Daniel Murphy, second baseman for the New York Mets, is a Christian who believes homosexuality is morally problematic. In an interview quoted on Deadspin, Murphy spoke about tolerance on the team. Excerpt:
“I disagree with his lifestyle,” Murphy said. “I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”
“Maybe, as a Christian, that we haven’t been as articulate enough in describing what our actual stance is on homosexuality,” he said. “We love the people. We disagree the lifestyle. That’s the way I would describe it for me. It’s the same way that there are aspects of my life that I’m trying to surrender to Christ in my own life. There’s a great deal of many things, like my pride. I just think that as a believer trying to articulate it in a way that says just because I disagree with the lifestyle doesn’t mean I’m just never going to speak to Billy Bean every time he walks through the door. That’s not love. That’s not love at all.”
“Lifestyle” is a very clunky word, but then, we don’t expect professional athletes to stay on top of the latest sensitive language used to express delicate concepts. But this is clearly a decent guy struggling to be true to his convictions while being as loving and as collegial as he can to a gay colleague.
That, of course, is not enough for Deadspin writer Kevin Draper, who says:
Murphy seems to be more toward the “oafish but well-meaning” end of the anti-gay spectrum than the “Family Research Council” one, but that doesn’t mean he deserves a pass. He can say whatever he wants about how he would welcome a gay teammate. What matters is that he evidently doesn’t understand that when he says he disagrees with the gay “lifestyle”—which doesn’t exist and can’t be disagreed with—four times in one interview, a lot of people, including gay ballplayers, are going to hear, “I don’t like gay people and am saying so in what I take to be a socially acceptable way.”
We all knew this was coming: it’s not enough to be tolerant; you must approve, or else!
What if this were about an atheist trying to cope with having an out-and-proud Christian in his workplace? What if he said:
“Maybe, as an atheist, that we haven’t been as articulate enough in describing what our actual stance is on Christianity,” he said. “We love the people. We disagree the religion. That’s the way I would describe it for me.”
As a Christian, I would thank the man for his tolerance and liberality. I could not possibly expect more from him. He would have my friendship, and my support. Why shouldn’t he?
But this is not about belief, you say; rather, it’s about an immutable characteristic, like race. Well, what if this were about a racist black man trying to cope with having a white man on his team? What if he said:
“Maybe, as a black man, that we haven’t been as articulate enough in describing why it is hard for us to embrace a white man,” he said. “We love the people. But given the racism in American society, it’s hard for us to be as affirming as white people may want us to be. That’s the way I would describe it for me.”
Despite rejecting and regretting his racism, I would still be grateful for the black man’s honesty, and try to see things from his point of view. If he said he wanted to love me, but it was hard for him because of other things he believes, but he was still making an honest attempt at friendship, then it seems to me that I would be bound to do the same, even though his racism would bother me.
But that’s not the way things are policed anymore. I am reminded of something an old literature professor in Daniel Taylor’s new novel Death Comes for the Deconstructionist says about the academy today:
“It’s just that we used to divide ourselves by specialty or even century — Victorians, medievalists, Shakespearians — and we could talk to each other. Now we divide by ideology and politics and causes and we are infused with suspicion. It’s ironic, Mr. Mote. We have never been so opposed to talking about the moral dimension of literature, and yet we have never been more moralistic and judgmental.”
This is the paradox inherent in the Law of Merited Impossibility: that we are all about setting moral judgment aside, and when, having set it aside for the thing that we are after, we impose harsh judgment on you, there will be no contradiction because you will deserve what you get.
Advice to orthodox Christian baseball players and others: watch what you say. It can and will be used against you. You. Must. Approve.
UPDATE: A reader who always sends me great stuff passes along gay former Major Leaguer Billy Bean’s response to Murphy’s comments. Excerpt:
Expecting everyone to be supportive right away is simply not realistic. If you asked anyone who has competed in high-level men’s professional sports, I believe they would agree with me. This doesn’t change the way I go about my business, or my belief in what I am doing, but it’s reality.
After reading his comments, I appreciate that Daniel spoke his truth. I really do. I was visiting his team, and a reporter asked his opinion about me. He was brave to share his feelings, and it made me want to work harder and be a better example that someday might allow him to view things from my perspective, if only for just a moment.
I respect him, and I want everyone to know that he was respectful of me. We have baseball in common, and for now, that might be the only thing. But it’s a start.
The silver lining in his comments are that he would be open to investing in a relationship with a teammate, even if he “disagrees” with the lifestyle. It may not be perfect, but I do see him making an effort to reconcile his religious beliefs with his interpretation of the word lifestyle. It took me 32 years to fully accept my sexual orientation, so it would be hypocritical of me to not be patient with others.
Inclusion means everyone, plain and simple. Daniel is part of that group.
That was graceful, and I appreciate it.
Sweet Briar College announced yesterday that it is ceasing operation after almost 100 years as a private liberal arts college for women. Here is the announcement on the college’s website. And here is a news story about it, pointing out that even a $94 million endowment didn’t save the school from extinction. Excerpt:
Sweet Briar administrators cited several trends that informed the decision to close, including the declining number of female students interested in all-women colleges and the dwindling number of students overall interested in small, rural liberal arts colleges.
The school’s board decided to close Sweet Briar now, rather than when it ran out of money entirely, so it could use the endowment to help faculty, staff, and students to transition out. That strikes me as a wise and compassionate policy, but still, one hates to see a small liberal arts college expire.
I was talking not long ago to a high school guidance counselor friend, who told me that the students at her school are favoring big public universities, chiefly because they are terrified of graduating owing a lot of money. She said that even though she personally would love for more of these kids to go to small liberal arts colleges, she understands their reasoning. It is not smart, she said, to go into debt for an undergraduate degree.
I very much doubt Sweet Briar will be the last college to surrender like this.
A reader sent in this great item about how the retired baseball player Curt Schilling tracked down the real identities of two Twitter trolls who made extremely vile sexual comments about his daughter on social media. On his blog, Schilling said of these tweets (which came from far more than just two people):
And tweets with the word rape, bloody underwear and pretty much every other vulgar and defiling word you could likely fathom began to follow.
Now let me emphasize again. I was a jock my whole life. I played sports my whole life. Baseball since I was 5 until I retired at 41. I know clubhouses. I lived in a dorm. I get it. Guys will be guys. Guys will say dumb crap, often. But I can’t ever remember, drunk, in a clubhouse, with best friends, with anyone, ever speaking like this to someone…
He tracked down two of these jerks and made their real identities public on his blog:
“The Sports Guru”? Ya he’s a DJ named Adam Nagel (DJ is a bit strong since he’s on the air for 1 hour a week) on Brookdale Student Radio at Brookdale Community College. How do you think that place feels about this stud representing their school? You don’t think this isn’t going to be a nice compilation that will show up every single time this idiot is googled the rest of his life? What happens when a potential woman he’s after googles and reads this?
The other clown? He’s VP of the Theta Xi fraternity at Montclair State University. I gotta believe if Theta Xi is cool with a VP of one of their chapters acting like this I’d prefer to have no one I know in it. Also, does anyone attending Montclair State University have a student handbook? If so can you pass it along because I am pretty sure there are about 90 violations in this idiots tweets.
I stopped because the rest was more of the same. And while these, to me as a dad, are just stupid and vile in ways you can’t fathom, they aren’t alone.
He says he knows the identities of more than these two:
If I was a deranged protective dad I could have been face to face with any of these people in less than 4 hours. I know every one of their names, their parents, where they go to school, what they do, what team they are on, their positions, stats, all of it. I had to do almost nothing to get ANY of that information because it is all public.
The point he’s making is that idiotic young people today think that there are no consequences for what they say on social media. Schilling says these idiots he’s outed will have their vileness googleable for the rest of their lives — and they deserve it. More:
These aren’t thugs, tough guys or bad asses, these aren’t kids who’ve had it rough, they aren’t homeless or orphans, these are pretty much ALL white, affluent, college attending children, and I mean children.
A mistake is tweeting once and saying “damn, I’m an idiot” and taking it down. These guys? They’re making conscious choices to cyberbully an amazing and beautiful young woman on the internet, that none of them know by the way, because they don’t like her dad or they somehow think saying words you can teach a 5 year old is tough?
Once their identities were made public by Schilling, the two woman-hating trash-talkers suffered consequences. The DJ was fired, and the other guy is facing investigation by his college. Schilling updated his post by adding two more Twitter accounts of people who cyberbullied his daughter. Really interesting post. Good for Curt Schilling. Examples must be made.
On his Facebook feed and on Twitter, seminarian Bart Gingerich writes:
There are Christians who try to mandate and/or justify sending their kids or others’ kids to public school so that their children can “be a witness” in an otherwise hostile environment. The assumption here is that education is primarily a missional rather than a catechetical endeavor.
I find this to be in error.
I’ve heard this point discussed several times in the past couple of weeks, among Christian friends and acquaintances. What do you think? Do Christian parents who make this call have a point? Or are they merely rationalizing? I don’t really understand the debate, but I know this is a serious question for many, and that people feel passionately about it.
UPDATE: Wow, the comments have turned into one of the better threads we’ve had in a while, and they’ve helped me clarify my thinking.
The comments have reinforced my instinct that the “salt and light” argument doesn’t hold water. Peer pressure is so great, the popular culture itself is so toxic, and kids are such herd creatures. I don’t believe that this is necessarily the fault of the public schools; as one of Alan Jacobs’s readers said a couple of years ago, it’s the fault of the public. And not just public schools: private and even some religious schools can have cultures outside the classrooms that are just as toxic and antithetical to Christian values. I think parents who send their kids to private or religious school thinking that they are protecting their kids from the destructive popular culture may well be whistling past the graveyard as effectively as parents who tell themselves that their kids will be “salt and light” in a destructive school culture.
Again: it depends on the school and the kid. It is hard to generalize.
That said, most people can’t afford private or religious school, and homeschooling is not something most people can do well. If not for my wife, my kids would almost certainly be in public school, because I would be an extremely incompetent homeschooler. It’s hard to do, and even harder to do well. And I think one of my kids would do well in public school; the other two, for developmental reasons, would struggle. The day may come when, for financial or other reasons, we will no longer be capable of homeschooling, and will send our kids to public or private (religious or secular) school. It won’t be the end of the world or anything, but I would have to dedicate myself to working even harder to form their characters and worldviews according to the Christian vision than I do now, because I would know how hostile the popular culture is to what we orthodox Christians know to be true.
I’m not talking about sex and porn alone, but the general sense of what Philip Rieff called the “anti-culture,” which is a culture that denies the sacred order necessary for culture to do what culture does. George Scialabba on Rieff:
Our primal endowment—formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct—paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone’s psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original “yes” of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the “no” of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative “no” gave it a distinct voice. As he put it in The Mind of the Moralist—his style, already a little melodramatic, foreshadowing his later, full-blown apocalyptic abstractions—the primal self is “in a panic to express the fecundity of its own emptiness” and must be mastered by “unalterable authority.” For if “everything could be expressed by everyone identically,” then “nothing would remain to be expressed individually.” Hence the “irreducible and supreme activity of culture” is to “prevent the expression of everything,” thereby precluding “the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness.”
For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud is “The Emergence of Psychological Man,” a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff’s account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.
But the worst thing about psychological man was his children. Raised without repressions, they were incapable of renunciation and regarded all authority as illegitimate. Rieff’s second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), raised the alarm about their “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” A society without hierarchy, whose members “cannot conceive any salvation other than amplitude in living itself,” must end in moral squalor, chaos, anomie, and universal boredom. Nor will it help to “disguise their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art,” for art too depends on renunciation. Here Rieff quotes Nietzsche at length (in what is for me the most illuminating passage in Rieff’s entire corpus):
Every system of morals is a sort of tyranny against “nature” and also against “reason”; that is, however, no objection, unless one should again decree, by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful. What is essential and invaluable in every system of morals is that it is a long constraint. . . . The singular fact remains . . . that everything of the nature of freedom, elegance, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, which exists or has existed, whether it be in thought itself or in administration, or in speaking and persuading, in art just as in conduct, has only developed by means of the tyranny of such arbitrary law; and in all seriousness, it is not at all improbable that precisely this is “nature” and “natural” and not laisser-aller! . . . The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is apparently (to repeat it once more) that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.
Muscular strength is built gradually, for example by overcoming the resistance of progressively heavier weights. Moral and psychological strength also require resistance—the pressure of cultural interdicts, dictating what is not to be done or even thought of. Such discipline simplifies our lives and economizes our energies. Without an unquestioned moral demand system, based on guilt, fear, and faith and generating obedience, trust, and dependence, there can be no spiritual hygiene, no communal purpose. And that is what the triumph of the therapeutic ethos makes impossible. Nowadays “the religious psychologies of release and the social technologies of affluence do not go beyond release and affluence to a fresh imposition of restrictive demands. This describes, in a sentence, the cultural revolution of our time. The old culture of denial has become irrelevant to a world of infinite abundance and reality.” In the absence of strict, even harsh, limits (to use a plain word Rieff himself, puzzlingly, so seldom used that one is led to wonder whether his elaborately artificial prose style was itself meant as a discipline), we cannot thrive.
Wherever you go outside the home and certain schools, your kids will be formed by the Anti-Culture, and by other children formed by the Anti-Culture. The lack of consciousness of this fact is a big part of our problem. You might well decide to send your kids to public school, or private school, or religious school, or even to homeschool. Not every solution will work for every family. But parents ought to be clear about what they’re doing, and why.
A 37-year-old Greek Orthodox priest died in a crash on Route 2 in Norwich on Sunday afternoon, according to state police.
Police said Matthew Baker, of Danielson, was driving a 2002 Dodge Caravan west on Route 2 just prior to 4 p.m. Sunday when he lost control. He was thrown from the van when it crossed into the snow-covered median and rolled several times before stopping on the east side of the highway.
The family was on their way home from pan-Orthodox vespers. Miraculously, the children
and their mother survived (the priest’s wife was at home, I have since learned). But they had to see their husband and father killed.
Like Florovsky, Fr. Matthew engaged the world in terms that it would understand, whether it was in philosophy, theology, history, politics, science or even popular culture. He never was content to remain in the ghetto of the safe list of books everyone is “supposed” to read in the Orthodox Church—though of course he had read them all, including the ones everyone says that they should read but don’t. Like Florovsky, he was actually engaging with philosophy and theology and issues that are the major concerns of the modern world but in many ways have still only just begun to be noticed by Orthodox cultures as they awake from their centuries-long slumber.
Hearing of his death is shocking, and it made me angry at the loss not just to his family and to his friends, but to Orthodoxy. We needed someone like him, someone who helped us all to see that Orthodoxy is alive and faithful in its tradition, not just as a crystallized set of “answers” to questions that were asked long ago, but still creative, still able to say new things even while being wholly faithful to the old things. Even in the midst of the darkness that seems to become more present in our culture every day, I always knew when I talked with Fr. Matthew that we did not have to abandon the world.
The life of Fr. Matthew Baker is a triumph of Orthodoxy.
It is easy to doubt God’s Providence in taking away a young priest, newly installed in his first parish, a husband, and a father of seven (his youngest, Alexis, so recently taken from his mother and father in stillbirth).
It is tempting to question God’s Providence in taking from the Church one of the most brilliant theological minds of the twenty-first century at a time when the Church is very much in need of sound and sober, yet penetrating, teaching, in both the academic and the pastoral spheres.
It is, for me personally, difficult to see the hand of God’s Providence in taking from me my best and most intimate friend, the man who taught me what true friendship means by pouring himself out year after year after year in boundless dedication to every aspect of my spiritual well-being and human flourishing.
Yes, in all of this we are reminded – harshly – that God’s Providence is a mystery that cannot be grasped by the minds of men.
And yet: Fr. Matthew was taken from this life on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. And because of this seemingly small detail, there can be no doubt, no question, no difficulty in perceiving that God is at work here, that His Church will triumph still, that His Truth will prevail over all falsehood, darkness, distortion and exaggeration – all those evils against which Fr. Matthew fought, exhaustively, ruthlessly, and bluntly. And when Truth is triumphant, love is victorious. For Fr. Matthew love and truth were inseparable, distinguishable only in thought. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” When truth triumphs over falsehood, there love triumphs over coldness, mercy over suffering, and light over shadow. There life triumphs over death. Orthodoxy has triumphed! And this means, as Father Matthew would teach us, that Christ – the whole Christ, the totus Christus, Head and Body, the Savior and his Bride, holy Church – Christ has triumphed. He is triumphant over death, since He is the firstborn of the dead and the author of life. And in Him, the presbyter Matthew also is triumphant.
If you are inclined to give alms this Lent, a young widow and her six fatherless children who would benefit from your charity.
Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau recently published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, lamenting and attempting to explain why few undergrads aspire to be professors. Excerpt:
Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision—which certainly hasn’t ingratiated us to the job-seeking generation—has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.
In a subsequent letter to the editor of the magazine, Kathryn D. Blanchard, an associate professor at a small college, gave Berlinerblau hell. Here’s a big chunk of her letter, but you really should read the whole thing:
Then Berlinerblau offers this groundbreaking idea: “I submit a re-visioning of an American college professor’s job description: The successful candidate will be skilled in, and passionately devoted to, teaching and mentoring 18- to 22-year-olds, as well as those in other age groups. Additionally, she or he will show promise as an original and creative researcher.”
This would be quite a revelation if it didn’t describe most of “us” already.According to the AAUP, more than half of college instructors are now part-time and three-quarters are non-tenure-track, a turn toward cheap labor diagnosed as “largely a matter of priorities rather than economic necessity.” But it is not teachers’ priorities that have changed. According to one study, the first love of many college teachers is still—wait for it—teaching. “We” got into academe not because we wanted to be lauded by a few intellectual snobs with obscure tastes (and certainly not because we wanted to spend our lives in governance meetings) but because we loved our undergraduate professors and wanted to be just like them for a new generation of students.
What has changed are not “our” priorities but those of the nation. Americans don’t care to help educate other people’s children anymore, conceiving education as a private good rather than a societal benefit. Institutions that don’t have a Georgetown-sized endowment, in turn, must change their priorities for “customers” who value good teaching far less than affordable, marketable credentials.
As with global recessions, the people who have made the problem in higher education are not the ones who suffer from its effects. Faculty members at well-funded schools will continue a pattern of heavy research and light teaching (to the tune of about $178,000 per year for Georgetown professors), while lower ranks at less prestigious colleges will be phased out and replaced course-by-course with starving adjuncts.
Berlinerblau’s thoughts might indeed be inspiring if, for the long-term benefit of higher education, the one-percenters in academe were to suddenly and magnanimously give up their privilege and start teaching respectable course loads for no extra pay. Until then, “they” will keep publishing and the rest of “us” will keep teaching till we perish, since our salaries won’t allow us to retire before then.
Hoo boy. This is getting really interesting.
[H/T: Leroy Huizenga]
Winding up our very short visit to Dallas last night, I told Julie that I realized how much I miss this place. I don’t miss the way Dallas looks: big, sprawling, concrete-y, impersonal. I guess I’m spoiled by living out in the country, but man, it looks even more jammed up with construction than ever. But boy oh boy, do I ever miss these people. We saw some old friends, and we made some new ones. The people here are the best. Seriously, I’ve never lived in a place where it was easier to make friends, and where I had so many people with whom I had a lot in common. The Covenant School, where I spent most of the day and gave a talk this evening, is a great place. We go home with such good feelings about having been here, and having invited half the city, it seems, to come down to drink beer and eat crawfish with us at Walker Percy Weekend.
I failed to appreciate how many good things we had when we lived here. We had a great church, great food everywhere, and above all, dear friends. One of the great lessons I’ve learned of my life is that you should not be so quick to walk away from these things. We ended the evening at the Old Monk, sitting right in Tim Rogers’s booth. Gotta leave first thing this morning, but not before going by Central Market to lay in provisions.
I had an encouraging comment after last night’s Dante talk. A parent of one of the high school students whose class I spoke to yesterday about my Dante book told me that her daughter talked for an hour after school about the session (which was about the message of my book). The mom said that her daughter can be diffident about things, and a little standoffish, but after school, her daughter talked for an hour about what I had told them about Dante. Her mother said the girl put it like this: “I hardly blinked when he was talking, and I almost cried twice.” The mom thought I would like to know.
Yes, I would. This is not praise of my oratorical skills, which are middling at best. This is, I think (I hope), evidence that How Dante Can Save Your Life really does have the power to open up the Commedia for students in a new way. I couldn’t tell anything from any of the classes; they almost all had blank expressions. But I had been warned by a couple of teachers not to assume anything from that; this is how teenagers are. The reaction to the talks will come later. What this mom told me was really, really encouraging to me about how the book will be received by an audience I particularly want to reach: students.
Anyway, back to Dallas. I was reminded on this trip of something I knew when I lived here, but had not valued as I ought to have done: the presence in this city of so many intellectually engaged Christians. It’s like this: you can drop the name “Ken Myers” in conversation around the table at a pub, and one or more people present will know who you’re talking about. That’s golden. I miss Dallas. Must make a provisioning trip to Central Market before hitting the road for home today. Can’t wait to come back. Even if we will never live here again, we belong here.
Modern scholarship often gives the impression of being a hotbed of internal dissent, but it seems united in presuming that to understand Dante you have to know the Bible, Aristotle, the byways of Medieval thought and much more. If that’s the situation, maybe Dante really is unreadable for most people.
The opposite is true. With a modest amount of patience the busy modern reader, Italophone or not, should be able to get a long way into Dante and to enjoy him. There isn’t an end-point, any more than there is with Shakespeare. Dante presses his readers to think (and to enjoy thinking) in a way Shakespeare doesn’t, and he has some very clear ideas he wants us to accept and assimilate. But he provides fewer definitive answers to the problems he obviously raises than we might expect. That is one of the reasons for dissent among scholars, and also one of the reasons why every reader, given a certain amount of information about the context, idiom, and history, can think things through for himself or herself, and up to a point to construct his or her own Dante. And what we think about regards not just the fate of souls after death but even more human life on this earth. The idiom may be foreign, the world view long vanished, but, though Dante is not our contemporary, much of what he says about morality, politics, language and love bears in on our lives today (for instance, his insistence that organised religion and the secular state must not interfere with each other).
I have spent much of today talking about Dante to high school classes at The Covenant School in Dallas. I found myself surprisingly — what is the word? — evangelical about all this. What I mean is that I found myself sitting in front of these kids wanting so much to communicate to them how revolutionary Dante can be for them, if they give themselves over to the poem. What I ended up doing was telling my story, and showing how the dilemmas and the situations faced by the characters in the poem speak directly to things all of us deal with in our lives. The Divine Comedy gives us a framework for approaching them. Hainsworth is right: Dante is not a source of easy answers to hard questions. He makes you think, and feel, and imagine in ways that may never have occurred to you.
The thing about Dante is that he is not satisfied with comforting lies. He’s lived with those all his life, and they landed him in the dark wood. He wants the truth, no matter what it costs him. He discovers on his journey that the truth is not a proposition; the truth is a Person, is a mode of living. The truth is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
We were talking about suffering in the final class of the day, and I said to these kids, some of whom have suffered terribly (e.g., one boy lost a leg to cancer), that they will not find in Dante the secret teaching that will make suffering disappear. What they will find is wisdom about how to approach suffering so that it is not only bearable, but can, through love, be transformative and redemptive. But these are truths that come hard.
I looked out and saw kids who might well be like myself at that age: skeptical of received truth. I encouraged them to be skeptical, but I warned them against the mistake I made at their age, which was to assume that the shallow, anesthetizing version of Christianity that I had encountered to that point was the entirety of Christianity. What’s more, just as it’s possible to be too accepting and too unquestioning, it is possible to be too skeptical — if the skepticism leads you to doubt that truth exists, and is knowable.
Dante is so terrific, and so trustworthy, because he is so realistic about these things. And as Hainsworth says, he is a lot more accessible than people may think. This I tried to convey to the students: that the Commedia is not just a “Great Book” to be studied in class and admired as a cultural artifact, but a doorway through which ordinary people can enter into a new life. Remember, Dante wrote for the common man, in their language. In my book, How Dante Can Save Your Life (out April 16) I hope I have told a story about how this great man of the Middle Ages saw deeper than nearly anybody who ever lived, and revealed to us the pathway to healing and restoration and harmony. It is not the path to comfort. It is not the road to a realm where pain is no more. It is a road to hope, where our suffering has meaning, and can lead to the greatest joy possible in this fallen world.
If you live in the Dallas area, I hope you’ll come hear my talk at Covenant tonight. Details here. I love talking about this stuff. I’m no scholar of Dante, but I am a witness.
Philosopher Justin McBrayer says it’s no surprise to him that young people come to college thinking that there are no such things as moral facts, only opinions. What surprises him is where they are taught this nihilism: public schools. Excerpt:
Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.
It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.
I’m in Dallas today meeting with students at The Covenant School, a classical Christian academy. Last night I had dinner with some Covenant teachers, administrators, and parents. They shared with me the stark challenges of countering this kind of thinking among kids who are raised in Christian homes. The popular culture that pushes this line is so powerful.
I’m talking about Dante with the high schoolers here this morning. My thought is: thank God for classical Christian schools. They are among the countercultural institutions that we desperately need to push back, to give our kids a chance at moral sanity in a world of moral chaos. I have long believed in classical Christian schooling, but being here seeing the kind of education these kids are getting at Covenant, and reading things like Justin McBrayer’s report in The New York Times, confirms in me the urgent need to build places like this up.
By the way, if you are interested in coming out tonight to hear me talk about my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I’ll be at The Attic room at Covenant. Info:
Monday, March 2 | 7:00 PM
The Attic | The Covenant School
7300 Valley View Lane | Dallas, Texas 75240
The lecture is free and open to the public.
UPDATE: Reader Devinicus:
A rigid differentiation between “facts” in the land of reason and “values” in the land of opinion produces the likes of the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty who dogmatically held to his opinions while simultaneously refused to offer any rational grounds for them. He believed in his values because he believed in them. Period. And by the way, he was perfectly happy to have certain people killed if they threatened his values.
As a college professor, I am constantly running into students who certainly hold many things to be moral truths. Here I think McBrayer is quite wrong. However, they have no ability to defend their beliefs in such moral truths, infected as they are by ‘fact v. opinion’ thinking. They strongly — sometimes very strongly — believe in equality or liberty or God or Nature or the social construction of gender or whatever, but can give no account of those beliefs. So they wind up believing not “moral facts” but rather holding very, very strong opinions which are immune to reasoned argument because, after all, they are opinions.
The result is not good for our society at large, either/both:
 a hive mentality where “we” in the group all believe the same things simply because certain beliefs stand as markers of group identity; or/and
 a deeply cynical mass of people highly skilled at parroting beliefs which they do not hold simply in order to join the dominant group.
Tickets are now on sale for the Walker Percy Weekend 2015, June 5-7 in St. Francisville, La. Here are the panel topics for Saturday:
LOSING IT AT THE MOVIES (Walker Percy and David Foster Wallace)
The late novelist David Foster Wallace once asked a very Walker Percy-like question: “Why are we – and by ‘we’ I mean people like you and me: mostly white, upper middle class or upper class, obscenely well educated, doing really interesting jobs, sitting in really expensive chairs, watching the best, you know, watching the most sophisticated electronic equipment money can buy – why do we feel so empty and unhappy?” Panelists will discuss the answers both novelists answered this question, with special focus on each writer’s insights into how modern people evade the question by immersing themselves in film and mass media.
CATHOLICS IN THE CHRIST-HAUNTED SOUTH (Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor)
Roman Catholicism — historically an outsider form of Christianity in the heavily Protestant South — informed the moral vision of Percy and Flannery O’Connor, two of the modern South’s best writers and most observant social critics. What did their Catholicism reveal to them about Southern culture? What did their Southern roots and Christian faith reveal to them about the discontents of contemporary America in an increasingly secular age?
Plus, at 11, Peter Augustine Lawler will deliver a one-hour lecture on Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, the film Interstellar, and changing perspectives on man’s place in the universe.
MISSISSIPPI WOMAN, LOUISIANA MAN: EUDORA WELTY, WALKER PERCY, AND THE SOUTHERN IMAGINATION
Walker Percy and Eudora Welty were friends and contemporaries whose fiction was profoundly infused with a sense of Southern place. But they dwelled in their places — Jackson, Miss., and Covington, La. — very differently. Welty was thoroughly engaged in the life and community of her hometown, while Percy, though rooted in Covington, never felt quite at home anywhere. Exploring the pair’s contrasting relationship to place, and what it says about the Southern imagination. Panelists from Jackson, Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and beyond.
FROM ‘GONE WITH THE WIND’ TO GARDEN & GUN: WALKER PERCY AT THE CROSSROADS BETWEEN THE OLD SOUTH AND THE NEW
Walker Percy was raised in the last age of the aristocratic Old South culture, epitomized by his Uncle Will. He wrote in, and of, the New South — the emerging South of the middle class, commerce, and suburbia. How and why did the changes come about? And how has the South changed further since Percy’s death 25 years ago?
Just prior to the Front Porch Bourbon Tour, we’re hosting this talk:
AROUND THE TABLE, UNDER THE TABLE: ALCOHOL AND SOUTHERN WRITERS
“You see, I usually write at night,” said William Faulkner. “I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.” Alcohol — especially bourbon — has forever been a part of Southern culture, particularly Southern literary culture. Bourbon was the favored tipple of Faulkner and Percy. Considering the role of drinking in Southern fiction and culture, especially in an era of Recovery.
Of course we will be having the Bourbon Tour on Royal Street, which was a hugely popular event last year. The food this year? On Friday night, we’re having a Twilight In The Ruins cocktail party in the ruins of Afton Villa plantation (no word yet on whether we will be able to serve Ramos gin fizzes, like Dr. Tom More loves). On Saturday night, the festival will close with a crawfish boil under the live oaks (if you were there for last year’s crawfish boil from Hot Tails restaurant, you know how great this event is). Here is a photo gallery from the 2014 fest. There are other things going on too around the festival, including a tour of the River Bend Nuclear Power station (which plays a role in The Thanatos Syndrome) and Angola State Penitentiary (ditto). Plus, there are lots of plantation houses to see. And you’ll get to see some familiar, er, faces from this blog. Franklin Evans is making a return trip, as is Bernie. Leslie Fain was here last year (coming back, I hope), and others. Mary Pratt Percy Lobdell, one of Walker and Bunt’s daughters, is coming back too, and bringing friends. Here is the full schedule.
Tickets are now on sale at WalkerPercyWeekend.org. Please keep in mind that tickets are limited. Many festivalgoers last year said that they loved how small the event was, because they felt like they got to talk to folks, and to get to know them. We agree. We want to keep this thing neighborly, and to recreate the vibe that Peter Augustine Lawler described in his review of the 2014 festival. By the way, Peter will also be anchoring the New South/Old South panel this year. Baylor’s great Ralph Wood will be the man lecturing on Flannery, Walker, Catholicism and the South. More names to be announced later.
Anyway, please keep in mind that the festival sold out weeks in advance last year, so don’t wait too long to get your tickets and to make reservations. The St. Francisville Inn is right next to the crawfish boil grounds, and the 3V Cabins are just across the street. The Shadetree and the Barrow House are both in the historic district, easy walking distance from the lectures and bourbon tour. But look, it’s a small town, so nowhere is far away.
If you weren’t here last year, here’s a little of what you missed:
Books, literary talk, Southern culture, cold beer, hot crawfish, good conversation, drinking bourbon on the front porch and in the ruins of a plantation — how can you miss this cool little festival? I hope to see you in St. Francisville in June. Thanks to The American Conservative for co-sponsoring this event again.