficient. We live in a culture in which a man and a woman can be willingly induced to copulate off camera, in real time, then come out and speak of their experience to three perfect strangers, and a host, for a television audience. It is inhuman; it is animalistic. It is a freakshow, a grotesque, made all the more so because we live in a culture in which this kind of thing is seen as in questionable taste, but only that.
Nobody gets to their deathbed wishing they had spent more time exploring the collected works of Marc Juris. Nobody breathes their last wishing they had spent their allotted days working as Dr. Fishwife, Beverly Hills psychoanalyst. Nobody wakes up knowing that today they will see their last sunrise, wishing life had given them the opportunity to copulate on TV and talk about their stiffened giblets and moist folds and nodules with complete idiots. A piece of trash culture like Sex Box is ultimately a sad thing. You look at the people involved, and think, “You had one life to live, and this is what you did with it?”
Incidentally, the title of this post asks, “What would Flannery O’Connor do?” Well, from what I’m told by students who studied under him at Baylor, and from knowing him through his writing, his Mars Hill Audio Journal interviews, and from spending time together at the Walker Percy Weekend, if you ask yourself, “What would Ralph Wood do?” you’ll always be on the straight path.
Canto XXIX has the feeling of being a place-holder, a rest before the big finale. Beatrice and Dante stand on the edge of the Empyrean, and he has one more question before they enter. But he doesn’t state it; she looks into the mind of God, with whom she is in perfect communion, and divines Dante’s thought:
She said: “I tell you, without asking you,
what you would hear, for I see your desire
where every where and every when is centered.
I love that formulation: all space and all time is within God.
Dante wants to know why God created anything, if He was perfectly good and perfectly self-sufficient. Beatrice explains that all creation came into existence at once. Because of love, she says. God didn’t create to increase His goodness; that would be impossible. He created to share the splendor of his love. The point seems to be that love is not static; love must create by its nature. Love cannot be contained. God’s love pours throughout all creation, and did so instantly, from the moment of creation:
As in crystal or in amber or in glass
a shaft of light diffuses through the whole,
its ray reflected instantaneously
The farthest spot in all creation from heaven is at the center of the earth, in Dante’s geocentric cosmology. And that is where the devil lives, “crushed by the weight of all the universe.”
They talk about the angels. Beatrice says that the angels “were humbly prompt to recognize their great intelligence as coming from the Goodness of their Lord.” As soon as they saw the face of God, their wills were fixed; they could not sin. They entered eternity. They loved God perfectly, so their wills were made perfect by His grace. The prideful angels, by contrast, refused to recognize that their intelligence, and every good thing, was a gift to them from God. They thought they were at the center of their own world, just as the damned in the Inferno do.
Beatrice takes a moment to blast bad preaching. Believe me, if you’ve ever sat through crap homilies by jokester clerics, or through pseudo-sophisticated homilies from preachers who go out of their way to deny the plain meaning of Scripture, or Church teaching, you’ll love this. Beatrice says men on earth get too carried away by philosophizing, trying to invent novelties instead of preaching the plain Gospel, and sticking to the tradition. “Men do not care what blood it cost to sow the Word throughout the land, nor how pleasing he is who humbly takes Scripture to heart,” she says. Then:
Christ did not say to his first company:
‘Go forth and preach garbage unto the world,’
but gave them, rather, truth to build upon.
…Now men go forth to preach wisecracks and jokes,
and just so long as they can get a laugh
to puff their cowls with pride – that’s all they want;
But if the crowd could see the bird that nestles
In tips of hoods like these, they soon would see
What kind of pardons they are trusting in.
Beatrice warns that the laity cannot claim ignorance as an excuse for following bad preaching and teaching. Ordinary people, she says, must have enough knowledge of their religion to be able to listen to a preacher and know when he is full of it.
Amazing how contemporary this is, yes?
Beatrice, again on the angels:
The primal Light shines down through all of them
and penetrates them in as many ways
as there are splendors with which It may mate.
And since the visual act always precedes
The act of loving, bliss of love in each
burns differently: some glow while others blaze.
And now you see the height, you see the breadth
of Eternal Goodness that divides Itself
into these countless mirrors that reflect
Itself, remaining One, as It was always.
She’s talking about angels, and this is highly metaphysical, but this could also describe God’s relationship with us. To the extent we love, we both transmit the divine light, and reflect it. The more we love, the brighter we glow. The lesson here is that creation is dynamic, always receiving love from the Creator; it is our choice, though, the extent to which we wish to receive the light, and join the celestial harmony. God interpenetrates Creation in a fertile fashion. This, we will see when we study Inferno, is why the sodomites are damned: they refuse fertility, thus live in disharmony with the divine order. In fact, in Dante, everything and everyone that refuses the divine order is spiritually dead, because they cut themselves off from the source of all Life. What’s especially interesting about that Inferno canto (XV) concerning the sodomites is that sex is never discussed. Rather, sterility is examined by the example of Brunetto Latini, the writer and teacher, who advises Dante to write only for his own glory, and:
“Follow your constellation
and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory,
not if I saw clearly in the happy life…”
But Brunetto did not see clearly; he is in Hell. At this point in the poem — Paradiso 29, I mean — Dante has now reached the port of glory, the entrance to the Empyrean, not by following his own constellation — that’s how he ended up in the dark wood. He has done it by humbling himself to listen to the God-given authority of Virgil, and then Beatrice, as well as all the penitents and saints he has met along the way.
Giuseppe Mazzotta, in his reflection on this canto, says that here, as Dante arrives at the pinnacle of all Time — which is to say, at the fulfillment of all desire — we should think back to the two figures in the Inferno (figures that I think Dante is most like). There is Francesca, from Inferno 5, who damned herself by following her own lust (which she mistook for love) to her physical and spiritual death; she, says Mazzotta, is a “metaphysician of desire,” but her desire was to consume and consume and consume, burning through everything to reach a state of bliss and consummation. She navigated by her own constellation, and sailed to her ruin.
Ulysses, the second figure Mazzotta brings up, literally navigated to his ruin in Inferno 26. He didn’t lust for sensual and emotional fulfillment; his disordered, all-consuming desire was for exploration, for pushing beyond all boundaries to find out what was there. He recognized no boundaries but his own heart’s desire, and found death and damnation. Mazzotta:
Both Francesca and Ulysses would have liked to arrive where Dante is currently, able to witness a conjunction of space and time, ubi and quando, [where and when] to the the point where all things cohere.
We all seek the same thing: bliss, fulfillment, connection, rest. But there is only one way to find it: through unity with God, with the Absolute. Every other goal puts us wide of the mark, and will end in death. Every other goal is ultimately a refusal of love, no matter what we think. In choosing ourselves over God — as every soul in Hell has done — we worship the created over the Creator. Do it often enough, and it becomes ever more impossible to comprehend the Light. Humility, however minuscule, is all it takes to receive a saving ray of the Divine Light. But if we die in our pride, we will be cast into the outer darkness for all eternity.
Dante has been to the basement of the universe, where he saw Satan frozen in torment, and now he is at the ceiling of the top floor of the universe, about to break through to the other side. There will be no more desiring after this. Time ends. The explorer is very nearly home.