You have to read this. You have to. It’s a long story in the New York Times Magazine, in which Ron Suskind, the writer, discovers a way to reach his profoundly autistic son, Owen: through Disney movies. I won’t excerpt the piece because the way it unfolds has everything to do with its shock and wonder. But you have to read it. Here’s a tiny piece:
As the session ends, Griffin pulls me aside. “Autistic kids like Owen are not supposed to do that,” he says. “This is getting weird in a very good way.”
In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, protagonist Binx Bolling uses his deep fascination with films to navigate the real world. This is understood to be a deficit, a weakness, a negative buffer between Binx and reality. But in Owen’s case, watching Disney movies is his bridge to reality. This really is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. Read it now!
A reader sends this Ezra Levant piece from the Toronto Sun about an epic battle before Canada’s ridiculous human rights commissions — one that it will be a hathotic pleasure to watch play out:
So a lesbian walks into a Muslim barbershop, and asks for a “businessmen’s haircut”.
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it really happened, and now a government agency called the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario will hear her complaint.
Faith McGregor is the lesbian who doesn’t like the girly cuts that they do at a salon. She wants the boy’s hairdo.
Omar Mahrouk is the owner of the Terminal Barber Shop in Toronto. He follows Shariah law, so he thinks women have cooties. As Mahrouk and the other barbers there say, they don’t believe in touching women other than their own wives.
Levant handicaps the contest:
So which is a better hand: A lesbian who wants a haircut or a Muslim who doesn’t want to give it to her?
I’m betting on Mahrouk. And I predict that Muslim activists — not quiet barbers like Mahrouk, but professional Muslim busybodies — will start using human rights commissions more and more to push their way into places where they have no legal right, but where the human rights commissions are more than happy to engineer things for them, if they complain loud enough.
If I were a gay activist, I’d probably want to declare victory and shut down these human rights commissions right now.
In five years time, it won’t be gay activists forcing themselves into Christian B&Bs. It’ll be Muslim activists vetoing the gay pride parade.
Read the whole thing — it’s darkly hilarious. Personally, I hope the barber wins. The lesbian busybody could have gone to any number of barbershops in Toronto for her manly haircut. She chose this one, plainly, because she wanted to rub the Muslim owner’s nose in her “human rights.” This case reminds me of a statement one of this blog’s readers said the other day in a combox, something to the effect that most of these court (or tribunal) cases would never exist if people would resolve not to be jerks.
By the way, Ezra Levant is facing trial before the human rights commissars by an intolerant, illiberal Canadian Muslim. Learn more about the case, and support his defense fund, here.
UPDATE: As a reader points out in the comboxes, this story is two years old. Argh! It’s all over the Internet now as a new story. I have got to learn to check the dates on these things. Anyway, it was resolved by the two parties on undisclosed terms, and the plaintiff went on to become US Secretary of State.
Via Reddit, fast-food employees say what you should never order there. Excerpt:
“I worked at taco bell a little bit ago and I warn everyone to stay away from both the beans, and the steak. The beans start out looking like cat food, and the directions are, ‘Add water and stir until you can’t see white anymore.’ The steak was just the worst on dish duty. If it would sit too long it would become like hair gel. It was the worst.”
If you eat at Taco Bell, you deserve what you get. That’s what I think. I used to eat there all the time in college. Nothing quite hit the spot after the bars closed on Friday and Saturday nights like a bean burrito with green sauce purchased at the drive-thru on the way back to the dorm. Years later, I went back to Taco Bell to order one for old time’s sake. It tasted like bean-scented sodium paste in a tortilla wrapper.
On a roadtrip a few years back, I pulled into town late one night and found the Taco Bell was the only fast-food joint open. I was hungry, but couldn’t finish what I ordered. It was so unbelievably salty.
Any fast-food workers in the readership have any insider tips to offer us on what to avoid in your shop?
Please do not say anything bad about Sonic. I love their hamburgers, even though they make me feel like crap about 20 minutes after eating them.
As Dante and Virgil stand at the base of the mountain, Dante marvels that his body casts a shadow, but the bodies of the shades do not. Virgil says this is a mystery. And:
…madness it is to hope that human minds
can ever understand the Infinite
that comprehends Three Persons In One Being.
Be satisfied with quia unexplained,
O human race! If you knew everything,
no need for Mary to have borne a son.
You saw the hopeless longing of those souls
whose thirst, were this not so, would have been quenched,
but which, instead, endures as endless pain:
I speak of Plato and of Aristotle,
and many others.” Then he bent his head,
remaining silent with his anguished thoughts.
For me, the image of noble Virgil quietly mourning the tragedy his permanent exile from heaven is one of the most moving in the entire poem.
This is a passage about the limits of intellection. The Pilgrim’s journey is one from slavery to freedom, but it’s also one from ignorance to knowledge. If the wisest men who ever lived could not penetrate the mysteries of existence by Reason alone, what hope is there for others to do so? The “quia” is a Scholastic term; the expression here means, “Some things you have to take on faith.” Virgil indicates that if humankind had perfect knowledge, we would not have needed God to reveal Himself to us as Jesus Christ.
An important distinction to be made here is what “knowledge” means. It does not mean simply propositional knowledge — that is, facts about the world. The intellect, in classical usage, means one’s entire capacity to know, including through intuition. The back story here is the Fall damaged humankind’s unity with God, and therefore our capacity to know Him (not simply to know about Him). In our prelapsarian state, we possessed unity with Him, a unity we lost when our ancestral parents turned from Him and tried to stand on their own. Given our finitude and brokenness, and His infinitude and perfection, we cannot hope to know God and His reality to the fullness of our capacities without divine assistance, which includes revelation, and includes the gift of grace. Without Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, we were lost in the dark woods, as Dante was in the opening of the Inferno. Had he been able to find his way out on his own, he would not have needed a guide sent from heaven, Virgil, serving as God’s agent. Similarly, the human race would not have needed the Second Person of the Trinity to incarnate as the Son of a Virgin, to reveal to us the way to restore our unity with God, and to lead the way out of the realm of Death to everlasting life.
That’s what Virgil is getting at in these lines. Thinking we can know everything there is to know, that the depths of reality can be fully plumbed with the unaided intellect, is to give oneself over to a hopeless longing. Consider all this in light of the fact that the beginning of all saving knowledge is Humility — the Humility that leads to repentance, and to the concession that we need God.
In the next part of this canto, we meet the Contumacious — that is, those who, in their pride, were very late to repent. But repent they did, and the smallest act of repentance, however late in coming, was enough to win God’s mercy and spare them the suffering of Hell. Notice that it wasn’t a discovery of the intellect that saved them, but an act of the will — of saying, simply, in whatever way, Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. As Alan Jacobs commented on yesterday’s thread, compare those who just debarked from the angelic boat, who came across the waters singing a Psalm of thanksgiving for God’s mercy and their deliverance, with the damned crossing in Charon’s boat to Hell (Inferno, Canto III); they groan and curse and blame everyone for their miseries except themselves.
Note that the Contumacious move very, very slowly. This reflects their spiritual condition. Because they were so late to repent, they lack the spiritual strength to ascending the mountain of purification. Here they must wait to be restored enough to begin their climb. We learn that the prayers of the living back on Earth can help them regain their spiritual strength, and progress onward. This reveals to us the connection between the living and the dead (though not the damned) in the cosmic harmony.
One of the Contumacious is Manfred, an actual historical personage who was the son of Frederick II. He had run afoul of the Pope, and had been excommunicated. He died on the field of battle:
As I lay there, my body torn by these
two mortal wounds, weeping, I gave my soul
to Him Who grants forgiveness willingly.
Horrible was the nature of my sins,
but boundless mercy stretches out its arms
to any man who comes in search of it…
The church’s curse is not the final word,
for Everlasting Love may still return,
if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.
When I first read those lines, coming so soon after the grim horror of the Inferno, I very nearly was moved to tears. This is Dante saying that God’s mercy is so overwhelming that He will overrule His own church’s authorities for the sake of saving a repentant sinner — a sinner who, with his dying breath, has the humility to ask for mercy. Manfred tells us that there is no sin, no matter how horrible, that God will not forgive.
But you have to humble yourself to ask.
One more thing: this passage shows that Purgatory is not a place of punishment for one’s sins. The sins have been forgiven — that’s why Manfred and all the others are in Purgatory in the first place. Purgatory is a place where one’s tendencies to sin are purged, to prepare one to be able to bear the intense brightness of Heaven, and the full knowledge of God. If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, you’ll understand what Dante is getting at in his theological fantasy.
UPDATE: On why a soul on its way to heaven must be purified and strengthened before being able to bear the Light of God, here is a remark by the Orthodox Metropolitan Hierotheos, from his book Orthodox Psychotherapy:
The heart experiences the grace of God first as a fire, a fire which burns up sin and the passions, and then when the passions burn away, it experiences God’s grace as light illuminating our whole inner man.
This teaching that we first experience God’s grace as a fire and then as a light is analysed by St. John of the Ladder. He says that when the supercelestial fire comes to dwell in the heart, it burns some because they still lack purification and it enlightens others “according to the degree of their perfection.” This same thing is called “both the fire which consumes and the light which illuminates.” That is why some people come from their prayer as if from a fiery furnace, and feel a relief from defilement, while others, when prayer is ended, feels as if they were coming out resplendent with light and clothed in a garment of humility and joy. This fire which the heart of man perceives is often perceived by the body as well. Thus the person thinks that he is in hell and burning with the flames of hell. This is important and salutary. For such repentance heals the soul. And we know very well that the greater the repentance, the more effective the healing. Also the more the fire of repentance is experienced, the more the preconditions are created for the vision of uncreated Light.
Those last two sentences sum up the effect of Purgatorio on the soul, and the experience of Paradiso.
A reader who studies at a multidenominational seminary writes:
More than a few of my classmates who hail from Mainline Protestant churches are clearly there for all the wrong reasons. They are fiercely passionate about SSM, gay ordination, feminism, inclusive liturgical language, social justice and inclusion. (Not that there’s anything wrong with social justice and inclusion, per se.) But when you ask them about God or about Jesus in any even remotely theological sense, you get either awkward stammering or near-atheism. Tradition is there to be critiqued, changed or ignored. Scripture is viewed through the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Recently, one of our profs asked one of my classmates about his faith and his understanding of God. This student is a pastor-in-training who is very passionate and outspoken about gay rights and about not using the word “Father” for God. My classmate responded, “I’m having trouble with the whole ‘God thing.’ I don’t know what I believe. I really don’t.” And based on my experience of him, he doesn’t. A seminarian saying stuff like that scares the heck out of me; especially with the Church and culture where they are today. I am an imperfect guy, a sinner par excellence, and I have my theological doubts from time to time. I have lots to learn, also, about theology and the like. But this sort of thing seems to me to be indicative of what you’re talking about in your last couple of posts. The unseriousness of religion and the precariousness of tradition.
Why do seminaries admit students like this? I’m not asking rhetorically; I’d really like to know. These people are fifth columnists, straight up. A friend of mine reports that his Mainline Protestant church has just received notice that their new pastor is on her way. Noticing the young age of the pastor, I asked my friend if they had any idea where the pastor stood on various moral issues (the congregation is fairly conservative). He said they didn’t know, and that the congregation has no say in who their pastor will be.
Now, this incoming pastor may be perfectly fine, but what’s interesting is to consider that she may have graduated from a seminary that ordained her, even though she may not believe in God, or may believe in a God far removed from the Christian tradition. What happens when the seminaries and church administration seed congregations with clergy who think like this? They commit slow suicide. Nobody wants to go to a church led by a pastor who isn’t sure he or she believes in God.
What is the point of going to seminary if you don’t believe in God? What is the point of having a seminary that trains clergy who don’t know if they believe in God, but do know that they believe in destroying the tradition?
Why do modern churches want to poison themselves?
Andrew Sullivan, who like me works from home, and who unlike me has never worked in a newsroom or, to my knowledge, been on a college faculty for any length of time, says that I’m wrong to say that it is impossible now to make a “positive case” for orthodox Christian teaching on marriage, because (in my view) any opposition to same-sex marriage is seen as drive by bigotry. Andrew says that if orthodox Christians of goodwill want to be seen as not motivated by bigotry in their opposition to SSM, there’s something they can do about it:
And the only way to distinguish yourself from these hateful factions is to make a positive case for your position. That’s always possible. From the very beginnings of our faith, Christians have made such a positive case, even as they were being thrown to the lions. And Rod won’t do it because someone might say something mean at the office! How delicate and sensitive these Christianists can be.
How smug, naive, and completely out of touch Andrew Sullivan is being here, writing from deep inside his own bubble. Ryan T. Anderson (for example) co-authored a terrific, secular book laying out a natural law case against same-sex marriage. Watch what happened to him when he went on Piers Morgan’s show to talk about it. HuffPo’s Jon Ward wrote about it afterward:
But there is another major tension in this debate, facing another group: the growing number of Americans who favor gay marriage. The question for them is how to treat those who disagree with them.
Piers Morgan’s CNN segment on Tuesday night was a vivid illustration of this tension. Morgan invited Ryan T. Anderson, a 31-year-old fellow from The Heritage Foundation, on his program to debate the issue. But Morgan did not have Anderson to sit at a table with him and Suze Orman, the 61-year-old financial guru, who is gay. Instead, Anderson was placed about 15 feet away from Morgan and Orman, among the audience, and had to debate from a distance.
The message, in both the language used by Morgan and Orman, and the physical placement of Anderson on the set, was clear: they thought him morally inferior.
That is just one high-profile example. Here’s another: remember Scott Eckern, the Mormon theater director in California who was driven out of his job in 2008 because he donated money to Prop 8? From the NYT report:
Marc Shaiman, the Tony Award-winning composer (“Hairspray”), called Mr. Eckern last week and said that he would not let his work be performed in the theater. “I was uncomfortable with money made off my work being used to put discrimination in the Constitution,” Mr. Shaiman said. He added, however, that the entire episode left him “deeply troubled” because of the potential for backlash against gays who protested Mr. Eckern’s donation.
“It will not help our cause because we will be branded exactly as what we were trying to fight,” said Mr. Shaiman, who is gay. “But I do believe there comes a time when you cannot sit back and accept what I think is the most dangerous form of bigotry.”
Nobody reported that Eckern had been guilty of treating people in the workplace with bigotry. When it became known that he did not support SSM, and gave money to the campaign to stop it, he was compelled to resign, or see the institution he worked for ruined. Actress Susan Egan, who started the anti-Eckern protest, responded to the resignation:
But she did not intend to force Eckern to resign. “I don’t think it was anybody’s goal,” she said. “I’m really sad. I think Scott is a good man. I think he genuinely cares about the theatre. I think he’s good at his job.” She added that had he not resigned, however, “I know there are people who would not have been satisfied.”
Nice career you have there, Mr. Eckern. Sure would be a shame for something to happen to it. Nice business you have there, Mormon Restaurant Manager Lady. Sure would be a shame to have it destroyed.
Sullivan’s complaint is disingenuous. I hear all the time from religious conservatives in various fields — in particular media and academia — who are afraid to disclose their own beliefs about same-sex marriage because most people within those fields consider opposition to SSM to be driven solely by hatred. Earlier this year, I had a conversation with a man who is probably the most accomplished and credentialed legal scholar I’ve ever met, someone who is part of this country’s law elite. The fact that I can’t identify him here, or get into specifics of what he told me, indicates something important about the climate within law circles around this issue. On this issue, he lives in the closet, so to speak, within his professional circles, and explained to me why it has become too dangerous to take a traditionalist stand in law circles, unless one is prepared to sabotage one’s career. In the near future, law degrees coming from law schools that don’t adhere full-on to the new orthodoxy on gay rights (if any exist) will be taken as seriously by the legal profession as degrees from Bob Jones University are.
He also said that religious conservatives really don’t understand the McCarthyism that’s about to come at them. Simply affirming what their faith teaches about sexuality in context of the gay rights debate really is, and will increasingly be, seen not as evidence of one’s poor thinking, but rather as evidence of one’s personal evil. I told him that I understand it, because I’ve seen the same thing play out in my profession. I mentioned someone I know who works in a New York newsroom, at a senior level, who lives in the closet as an Evangelical, out of fear of her colleagues learning the truth — this, given their openly-expressed spite for Evangelicals. I mentioned another friend, a gay-marriage supporter from another New York newsroom, who told me not long ago that there is no room there for dissent on same-sex marriage. All opposition to the new orthodoxy is taken as a confession of one’s bigotry.
Does Andrew Sullivan not know this? There have been plenty of people in the recent past willing to make arguments for the traditional Christian view of sex and sexuality, but the place these arguments are made in our culture — in the media — has been indifferent or hostile to them. I point Andrew to the Pew Center’s study from last year, showing that media coverage on same-sex marriage from a critical period they studied favored the pro-SSM position by five-to-one. This kind of thing happens when the media have decided that the other side has no position worth listening to.
Has Andrew ever been threatened by a potentially career-ending complaint that expressing his beliefs create a “hostile work environment”? It has happened to me (though not about gay issues); I’ve heard from others — readers of this blog and people I have met elsewhere — who have faced similar reactions when it emerged in their places of employment that their personal views don’t agree with the new race-sex-gender orthodoxy. A tenured professor who is a Christian told me recently that if his colleagues knew that he disagreed with gay marriage, he would not lose his job (tenure protects him), but he would be ostracized within his college as a bigot. It’s very, very easy for the self-employed Andrew, who is on the power-holding side of this cultural equation, to demean as “delicate and insensitive” people who face real and significant professional consequences for their religious dissent.
It may fall to them to martyr their careers to stand up for what they believe to be true. But if they are going to do that, they should at least have a reasonable hope that their arguments will be seriously considered. That’s a ridiculous thing to hope for in our media climate today. But it is unjust of Andrew to write as if his side is not imposing a real cost on people who even he recognizes are not true bigots, simply for expressing their Christian beliefs. Christians and other traditionalists were wrong to have demonized gay people in the past, and forced them to live in the closet for fear of their careers.
Team Andrew Gay rights activists did a lot of good work to end this climate of fear, and to wake the rest of us up to the humanity of our gay brothers and sisters, and to increase tolerance for them. But it is to Team Andrew’s their great discredit that they have created a climate of intolerance and, yes, hatred, that sends traditionalist Christians into professional closets of their own. It would do Andrew good to step outside of his NYC-Provincetown-DC bubble, and listen to Catholics and other Christians who are not Westboro fundamentalists, and who are afraid to stand up for what they believe in because of the consequences they believe the new McCarthyism is likely to impose.
UPDATE: Damon Linker, who supports SSM, nails it. He says he’s thrilled by the progress gay rights have made.
But I’m also troubled by the equally stunning lack of charity, magnanimity, and tolerance displayed by many gay marriage advocates. This very much includes Mark Joseph Stern, Henry Farrell, and others who are cheering them on.
Roughly speaking, for all of recorded human history until a couple of decades ago, virtually no one even entertained the possibility that homosexuals might seek to marry, let alone advocated it. In that brief span of time — a figurative blink of an eye in cultural terms — gay marriage has gone from being an oxymoron to a lived reality in several states and an institution accepted by majorities or pluralities in most demographic categories. If that isn’t a cultural revolution, then nothing is.
Yes, it’s still underway. But at this rate, Nate Silver’s 2009 prediction that gay marriage would be accepted in all 50 states by 2024 is going to prove to be too pessimistic.
And yet, that appears to be insufficient for some gay marriage proponents. They don’t just want to win the legal right to marry. They don’t just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life.
That is an unacceptable, illiberal demand.
He explains why. Read the whole thing.
UPDATE.2: Listen, I’m not going to publish any more statements in the comboxes of this thread arguing whether or not Christian opposition to SSM is driven by bigotry. If you want to join that discussion, there are plenty of threads on this blog in which to do it, and there will no doubt be plenty more. This thread is about how gay rights supporters should treat those who disagree with them. I’m not trying to suppress your opinion because I disagree with it, but rather keep the discussion focused. Please don’t waste your time writing a general comment about supposed Christian bigotry, because I’m not going to post it.
From the Journals Of Father Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, this combination of two subsequent entries from February 1975:
I had lunch with two Anglican clergymen in the city. Conversations about the ordination of women. Suddenly, while we were talking, I thought, how not serious religion had become since it ceased being the essential form of life. Religion seems to be constantly reinventing itself, in order not to disappear completely, not to be discarded.
People have stopped believing not in God or gods, but in death, in eternal death, in its inevitability — hence, they stopped believing in salvation. The seriousness of religion was first of all in the serious choice that a person considered obvious, between death and salvation. People say that the disappearance of fear is good, although the essential experience of life is facing death. The saints did not become saints because of fear, but because they knew the fear of God. The contemporary understanding of religion as self-fulfillment is rather cheap. The devil is eliminated, then hell, then sin — and nothing is left except consumer goods. But there is much more fear, even religious fear in the world than ever before — but it is not at all the fear of God.
This is why the Divine Comedy would be impossible today. Without the Inferno, and the vivid reality of sin and death, and the conviction that one has the responsibility to choose, none of the rest of it makes sense.
Today I read in the New York Times an article about changes occurring in Russia. No more dissidents, no young people to carry on the opposition. Sakharov is quite alone. People want televisions, cars, ice cream, comfort. The tragic high note taken by Solzhenitsyn is lost in this decay. S. issues a call to “live without lies,” but his opponents reply, “Does he not understand that people always and everywhere lived — and will live — by and with lies?” It is impossible to oppose society’s lowest impersonal ways. The United States wants and needs to trade with Russia — and this is stronger than any potential protest. Russia wants a better material life and that’s the strongest incentive. Religion is absolutely helpless, not because of the weakness and the fall of religion, butbecause religion has ceased to be the essential term of reference, the basis of a vision of the world, an evaluation of all these “wants.” [Emphasis mine -- RD] I felt it quiet acutely today while attending a report of our church’s committee on investment, including a discussion about what is better, more profitable, secure — some bonds or some stocks. Nobody felt the comical and demonic aspect of a discussion attended by bishops and priests who listened with genuine reverence and admiration to the financial experts: a banker and a broker. I saw for about an hour a true religious awe, which was completely absent when simple church affairs were discussed — in an atmosphere of petty mistrust, intrigue, and verification of every cent spent by the administration. The banker and the broker were listened to with hearty enjoyment, and questions were asked in the way that one used to ask elders, wise men and masters. They talked with the simplicity and the humility of people who know their business, their indispensable place in society. This is the way that religion does not express itself any more, because religion does not have such an indispensable place any more. What does it mean? It means that religion has accepted secular logic and does not see in that acceptance either its fall or even a “problem.” For how could religion survive otherwise?
A recent illustration of Fr. Schmemann’s point. Religion is powerless before the gods of this age, except in a refusal to bend the knee. And the religions that do bend their knees will lose their souls. Watch.
UPDATE: A little more on this. When Schmemann says religion has accepted “secular logic,” what does he mean? Well, thinking of Charles Taylor (who wrote A Secular Age long after the late Fr. Schmemann wrote these diary entries), I suppose he means accepting that secularism doesn’t mean the lack of religion, but rather that the religious worldview does not dominate and undergird life. Religion is seen not as a description of how the world is, but as an expression of how some people within a culture see the world. The condition of being secular is to be aware that religion is a choice. This is something that even religious people living in secularism cannot help but be aware of; in this sense, everyone living today is secular, even if they are religious. That being the case, to accept “secular logic” as a religious person means that one sees religion as an aspect of life, not as the center of life. It means church is what one does on Sunday. It means faith is a pleasant and perhaps helpful add-on to one’s life, but certainly not the point of one’s life. There is no awe present within the contemporary religious consciousness; it is entirely therapeutic. It is not the Cross, but rather Your Best Life Now. No wonder nobody takes religion seriously.
As you may recall, I am embarking on a book about reading the Divine Comedy as a way to find one’s own way back to the “straight path.” Frankly, it’s about reading Dante’s great poem as a self-help book — a reading that, I hasten to add, the poet endorses. He once wrote to a patron that the point of the Commedia is to deliver the reader from misery to blessedness. The thing that will be the hardest for me to convey to the modern reader is Dante’s since that the choice he (and all of us) must make in life will have eternal consequences. If you don’t believe your eternal fate hangs on the choices you make in this life, it’s harder to experience the Commedia as Dante wrote it.
A reader who teaches college students writes:
The Catholic Church, I’ve found, is just extraordinarily bad at catechizing its young members. I have numerous Catholic students in my classes–that is, students who claim not only to have been raised Catholic, but to be actively practicing Catholics.
Their lack of substantive knowledge of the essential (not to speak of peripheral) elements of their faith is shocking and shameful, and goes far beyond (below?) mere cafeteria Catholicism. It’s one thing to pick and choose which Catholic teachings to “believe,” but these students usually don’t even know what the Catholic teachings are in the first place. Due to the subject matter I typically teach (Western political theory), ideas that involve or that bear upon Catholic themes naturally come up. What is the Catholic teaching on marriage? *blank stares* What’s purgatory? (purga-what?) What’s original sin? (no one has ever had a clue about this one) What is the natural law? (same here)
I’m not a Catholic, but I find myself instructing Catholics in their faith on a routine bases. I grew up in a Protestant church that had no notion of the “church calendar,” and yet even I have a fairly robust understanding of Lent. What’s the deal here? Is the failure on the part of Catholic parents or the priesthood? Either way, it’s not only shameful but tragic. No faith is sustainable if its young members have no idea what it’s about.
This echoes something a Catholic theologian friend told me about many of the students turning up at his Catholic university. They simply didn’t know the rudimentary facts of the faith. As I’ve said here before, the atheist Camille Paglia once told me that her nominally Christian college students in Philly turn up ignorant of basic Christian themes, motifs, and stories. The only ones who are even slightly cognizant are black students and a few working-class white ones.
I recently had a conversation with an Orthodox Christian from the Northeast. He said that the lack of basic knowledge of Orthodox Christianity among congregations in his part of the world is shocking. We’re not talking about theological fine points; we’re talking about Orthodox Christianity 101. I told him the story of an Evangelical friend of mine in Philly who had been raised Greek Orthodox in NYC, and had even gone to the Greek cathedral school for his entire pre-college schooling, and who was surprised to learn from dumb old convert me that Orthodox Christians fast.
This brought to mind a mainline Protestant friend who had been active in her church from childhood, and in a parachurch youth ministry, who didn’t understand until she stumbled across the information as an adult that Jesus had been resurrected in His body.
And it brings to mind this story today from the Canadian Anglicans, whose primate, Fred Hiltz, suggests abandoning a traditional Lenten practice and taking up a traditional North American Indian ritual in its place:
While I appreciate the significance of imposing ashes at the outset of Lent, I have come to wonder if smudging might not be an equally powerful reminder of the true character of these 40 days. I wonder what the impact might be if there was a ceremony of smudging on each Sunday in Lent—at the beginning of the liturgy or at the time of confession and intention “to lead the new life following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” (Invitation to Confession, Book of Common Prayer, p. 76).
What’s the connecting thread? Tradition, and disregard for it. Tradition has to be a living thing, handed on by one generation to the next. It can be captured in books, but if it only lives in books, it will not live. My Orthodox friend in the Northeast says that so many churches in his part of the country are ethnic mausoleums inhabited by old people who did not pass the faith on to their children (hence the absence of middle-aged people and children in the congregation), but who would rather the congregations die than make themselves welcoming to younger converts who want to learn and live the tradition. Speaking of how displaced he is as a traditional Christian in his city, “It’s a strange thing to realize that your only reliable allies in the public square are Muslims and Mormons.”
Nobody can be certain that their children will receive the tradition, but they can be pretty sure that their children won’t receive it if it is not presented to them. In Baton Rouge the other day, I was speaking to one of this blog’s readers, a former public schoolteacher who is about to start seminary (out yourself here if you’d like, Reader!), and we agreed on how utterly clueless so many Christian parents are today about this topic. Until recently, parents could have been relatively lackadaisical about passing on the faith to their kids, because there was enough ambient Christianity in the culture to give at least a rudimentary catechism in the Christian mindset. “Those days are gone,” he said, in the same tone of voice one would use in talking about ignorant drivers approaching a bridge that had washed out.
Christians who go with the flow will find their children’s faith washed down the river. I’m sure it must be the same with other religions. Modernity is a universal solvent.
Today Matt and I were having lunch in a fast-food joint near LSU. The two undergraduate women sitting behind us were having a conversation about Lent.
“Why does the Catholic church punish everybody for Lent? Way to get more people to come to your church!” one of them sarcastically said.
“Can you believe that?” said Matt.
If I had had a print-out of this fantastic Ash Wednesday sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Pastrix, I would have handed it to both of them. Excerpt:
And the thing is, this truth we speak tonight about our mortality is only offensive if it’s heard as an insult and not a promise. It’s only offensive when it’s heard as being the last word. And it’s not. It’s not the last word.
The same is true about confessing our sins. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: People who think I’m some crazy liberal are always so shocked about how much I love to talk about sin. I think liberals tend to think admitting we are sinful is the same as having low self-esteem. And then conservatives equate sin with immorality. So one end of the church tells us that sin is an antiquated notion that only makes us feel bad about ourselves so we should avoid mentioning it at all. While the other end of the church tells us that sin is the same as immorality and totally avoidable if you can just be a good squeaky-clean Christian. Yet when sin is boiled down to low self-esteem or immorality then it becomes something we can control or limit in some way rather than something we are simply in bondage to. The reality is that I cannot free myself from the bondage of self. I cannot by my own understanding or effort disentangle myself from self interest – and when I think that I can …I’m basically trying to do what is only God’s to do.
So, to me, there is actually great hope in Ash Wednesday, a great hope in admitting my mortality and my brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program long enough to allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.
Trust me, read the whole thing. You’ve got to see what she went through this week. The woman can preach, y’all.
[H/T: CK, who did me a big favor by sending this]
This is a faith in which there are saints: Nurses, police officers, the men (and they generally are) who drive the plows and salt trucks. And even my essential-personnel husband, who goes to work very early in the morning for the media—otherwise, the snowstorm might be perfect for a bit of conjugal bliss.
This faith has its Pharisees, as well: The people who will fight their way downtown to the office no matter what, and who just don’t understand why someone wouldn’t try to drive in from Fauquier County, Virginia, or Frederick, Maryland—roughly an hour outside town. Actually, what they don’t understand is why people persist in living in those places in the first place. Or why people who have children have not conveniently secured means of having always-available child care in the event of the unexpected.
Because the work just doesn’t stop. However fashionable it may be among progressives to decry the celibate religious, it is the un-partnered, and un-parenting among us who have become eunuchs for the Lord, logging sixteen-hour days, blind to the sky and the soft white crystals falling, just barely audible, on the branches.
This is a faith that even has its monks.
I am on record as despising summer. But I tell you, this cold and wet season just has to end. It just has to.