Rod Dreher

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Losing Your Religion

The reader Gretchen is a liberal who often writes critically of religion, with great passion. Erin Manning asked her if she was once a Catholic. She replied:

Erin, I was born into a deeply devout Irish Catholic family, went to church six days a week throughout my childhood, and went to Catholic grade school and high school.  My parents both went to Catholic colleges, as did my sister.  My dad considered the Jesuits the gold standard for education, and wished it was available for girls at that time too.  My brother wanted to follow my dad to his Jesuit university, but the folks couldn’t afford it, and told me that they couldn’t do more for me than my brother, so we both went to State U.  I married a Catholic I met in graduate school in the church, had all four children baptized and started them in CCD.  My third pregnancy was difficult.  I suddenly went into a quick early labor and after a very, very traumatic birth experience found myself with premature twins.  My doctor had insisted there was only one, so the whole thing was a shock.  We were new  in town and knew nobody well.  My mother and mother in law were unable to come help – my mom was taking care of my very ill dad, my mother in law was out of the country, and my sister had young children of her own.  My husband didn’t have any vacation coming and had to go back to work – this was before FMLA.  So I found myself home alone with four young children, including premature twins who had to nurse every two hours, and were too weak to nurse at the same time, so they could literally stay up around the clock between them. I was bleeding so much I wasn’t supposed to get out of bed. My mother was frantic and said I should call the church for help.  I said they wouldn’t help, so she called them and explained the situation and they said basically what are we supposed to do about it?  So, at her wits end, she called the long distance operator and poured out her story, and the operator connected her with a local home health care agency.  She hired an aide to come help me, and my sister paid for it.  We literally got more help from the phone company than the Catholic church when facing a difficult situation with newborns, which is why I have a very hard time dealing with priests saying “just have the baby and it will all work out.” The pastor at the time had an obsession with “life” and talked a lot about “welcoming life” and why don’t women just have the baby and give it up for adoption if they can’t keep it, and on and on.  The obsession with abortion as the only moral issue seemed to take hold in the Catholic church, and it made me angrier and angrier, listening to his clueless yammering about what women should do, knowing he was going home to a full night’s sleep in the quiet house that I helped pay for, that was bigger than my house stuffed with a family of six.  My husband suggested that steaming in the pew every Sunday wasn’t helping my spirituality.  Then that priest had to leave – he got caught with a young man, but the young man was slightly over 18, so he didn’t go to jail.  The associate pastor did go to jail since his boy was under 18.  The combination of the sanctimonious preaching about what women should do, the cluelessness about how challenging actually having children is, knowing that they didn’t have to live what they preached and couldn’t even be trusted around other people’s children, was the end of Catholicism for me, though the process took many years.  Catholicism was such an ingrained part of me that leaving was like excising part of myself – it was very difficult, but they’d lost any moral authority for me.   I started going to an Episcopal church with a married father as pastor, and found his sermons about making families work helpful in what was still a very challenging time in my life.  My daughter planned to be married in the Catholic church, but they refused to marry her unless her Lutheran husband would promise to raise the children Catholic, which he refused to do.  They were married in my Episcopal church.  Then the pastors got involved with that Ugandan kill-the-gays branch of the church when the gay bishop was ordained, started a schism with the mainline Anglicans, and basically got crazy, so I left them too.  The last time I was in a church was for my grandson’s baptism, and church is no longer part of my life.

These lines resonate deeply with my own experience: Catholicism was such an ingrained part of me that leaving was like excising part of myself – it was very difficult, but they’d lost any moral authority for me. I rarely agree with Gretchen, but I know exactly what this feels like.

I would like this to be a thread in which readers who have lost their faith tell how it happened, and how it felt. I am interested in stories, not polemics. If you write a Ditchkins-style rant about faith, I won’t post it. If you want to try to argue people out of religious belief, I won’t post it (nor will I post anyone trying to argue others back into it). I’m interested in the human, narrative aspect of loss of belief.

I mentioned in an earlier thread that religious believers who have never lost their faith, or been seriously tempted by a loss of faith, often have trouble understanding how it could happen to anybody. They may see the reluctant infidels as guilty of intellectual error, or a weak will. Maybe they are right in particular cases; I think it is certainly true that some people tell themselves that they are leaving religion for reasons of intellectual integrity, but the real truth is they don’t want it to be true, because if it is true, they will have to live in a way that they do not wish to live. But not everybody who loses their religion does so in, well, bad faith. As longtime readers know, I lived from the inside, the loss of faith (in my case, the Catholicism that had been at the center of my life for most of my adult life) was an excruciating experience, one that humbled me intellectually and chastised me in my spiritual pride. I used to be so triumphalist in my religious consciousness. I think that far too many of my fellow believers are deluded by spiritual pride in this way, and don’t grasp why we pray, in the Our Father, “lead us not into temptation.”

So, what I want to do with this thread is to invite those who were formerly religious to share their stories of how their loss of faith happened. Please don’t be nasty and polemical about religious people when you do; and believers, please don’t pick a fight when unbelievers tell their stories. I’m going to closely moderate this thread to keep it civil. Let’s talk about the experience of losing faith. The purpose here is to learn from the experiences of others. As someone who, by the grace of God, did not lose his faith entirely, and who often reflects on how his own errors of religious practice set him up for the fall he eventually took, I am always eager to learn from the experiences of others — and not just former Christians, but people who lost their faith in any religion.

(And I will soon start a thread on the experience of gaining faith, so don’t worry. It too will not be a place to argue people into or out of belief, but only a place to share stories about what it’s like to go from one state of being to its opposite.)

UPDATE: For a critical discussion of stories and issues raised in this thread, go here.

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Inferno, Cantos 5-7

One imagines that Dante leaves Limbo feeling pretty good about things. He has spent time with some of the greatest poets and philosophers who ever lived, and done so in a resort setting. But he is about to receive a harsh awakening.

In Canto 5, the pilgrim and Virgil descend to the eighth circle of Hell, where the Lustful dwell. Here is one of the most terrifying and memorable images of the entire poem:

There stands Minos, snarling, terrible.

He examines each offender at the entrance,

judges and dispatches as he encoils himself.


I mean that when the ill-begotten soul

stands there before him it confesses all,

and that accomplished judge of sins


decides what place in Hell is fit for it,

then coils his tail around himself to count

how many circles down the soul must go.

Virgil instructs Minos to leave Dante alone, because he is protected by God (though no one in Hell mentions the name of God directly). The demon warns the pilgrim, “beware how you come in and whom you trust” — signaling that not everyone with whom he speaks in Hell is a reliable narrator of their own history. And so the two pass into the eighth circle, which is a dark place in which the souls of the damned are blown about eternally in a “hellish squall, which never rests.” As Ron Herzman says, in Dante’s Inferno, the damned get what they wanted in life; the Lustful wanted to give themselves over to turbulent, uncontrollable passion — and that’s what they get.

I understood that to such torment

the carnal sinners are condemned,

they who make reason subject to desire.

See how the poet works here? The punishment for the Lustful mimics the way Lust works on the soul, tossing and turning it and confusing the reason. Virgil shows Dante in the passing tempest the souls of Semiramis, of Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan — great lovers all, who had been overcome by lust. Dante asks Virgil for permission to speak to someone. Virgil says, “If you entreat them by the love that leads them, they will come.”

And so he does. A pair of lovers who are bound to each other forever stop to visit with the pilgrim and his master. This is Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, real-life lovers of Dante’s day. They had been caught in an adulterous clutch by Francesca’s husband Giovanni, who happened to be Paolo’s brother, who was also married. He murdered them both. They lived for lust, and now they live an eternal death, inseparable. Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss depicts Francesca and Paolo:

I had always thought of that image as one of all-consuming passion, and, of course, it is. But it was a romantic image, a positive one. When I learned that it actually depicted these two damned lovers, it changed the way I saw it — but did so in a morally instructive way. In our time, we can’t help seeing these lovers as nothing but objects of beauty. That is how Francesca and Paolo saw themselves. They were so focused on each other, and satisfying their desire for each other, that they saw nothing else.

The Francesca episode is perhaps the most famous in the entire Commedia, and a terrific one for coming to understand how Dante thinks. It is helpful to consider this passage from Matthew 22, in which Jesus is questioned:

“Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”

Jesus said to him, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang the whole law, and the prophets too.”

All of us must put God first in all things. That is the prime directive. Once we have done that, we must love our neighbor as we love ourself — and that means seeking the good of our neighbor. What is the good of our neighbor? We can know this only by knowing what God expects of us, and wants of us. If our neighbor confesses to us that she is in love with another woman’s husband, we may be certain that that violates God’s law. If we ourselves would want to obey God because it is the right thing to do, then if we love our neighbor as ourself, we must want her to do the right thing also. It is not loving to encourage her in her adultery. That does not mean we have to cut her off, necessarily, but Jesus here does instruct us on what we should desire, both for ourselves and our neighbor.

The first two books of the Commedia are about the purification of desire. If sin comes from disordered desire — that is, loving the wrong things, or loving the right things in the wrong way — then to be delivered from the power of sin requires re-ordering our desire. That means renouncing the control our desires have over us. When Virgil tells Dante at the outset that the souls of the damned have lost the good of intellect, he means that they have no control over their passions; because they gave themselves over to their passions in life, they have become their passions for eternity in death. Intellection is what separates us from the animals. The damned are no better than animals.

What we love is what we will seek to achieve or to gain. It has never been easy for any man to resist the passions — that is, disordered desires — but it is especially difficult today, in a sensual, consumer society that teaches us that fulfilling our desires is how we come to know and to live out our deepest selves. This is a lie, but it’s a lie that Dante must have accepted in his time, because he himself was on the road to Hell. He had to go down into Hell before he could be restored because he had to be reawakened to what sin means, and to what allowing ourselves to be possessed by the passions will do to us.

It’s important to understand that desire itself is not evil. As Virgil explains much later to the pilgrim, in Purgatory:

So, you can understand how love must be

the seed of every virtue growing in you,

and every deed that merits punishment.

To love God above all things, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is to desire. But those desires are purified, because they are in harmony with the Creator’s will. In this life, we are not to seek the extermination of the passions; remember that Hell’s vestibule is populated with the passionless. Rather, we are to seek to transform our passions, redirecting them away from serving the ego, and toward serving God and other people. We are to make our passions subject to our reason. God gave us free will, and He expects us to use it.

To be mired in sin is like being physically ill. Few people become deathly ill instantly, and fewer are healed instantly. To be delivered from control of the passions requires penitence. This is what Purgatorio is about: correcting what is broken within us. Paradiso symbolizes life full of grace, when all of our disordered passions are replaced by passionately desiring the Good.

Before we can begin the healing process, we have to understand the nature of the illness. This is why the Francesca episode is so instructive. As Dante begins to question her about how she and her lover ended up in Hell, she answers with highblown flattery:

“O living creature, gracious and kind,

that come through somber air to visit us

who stained the world with blood,


“if the King of the universe were our friend

we would pray that He might give you peace,

since you show pity for our grievous plight.”

She’s playing him. Francesca tells him that he is more compassionate than God, who has turned His back on him. That should have been a signal to Dante right then that she is unreliable. Francesca goes on:

“Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,

seized this man with the fair form taken from me.

The way of it afflicts me still.


“Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving,

seized me so strongly with his charm that,

as you see, it has not left me yet.


“Love brought us to one death. …”

What she is doing here is proclaiming the worldview of the medieval cult of courtly love, which made an idol, a kind of religion, of erotic passion. The first line — “Love, quick to kindle in a gentle heart” — is a direct quote from a sonnet in Dante’s first great work, Vita nuova. The second quote is from a contemporary manual, The Art of Courtly Love (though Esolen points out that the manual also says that sexual passion must be kept within marriage) Francesca presents erotic desire as an irresistible passion. How can you blame us? she says. We couldn’t resist. 

And then she tells the pilgrim about the deed that led to their affair. They were reading about Lancelot’s adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere, and “how love enthralled him.” Francesca describes how she and Paolo became enflamed by desire for each other as they read together. Then:

“When we read how the longed-for smile

was kissed by so renowned a lover, this man,

who never shall be parted from me,


“all trembling, kissed me on my mouth.

A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.

That day we read in it no further.”

Meaning that they put the book down and went to bed together. “Galeotto” is the Italian form of Galehaut, a figure from the Arthurian legends, and was a go-between linking Lancelot to Guinevere. Francesca blames the book and its author for her and Paolo’s damnation. You will notice that Francesca blames everybody for her state except herself.

When Dante hears all this, he faints. It could be that he swoons out of pity for these two. After all, Dante as a younger poet had been part of the courtly love movement, and wrote verse extolling its principles. To see the tragic of the doomed lovers may have overcome him for the same reason romantic-minded people today would pity them. The pilgrim will learn, though, that pity for the damned is wrong, for reasons we will get into when Virgil rebukes him for it later on the journey.

Cook & Herzman, however, suggest another reason for Dante’s pity on Francesca and Paolo, or at least an additional reason, one that I find persuasive. Francesca has spoken of how reading the literature of romantic love had formed her mind and her heart, and taught her that to follow her romantic passion was not only right, but impossible to deny. Young Dante wrote some of the poetry that misled her. Recall that in Limbo, he had been feeling pretty good about himself as a poet, treated as a peer by Homer, Virgil, and the others. And now, one canto later, he sees the damage a poet can do if his words are not informed by truth. The Commedia is a poem about connections. It may be the case that Dante grasps the connection he has to the damnation of these two lovers, and he can’t bear the thought. In Canto 11 of Purgatorio, the penitent pilgrim will learn of the necessity for art to be grounded in moral truth. However unfair and self-serving it is for Francesca to blame the books for her fate, it’s important to keep in mind that art really does instruct us in how to think, to feel, and to behave. To be an artist is to have great power.

One more word about Francesca before we leave her and Paolo to the wind. I have at times quoted on this blog from J.R.R. Tolkien’s letter to his son Michael, in which he advised the young man to be wary of the lie of courtly love, which exalts women as love objects, as goddesses:

It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

I was so startled to read this for the first time that I can recall exactly where I was (on the left side of the couch, facing the fireplace, in my Capitol Hill apartment, midmorning on a cold mid-February day). This was exactly my own condition: seeing “true love” as a permanent exaltation, and losing my way badly because of it, mostly because I had a habit of falling madly in love with women I couldn’t have. We do not suffer from the medieval cult of courtly love, but we do have our own version of romantic love as the absolute telos of life, and of erotic desire as self-justifying. And like Francesca, we are very good at concealing our own motivations from ourselves, and in teaching ourselves how to be helpless. As Prue Shaw says of Francesca’s speech:

For all its charm and eloquence, it is a self-serving exercise. It is an exercise in justifying our actions and exonerating herself, in denying her personal responsibility. Love is to blame. The book is to blame. Anything is to blame except Francesca herself. And her self-justification echoes literary texts of Dante’s own fashioning.

It’s society’s fault. It’s my parents’ fault. It’s the church’s fault. It’s the fault of racists, of sexists, of homophobes, of anti-Christian bigots, of anti-Semites. It’s the fault of the rich, the fault of the poor. And so forth. Anybody’s fault except my own. One of the key lessons I learned from Dante, one that saved my life, was the realization that no matter what fault others may have in bringing me to grief, I retain control over my own reaction to their actions. I did not cause the judgment that kept me from coming home as I had hoped to, and I could not control what others believed. But I could control my own reaction to it. 

This was liberating. To accept that freedom, though, I had to move past blame, even if that blame was in some real sense merited. If I remained in that place of internal misery, I would have no one to blame but myself.

A final word: Herzman and Cook point out that Francesca’s relationship to Lust is a template explaining how all those to come who are guilty of sins of incontinence (Gluttony, Greed, Wastefulness, Anger) relate to their sin. They are overcome by desire of the flesh.

Moving on to Canto 6, Dante finds himself in the third circle, a place of “hateful rain, cold and leaden, changeless in its monotony.” God rained down manna on the hungry Israelites in the desert, but those who dwell in this barren wasteland get nothing but cold rain. The ground is mucky and foul-smelling. Lying in the sludge are the Gluttons, watched over by the demon dog Cerberus, who tortures them with his claws. Virgil distracts him by throwing mud in his mouth. The dog is himself such a glutton that he busies himself digesting the earth, giving Dante and Virgil the liberty to pass through. Esolen points out that in the Aeneid, Cerberus is quieted by a honey cake tossed into his mouth. In Dante’s Hell, though, even something as sweet-tasting as a honey cake is turned into stinking mud. This is what the the disordered delights of the gourmand turn to in Hell: spending eternity face down in horrible-smelling mud. From a spiritual perspective, to gorge on food and drink is the same thing as gorging on mud, on foulness, on filth.

From the muck emerges a man, Ciacco (Italian for “pig”). In this canto, Dante doesn’t dwell on the sin of Gluttony, but rather makes Ciacco a voice commenting on the politics of Florence. The general point to take here is that private sin has public consequences. Ciacco prophesies that civil war will come to Florence because of the envy inflaming the passions of the city’s great men. In fact, this happened in 1302, resulting in Dante’s exile. (Remember that Dante sets the poem in 1300, but began writing it in 1307.)

Canto 7 takes the two men into the circle of the Hoarders and Wasters — that is, those whose controlling sin was a disordered relationship to money and material objects. They were either greedy, or profligate. The Hoarders and Wasters both “shove burdens forward with their chests” from opposite sides, crashing into each other interminably, shouting at each other as they do. The Hoarders do not understand the Wasters, and curse them; the Wasters do likewise to the Hoarders. They despise each other over things. Among their number are a number of priests, monks, cardinals, and popes. Says Virgil:

“Now you see, my son, what brief mockery

Fortune makes of goods we trust her with,

for which the race of men embroil themselves.


“All the gold that lies beneath the moon,

or ever did, could never give a moment’s rest

to any of these wearied souls.”

Virgil delivers a short oration on Fortune, saying that it waxes and wanes, and that people have no business blaming bad luck for their situations. Things happen. The world passes away. We lose ourselves by caring too much for the transient things, ignoring the permanent things, the things of heaven. This is how the Hoarders and the Wasters have come to eternal grief. Esolen reads this as saying what to unbelievers is blind luck is read by the virtuous as the outworking of divine providence. That is to say, all things, even terrible misfortune (such as Dante experienced in his exile) can work to our salvation, if we let it.

On they walk, downward toward the pit, approaching the banks of the River Styx. They first slog through a swamp:

And I, my gaze transfixed, could see

people with angry faces in that bog,

naked, their bodies smeared with mud.


They struck each other with their hands,

their heads, their chests and feet

and tore each other with their teeth.

There lie the souls of the Wrathful, who were incontinent in their anger. They make communion between themselves and others impossible. Their anger provokes nothing but division and fighting. Beneath the surface, beyond Dante’s vision, lie the Sullen — those who marinated themselves in anger. They make communion between themselves and others impossible for another reason: their form of anger drives others away by its bitterness. You can tell they are there, says Virgil, because you can see their bubbles make the water seethe. Virgil:

“Fixed in the slime they say: ‘We were sullen

in the sweet air that in the sun rejoices,

filled as we were with slothful fumes.


“‘Now we are sullen in black mire.’”

What a powerful image. These bitter souls wasted the joy of life in resentment. Their anger did not express itself in rage at others, but imprisoned themselves. If the Wrathful are too free-spending of their anger, the Sullen are hoarders of anger. And now, as ever, they get what they wanted.

Haven’t you known people like that? I have several people like this in mind from my past. One of them in particular comes to mind; I will call him Arthur. I assure you that my made-up figure is composed of real people I have known. Poor Arthur had a number of misfortunes earlier in his life. He filled himself with self-pity, and demanded that everyone around him share his pity. You learned not to ask Arthur, “How are you?”, because he took that as an invitation to talk about all the crappy things that had happened to him since last you saw him. The man was incapable of experiencing joy, or gratitude, or any good thing. If you gave him a piece of chocolate cake, he would complain that he preferred pound cake. Or if you gave him pound cake, he would complain that you really shouldn’t be doing that, because he ought to be losing weight. Arthur was a black hole of suck, in love with his bitterness. Last I heard, Arthur had moved from job to job, and was blaming employers for not appreciating his gifts. The man had absolutely no idea how off-putting his sullenness was, and ultimately, how egocentric.

Virgil and Dante make their way across the marshy Styx, and come to the foot of a tower. We will pick up their journey tomorrow.

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Inferno, Cantos 2-4


Because I want to go through Inferno before I head to Florence, I’m going to have to do three cantos per day. It might be more accessible to you readers if I don’t write 5,000 word essays on each canto. We’ll see. It is going to be an exercise in discipline for me, to go through and only talk about the highlights. I did a word count of all my Commedia blogging so far, and found that my combined Purgatorio and Paradiso blogs amount to 135,000 words. The Dante book I’m writing needs to be no longer than 100,000 words. By the time I finish with Inferno, I’ll be in the ballpark of 200,000 words, if I do as before. This means that I’m going to have to do a great deal of winnowing and shaping when I write the actual book. It’s so much easier for me to write long than short, so I’m going to do what I can in the Inferno blogs to edit myself.

I was delighted this morning to pick up Anthony Esolen’s translation of Inferno and find it open to me in a way it had not been a year ago. I have had a copy of it in my home library for a few years, but had never read it. I picked it up last summer when I first came to the Commedia, but I found that I couldn’t catch the rhythms of his language. Hollander and Musa were more my style. For whatever reason, I opened Esolen again this morning, and it really spoke to me. It’s beautiful! How odd that what was once sort of opaque has now opened like a flower. Why is that, I wonder?

Esolen has a great introductory essay in his Inferno. Excerpt:

So we find, despite ourselves, that to analyze what we find so attractive about the Comedy and its author, we must turn our gaze where he has turned his. And there, if I may venture a guess, the modern reader finds something lovely and appealing. It is not that medieval Christian cosmos, necessarily, which excited his interest, although it may and indeed should — it is surely far nobler than our lazy relativist world, wherein every man creates his own moral order (that is, until he suspects he has been overcharged by his auto mechanic). Rather, what arouses is the intriguing presence of any cosmos at all. For us, the setting sun, the number pi, Seattle, a father’s role in the family have nothing to do with one another. Even those who profess the Christian faith live in a dead and silent world: religion has retreated into the foxholes of the heart and says nothing about the stars. It is, I think, refreshing, invigorating, to enter a world of significance — of love and of love’s profound consequences.

I had not thought of it that way, but this is true, and it’s a truth that resounds through every canto like the tolling of church bells. In Dante, the entire universe is alive with and in God. I can’t say what encountering this is like for a non-believer, but for a Christian, to be called out of the foxhole of the heart and into a world of wonder and meaning and divine order — and a world that, unlike Narnia or Middle Earth, is real. For a modern Christian, encountering the Commedia can be like learning how to see, to taste, to hear, smell, and feel, for the first time. As Louis Markos writes of the medieval vision that undergirds the Commedia, “Dante’s universe did not simply exist; it meant, and it meant intensely. The universe was less a thing to be studied than a poem to be loved and enjoyed.”

Esolen says that there are three principles of Creation that undergird Dante’s moral and metaphysical vision:

1. Things have an end. That is, things have a purpose, are created for something. Man’s ultimate end is to achieve unity with God, the Creator. Anything we do that gets in the way of achieving that end, especially substituting another end for God (e.g., worldly success, sexual fulfillment, getting rich), is sin, and will cause our own spiritual death.

2. Things have meaning. Things of this world, including our actions, point to realities beyond themselves. Nothing is accidental; nothing is in vain. What we do has moral weight, and eternal consequences. All of human experience plays a role in the great cosmic drama. In the Commedia, the punishments of the damned in Hell, and the purification of the penitent in Purgatory, tell us something about the nature of those particular sins.

3. Things are connected. God, the Architect of the universe, wishes for all of us to dwell in harmony with Him, through Him, and within Him. But it must be a bond of Love, and love cannot be commanded, only freely given. Love is the bond that unites all things in heaven and earth; even those in Hell are there because they failed dramatically at love: they loved the wrong things, or they loved the right things in the wrong way (i.e., too much or too little). Plus, ideas have consequences, and so do actions. For example, the murder in 1216 of a Guelph aristocrat on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, to settle a debt of honor, triggered generations of fighting between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that would ultimately savage Florence, and drive Dante from his city.

Keep these in mind as we go, and you will be in a better position to understand Dante’s meaning and message.

In Canto 2, no sooner has Dante taken his first steps than he has second thoughts. He thinks about Aeneas, and how his epic journey, including a passage through the underworld, resulted in the founding of Rome. He considers St. Paul, and how his journey into Paradise (II Corinthians 12) helped him come back and lay the evangelical foundations of the church. The now-reluctant pilgrim says to Virgil:

“But why should I go there? who allows it?

I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul.

Neither I nor any think me fit for this.


“And so, if I commit myself to come,

I fear it may be madness. You are wise,

you understand what I cannot express.”


And as one who unwills what he has willed,

changing his intent on second thought

so that he quite gives over what he has begun,


such a man was I on that dark slope.

With too much thinking I had undone

the enterprise so quick in its inception.

Giuseppe Mazzotta points out that this is a meditation on the divided will. For Dante, the intellect and the will depend on each other. The will needs the intellect to tell it where to go and what to do, but the intellect is powerless without the will. They must both move in harmony. Who am I? asks the pilgrim. I’m not worthy to go on this journey. Maybe this is crazy, he thinks.

Virgil sees into Dante’s character, and tells Dante that his second thoughts come not from humility, but from cowardice. Dante is flat-out scared, and has rationalized his fear. This double-mindedness is awfully familiar. For some time, when I was in high school, college, and shortly thereafter, I kept God at a distance, telling myself that I was unsure that Christianity was true. Some of my concerns were exactly that: uncertainty over the truth of the faith. But my position of inquiring skepticism was the virtuous gloss covering my fear and sloth. Deep down, I was afraid that Christianity might really be true — and what the consequences for me would be if that were the case. I would have to change my life. And that was something I was not prepared to do.

All of us have something like that from our pasts (or maybe our present) that we can point to, a situation in which we masked our fear of acting behind a veil of virtue.

In this instance, Virgil bolsters Dante’s confidence and courage by telling him how he, Virgil, came to Dante’s rescue. There was Virgil, resting in Limbo (the gentle, even pleasant, circle of Hell where the virtuous unbelievers dwell; more on this when we get there), when a beautiful woman appeared before him. This was Beatrice, who descended from Heaven to Hell itself to engineer Dante’s rescue. It turns out that the Blessed Virgin Mary saw Dante’s spiritual distress, and told St. Lucy to rush to his aid. St. Lucy, knowing how much Dante loved Beatrice in life, asked her to help him. And Beatrice, in turn, went to Virgil to ask him to go to Dante.

Why this chain, why this hierarchy of help? I think it’s because Dante is making a theological point about how God’s grace comes to us. It was love that moved the Virgin, then the saints, and finally Virgil, to go to Dante. As we see throughout the Commedia, grace comes from God through many channels. The poet, I think, is teaching the reader to see connections.

Virgil, in his recollection, asks Beatrice how she dared to brave Hell. She replies:

“We should fear those things alone

that have the power to harm.

Nothing else is frightening.


“I am made such by God’s grace

that your affliction does not touch,

nor can these fires assail me.”

In other words, I belong to God. Hell can’t touch me. 

If you don’t go to him, Beatrice tells Virgil, he’s going to die. Virgil doesn’t stop to think about it; he obeys the lady’s request.

So, Dante, says Virgil, when you have three women in Paradise who love you so much that they undertook these extraordinary actions to save your soul, why are you so afraid? You have Heaven itself on your side, and I am here with you as your guide and shepherd. Don’t be afraid.

This is the moment when faith first blossoms within Dante. He is moved by the love of these women (and Virgil), and by Virgil’s authority, such that his heart opens like “little flowers” greeting the morning sun — a simile that means so very much when you think that at the end of his journey, the court of Heaven will appear to him as a vast Mystic Rose. He was able to see the Mystic Rose open before his eyes because in the dark wood, he accepted grace sufficient to open his own heart to faith, like a little flower.

Regaining his courage, Dante commits to the journey, calling Virgil “my lord and master.” We will hear similar words again, but spoken to Dante by Virgil at the end of their journey together at the top of Mount Purgatory. Virgil says then, “I crown and mitre you lord of yourself.” This is far into the future. For now, the pilgrim, who is dissolute and lost, needs a master to show him the way to self-mastery.

This is why do-it-yourself religion doesn’t really work. If you will not submit to an authoritative tradition, or at least to some authority outside of yourself, you will remain lost. I’m not talking about crudely letting someone else do your thinking for you. I’m talking more generally about what my priest says our prayer should be: “You are God, I am not. Please help.” Dante has navigated by his own lights until now, and ended in a dark wood. Now it’s time to let somebody else take over for a while. Virgil has disclosed to Dante that he is coming on a mission of mercy, sent by love. And Dante knows him to be a wise man; indeed, Dante told him when they first met that he, Virgil, was his authority in all things poetic.

The point is, Dante has reason to trust him. It’s not a slam-dunk, of course. For all Dante knows, Virgil could be lying. But what choice does Dante have? He can’t remain in the dark wood, or he will die. He makes a leap of faith.

In Canto 3, they enter the Inferno. It is Good Friday, the day that Jesus died on the Cross, and that Christian tradition tells us he descended into Hell to rescue souls. Here is the inscription over the archway leading into Hell:












Dante tells Virgil he doesn’t understand what these words mean. Virgil says:

“Here you must banish all distrust,

here must all cowardice be slain.


“We have come to where I said

you would see the miserable sinners

who have lost the good of the intellect.”

In other words: Buck up, because you are going to see people here as they truly are, and it’s horrible. These are men and women who have no hope, because their eternal fates have been decided. To have “lost the good of the intellect” means they are no longer reasoning creatures, but zombies, more or less. That is, they have become one with their sinfulness, and therefore one-dimensional. They have no hope because their condition will last forever.

What does it mean to say that “love” made this horrible place? It is the love that will not force itself upon a man, but rather one that will give him for eternity what he chooses in the temporal life. As you will remember from Purgatorio, all it takes to avoid Hell is to say a word asking for God’s mercy, even in your dying breath. And we learn that God, in His mysterious justice, even let some non-Christians into Paradise. Hell is for those who would not have God, those who made a final, remorseless choice for their own passions over unity with and submission to their Creator. Remember that Satan’s sin was to rebel against God. The root of all sin is this fundamental pride, a pride that prefers the Self, with all its disordered passions, to God. God is loving, but God is also just; in His love, He will give us what we choose.

The reason Dante must first go down before he can ascend is that he has to become re-awakened to the true horror of sin — that is, to be scared straight. As I said earlier, the torments he will observe all have meaning; they are not random acts of cruelty. They represent the ultimate out-working of the particular passions the damned chose over God. Divine justice means that you gain for all eternity what you loved more than God, or, to put a fine point on it, what aspects of your Self that you loved more than you loved God. The journey downward, then, is in truth a journey of introspection for Dante. It symbolizes his personal pilgrimage into the dark recesses of his own heart.

The first of the terrible things Dante sees is a line of miserable souls. These are the lukewarm: those who would not take a side for good or for evil. Virgil:

“They intermingle with that wicked band

of angels, not rebellious and not faithful

to God, who held themselves apart.


“Loath to impair its beauty, Heaven casts them out,

and depth of Hell does not receive them

lest on their account the evil angels gloat.”

The strange predicament of these souls: not even Hell wants them, because they lack passion. God cannot permit them to be thrown into Hell proper (they are in the vestibule of Hell) because the demons would feel superior to them; at least the demons stood for something. Dante beholds the vast throng, and says:

These wretches, who never were alive,

were naked and beset

by stinging flies and wasps

The message of this is that in the great drama of life, you cannot be a spectator. You must choose. They “never were alive,” because to live is to desire. They desired nothing good, or nothing bad. They were without passion, and therefore dead even in life.

Now they arrive at the crossing of the river Acheron. On the other side is the first circle of Hell. The demon Charon, the infernal boatman, waits to ferry the crowd across. Dante describes the cold, naked, desolate souls awaiting passage:

They blasphemed God, their parents,

the human race, the place, the time, the seed

of their begetting and their birth.


Then, weeping bitterly, they drew together

to the accursed shore that waits

for everyone who fears not God.

Virgil explains:


“My son,” said the courteous master,

“all those who die in the wrath of God

assemble here from every land.


“And they are eager to cross the river,

for the justice of God so spurs them on

their very fear is turned to longing.”

What does this mean? Why are the damned eager to cross the river into Hell? Because they know that they deserve it. They understand, at last, that they are going to receive a fate they have chosen, because of what they loved. This is how they harmonize with the universe.

Now we come to the first circle of Hell, an unusual place, one of “grief without torment.” This is Limbo, where the good who died unbaptized rest forever. Virgil:

“And if they lived before the Christians lived,

they did not worship God aright.

And among these I am one.


For such defects, and for no other fault,

we are lost, and afflicted but in this,

that without hope we live in longing.”

There is nothing unpleasant about Limbo, but the suffering everyone there lives with is knowing that they will never be with God — that their ultimate desires will never be satisfied. I think of them as like a woman who refuses her true love to marry a wealthy man whom she does not love. She may live the rest of her life in a mansion on a hill, but she will always long for the one she did not choose.

In Limbo, Dante does not meet the great figures of the Old Testament; Christ released the faithful Hebrews from Hell on Good Friday. (Cook & Herzman say that Christ’s action here is a model for Dante, who in a literary way descends into Hell, hoping to rescue others from Hell by his testimony.) In Limbo, he does meet great poets and philosophers of antiquity. There is Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Those four, and Virgil, do Dante the honor of inviting him to join their group. On they walked toward the light, and came to a castle sheltered by a moat. Into the castle keep they travel, until they come to a fresh green meadow. There they find the greatest intellectual garden party of all time. There is Socrates, Plato and Seneca. Julius Caesar is there, and look, Euclid and Hippocrates. And there are Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, as well as the wise conqueror Saladin. On and on the list goes. Says Dante, “In my heart I exult at what I saw.”

Well, why shouldn’t he? This is a lovely place. It would be my idea of Heaven, but there would also have to be heathenous chefs. Clearly Dante is very pleased to be there, and to have been so flattered by the greatest poets in history by their invitation to spend time with them. It’s almost as if he forgets that they are actually in Hell. More on this tomorrow.

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The Arab Barbarians

Syrian children Lamerie/Flickr
Syrian children Lamerie/Flickr

Hisham Melham, Al-Arabiya‘s Washington bureau chief, pens an essay that is flush with despair. Excerpt:

With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama is doing more than to knowingly enter a quagmire. He is doing more than play with the fates of two half-broken countries—Iraq and Syria—whose societies were gutted long before the Americans appeared on the horizon. Obama is stepping once again—and with understandably great reluctance—into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down.

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?

Melhem’s piece is a brisk primer on the history of the Arab world in the 20th century, and why everything anybody has tried in terms of government has failed. Here is a brave, bleak point:

At their core, both political currents—Arab nationalism and Islamism—are driven by atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past. Many Islamists, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the wellspring of such groups)—whether they say it explicitly or hint at it—are still on a ceaseless quest to resurrect the old Ottoman Caliphate. Still more radical types—the Salafists—yearn for a return to the puritanical days of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. For most Islamists, democracy means only majoritarian rule, and the rule of sharia law, which codifies gender inequality and discrimination against non-Muslims.

And let’s face the grim truth: There is no evidence whatever that Islam in its various political forms is compatible with modern democracy. [Emphasis mine. -- RD] From Afghanistan under the Taliban to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and from Iran to Sudan, there is no Islamist entity that can be said to be democratic, just or a practitioner of good governance. The short rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi was no exception. The Brotherhood tried to monopolize power, hound and intimidate the opposition and was driving the country toward a dangerous impasse before a violent military coup ended the brief experimentation with Islamist rule.

Read the whole thing.  Melhem says that militant Islam has destroyed or is in the process of destroying any creative life in the Arab world, but that militant Islam owes its genesis to the failed governments of the Arab nationalists. Though there are outside events that contributed to the process (e.g., the second US invasion of Iraq), he says that there is no escaping the conclusion that the Arabs have killed their own civilization.

So, remind me again why the US is throwing itself into this Hobbesian apocalypse? What hubris makes us think we can control anything? Madness.

Melhem’s essay makes me think of what I’m learning in my Russian history class this fall. There is clear continuity between Tsarism, Bolshevism, and Putinism, in that in each case, Russia is governed by a strong state led by a strong man. Though Bolshevism was vastly more totalitarian and evil than its predecessor and its successor, what is striking to a Russian history neophyte like me is the extent to which the Russian people are passive subjects in their own historical development. It’s striking to consider how, in 1861, when Alexander II freed the serfs, most Russians were serfs, meaning that they were living, and had lived for hundreds of years, under a status that made them scarcely more than slaves. But Russia was hurtling towards modernity; the Industrial Revolution transformed Europe, and the Tsar knew that his country had to keep up. He and his ministers faced a situation in which serfdom had left most Russians incapable of living in a modern economy, much less living under a modern form of government. And Russia’s landowning elites were too inflexible to understand how their position had to change if the old order was going to survive the transition.

So, the fight in 19th and early 20th century Russia was mostly a matter of struggle among intellectuals and other elites, all of whom were alienated from the masses for whom they presumed to speak. It was an extraordinarily unstable situation. We all know how it turned out. And now, there is Russia again, under rule by an autocrat, this one quite popular. If I were Russian, I would prefer living under Putin than under the incompetence and chaos of Yeltsinism. Still, there is a lot of plus ça change in modern Russian history.

I bring it up here, in context of the Arab catastrophe, to suggest that the culture of the Arab world, like the culture of Russia, is inimical to liberal democracy. That’s hardly a bold claim, I know, but I bring it up with this in mind: the Arab world, and Russia, cannot live cut off from the rest of the world, no matter how hard they try. Those peoples will see the rest of the world, and how much better people in other civilizations are living, and they will have to account for the discrepancy in some way. Mind you, we in the West have serious problems, and I cannot blame Russians, Arabs, and others for not wanting to import certain aspects of Western civilization. The West is not a universal model.

That said, if you were an artist or intellectual in the Arab world, what hope could you possibly have to remain within your civilization, do your work, and be confident that your children and their children will have a tolerable and stable society in which to live? What hope could you possibly have for economic growth and stability? Things aren’t nearly as bad in Russia, of course, but I imagine a similar dynamic exists there. For that matter, here in Louisiana, our economy in the 1980s was in terrible shape because of the oil price crash. I was in LSU at the time, and there was a lot of talk about how Louisiana’s culture — its political culture, primarily, but its political culture is an expression of the overall culture — had to change if there was going to be any real economic hope for the state. Lots of us college students talked in those days about how we were going to have to leave the state in search of opportunity. Then Gov. Edwin Edwards, when asked in a debate what he would say to those students, replied, more or less, “Let the doorknob hit you where the good Lord split you.” I was in the audience at that debate, and I recall being shocked by the governor’s indifference.

But Edwards knew more about the state he led than I did. Edwards came in second to reform candidate Buddy Roemer in that fall’s open primary, but chose not to contest the election in the runoff. Roemer became governor … and failed. Four years later, Roemer lost his 1991 re-election bid when the top two vote-getters in the first primary were Edwin Edwards and David Duke.

Today, Louisiana is not the same place that it was 20 years ago, and in any event there’s a lot more good here than I was able to see as an undergraduate. Life is not only about economic success. Nevertheless, we could be doing better here, and it seems to me that the greatest barrier to our own success is our culture — that is, not the music and the food, but the attitudes we have toward public life and governance. You can’t in any serious way compare Louisiana to Russia, much less to the rolling disaster that is the Arab world, but I draw the analogy to explain how deep the resistance to ways of doing things that seem to be natural to most Westerners do not appear that way to people in other cultures. Think of how Greece suffers economically and politically from its own corrupt cultural practices. Think of Italy. Hey, I would rather vacation in Greece or Italy than Norway or Sweden, but there’s a reason governments in Greece and Italy are relatively hapless, and their economies are a mess: culture.

All of which is to say that the civilizational apocalypse that Hisham Melhem observes and laments may not be an aberration, but the way things are with Arab peoples in the 21st century. Until there is a cultural revolution among them, the anarchy, sectarian hatred, and religious fanaticism that we see there will be the rule. It is horrifying to think that these passions might simply have to burn themselves out, but aside from permanent Western military occupation and pacification of those countries, which nobody wants, what is the realistic alternative?

It’s like this. Someone told me recently that he was in a poli sci class at an American university not long ago, and the professor asked the students on the first day what they would do if they were in charge of a country and held most of the power. The American students had different ideas about how they would use their power for the common good. But a Russian undergraduate in the classroom said, “Get more power.” She was serious. This was her mindset: the purpose of holding power is to consolidate power and acquire more of it.

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Inferno, Canto 1


So, let’s go to Hell, shall we? It is strange that I begin blogging Dante’s Inferno, the first of his Commedia trilogy, here at the last, but as I’ve said, I only thought we would be doing Purgatorio for Lent, and then drop it. I had no idea that Dante blogging would be so popular, much less that I would get a book deal out of it. The book, by the way, is due at the publisher’s on January 15. This is going to be a busy fall and early winter. Because of a quirk of publishing contracts, I can’t yet announce who the publisher is. It’s a major one, though, and this is going to be a big 2015 release for them. I couldn’t be more pleased. I’ve never been more excited about a book project, and never felt the urgency to tell this story like I do with Dante and the Commedia.

Because most of you have been following my Dante blogging for some time, I feel no need to give a lengthy background to the Inferno. This short bit should suffice as a very basic introduction.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in the year 1265. He rose to become a first-rate poet and a politician in what was then one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe. Florence was actually a city-state; Italy didn’t exist as a unified country. Florence was riven by partisan politics, though. The Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor, and looked to him as a counterweight to the power of the Pope, who was not only the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but the monarch of central Italy. The Guelphs backed the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor. The two parties struggled for control of northern Italy. The Dante Society has a more detailed explanation of the longstanding conflict; it’s worth reading to understand how deep and tangled all of this was.

The thing to know is that Dante was a Guelph. After the Guelphs triumphed in Florence, they split into two factions: the Blacks and the Whites. The Whites had been papal supporters, but were more moderate, and pushed back against Pope Boniface VIII’s machinations. The Blacks were all-in for Boniface. Dante sided with the Whites. In 1302, while on a diplomatic mission to Rome, Dante found himself detained by Boniface for several days. Meanwhile, the Blacks took over Florence, tried Dante in absentia on trumped-up charges, and exiled him. This meant that all his property and money was seized, and he couldn’t return to Florence on pain of death. Thus did Dante go into exile. He spent the rest of his life — he died in 1321 — moving from place to place, longing for return to Florence, and for justice. He died in Ravenna, shortly after finishing Paradiso. There you can visit his tomb.

The great love of his life was a Florentine noblewoman, Bice de Portinari, whom he called “Beatrice,” meaning “bearer of blessings.” He first saw her when he was nine years old, and was overcome. They were never together. She refused him, it seems, and married another man. She died young, at 24. Dante never forgot her. In the Commedia, he treats her as the summit of God’s goodness in his life. You’ll remember from our study of Purgatorio that when the pilgrim Dante (the Pilgrim Dante is a character in a poem written by the Poet Dante) meets her at last at the summit of Mount Purgatory, he confesses that his life took a wrong turn when he forgot about her after her death, and dedicated himself to other pursuits. The entire drama of the Commedia is how Beatrice’s chaste love for him, inspired by God’s love for all, caused her to condescend to enter Hell for the sake of saving his soul. Beatrice is an icon of Christ.

Dante’s exile compelled him to take stock of the mess his own life had become, and the mess his world had become. He concludes that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If all, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they love themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome the passions. The pilgrimage Dante makes in the Commedia tells the story of how we lost God, and how we can regain Him again. Mark Musa, whose translation of the Commedia I recommend to newcomers (I slightly prefer the Hollander translation, but the notes in Musa are far more accessible to the ordinary reader; do not buy The Portable Dante version, which has only a few of Musa’s notes) says that the poem is “the journey of Everyman to God” And:

Dante was in accord with Hugh of Saint Victor, who, in his Didascalia, says: “Contemplating what God has done, we learn what is for us to do. All nature speaks God. All nature teaches man.” Dante, then, with his special kind of allegory, tries to imitate God: the symbolic world he creates in his poem is in principle a mirror of the actual world created by God himself.

This is a point that cannot be overstated. Dante believed, as all Christians used to believe, that all of Creation was a theophany: a manifestation of God. That is, he saw Creation as iconic: a window into the divine realm through which God manifests himself, more strongly in some forms than in others. To make this point even more strongly, Dante designed the Commedia as a cosmos. As the Dante translator and scholar Andrew Frisardi has written:

The sheer quantity and vitality of detail in the Commedia imitates life: we can never grasp hold of it all. At the same time, the Commedia testifies to the attunement of those details to a transcendent pattern. Just as Dante’s subjective experience, both pleasurable (Beatrice) and painful (exile), is eventually seen in terms of the dolce armonia [sweet harmony] that suffuses and sustains existence—the vision of the One that is the culmination of the poet’s journey—the Commedia itself is an imitation of divine order.

The complex order built into every line of the Commedia is staggering to contemplate. To cite the most obvious example, Dante’s “terza rima” rhyme scheme — aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. which he invented to write this poem. Dante suffuses threeness throughout the entire 14,000+ line work, making every verse testify to the life of the Holy Trinity. Note well that he doesn’t just symbolize the Trinity; he represents its dynamic action in sustaining Creation and drawing it forward. Frisardi:

This tripartite structure [of terza rima] does not . . . arise . . . by way of simple addition, but consists of a doubling or halving of a given unit, which then produces a mediating third entity out of itself. This process is reflected in the form of the terza rima: the first rhyming line represents, as it were, the Father and corresponds to the third line, while the second line both divides and unites the other two. . . . Each terza rima, by virtue of its single middle line, demands a further rhyme, just as in Nature each new creation both resolves two opposing forces within itself and at the same time already contains the seed of a new confrontation, and so on ad infinitum. This then is the paradigm for the interlinking of the terza rima, with its inherent allusion to the future and its consequent aura of the prophetic.

You don’t really need to know this to understand the Commedia, and in any case it is not visible in English translations, where, given the limits of the English language, it is impossible to replicate. But it is worth knowing to appreciate both Dante’s genius and his creation of this poem in imitation of God’s creation of all things. The poet is drawing our attention to the presence of God and His order throughout the cosmos.

As we set out on this journey, it’s important to observe that the path through the Inferno spirals down toward the pit of Hell, while the path through Purgatory, as we have seen, spirals upward in the direction of Heaven. There is no spiral in Heaven, because all is perfect and timeless there; if you followed my Paradiso blogging you’ll know that Heaven gave the pilgrim Dante the illusion of progress through concentric spheres so he, within his human limitations, could better understand the lessons being taught to him.

Anyway, the spiral design is purposeful, and ingenious. The poet means for this to symbolize how we fall into the depths of sin, and how we may ascend out of them. Nobody, or almost nobody, loses their soul in a single moment. To become captive to sin typically requires slowly circling around vice, descending a bit more each time, barely perceiving our descent, until finally we arrive at the bottom: circling only around ourselves, prisoners to the ego. Similarly, nobody is immediately delivered from the habits of sin. To be made holy requires a similar journey, slowly circling around virtue, purging ourselves of devotion to our passions and our egos, allowing ourselves to be filled with the healing grace of God. The circles become smaller as they spiral upward, culminating in the soul circling in a concentrated way around God — a progression perfected in Paradise. Andrew Frisardi writes that medieval labyrinths, which are in spiral form, are meant to symbolize how complex the descent into and out of sin is, and how difficult it is to find our way out of the maze without God’s help:

It is possible to see the same symbolism in Dante, in the relationship between the celestial rose [at the summit of Paradiso] and the labyrinth of the Inferno, whereby blind ego consciousness is redeemed in the folds of the rose that germinated in the womb of the Virgin.

You will recall the Dantean conclusion of Eliot’s Little Giddingand the final harmony in God:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The Commedia is, obviously, a profoundly religious poem, because Dante lived in a profoundly religious age, and was himself a believing Roman Catholic. But you do not have to be a Christian, or even religious, to love and to learn from the Commedia. I commend to you a terrific book by the literary critic Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World, which is a classic in the field of Dante studies. From the book:

Thus in truth the Comedy is a picture of earthly life. The human world in all its breadth and depth is gathered into the structure of the hereafter and there it stands: complete, unfalsified, yet encompassed in an eternal order; the confusion of earthly affairs is not concealed or attenuated or immaterialized, but preserved in full evidence and grounded in a plan which embraces it and raises it above all contingency. Doctrine and fantasy, history and myth are woven into an almost inextricable skein. … Once one has succeeded in surveying the whole, the hundred cantos, with their radiant terza rima, their perpetual binding and loosing, reveal the dreamlike lightness and remoteness of a perfection that seems to hover over us like a dance of unearthly figures.

To bring this back to earth: what does this have to do with you and your life? Well, let me tell you what it had to do with me and my life. There will be details to come, but for now, let this suffice. I knew very little about Dante until a year ago. The Commedia has always been one of those Great Books I wanted to read in theory, but kind of figured I’d never get around to doing. I am not much of a reader of fiction, and certainly not medieval poetry. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

My own life had been a pilgrimage of sorts. I left my home in south Louisiana at age 16, as something of an exile. Alienated from my school community, where I had been bullied, and estranged in a sense from my family, especially my dad, I went to a public boarding school and found a new life. My post-college career took me far away from home, but I always tendered within my heart a desire to be fully reconciled to my roots. I tried to do that, moving back to Louisiana in 1993, at the age of 26, but learned quickly that life here would have been impossible, because of my difficult relationship with my strong-willed father. (I wrote about a lot of this in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.) So I left again.

In the ensuing years, I married, started a family, moved again and again, and suffered a crisis of faith that culminated in leaving the Catholic Church, which was, and remains, the most painful experience of my life. My sister Ruthie’s 2011 death from cancer — I mean the astonishing bravery and faith with which she met it — was an occasion of enormous grace, a gift from God that built a bridge back home, over which I and my wife and kids walked three months after we buried her. I wrote Little Way to tell this story. As I penned the final chapter, I learned some shattering news that changed everything. I discovered that I would likely never be able to fully return home, because the rejection that I thought grace had reversed was, to my shock, so deeply rooted within the culture of my family that it was a permanent reality — and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I fell into a deep depression, one that the stress from which made the autoimmune condition (chronic Epstein-Barr, or mononucleosis) from which I suffer much worse. I was sick all the time, and in despair. For months on end I suffered, and saw no way out. So much of what I thought I knew wasn’t true. I was lost and confused, and could not find my way out of this dark wood in which I found myself in the middle of my life. A good thing for which I had longed all my life was now never going to happen; that dream was dead, and I struggled mightily to deal with it. My own depression and sickness was dragging my wife and children down into the pit with me.

In the summer of 2013, I went to see a rheumatologist for extensive testing to see if there were any underlying physiological conditions responsible for my chronic mono. The answer: no, nothing. In such cases, the doctor said, the source of your chronic illness is deep and constant stress. What are you stressed over? he asked.

I told him. His conclusion: You have a choice: leave Louisiana, or resign yourself to destroying your health. 

I told him I couldn’t do either one. My wife and kids were happy here, and none of us had the desire or the emotional strength to uproot ourselves again. But this health crisis was intolerable. The doctor shrugged.

“All I can tell you is that you had better find some way to get inner peace,” he said.

My physician and my wife told me I had to humble myself and go to therapy, which I had long resisted doing. My priest gave me a demanding contemplative prayer rule, and we began addressing these problems in the confessional. But for me, the most important thing that changed my life was the discovery of Dante.

Shortly after I saw the rheumatologist, I found myself in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Baton Rouge, killing time. I am not much of a poetry reader, but there I was in the poetry section, browsing. Having discovered in middle age the glories of the Odyssey a year earlier, studying it with my son, I found myself wondering from time to time whether poetry held more beauty and truth accessible to me than I had estimated. Standing there, I pulled a copy of Dante’s Inferno off the shelf, and began thumbing through it. I don’t know whose translation it was; here are the opening lines from Mark Musa’s:

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path.


How hard it is to tell what it was like,

this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn

(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),


a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.

But if I would show the good that came of it

I must talk about things other than the good.

That struck me: he’s talking about what we would tritely call a midlife crisis. I read on, through the first two cantos, and was instantly caught up in the drama of the narrative. I was on to something; it was a real Augustinian tolle, lege moment. As I recollect that moment today, sitting in my armchair at home, I don’t think I bought the Inferno that day. I kept thinking about it, unable to get Dante and his journey off of my mind. Finally, I bought a copy and began my own Dantean pilgrimage.

It changed my life. By the time I came out the other end, I had a much greater understanding of the nature of our brokenness, and my participation in it. I had made a breakthrough along the way that allowed me for the first time in my life to feel that God loved me. And I was on the way toward finding a way to live a joyful life in this earthly exile. I told my priest in confession one day that as hard as this walk has been since returning to Louisiana, I thank God for it, because if it had not been for the things he has shown me and the things I have had to confront and to overcome, I would never have done the spiritual and emotional work necessary to find a greater sense of wholeness.

I will tell the story to the best of my ability in my forthcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life, which will likely be published in the fall/winter of 2015. I have been so indescribably grateful for the gift God gave me through the poetry of Dante that I want to help others who are struggling in their own dark woods find their way to the Commedia, and through it, find their way back to the straight path. Dante himself said the intention of his poem was to lead people from a state of misery to one of happiness. It really works. I can testify to that. When I was a young man of 17, seeing the Chartres cathedral ultimately led to my conversion to Christianity as an adult. When I was a middle-aged man of 47, encountering another work of art of the High Middle Ages, the Divine Comedy, led me to a much deeper conversion.

I am not well-educated, and what I know about art, architecture, and literature could barely fill a pamphlet. But I believe that the light and spirit of God really does fill all things, some more than others. The Commedia is, in this sense, perhaps the most spiritually luminous creation ever produced by a man. Once I opened myself up to it, it illumined me. It can do the same for you, I am convinced.

But the road to divine enlightenment leads first through Hell. In order to find his way out of the dark wood, Dante has to be shown how he got there. Let’s get going.

When Inferno opens, the pilgrim comes to himself, terrified, in the wilderness.

How I came there I cannot really tell,

I was so full of sleep

when I forsook the one true way.

The pilgrim had been sleepwalking through life. He once knew the true way, but in his daze, he stumbled off the path, and did not know how to get back to it. His recovery depends on recognizing that he had made a mess of his life through his own doing, his own inattention. As the Dante translator Anthony Esolen writes in the (excellent) notes to his version of Inferno:

The wilderness, or selva oscura, represents the confusion of choices in a life not obedient to reason and thus not oriented toward man’s happiness. Says Dante [in his Convivio]: “So the youth, who enters into the wandering woods of this life, would never know the right way to go, were it not shown to him by his elders.” Such a forest is made all the rougher for corruption in the papacy and the empire, for then there are no reliable spiritual guides to direct us on the right path and no temporal authorities to check us when we wander from it.

See how contemporary Dante is? He has made a shipwreck of his life in a time in which the ministers of the Church could not be trusted as reliable spiritual guides, and politics had become so corrupt and faction-ridden that they too cannot be looked upon as guides to goodness. What was Dante’s own sin that led him off the straight path? It’s not entirely clear from the Commedia, but pride seems to have had a lot to do with it, and perhaps lust. What we can say for sure, because this is what the pilgrim himself confesses in Purgatorio, is that he lost his way because he took his eyes off of God, and began to see other things — political power, literary success, and so forth — as end in themselves. They became his idols, which, in the end, means that his sovereign self became his true God.

Now that Dante has awakened to his condition, he wants to escape it — and sees beyond the valley the Sun, which “leads men straight, no matter what their road.” The Sun here is a symbol of God, or of divine grace. He knows that if he follows the Sun, he will make it back. We, the reader, know in advance that he does find his way home, because he has told us in the third tercet of the poem. This is why it’s called the “comedy” (as opposed to “tragedy”): because it has a happy ending.

So, the rising of the Sun will surely illuminate the way forward, right? It calms Dante to think that he will be able to see his way free and clear. But he’s wrong. Giuseppe Mazzotta notes that Dante’s language switches from speaking of the mind to speaking of the body. He begins to climb the slope out of the valley, only to find three wild beasts blocking his way. There is a leopard (an allegory of Lust), a lion (Pride) and a Wolf (Greed). They frighten the pilgrim so much that he retreats back to a dark place, and loses hope of ever being rescued from this shipwreck.

There are other interpretations of what these wild beasts represent (e.g., Incontinence, Malice, Mad Brutishness). The point is this: Dante’s sinful inclinations are so powerful, and so paralyzing, that he cannot hope to overcome them on his own. He thought earlier that his self-delivery from the dark wood was a matter of seeing the way out. Now he learns that knowledge isn’t enough; the will has to be involved as well — and his will is too weak to walk the way to freedom.

This really hits home with me. For most of my life, I’ve thought that the solution to all my theological and philosophical concerns depended on reading the right book, or getting the correct arguments sorted in my mind. If I could just know the way forward, then I would surely take it. It took many years for me to recognize that I had been lying to myself, for the most part: I didn’t actually want to know anything that conflicted with my will — that is, with what I wanted to do. This was because my will was unconverted. I thought of myself as a brave searcher of truth, but it was more truthful to say that I was looking for a truth that suited my preferences. My saving grace is that I was usually honest enough with myself to know that this was a sham, that I wanted the psychological comfort of knowing the truth without the difficulty of having to conform my will and my actions with what that truth dictated.

Usually. But the mind is very good at concealing things from itself. What the poet is telling us here is that our restoration is not simply a matter of intellection. It involves the conversion of our whole selves, body, mind, and soul. Knowing the right thing to do is one thing, but it cannot make you righteous. Only aligning the will with righteousness can do that.

Suddenly, in the valley of the shadow of death, a ghost appears.

When I saw him in that vast desert,

‘Have mercy on me, whatever you are,’

I cried, ‘whether shade or living man.’

Notice this response: a plea for mercy. The very first words the pilgrim speaks in the poem are, “Have mercy on me.” Such is the depth of his despair, all he can do is ask for mercy. This is the plea of King David in Psalm 51. The beginning of all enlightenment and restoration begins with absolute humility: a plea for mercy.

The shade, of course, is the Roman poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid, on which the Commedia is heavily based. The Aeneid is the epic story of Aeneas, who flees the ruins of Troy and sets out in his exile on a journey around the Mediterranean, and ends up founding the city of Rome. Out of Aeneas’s personal catastrophe came new life. Dante the poet clearly wants us to see how the same happened to him. What he also wants us to see is themes in the lives of literary, scriptural, and mythical figures can be seen in ordinary human life right here, right now — a radical innovation in literature. And the poet wants us to understand that literature can serve as an allegory for our own interior lives. Stories matter. They aren’t merely to entertain us, though they should. They should also imprint themselves on our imagination, and cause us to change our lives.

It’s important to observe how Virgil introduces himself. He never mentions his name, only identifies himself by the place his mother and father are from (Mantua), where he was born (Rome), and when (“under good Augustus, in an age of false and lying gods”). And then he identifies himself by his work: “I was a poet and I sang the just son of Anchises come from Troy, after proud Ilium was put to flame.”

“Are you then Virgil?” Dante asks. Indeed, this is Virgil. Why do you suppose that the older man did not identify himself straightforwardly? Because, I think, he is trying to show Dante how our identities are related to our time, our place, and the work we do. A great them of the Commedia is relationship: how all people and all things exist in a chain of being. Similarly, the pilgrim will learn that the Truth — which is to say, Love, the spirit of God — comes to us mediated through created things: people, poetry, and so forth.

Overwhelmed by the sight of the great poet in front of him, Dante praises him as “my teacher and my author.” What does it mean to call a poet “my author”? It means that Virgil “wrote” Dante in the sense that through Virgil’s poetry, Dante came to understand himself, and to make himself into the man and the artist he ought to have been. These passages establish Virgil’s authority over Dante. Dante knows he can trust Virgil, because he has trusted Virgil before, on the page. In a much more minor way, when I first came to Dante, I knew that he would be a trustworthy guide, because his wisdom and art is still esteemed 700 years later. It has stood the test of time.

The pilgrim begs for Virgil’s help to escape the wild beasts and get on the path out of the dark wood:

“It is another path that you must follow,”

he answered, when he saw me weeping,

“If you would flee this wild and savage place…”

Virgil explains that these beasts are deadly, and will kill him if he tries to fight them.

“Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise

you follow me: I will be your guide,

leading you, from here, through an eternal place


“where you shall hear despairing cries

and see those ancient souls in pain

as they bewail their second death.”

Hell, he means — the second death is the eternal torment of the afterlife without God.

“Then you shall see the ones who are content

to burn because they hope to come,

whenever it may be, among the blessed.


“Should you desire to ascend to these,

you’ll find a soul more fit to lead than I:

I’ll leave you in her care when I depart.”

He means Purgatory, and Beatrice. Virgil tells Dante that he may not follow, because he, Virgil, “was a rebel to His law.”

Dante throws himself on Virgil’s mercy, begging him to lead the way forward. Says Dante, “Then he set out and I came on behind him.”

Because you have probably read with me through Purgatorio, and maybe even Paradiso, you know that Virgil stands for the pinnacle of Reason. He will take Dante as far as he can go toward full restoration in God — but he cannot complete the journey, because human reason, unaided by divine revelation, cannot do so. Beatrice is Revelation.

Nevertheless, Dante the poet makes a vitally important point by using Virgil and The Aeneid in his own epic journey. He wants us to know that God can use anything to bring us back to Himself. Had God sent a saint or an angel to Dante in the dark wood, perhaps he wouldn’t have followed him. Virgil, though, that’s a man that the lost and frightened Dante could trust. The light of the same God who is everywhere present and fills all things is also present in some real sense in Virgil, and in The Aeneid. Truth, after all, is One. The divine light as it shines through Virgil may be the only light that Dante, in his current spiritual state, is capable of seeing.

But as we see, it will be enough. The road to heaven starts with that first step. The path to the Light begins with a single spark.

UPDATE: It’s interesting to think about how this first canto epitomizes the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous’s Twelve Steps:

  • admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion;

  • recognizing a higher power that can give strength;

  • examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member)

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Against the Legumes

A short update to my Against the Grains piece from a couple of weeks back, in which I talked about how getting off of rice, wheat, and corn for the sake of weight loss resulted in a dramatic remission of my chronic mono symptoms. The near-constant inflammation inside my body went way down — probably by 80 percent, I’d guess. I went from having to sleep in the middle of the day, nearly every day, to having to do that only once every four or five days. I felt so much better — not completely free of the stuff, but dramatically better.

For lunch today, I made myself a serving of lentil soup. I love beans, and could eat them almost every day. This is the first time I’ve had them since going on the new diet. Within 20 minutes of eating lunch, my nasal passages were inflamed, my head began to hurt, and a wave of fatigue washed over me. If I didn’t have a lot of work to do this afternoon, I would go to bed right now.

This is puzzling to me. I did not realize that legumes were inflammatory. Poking around online, I see that some authorities claim that they are anti-inflammatory, but others — the paleo diet people — claim that they are inflammatory. Whatever the truth, I am frustrated to have to remove another food that I really love from my diet. But I can’t keep feeling this way, so I’ll do it without protest.

I am eager to hear of your experiences with legumes in this way. Help me to learn.

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The Perversity of Diversity

You’ve heard, perhaps, of the new California state university system policy that forces recognized campus groups to disallow any bar to leadership. Virginia Postrel explains how the policy’s effects fall particularly hard on the state’s minority students, who make up a majority of the overall student body (whites are only 29 percent).

Many of the upwardly mobile first- and second-generation immigrants who populate this proudly diverse system don’t think like the people who run it. The faculty and administration tend to be secular and socially liberal, while many students, particularly students of color, are traditionally religious and socially conservative.

“In their science classes or in their literature classes, what’s understood as the normative world view is different from their conservative evangelical world view,” says Rebecca Y. Kim, a sociologist at Pepperdine University who studies the religious experiences of Asian-American students, particularly the children of Korean immigrants, who dominate evangelical groups on many U.S. campuses. For these students, she suggest, Christian fellowship meetings provide what sociologists call “plausibility structures” — social groupings in which students’ religious beliefs and mores are treated as normal. “They get that space within the secular institution,” Kim says.


If the all-comers policy worked the way it sounds on paper, it would destroy the qualities that make religious fellowships valuable to students, especially ethnic minorities. “If you force them to have leaders who don’t have this distinct world view and belief system, it completely goes against the reason for their existence,” says Kim.

This week, Cal State de-recognized its InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters under the rule. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, the university withdrew certification from a Christian organization because it requires its leaders to affirm a statement of faith. Let me repeat that: because a Christian organization will not agree to let a non-believer hold a leadership position within the organization, it is demoted to second-class status on campus. From the story:

Gregory L. Jao, the national field director for InterVarsity, which has 40,299 students and faculty participating in 949 chapters on 616 campuses across the country, said the policy’s impact started to be felt in the spring of 2013, when chapters submitted registration forms that were rejected by CSU campuses.

The conflict is part of the ongoing battle across the U.S. between religious freedom advocates and college administrators charged with creating inclusive environments on campus.

“There’s a chilling effect,” Jao said. “Your religious beliefs are so unimportant they can be replaced by a democratic election. Students understand it means they’re not welcome there because their religious convictions are outside the pale of what the university is willing to tolerate.”

This quote from Cal State’s lawyer exemplifies the idiocy of the thinking behind this policy:

“It doesn’t make sense to allow any group to discriminate on any grounds,” Westover said. “These are not private organizations existing out there. These are student groups that are based in our education setting. Our entire purpose is education. This is when our students are supposed to be exposed to new ideas, especially those that are in conflict.”

All student groups are debating societies, then? Really? The point of most religious organizations is not to debate whether or not the religion is true; the point, broadly speaking, is to come together for fellowship and worship, and perhaps evangelization, around a common set of beliefs. But then, the secular liberals who run the university system wouldn’t understand that, would they? And they can think of themselves as enlightened and tolerant by refusing to understand it.


InterVarsity’s chapter at Cal State Long Beach continues to hold its Soul Thirst gathering on campus Thursday nights in Room 100 of the Hall of Sciences.

Close to 100 students attended last Thursday’s meeting, which resembled a church service featuring praise music, prayer and testimonies, among other activities typically seen in evangelical gatherings.

Jasmine Kim, a 22-year-old music performance major, said she’s been a part of the group since her freshman year.

“It’s done so much for me,” Kim said. “I think it helps me see more of a spiritual life with God. I love how there’s such a diverse community.”

Ah, Miss Kim — that’s a Korean name, right? — what you don’t see is that this is not really diversity, not in the eyes of the California State University system. You will not be sufficiently diverse until you elect a lesbian pagan as your group’s recording secretary.

I’m not Evangelical, and I cannot bear praise music, but if I were out there, I would find it within me to go stand with those students, just because they’re refusing to be part of the California version of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. 

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Groundhog Day For America

Congress has now overwhelmingly voted to train and arm the Free Syrian Army, the ”vetted moderates” who won’t use our money, guns, and expertise to fight against the Assad government, only against ISIS, the really bad guys.

Really, they believe this. From the NYT:

The Senate gave overwhelming approval on Thursday to a measure on the training and arming of Syrian rebels, then fled the Capitol for the fall campaign, sidestepping the debate over the extent of American military action until the lame-duck session of Congress later this year.

The training measure, pushed hard by President Obama, was tucked into a larger Senate bill to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, a maneuver that leaders of both parties favored to ensure as few defections as possible. The Senate’s 78-to-22 vote, a day after the House passed the measure, masked the serious doubts that many senators had.

The broader debate over Congress’s role in blessing or expanding a new military campaign in the Middle East was one that few on Capitol Hill wanted just six weeks before the midterm elections. With memories of the 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq still haunting every vote Congress takes on matters of military force, members of both parties — especially those with their eyes on the White House — tried to find a position they would not regret.

“I’m not sending your son, your daughter over to the middle of that chaos,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, whose libertarian views have propelled him into contention for his party’s 2016 nomination. “The people who live there need to stand up and fight.”

He added, “I am not giving up, but it is their war, and they need to fight.”

Our brave, brave senators voted to appropriate money for the Free Syrian Army, but did not vote on authorizing the war we will be funding. Because it’s an election year. Via Roll Call, here are the no votes (peace be upon them):

The no votes included Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mark Begich of Alaska, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The GOP opponents included Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont also voted no.

I like this from Democrat Joe Manchin:

“I have seen no evidence that the Syrian rebels we plan to train and arm will remain committed to American goals or interests. The vast majority of national-level Syrian rebel groups are Islamists, none of whom are interested in allying with the United States, and none of whom we should be associating with. Further, the opposition fighters that we will train care more about overthrowing [Bashar] Assad than they do about defeating ISIS. Assad is evil, but he is not a threat to America,” Manchin said. “If the ‘moderate opposition’ have to choose between defeating Assad and defeating ISIS, why do we believe they’ll choose our priority over theirs? How do we know that they won’t join forces with ISIS if it helps them overthrow Assad?”

Josh Rogin writes that of course the FSA will turn their weapons on Assad, whether the US likes it or not:

Oubai Shahbandar, senior advisor to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told The Daily Beast that it’s unrealistic to ask the moderate rebels to use U.S. weapons against ISIS but not against Assad. In major battles like in Aleppo, ISIS and Assad are working together. So you can’t fight one without fighting the other, Shahbandar added. (It’s a point of view backed by many senior State Department and Pentagon officials, who agree with the FSA that Assad is the magnet for the terrorists and that Assad’s continued rule only perpetuates the ISIS problem.)

Patrick Poole reports that so many of our Washington-approved “vetted moderates” are anything but. Meanwhile, Ross Kaminsky has a Vetted Moderate edition of News From The Future. Excerpt:

Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2014 — In what was supposed to be a secret meeting between senior U.S. military officials and leaders of the Free Syrian Army in the town of Ceylanpinar in southern Turkey, a member of an FSA colonel’s security team turned his weapon on the American contingent, killing two, including a U.S. Army major involved in coordinating training of “moderate” rebel forces by the U.S. military. Three other Americans were injured, one critically, before the terrorist infiltrator was killed by shots fired by both FSA and American soldiers. President Obama, at a joint press conference while meeting with the premier of Bermuda, said he did not have enough information about the event to comment about it specifically but added, “We are counting on our friends in the moderate Syrian groups to uphold their part of our mutual agreement.” The president and premier then enjoyed a round of golf at the exclusive Mid Ocean Club where they were joined by club regular, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Deputy Undersecretary of State Aymin Tudiep (known for his controversial comments about “the Zionist entity”) will receive the caskets of the fallen in a brief untelevised ceremony at Joint Base Andrews on Thursday. Senator John McCain remarked, “This tragic but isolated event must not deter us from working with our good friends in the FSA.”

Mosul, Iraq, October 20, 2014 — Nearly a week after U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped FSA forces were attacked by the Syrian Air Force, the United States flew its first military mission over Syria in support of an advancing FSA column. The Pentagon said it did not know whether the FSA soldiers were moving against an Assad regime position or an ISIS position, nor whether the FSA’s assault was successful. As widely reported in recent weeks, no member of President Obama’s “40-country coalition” has a single soldier on the ground in Syria and therefore details of the battle remain spotty. To the east, following President Obama’s reversal on a position of “no boots on the ground,” the U.S. presence in Iraq has been reduced due to the Obama administration’s sending another 525 U.S. military personnel to West Africa to help with that region’s Ebola outbreak. Local Kurdish commanders have said that lack of American attention is hampering progress against ISIS in northern Iraq. In Sierra Leone, two American soldiers have died from the Ebola virus and three others are in intensive care, now being treated in an isolation facility at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Several wives of soldiers protested outside the White House gates, holding signs saying, “Our husbands fight terrorists, not viruses!” and “They’re soldiers, not nurses.”

Peter Beinart frets that ISIS is causing Americans to rush to the GOP side:

Suddenly, it feels like 2002. Democrats got creamed in midterm elections that year because the women voters they had relied on throughout the Clinton years deserted them. In 2000, women favored Democratic congressional candidates by nine points. In 2002, that advantage disappeared entirely. The biggest reason: 9/11. In polls that year, according to Gallup, women consistently expressed more fear of terrorism that men. And that fear pushed them toward the GOP, which they trusted far more to keep the nation safe. As then-Senator Joe Biden declared after his party’s midterm shellacking, “soccer moms are security moms now.”

Unfortunately for President Obama, the security moms are back. And as a result, the levee Democrats were counting on to protect against a GOP hurricane is starting to crumble.

I’m with Andrew Sullivan here:

The party that was primarily responsible for the years of grinding, bankrupting war, a descent into torture, and an evisceration of many core liberties is now regarded as superior to the man originally tasked with trying to recover from that experience. The political winds unleashed by a few disgusting videos and a blitzkrieg in the desert have swept all before them. And we now hear rhetoric from Democratic party leaders that sounds close to indistinguishable from Bush or Cheney.

And so, we are going to war again in a region we do not understand, backing a side we do not understand, and the American people largely support it.

I am going to mix myself a stiff drink, and think about other Americans’ uniformed children and parents and spouses and siblings who are going to end up dying over there in that blood-soaked sand pit for no good reason.

UPDATE: Reader Brad writes:

I hope that I am wrong, but…

1) The U.S. will bomb ISIS sites inside Syria.

2) Washington will continue to warn the Assad regime not to interfere while coalition jets fly over Syrian territory.

3) Either ISIS or a so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition group will use one of the many MANPADS now in their hands to down a U.S./Western military plane. (Both ISIS and Syrian rebels have every incentive do this! See #4)

4) Downed jet incident will be pinned on the Syrian regime, and U.S. will respond (as promised) by simply expanding the scope of its campaign to bombing Syrian government facilities.

5) U.S. will attack by air both ISIS and Syrian government sites while claiming to wage “war on terror” on two fronts

6) U.S. equipped/trained Syrian opposition rebels will attempt to move in to bombed out government facilities

More chaos…repeat again…

UPDATE.2: Charles H. Featherstone:

As I never tire of saying, we are not good enough, we are not wise enough, and we are not rich enough to intervene like this in the lives of others.

But we are really good at exporting our fear, and making others pay for our insecurities. And we continually expect THAT will have no consequences either.

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Mark Driscoll & the Pill of Murti-Bing

The fall of Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church has been a huge event in the Evangelical world. From the Seattle Times:

For years the edgy, blue-jeaned, hipster preacher used charisma and combativeness to barrel through turmoil, once bragging that he’d mow down all who questioned his vision: “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done,” he once said in a meeting. “You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus.”

Behind the scenes, former church members said, Driscoll could be vicious, abusive and controlling. Some charged that he refused to promote an overweight elder because Driscoll said his “fat ass” would tarnish Mars Hill’s image.

But for years, Driscoll’s outward style charmed many. He was dynamic and funny, with a potent mix of reverence for Jesus and irreverence for every­­thing else. He drew pierced-and-tattooed congregants from Seattle to a church that espoused a conservative Calvinist doctrine cloaked in indie-rock, big screens and a worn pair of Chuck Taylors.

Mars Hill grew to 15 branches in five states with 13,000 visitors on Sundays. Driscoll appeared on Nightline, preached at Seahawks stadium, threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game, and founded a network of evangelical leaders who started hundreds of other churches.

But after 18 years of stunning growth, an escalating string of bad news finally started driving churchgoers away. Mars Hill leaders last Sunday said attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff 30 to 40 percent.

Evangelical blogger Warren Throckmorton has been all over the Driscoll scandal for a long time. If you want to know more, check out his archives at Patheos.

It turns out that a lot of people within the Mars Hill world knew that Driscoll was an abusive, egotistical cretin, but they looked the other way. Rob Ashgar, who calls Mars Hill “the Enron of American churches,” condemns what he calls the “rush to innocence” among Driscoll’s defenders. He asks why do so many people who ought to know better defend leaders (of religious organizations or any other organization) who are blatantly corrupt or abusers of power. Excerpt:

Some years ago, former Los Angeles Times religion writer William Lobdell wrote about his experiences covering the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. Lobdell shared that what broke his spirit wasn’t the way the church leaders refused to see the truth, but rather the way the ordinary laypersons refused to see it–how they shouted down peers bold enough to speak honestly about their traumas, how they sought to rationalize any evil done by their beloved leaders.

That’s one crucial aspect of the link between toxic leaders and followers. In the case of megachurches, there’s also the appeal of protecting one’s part in a big, impressive show — like being a regular at the cool club that everyone talks about. The star of the show is usually an uber-charismatic, dramatic salesperson. Like the brash and humorous Driscoll.

Before we move on, I want to draw your attention to a very long 2007 Los Angeles Times essay written by William Lobdell, in which he describes how he went from an enthusiastic Christian believer into an unbeliever as the result of covering religion scandals (Catholic, Protestant, Mormon). In this excerpt, Lobdell writes about how he initially thought that sexual abuse victims were stuck in the past, and needed to get over their childhood traumas. A Catholic priest friend had advised him not to let a few bad priests destroy his faith:

But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term “sexual abuse” is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ’s representative on Earth. That’s not something an 8-year-old’s mind can process; it forever warps a person’s sexuality and spirituality.

Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.

I couldn’t get the victims’ stories or the bishops’ lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.

The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.

I sought solace in another belief: that a church’s heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God’s house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.

On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, spoke out for the victim.

Lobdell goes on to talk about how he started covering the massively successful Trinity Broadcasting Network, and uncovering evidence of grotesque luxuries and abuse of power, including taking advantage of true believers. People within the TBN world knew what its leadership was doing, but said nothing. Lobdell writes:

I tried unsuccessfully to get several prominent mainstream pastors who appeared on TBN to comment on the prosperity gospel, Hinn’s “faith healing” or the Crouches’ lifestyle.

Like the Catholic bishops, I assumed, they didn’t want to risk what they had.

Read the whole thing. It’s a heartbreaking document.

They didn’t want to risk what they had. It happens with all kinds of institutions. I’m familiar with a school in which the real problem with bullying there, in the eyes of parents who sent their kids there, was the naysayers who were trying to tear down a great institution by making a big deal out of kids just being kids. It happens in families. Uncle Buddy can’t be molesting the cousins because if that were true, then our family is not what we think it is, and that would be bad. And on and on. You see what I mean.

We all understand, I think, the problem with leaders not wanting to lose what they have: power, wealth, fame, etc. The more difficult problem is explaining why people much farther down the power structure — specifically, those who are being exploited by the leadership — are willing to cooperate in their own exploitation. They too are unwilling to risk what they have — but what do they have, really?

Here’s an answer. The dynamic behind this phenomenon is what the Polish dissident writer Czesław Miłosz, in his classic study of intellectuals under Polish communism, The Captive Mind, called “the Pill of Murti-Bing.” The concept comes from a 1927 dystopian novel by Stanisław Witkiewicz in which an Asian army overruns Poland, and conquers its people in part by giving them pills to assuage their anxieties over their condition. From The Captive Mind:

Witkiewicz’s heroes are unhappy in that they have no faith and no sense of meaning in their work. This atmosphere of decay and senselessness extends throughout the entire country. And at that moment, a great number of hawkers appear in the cities peddling Murti-Bing pills. Murti-Bing was a Mongolian philosopher who had succeeded in producing an organic means of transporting a “philosophy of life.” This Murti-Bing “philosophy of life,” which constituted the strength of the Sino-Mongolian army, was contained in pills in an extremely condensed form. A man who used these pills changed completely. He became serene and happy.

For Miłosz, Polish intellectuals who capitulated to communism and Soviet rule had taken the pill of Murti-Bing. It was what made their condition bearable. They could not stand to see reality, for if they recognized what was really happening in their country, the pain and shock would make life too much to take.

This is why people who have no financial or status tied up in protecting abuse of corruption within an institution can nevertheless be expected to rally around that institution and its leaders. Those who tell the truth threaten their Murti-Bing pill supply, and therefore their sense of order and well-being. To them, better that a few victims must be made to suffer rather than the entire community be forced to wean itself from Murti-Bing.

I want to thank the Catholic blogger Kevin O’Brien for suggesting this topic to me. In his recent blog post, he lists people he knows personally (concealing their names) who have, in their own particular situations, succumbed to the allure of Murti-Bing, because reality is too painful.

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The Unknown Christians

From the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem -- an Arab Christian town. Episcopal Diocese of SW Florida/Flickr
From the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem -- an Arab Christian town. Episcopal Diocese of SW Florida/Flickr

Father Andrew Stephen Damick wonders why Americans are so ignorant of and indifferent to Christians in the Middle East. Excerpts:

I am married to an American of Palestinian ancestry. People sometimes ask me if that means my wife is Muslim. She is not. She is an Orthodox Christian. Her father is an Orthodox Christian. His father was an Orthodox Christian. And so on. They’re actually not really sure how far back their Christianity goes, but the family originally came from Antioch (which is now in Turkey but was a major Syrian capital in the Roman Empire). I once asked when the family became Christian. One of my wife’s relatives answered, “When Jesus rose from the dead.” There’s a good chance that that’s roughly correct.

When the Apostles made their missionary journeys to the uttermost parts of the earth, history doesn’t say that they skipped the rest of the Middle East and headed straight for Europe. No, they immediately began founding Christian communities right in their own neighborhood. Two major Syrian cities—Antioch and Damascus—figure quite large in early Christian history. They are mentioned in the New Testament. They are still home to Christians.


American Christians’ inability to see Middle Eastern Christians for who they are—not just fellow Christians, but human beings who are suffering and dying—contributes to the marginalization of some of the most persecuted people in the world, hastening their erasure from history.

Read the whole thing. I suppose I can thank Ted Cruz for making me more aware of my responsibilities to these people than I was before he mouthed off. My friend Peter Lawler worries that I have “obsessed a lot more than is good for [my] our our mental health” about the Cruz speech and what it means. He may be right. But given the life-or-death stakes for the Middle Eastern Christians, and given how ignorant and/or indifferent Americans are to their presence and their fate, I think we have a long way to go before we can be accused of obsessing too much, or even “obsessing” at all, about this issue.

In case you missed it, here’s Ross Douthat’s final word on the controversy. It’s quite good. Excerpt:

And so yes: In the best of all possible worlds, Maronite and Coptic and Assyrian Christian would indeed all be standing shoulder to shoulder with Israelis (and moderate Muslims) in the struggle against terror.

But in this world, most Middle Eastern Christians are in one of the following three positions relative to Israel: It’s an occupying power, at best a lesser evil (compared to Hamas) but certainly not a benevolent ally by any reasonable definition of the term; it’s an erstwhile ally which they feel left them to reap the Islamist whirlwind after years of loyal cooperation; or it’s a far-off country with few ways to aid them and which they stand to face a great deal of immediate danger for being associated with in any way. Combine these positions with the stark reality of ongoing genocide, and I think it should be clear why so many of us think Cruz was wrong to address an audience of Middle Eastern Christians as he did: Because the propositions he was advancing are a description of how an ideal world might be, not of the world they actually inhabit, and because it’s unreasonable to ask people whose communities are on the knife’s edge of destruction to pay homage to a vision that they either have good historical reasons to dissent from, or feel they cannot endorse for fear of making their own situation worse.

Do not miss Yair Rosenberg’s excellent piece in Tablet about the controversy. He points out that prominent Jews like Ronald S. Lauder and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have been speaking out against anti-Christian persecution. And the list goes on. We Christians must not forget the witness of these Jewish brothers of ours. Excerpt:

The takeaway from all this should be clear: Whether or not one thinks Cruz was justified in his walkout, the tempest in the tea party over his actions must not be allowed to obscure the pressing plight of Christians in the birthplace of their faith, and our Jewish obligation to stand in solidarity with them.

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