Tish Harrison Warren, the Anglican priest and author of Christianity Today‘s must-read essay on her campus Christian group’s dispute with Vanderbilt University, read my blog comment about it the other day, and has generously sent in this response:
…I saw that you had some questions about the policy and how/why certain Christian groups stayed on campus. I wasn’t able to go into great detail about the policy in my CT piece because the piece was really supposed to be more about my experience of that turbulent time and my identity shift that happened because of the campus conflict that year. I didn’t want to re-report the story (and I had to limit word-count so I wasn’t able to) so I didn’t get into the specifics of the policy much.
To answer your question, the issue at hand is that at the end of our probationary year (the year I described in the article) Vanderbilt made every campus group sign a pledge that they would not discriminate in their membership or leadership on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. in order to register as a student organization (the pledge is still required each year of all campus groups). My group and 14 other groups could not in good conscience sign a pledge saying that we wouldn’t discriminate on the basis of religion in selecting student leaders because we only wanted leaders that shared our basic religious beliefs to be on our core team and leading our Bible studies. The university said to us repeatedly that it was discriminatory to exclude an otherwise “good” leader just because they didn’t share our faith. If you don’t sign the pledge, the university automatically rejects your student organization application.
Many of the religious orgs that remain on campus are not specifically committed to doctrinal particularity or religious orthodoxy and are open to any kind of believer or unbeliever leading their group. Actually, when I was there (and this could have changed in the past two years), the Muslim group on campus fell into this camp (I’m not familiar enough with the nuances of Muslim theology to have the right word to describe their theological stance) and said that they would be open to Christians being on their leadership team. It was a small group. On other campuses however, Muslim groups have led the resistance to these kinds of policies and have forged partnerships with Christian groups who are working for pluralism and religious liberty on campus. Ohio State, which considered a similar policy to Vanderbilt, eventually rejected an “all-comers policy” due in large part (according to chaplains I know there) to the outcry of the Muslim community. I’ve also heard that at Harvard, Christian and Muslim groups together opposed a policy like Vanderbilt’s. Harvard rejected Vanderbilt’s policy and creedal groups are allowed on campus there.
If groups are committed to maintaining a particular theological voice, I do not understand how they can sign the non-discrimination pledge. They are, in fact, signing a pledge promising that they won’t require particular beliefs of their students in leadership. We were encouraged by many people just to sign whatever pledge we needed to and go on doing what we’d always done to select leaders–Vanderbilt doesn’t really have a way to oversee that closely. But those of us who lost our registration status felt that signing something pledging to not have doctrinal standards for student leaders — when we actually do — would be a poor model of discipleship for our students and dishonest.
Some groups don’t think the policy will pose a problem (or don’t have any formal creedal requirements) because they elect their leaders sheerly by democratic process so they feel like it is unlikely that a non-Christian would be elected anyway. But, as I have argued many, many times during this year, we aren’t so much worried about a coup where non-Christians take over the group and vote themselves into office (although that’s possible with this policy) as much as theological drift. The reason we have doctrinal boundaries in place is that we don’t want — over the course of 10 or 15 years — to slowly lose our theological particularity, which is more likely if majoritarianism alone rules the day. The analogy I use is that a creed is like a tuning fork, without it we won’t likely go out of tune immediately but give us a couple years and our theological tone will drift.
The second issue with this all-democracy/no creeds approach is that the majority of times that we face doctrinal issues with our leadership team is not unbelievers wanting to be voted into office but leadership team students having a mid-year crisis and converting or radically changing their religious beliefs. Often, with the zeal of a new convert to atheism or what have you, students want to stay in their leadership position and change the theological identity of the group. In short, we need a mechanism to ask leaders to step down if their beliefs and practices radically change. This policy made that impossible. We asked Vanderbilt’s provost directly what we should do if this were to happen (a Bible study leader decided that the resurrection is a metaphor or that Jesus was just a good, spiritual guide among many), and he suggested we disband the whole group. That’s obviously an unworkable solution. And this kind of scenario happens all the time for campus groups. All the time. Keep in mind that, for the most part, these are college students we’re talking about. They are exploring their identities and beliefs, which can change quickly. We want them to be able to do that but we also have to have a way to maintain theological stability over time as a community.
Lastly, to your other point about why we’d want to be registered groups, some deregistered groups are still meeting on campus, at this point, more or less because the chaplain is letting it happen out of kindness. But in terms of policy, we have no right to meet on campus so that could be revoked anytime (because of that most ousted groups are meeting off campus.). Ministry is made more difficult there mainly because it’s harder to meet students (we can’t go to new student fairs or advertise on campus, we aren’t listed on the religious life site online and can’t use Vanderbilt’s name) and because we can’t sponsor events on campus (For instance my group worked with the Veritas forum to try to bring respected Christian academics like John Lennox or NT Wright on campus, which we can’t do under the new policy). For some groups not being able to reserve rooms is a real problem because they have 100+ students involved so they can’t really just find a spare room. But the main thing lost wasn’t particular university privileges, but an ability to be a devotional community that is part of campus life on a pluralistic campus–we don’t just want stuff from the university, we love the university and can no longer participate fully in university life or the university community. As we say on our website to explain the main reason we want to remain on campus: We love the university. We want to be citizens of the university. That’s why we are here in the first place. We believe that religious beliefs of all sorts deserve a seat at the table of ideas, and that religious orthodoxy ought not be excluded from campus. We are grateful that we’ve been able to be part of campus life—some of us for decades—and we want to continue to be part of the dialogue, joys, and challenges of university life.
(By the way, most religious groups at Vanderbilt do not receive funding from the university so this wasn’t about money…Although the 1,400 students in deregistered groups still have to pay activities fees to the university).
Anyway, I don’t know if this clears anything up or not. I’m, of course, happy to answer any of your questions and here is an FAQ with more information that we wrote in 2012: http://intervarsityatvanderbilt.wordpress.com/faq/.
On her personal website, THW writes a post offering advice to people who have asked what they can do next about the issue? Excerpt:
Learn about the role of creeds and think well about pluralism. If I could have had 500 more words, I’d have written more about the role of creeds and more about the need for Christians to recover a language of and vision for pluralism and to lead in seeking pluralism, not just for believers but for all religious and non-religious minorities. To that end, I’d point you to this little gem, an On Being podcast where Krista Tippet discusses the role of creeds with the late Jarislav Pelikan (and they also touch on pluralism). And I would recommend this article by John D. Inazu who says much of what I’d want to say about pluralism (but does a better job than I could). I mostly want to say what he says so very well here:
Pluralism does not entail relativism. Living well in a pluralist world does not mean a never-ending openness to any possible claim. Every one of us holds deeply entrenched beliefs that others find unpersuasive, inconsistent, or downright loopy. More pointed, every one of us holds beliefs that others find morally reprehensible. Pluralism does not impose the fiction of assuming that all ideas are equally valid or morally benign. It does mean respecting people, aiming for fair discussion, and allowing for the right to differ about serious matters…
The argument for pluralism and the aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience are fully consistent with a faithful Christian witness. And in this age, they are also far likelier to resonate than arguments for religious exceptionalism. The claim of religious exceptionalism is that only believers should benefit from special protections, and often at the cost of those who don’t share their faith commitments. The claim of pluralism is that all members of society should benefit from its protections.
… on Matthew Sitman’s account, I mean. Here is the latest from his side in our friendly exchange over the Benedict Option. I appreciate Matthew’s tone, and the way he has made it possible for us to differ over these things civilly and respectfully. More of this, everybody! In my last installment, I told Matthew that it was not at all clear to me from his point of view what Christianity is for — that is, what it means to accomplish.
In his response, he says that he simply doesn’t feel the hostility to modernity, or the alienation from it, that many traditional Christians do. The world is always getting better, he says, and always getting worse. He says that even though he differs strongly from traditional Christians on the moral character of gay relationships, even traditionalists like me would agree that it’s a good thing that gay people aren’t treated harshly anymore, that those abuses are rapidly becoming things of the past. He’s right about that. We can agree that modernity is not uniformly bad, and that even out of decline (e.g., the move away from the Christian standard of sexual morality; I see it as decline), good things can come about, like a more humane standard for treating gays.
Here’s where Matthew loses me:
The word that I used to describe my approach to these matters is hopeful, and Rod wonders at my use of that term, at least with regard to Christianity’s place in the modern world. I’ve gone on at length – perhaps too long – explaining how I think about modern life because I believe it goes some way toward suggesting an answer. Living hopefully, in light of this, amounts to patiently, humbly sifting through the complexity I described. It means trying to see the truths revealed by modern life as well as working to restrain it’s excesses and problems. And I’m not sure Christians can best do this by withdrawing from the mainstream, rather than critically engaging it.
When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate. To see the good in modern life is not to deny the need for real, costly love in the world, a love that reaches out to the poor and the lonely and the marginalized, a love that looks with compassion on all who suffer and struggle. What is Christianity for? To teach us how to do that, which sounds awfully pious, I know.
That sounds great, and I can’t disagree with it. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, what does it all mean? What are the standards we use to “sift through the complexity”? How are we to discern between the “truths” revealed by modernity, and its “problems and excesses”? When we “reach out” to “the poor and the lonely and the marginalized,” what do we have to say to them? What do we have to say to them that’s any different from what a compassionate nonbeliever would say to them?
These are not ancillary questions; they are at the heart of the disagreement. If Christianity teaches us to love, well, what do we mean by love? Caritas — charity — is a love in which we connect love of others to our love of God. Who is God, and what does He want from us? Does the Bible tell us so? How can we tell?
If we don’t have answers to those questions, our Christianity is going to dissolve over time, because there is no real core. It’s well-meaning, but awfully vague, and therefore easily assimilated into the broader culture. I don’t at all doubt Matthew’s goodwill and sincerity, but I don’t see what makes Christianity in his view any different from secular idealism.
Let me use a different example, one that affects conservative US Christians. I heard this from a conservative Evangelical friend of mine yesterday. He is a moral, theological, and political conservative preparing for seminary studies. He agrees fully with me and with traditional Christianity on the matter of sex and sexuality. But he predicted that Evangelical Christianity is going to face a terrible crisis before much longer over the question of wealth. He said that many Evangelical congregations more or less endorse Christian orthodoxy on matters of sexual morality, but live as if the Bible’s clear, stern warnings on the corrupting power of wealth don’t exist. It’s a huge blind spot, he said, and not just among the prosperity gospellers (he said Osteen is terrible, but the black church is even worse). It’s true in mainstream suburban Evangelical churches, whose witness to the Gospel’s teachings on wealth is bad to non-existent.
I don’t know about this from personal observation; I’m only repeating what my friend, a very serious and thoughtful conservative Evangelical, is saying. (He very much admires Pope Francis on this point, by the way.)
If conservatives decide that modernity has demonstrated to us that what Jesus and St. Paul had to say about wealth doesn’t really apply to us (after all, how could first-century Palestinian Jews have known about capitalism?), they they have to jettison so much of the authority of Scripture and tradition that they hollow out the entire thing. Similarly with progressive Christians and their understanding of Christian sexual morality. If your Christian faith doesn’t put you in conflict with the world at some point, and force you to choose between the values of this world and the values of Christianity, what kind of faith do you have, anyway? It’s a question every Christian must ask of himself all the time, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But if we don’t have any objective standards by which to judge where and how we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, standards to which we must be accountable, and which stand in judgment of ourselves, pretty soon we devolve into what the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described as:
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.
That formulation appeared in Niebuhr’s 1937 classic, The Kingdom Of God In America, tracing the history of Protestantism in this country. American Protestantism was at that time at the apogee of its cultural power, but Niebuhr feared that it had become too sedate and accommodating of the broader culture, and was fast losing its prophetic qualities. Now, of course, Mainline Protestantism has largely collapsed, in large part because it became hard to distinguish it from the culture. To the extent that Evangelicalism, Catholicism, or any other form of Christianity surrenders to the culture, it too will collapse. As my Evangelical friend indicates, surrendering to the culture does not simply mean accepting the Zeitgeist’s judgment on sex and sexuality. If the younger generations look to the churches — liberal and conservative both — and see nothing much different from what they see elsewhere, they will rightly wonder, “Why bother?” Wouldn’t you? If being a Christian means nothing more than being a respectable conformist — conforming to a suburban conservative culture, to a liberal urban culture, or anything else — then why be a Christian at all? To comfort ourselves psychologically? Is that all there is?
About the systematic rape and sexual abuse of 1,400 — that’s one thousand four hundred — girls in a single English city by groups of men, The New York Times (of all places!) doesn’t mince words in talking about who did this, and to whom they did it:
The vast majority of perpetrators have been identified as South Asian and most victims were young white girls, adding to the complexity of the case. Some officials appeared to believe that social workers pointing to a pattern of sexual exploitation were exaggerating, while others reportedly worried about being accused of racism if they spoke out. The report accused officials of ignoring “a politically inconvenient truth” in turning a blind eye to men of Pakistani heritage grooming vulnerable white girls for sex.
Some officials were apparently ordered by their managers to withhold information on the ethnic origin of the abusers, the report said. As a result, no contact was made with local Pakistani leaders for help in identifying gangs that continued to assault and abduct teenagers.
It beggars belief how sick and corrupt so many English people have become. My God, you let men rape and torture your daughters, but don’t dare say anything because somebody, somewhere, might call you a racist, or a fellow traveler with the BNP?
Council and other officials sometimes thought youth workers were exaggerating the exploitation problem. Sometimes they were afraid of being accused of racism if they talked openly about the perpetrators in the town mostly being Pakistani taxi drivers.
Jahangir Akhtar, the former deputy leader of the council, is accused in the report of naivety and potentially “ignoring a politically inconvenient truth” by insisting there was not a deep-rooted problem of Pakistani-heritage perpetrators targeting young white girls. Police told the inquiry that some influential Pakistani councillors in Rotherham acted as barriers to communication on grooming issues.
A mortgage adviser who drove a BMW and owned several properties promised to treat a 13-year old “like a princess”. Another man pulled the hair of a 13-year old and called her a “white bitch” when she tried to reject his attempt to strip her.
Straight-up, violent, sexist racism. But the Rotherham police and politicians turned a blind eye.
It’s not only reverse-racist political correctness at fault. If you read the entire report, you see a bureaucracy rife with dysfunction. A crude, sexist, macho culture within the police force is partially to blame. Disgusting men.
Over 1,400 female children treated like animals, by animals. And aside from the Council leader who voluntarily resigned yesterday, not one of the people responsible for this moral outrage will be punished. Not one.
‘I didn’t want to appear racist’ is truly the ‘I was only obeying orders’ of our time.
… Political correctness was supposed to make us nicer, but in reality it just makes people stupider. As anyone who has done any sort of online test will tell you, much of human intelligence comes down to pattern recognition; the whole purpose of political correctness is to stop us noticing patterns even when they stare us in the face.
British progressives, let’s not hear another word about how the sacrosanct nature of the Catholic Church contributed to the sexual exploitation of children by priests until you face up to the fact that the values of political correctness on the matter of race and ethnicity contributed to the sexual exploitation of children by these Pakistanis. Catholicism doesn’t “cause” clerical sexual abuse any more than anti-racism “causes” Pakistanis sex gangs to rape children. But a big part of the meaning of Rotherham is that Rotherham authorities were willing to sacrifice the humanity of at least 1,400 little girls to the god of political correctness.
And you watch: some progressives are even now worrying more about people thinking the Wrong Thing about Pakistani men than they are about these children, their rapists, the potential anti-white race hatred of the children’s rapists, and how the authorities failed those children.
Here is the beginning of Canto 27, in Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation:
“To the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,
glory,” cried all the souls of Paradise,
and I became drunk on the sweetness of their song.
It seemed to me I saw the universe
smile, so that my drunkenness
came now through hearing and through sight.
O happiness! O joy beyond description!
O life fulfilled in love and peace!
O riches held in store, exempt from craving!
I don’t speak Italian, but here is the third tercet, in the original:
O gioia! oh ineffabile allegrezza!
oh vita intègra d’amore e di pace!
oh sanza brama sicura ricchezza!
Say it out loud, if you know how to pronounce Italian (I do). The Italian syllables take flight in ecstasy in a way the English translation simply cannot. I mean that as no slight on the translators. It’s just hard to convey the sense of it. Here is a clip I found on YouTube of an Italian actor reciting this canto. He lays it on a little thick, but then again, the pilgrim is in rapture as he beholds this sight. This tercet begins at 38 seconds. If I had more time, I would learn Italian, just so I could read Dante in the original.
Listen to the beauty in these words, because very quickly this canto turns from exaltation to some of the sternest and most lacerating language in the entire poem. We have not heard talk quite like this since the Inferno. Dante meets St. Peter, who is enraged over the sitting pontiff’s defilement of the Petrine office. Here is the first pope’s pronouncement on Boniface VIII:
“He who on earth usurps my place,
my place, my place, which in the eyes
of God’s own Son is vacant,
“has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth,
so that the Evil One, who fell from here above,
takes satisfaction there below.”
The poet has St. Peter declare Boniface an antipope and servant of Satan. And the saint speaks for God Almighty in this poem. The entire sky of heaven turns red at these words, and the pilgrim says that even “the Omnipotent felt pain.” So great is God’s sorrow over the corruption of the papacy that even He, all-powerful, hurts.
And St. Peter, who was martyred in Rome, as were his immediate successors, and other early popes (which the saint will name below) is just getting started:
“The Bride of Christ was not nurtured with my blood –
nor that of Linus and of Cletus –
to serve the cause of gaining gold.
On and on he goes, like a prophet in the desert, crying out to heaven for justice. Here St. Peter lays into the bishops:
“Ravenous wolves in shepherds’ clothing
can be seen, from here above, in every pasture.
O God our defender, why do you not act?…
St. Peter charges Dante to return to earth and tell the bishops what he has said. What I find so fascinating about Dante the poet is that he was able to excoriate the corrupt churchmen, most especially Boniface, in maximalist terms — but did not lose his faith in God, in Catholic Christianity, or in the office of the papacy, of which he was a stout defender. Recall that it was Boniface’s political meddling that helped destroy Dante’s beloved Florence, and send him into exile. I wonder if any Roman Catholic of Dante’s stature spoke this way about the papacy and the institutional Church from the time of this poem (early 14th century) until the Reformation.
Canto 27 quickly moves past the furious St. Peter, as Dante and Beatrice rise out of the heaven of the fixed stars. Dante looks down again from the heights of the heavens, and sees Earth:
… on the one side I could see, beyond Gades,
the mad track of Ulysses, on the other, nearly
to the shore where Europa made sweet burden of herself.
It’s easy to miss the importance of these references. Ulysses, the villain of Inferno 26, is the figure in the poem who haunts Dante, no doubt because Dante fears that he could become like him. Ulysses was the prideful explorer who traduced all boundaries following his curiosity, and killed himself and his crew in his mad hubris. Ulysses sailed off the western edge of the known world, and the rape of Europa (by Jupiter) occurred at the eastern edge. In this tercet, Dante says, essentially, that he beholds the entire world. Giuseppe Mazzotta says:
[W]e can thus add an erotic transgression to Ulysses’ intellectual transgression, as if the two are once again intertwined. In Dante’s vision, knowledge and desire really have to coincide. He’s coming to the point where the beautiful and the good are one, the point where all of the great distinctions that we have been pursuing have to converge.
At this point, the pilgrim Dante enters the world of metaphysics, or what exists beyond the material world. I am not remotely qualified to explain the fullness of the vision the poet sets down here, and I don’t want to mislead you or to embarrass myself by trying. I told my wife today that the higher we go into Paradiso, the more it feels like climbing a sheer vertical summit of a mountain. I find this poetry both mystifying and enrapturing, and I can’t quite explain why it has the sort of hold on me that it does. I’ll pass on to you what I think I know about this section of the poem, and tell you how and why it mattered to me as a lay reader of Dante. My understanding is greatly informed by Dante scholars, including Herzman, Cook, Williams, Mazzotta, Ciardi, Moevs, and others.
To understand what Dante is talking about here, you have to know something about medieval cosmology, which was Ptolemaic. Earth is at the center of concentric circles, the outermost of which is the Primum Mobile, or “first moved,” which forms the boundary between Creation, which exists in time, and the Empyrean, which is heaven, the realm of the Eternal. In Dante’s vision, the cosmos is a book that unrolls like a scroll. Mazzotta says that in Dante, “the physical universe consists of spirals, one following the other.” The point to consider here is that the entire cosmos is constructed according to geometric patterns and hierarchies, all of which are meant to exist in harmonious relation to each other.
The Primum Mobile sets all the other spheres into motion. It is where Time began. The poet tells us that Time is like a tree; the flowerpot is the Primum Mobile, the roots are in Eternity, and Time appears to us below as leaves that we expect to fall, hence our experience of Time as linear, which it really isn’t. Christian Moevs explains that Time as a tree growing out of a flowerpot is a metaphor meant to express that for us, the passage of time — the rising and the setting of the sun, as first given to us in Genesis — is an effect generated by roots set deeply into the ground of Being. For Dante, if the Primum Mobile does not move, then nothing in the physical universe moves, and we have no life. We are frozen, dead.
The use of an organic metaphor is vitally important here. Dante is telling us that the passage of Time, and the motion of all things, is the way through which the love of God passes from the realm of Eternity, or Spirit, into the realm of temporality, of matter. Moevs quotes a scholar saying, “Time, therefore, is infinitely more than a mere succession of corporeal movements. It is the procession of the Light and Love of Eternity into the temporal life of man.” In Dantean cosmology, the Primum Mobile is the bridge between the material world, in which change is constant, and the mind of God, which is eternal and unchanging.
Note well that in Dante, the material world is not strictly separate from the spiritual world. Rather, the material world is a projection of the spiritual world, which is to say, of the mind of God. Moevs says that for Dante, drawing on Aristotle’s physics, the Primum Mobile is the essence of all Creation: matter existing space and time. The Primum Mobile is the barrier through which the transcendent and eternal God passes his energies through to creation, and receives love back. The Primum Mobile is, in other words, Jacob’s Ladder, the bridge between earth and heaven.
Does the fact that we now know that the Ptolemaic universe does not exist, and that there is no such thing as the Primum Mobile, render all of this as nonsense? Not at all. We can see all this as a poetic construct to help us understand by analogy the metaphysical relationship between the Eternal God and His creation. God is both transcendent of Creation and immanent in Creation. His essence exists prior to our existence; indeed, we are contingent on Him. As Moevs puts it, in Dantean metaphysics, the brain depends on the mind, not the mind on the brain. There is an organic, living, and very real relationship between all created things and the eternal God. The concept of the Primum Mobile explains why Creation is good, and how God sustains us in it. He is not like a puppetmaster manipulating inert matter from the outside. He is the life-force making us grow from within, even though we cannot see the roots.
Beatrice continues the Nature metaphors:
“O greed, it is you who plunge all mortals
so deep into your depths that not one has the power
to life his eyes above your waves!
“The will of man bursts into blossom
but the never-ceasing rain reduces
the ripening plums to blighted rot.
“Loyalty and innocence are found
in little children only. Then, before
their cheeks are bearded, both are fled.”
That’s the Hollander translation. I find the Musa version is more graspable:
O Greed, so quick to plunge the human race
into your depths that no man has the strength
to keep his head above your raging waters!
The blossom of man’s will is always good,
but then the drenchings of incessant rain
turn sound plums into weak and rotten ones.
Only in little children can we find
true innocence and faith, and both are gone
before their cheeks show the first sign of hair.
What she means in these lines, and in the ones that follow, is that with the passage of time, ungoverned desire corrupts us. Children observe the fast days, but when they grow up, they shove food into their gobs whenever they like. Children love and obey their mothers, but when they grow up, they may just as well like to see her dead and buried. Remember that in Dante, the root of all sin is disordered desire: loving the wrong things, or loving the right things too much or too little. Beatrice is telling us that giving ourselves over to the passions, by accepting no principle of limitation other than the limits of our own desires, is how we become blind, how we make our lives out of balance, and how we, finally, become strangers to ourselves, to others, and to God.
Christ tells us that if we hope to find salvation, we must become like little children. Seen from the vantage point of Canto 27, this indicates that one who would be saved is one who would, in humility, conform his thinking and behavior to the divinely ordained order present throughout creation — an order that children both perceive and receive. But we adults think of ourselves as our own masters, and of ourselves as the masters of creation. It is a delusion, and we can do nothing but suffer, and cause suffering, as long as we place our own desires above the moral order given to us by God. Remember Marco the Lombard in Purgatorio XVI, when he gives these words to the pilgrim Dante:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung
to a groan, and then began: “Brother,
the world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause
only to the heavens, as though they drew
all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,
and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.”
The blindness of the world is the blindness of men caught in a torrent of passion that drowns — that is, corrupts — their sight. Only the innocent see clearly, and only through humility, and the right ordering of the passions, can a mature man regain a measure of innocence. The choice is our own. God has ordained natural paths, but He has also given us free will, which is to say, the liberty to reject the natural paths. What we are not free to do is to lie to ourselves, and to say that things cannot be any other way. This is the lie that damns.
One more thing. In thinking of the relationships this canto draws among order, time, guilt, and innocence, I thought of the famous line from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The poem speaks of a world spiraling out of control, because “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” — that is, men do not recognize any master other than their own passions. I do not know much about Yeats, but I know that he was a traditionalist who saw in ritual and ceremony a fundamental ordering of the world. If you would understand the wisdom Beatrice is teaching in this canto from a more contemporary perspective, look at Yeats’s beautiful and profound poem A Prayer For My Daughter, especially these parts:
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
Yeats was not a Christian, but he is saying here that to renounce passion is to make grace possible, and that if you achieve inner order, grace (symbolized by a linnet, which is a songbird) is possible, and you become united to heaven (not a Christian heaven, understand, but rather that your desires will be purified). Yeats believed that order in one’s soul and in society discipline the passions and drive out hatred and destructive passions. And he believed that custom and ceremony were the organic means through which the inner order is made manifest and tangible. Ceremony and ritual mark time reverently, in right order, versus the pounding drums of passion, which Yeats, early in the poem, posits as a threat to his baby daughter’s safety.
In The Second Coming, all the ceremonies of innocence — the old customs that gave life grace, right order, and meaning — were drowned in a tide of blood, the outpouring of the passions, chief among them wrath. In this “prayer” for his daughter, Yeats wishes for her to have a life that bears fruit, one that ripens, not rots. Only by disciplining the passions, cultivating virtue, and living by measure, is that possible for her. And so too for us.
You can live by the Tao, the Way, and know peace and harmony. Or not. The choice is yours. Is ours.
The president today said he was going to fix the Veterans Administration. Well, hurry up. My dad, a 79-year-old veteran, has been waiting a long time to get his medications from the VA, which is running very late in refilling a prescription he called in a long time ago (I know this, because I help him manage his meds). On some of these medications, he can’t get a refill without a VA doctor seeing him. He called and called trying to get an appointment, and finally got through last week. They gave him an appointment — October 30! Many of his prescriptions will have long since run out by then.
I’ve already gotten involved to get his private doctor to prescribe meds to fill in the gap, and thank goodness he has the financial resources to pay for these pills. What about vets who don’t? What about those vets who don’t have someone to advocate for them?
I was talking with him this afternoon about all this, and he said he’d like me to take him to the October 30 appointment, so I can see how swamped the VA clinic is. “They don’t have enough doctors,” he said.
It’s a disgrace that veterans are treated so shabbily.
Around 1,400 children were sexually exploited in one town over a 16-year period, a damning report has said.
The report on events in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, between 1997 and 2013 found that in more than a third of these cases the youngsters were already known to agencies.
It said there had been “blatant” collective failures by Rotherham council’s leadership.
“Sexually exploited” in this case means, according to the official report, ”children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally-violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.”
And they were put into sexual slavery around the north of England. How did the sex-slavers get away with it for so long? According to the official investigator, senior police officials refused to believe the victims. And worse. Get this:
The report said: “By far the majority of perpetrators were described as ‘Asian’ by victims.”
But, she said, councillors seemed to think is was a one-off problem which they hoped would go away and “several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist”.
She said: “Others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so.”
“Asian” here means Pakistani. The report says that authorities will likely never learn how many children were raped and sexually exploited by the gang; their estimate, they figure, is “conservative.” An estimated 1,600 children in a single town!
The head of the local council resigned in disgrace in the wake of the findings, but that’s as far as it goes. No council officers will face disciplinary action.
You think it’s just the Catholic Church? You are wrong.
Here is a link to the official independent commission report. Excerpts from it:
In her 2006 report, she stated that ‘it is believed by a number of workers that one of the difficulties that prevent this issue [CSE] being dealt with effectively is the ethnicity of the main perpetrators’.
11.6 She also reported in 2006 that young people in Rotherham believed at that time that the Police dared not act against Asian youths for fear of allegations of racism. This perception was echoed at the present time by some young people we met during the Inquiry, but was not supported by specific examples.
11.7 Several people interviewed expressed the general view that ethnic considerations had influenced the policy response of the Council and the Police, rather than in individual cases. One example was given by the Risky Business project Manager (1997- 2012) who reported that she was told not to refer to the ethnic origins of perpetrators when carrying out training. Other staff in children’s social care said that when writing reports on CSE cases, they were advised by their managers to be cautious about referring to the ethnicity of the perpetrators.
The UK Muslim Women’s Network produced a report on CSE in September 2013 which drew on 35 case studies of women from across the UK who were victims, the majority of whom were Muslim. It highlighted that Asian girls were being sexually exploited where authorities were failing to identify or support them. They were most vulnerable to men from their own communities who manipulated cultural norms to prevent them from reporting their abuse. It described how this abuse was being carried out. ‘Offending behaviour mostly involved men operating in groups . . . The victim was being passed around and prostituted amongst many other men. Our research also showed that complex grooming ‘hierarchies’ were at play. The physical abuse included oral, anal and vaginal rape; role play; insertion of objects into the vagina; severe beatings; burning with cigarettes; tying down; enacting rape that included ripping clothes off and sexual activity over the webcam.’ This description mirrors the abuse committed by Pakistani-heritage perpetrators on white girls in Rotherham.
The report also quotes an unidentified “senior officer” of the local police force as saying local (male) Muslim religious leaders were less than helpful in identifying men within their community who were engaged or believed to be engaged in this sort of thing.
Again: you think it’s just the Catholic Church? The Rotherham Council. The BBC with Jimmy Savile. In-groups protect their own. People who don’t want to see evil and act against it will come up with any reason at all — liberal, conservative, anything — to avoid being courageous and just.
Alan Jacobs has an interesting reflection on the problematic public square represented by the comments sections of online articles. He has an extraordinary story about the Cambridge don Mary Beard, and the misogynistic abuse to which she was subject to from a male commenter. You have to read Alan’s post to discover the extraordinary grace with which she handled it. In any event, Alan says that the way women are routinely treated in online forums where their attackers get to be anonymous puts the lie to the idea that we have permanently put sexism behind us. Or, I would say, any other kind of ism.
Here’s a part of Alan’s blog that especially interests me: his remarks on the puzzling habit many online commenters have of insisting that the person they’re criticizing is arguing in bad faith, or holds positions that they don’t actually hold:
The Erickson case is instructive in this regard: Erickson is telling people that certain positions they would like to hold together may not be perfectly compatible with one another. It is difficult to overstate how passionately many people hate being told that, because if it is true, then they may have to make very difficult choices. So when you present them with such complexities, they not only become agitated but determine to believe that you hold positions you don’t hold — simplistic positions that they can (or feel they can) easily refute.
So, for example, take the comments on this post of Rod’s about what he calls the Benedict Option, and Rod’s responses to them. You see person after person insisting that the Benedict Option involves a frightened and complete withdrawal from society into a tiny isolated community of the same-minded — no matter how many times Rod says that that’s not what he’s talking about, and not what the communities is invokes do. Again and again (not just in this post but in many he has written on the subject) he saysThat’s not what I wrote — and again and again they persist in attributing to him simplistic and extreme claims. Why? Because those are the claims they can (or think they can) refute.
Just through linking to the post on Twitter I got the same kinds of comments: people attributing to Rod views he has never held. I’ve started calling this particular kind of response Christian Derangement Syndrome: a kind of cognitive lock-up that occurs whenever people are confronted with the possibility that being a Christian might exact from them a substantial cost. Their peace of mind — what Reinhold Niebuhr called their “easy conscience” — much be defended against anyone who would agitate it. So agitators have to be portrayed as extremists who hold bizarre and evidently indefensible views.
Read the entire post. Alan says that this kind of thing is even more frustrating than a straightforwardly malicious post, because you can ignore the nasties. What’s more difficult to deal with are people who insist, no matter how many times you explain it, that you believe something that you do not in fact believe, or have argued for. It’s like the old joke about the man who looks for his lost car keys under the streetlight. A passerby asks him why he’s searching there, when he might have lost them anywhere on the block. Says the man, “Because this is where the light is.”
Tish Harrison Warren thought she was the “right” kind of Evangelical, in the eyes of Vanderbilt University, her college campus:
I’m not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement.
We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.
Being a Christian made me somewhat weird in my urban, progressive context, but despite some clear differences, I held a lot in common with unbelieving friends. We could disagree about truth, spirituality, and morality, and remain on the best of terms. The failures of the church often made me more uncomfortable than those in the broader culture.
But Vanderbilt kicked her Christian organization, the Graduate Christian Fellowship, off of campus. Why? Because they wouldn’t drop the requirement that people who lead the group actually endorse the group’s constitutive principles. That is, they expected their leaders to agree with the group’s statement of doctrine and purpose.
That wasn’t good enough for Vanderbilt.
Warren thought that there must be some mistake, that when she met with Vanderbilt’s administrators, they would see that the GCF is a moderate Evangelical group that seeks to engage with others on campus. She was wrong:
But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used—a lot—specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”
Feeling battered, I talked with my InterVarsity supervisor. He responded with a wry smile, “But we’re moderates!” We thought we were nuanced and reasonable. The university seemed to think of us as a threat.
For me, it was revolutionary, a reorientation of my place in the university and in culture.
I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.
The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.
That’s all that mattered to the liberals who run Vandy. At the end of the spring semester, she says, 14 on-campus religious organizations were de-recognized by the university. Vanderbilt will tolerate Christians, but only tame ones.
Read the whole thing. Harrison, who is now an Anglican priest, says that half the problem is that Vanderbilt wants to discriminate radically against religious organizations, but wants to pretend it’s not doing so.
As I was reading this, I thought, “Who needs the university’s permission to meet as a Christian organization, and to do what Christians do?” Meet, do your thing, and be very public about it. Dare them to shut you down. If I were an undergraduate, I would be more attracted to an organization the campus authorities thought so dangerous that it ought to be shut down. Just what is it about orthodox Christianity that frightens Vanderbilt’s administrators so? Force the question.
By the end of the story, it seems that that’s exactly what some of the Christians on campus are doing. Good for them. Interestingly, when you look at the list of religious student groups still officially recognized by the university, there are exactly three: the Muslim Student Association, Chabad, and Zion’s Inspiration, a black Bible study group. I find it impossible to believe that the MSA, which is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood (see Husain Haqqani on that point) and the Chabad Lubavitch ultra-orthodox Jews, would be willing to sign off on the university’s requirement (and if not, G-d bless them for it). I’m willing to bet the truth is that Vanderbilt’s administrators lack the spine to tell Muslims, Jews, and black Christians to comply or get off the campus. I could be wrong. Anybody know? If they signed the statement, why did they? How could they do it with integrity?
Anyway, as a father who has children who will soon be of college age, it’s important to know that Vanderbilt has become a place that is anti-Christian.
UPDATE: Since posting it this morning, several of you have demonstrated that there are far more religious, especially Christian, groups on campus than I was able to find in the official Vandy website that I checked. I’m not sure what accounts for the discrepancy, but I’m pleased to correct my earlier error. Here’s the more complete list. If you are a student or teacher at Vanderbilt, and are involved with any of these groups, tell me how your organization justified signing the university’s pledge.
Could you imagine Kent State happening today, with campus police forces increasingly getting military-grade equipment? You should. Because they are. Politico reports:
Florida International University campus police have military-grade rifles. Ohio State has a Mine Resistant Ambush Protection vehicle. And Florida State has a brand new Army Humvee. These Pentagon hand-me-downs are just a few examples of the militarization of local police that has extended to college campuses — raising fresh questions about exactly why police departments would need such defense-grade hardware.
The Defense Department has been redistributing surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies since the early ’90s. But the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri — intensified by local cops’ use of tanks and gas masks and their participation in the federal program — prompted President Barack Obama on Saturday to order a review of its appropriateness.
Most items distributed through the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office go to state and municipal government agencies. But a recent Freedom of Information Act request by MuckRock revealed that more than 100 college campuses with sworn-in police departments also participate in the 1033 program as of last December.
Erin Manning sent along this very funny compare-and-contrast column pitting Back To School in the 1970s with Back To School in 2014. I don’t know how accurate the contemporary BTS is, but the Seventies one made me laugh out loud. I lived that! My bologna had a first name, and it was O-S-C-A-R. Here’s a taste of BTS Seventies style:
1. Take the kids downtown to go shopping at Sears for back to school clothes the last week of August. Get everyone a new pair of corduroys and a striped tee shirt. Buy the boys a pair of dungarees and the girls a pair of culottes. No, Jennifer, you can’t have that orange and red poncho. Promise you will crochet her a better one with much more fringe. Get the girls a package of that rainbow, fuzzy yarn they like in their hair. You are done. You have spent a total of $43.00. Now take everyone to the Woolworth’s lunch counter for grilled cheeses and chocolate milk.
And here is a taste of what the author says is BTS today:
1. Take five deep breaths and say a positive affirmation. School begins in two weeks. It is the middle of July. Don’t worry, you still have time to order BPA-free bento boxes and authentic Indian tiffins made with special stainless steel that did not involve any child-labor, sweat shops or animal cruelty. Remember, you have Amazon Prime. You can get the free two day shipping and you will have plenty of time to read reviews and make this very important decision because your kids are in summer “camp” which is actually just another word for school in the summer because OH MY GOD you were so tired that day you had to have them home all day with you and you couldn’t go to your restorative flow class at yoga. And that was also the day something went terribly wrong with the homemade glitter cloud dough recipe that was supposed to go in their sensory bin and the very same day that they were out of soy milk at Starbucks and you had to immediately email corporate to let them know that duh, they should actually be selling almond milk and/ or coconut milk. Get with it Starbucks. Soy is so 90s. Ugh, but you digress. The tiffin. The bento boxes…
Read the whole thing. Really funny stuff. I bet you homeschooling moms can come up with a pretty funny Back To Homeschool scenario. Let’s hear it.
By the way, today is my son Matthew’s first day of school at LSU. He’s auditing a modern Russian history class. I’m going to be with him, so I can help him work through it. Here is how you know he won’t be the kind of student his dad was: he’s already read all the books for his class. This kid loves him some modern Russian history. I gave him a copy of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty for Christmas last year, and he read it in a single day. I’m going to be away from the keys from about 9 am till early afternoon. I love doing this kind of thing with Matt. It’s been for me, the best thing about homeschooling.