Rod Dreher

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Writing And Fatigue

All, just a short note to apologize for the lack of activity on the blog today. Tuesdays are the busiest day for our homeschooling family this year. Matt and I are in an LSU Russian history class in the morning, and I take him in the afternoon to his math class. So I’m in the road and away from wifi most of the day. Yesterday, as you know, I spent much of the day on the road to and from a funeral home. Today when I made it back from Baton Rouge, I crashed hard, and slept for hours. Being on a no-grains diet has made a dramatic difference in my energy levels and in strengthening my immune system against Epstein-Barr (mono), but it has not been a miracle cure.

I should tell you too that yesterday, I shipped to the publisher a 91,000-word manuscript of a writing project I have been collaborating with a friend on for most of this year, and which I’ll have more to say about later. The interviews happened in the late winter, spring and summer, but the writing took place in a marathon over the last ten weeks. I’m pleased with how it came out, but man, am I tired and unfocused just now.

All of which is to say a) sorry for slacking off on the content here in the past few days, and b) I am looking so very, very forward to going to Florence and Ravenna next month. Of course I’m going to blog from there, because that’s what I do, and can’t help myself. Added bonus: I will actually meet and dine with the great James C.!

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Back To Iraq

Here we go:

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out.


When Iraqi or Kurdish forces are trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties.

In those cases, the general said, he might recommend to the president that the United States send Special Operations troops to provide what he called “close combat advising,” essentially working alongside Iraqi commanders in the field and helping them direct troops to targets.

Steve Chapman says we can’t beat them. Excerpt:

The United States is not incapable of fighting reasonably successful wars. It did so in the 1991 Iraq war, the 1999 Kosovo war and the 1989 invasion of Panama. In each case, we had a well-defined adversary in the form of a government, a limited goal and a clear path to the exit.

We generally fail, though, when we undertake open-ended efforts to stamp out radical insurgents in societies alien to ours. We lack the knowledge, the resources, the compelling interest and the staying power to vanquish those groups.

The Islamic State is vulnerable to its local enemies—which include nearly every country in the region. But that doesn’t mean it can be destroyed by us. In fact, it stands to benefit from one thing at which both Obama and Bush have proved adept: creating enemies faster than we can kill them.

We don’t know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State. So chances are we’ll have to settle for the other kind.

Ahmad Salih Khalidi writes that the US is fooling itself on how best to fight ISIS. He says we have to make a deal with Assad. Excerpt:

The alleged moderates have never put together a convincing national program or offered a viable alternative to Mr. Assad. The truth is that there are no “armed moderates” (or “moderate terrorists”) in the Arab world — and precious few beyond. The genuine “moderates” won’t take up arms, and those who do are not truly moderates.

The suggestion in Washington and Brussels that a “Sunni coalition,” made up of Arab states and Turkey, can deal with ISIS is equally fatuous. Neither has any real credibility among the Sunni constituencies attracted to Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations; indeed, these countries are their enemies.

In many ways, the current struggle among the Arab gulf kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) and the various iterations of violent jihadism is a family fight, a struggle for power and legitimacy within Wahhabist, salafist and other interpretations of Islam. So by insisting on a Sunni coalition, the West will only appear to be joining a gulf-led war on the Shiites of Iraq, Syria and Iran. (It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon, nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.)

Supporting the Syrian “moderates” would make some military sense only if it would make any difference on the ground. But in the absence of any large-scale Western or regional commitment to deploy troops, the only real “boots on the ground” capable of destroying ISIS are the Syrian Army and its local allies, including Hezbollah.

A year ago, Terry Mattingly wrote a column about the choice that Syria’s Christians faced as their holy places were being destroyed by rebels. He referenced a speech the Antiochian Orthodox Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kansas, gave to his people on September 8 of that year, as President Obama was trying to decide whether or not to launch air strikes against the Syrian government. From that speech:

We ask your prayers first and foremost for our president. That God might speak as we say in the liturgy “good things to his heart. That God might speak reasonableness and peace to the heart of our president. That he might speak peace to the heart of our elected officials, that they indeed become our representatives, that they speak the voice of the people. God speaks through his people, not through a congressman alone, or a president alone. He speaks through his people. May God hear our prayer for our armed forces. Men and women who sit on the edges of their seats to know whether they will be going to war or not. And don’t believe this “no boots on the ground.” It’s impossible. We’ve heard the promise many times. May God give strength to the parents. The spouses first and foremost of those soldiers, and their children, and their parents and their families, that he might grant them grace during these next coming days to prepare for the tension that must be laid upon them. And God be with the people of Syria. All of them, whether they’re Muslim, they’re Druze, Christians, Orthodox and not. May he be with our Father in God (Patriarch John of Antioch) who has already lost thousands of his people, and priests and deacons and monks and nuns in the war already. Whose monasteries and churches have been occupied and many destroyed by the so-called Free Syrian Army. Whose own brother was kidnapped and still remains kidnapped, Metropolitan Paul along with Archbishop Yohanna, since April 22 by freedom fighters. Freedom fighters–people who rape women, abduct bishops, desecrate churches, open peoples’ chests and pull their beating heart out and eat it in their presence. That’s the Free Syrian Army and their allies, Al Qaeda.

Two days ago I received a call from our Metropolitan Saba Esper, who you know, he has visited here. He is the archbishop of our own Wichita diocese’s sister diocese in south Syria. He spoke by telephone, right before he called me, with Mother Belagia. Mother Belagia is the abbess of the monastery of Saint Thekla in Maalula. It’s only like a 20-30 minute drive north of Damascus. It had been occupied for 3 days (the town). The town is one of three where they still speak Aramaic–Aramaic which our Saviour spoke. The only 3 towns left in the world. The majority of the people in Maaloula are Christians–Orthodox Christians. There’s a smattering of Catholics there, and there’s also some Muslims there, and they live there in peace. The beginning of this week they were occupied by the Free Syrian Army. It turned out to be Al Qaeda, and they turned out to be Chechens–the same ones who abducted our 2 bishops. The nuns took the children there, orphan girls there of St. Thekla, and they and the nuns, many who are aging, into the caves of the village to hide for 4 days. They didn’t even go out to buy bread. The villagers didn’t leave their homes for 4 days. And if you’ve never been to the Middle East, they don’t shop like we do. They go every morning to buy their bread and food for the day. So they were locked in their homes for 4 days. Those who went out were shot, so they knew to stay in their homes. Saba called me on Wednesday. Mother Belagia, and they were ringing all the bells in the town’s churches–the Syrian Army, you know the one that we’re told is so bad. The Syrian Army finally came and drove Al Qaeda out. And what did they find? They found 2 churches in the village completely destroyed. St. Elias, which is ours, the Orthodox church in the village, and St. Rita, which is a Catholic church in the village–completely destroyed. On the inside, the icons, the holy books, everything had been desecrated. Not just ripped off the walls, but covered in urine. Real desecration by that wing of the Free Syrian Army.

God knows what the people of Syria, and by extension the people of Jordan, the people of Lebanon, the people of Turkey and the people of Iraq–because if there’s a war there’s a regional war–God knows the burden they may have to carry this week. Lighten their burden as you can. And that’s by your prayers. Have a soft heart towards the people. Wrongs were done on both sides–vicious wrongs on both sides. But as we’ve heard from some honest politicians this past week, there’s really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None. So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we’ve had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don’t know about except what they’ve shown us in this awful civil war for the past 2 and a half years.

The Free Syrian Army, you understand, the same people who desecrated those churches, are now about to be funded and trained by the United States of America. This just in:

House leaders of both parties said Tuesday they expect to pass a measure granting President Barack Obama’s request to arm and equip Syrian rebels.

“The president asked us to authorize the training of the Free Syrian Army,” House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, told reporters in Washington. “That’s what we’re going to do.”


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Rethinking the Cruz Fight

Egyptian Copt at a funeral for Christian victims of army massacre, 2011 Bora Kamel/Flickr
Egyptian Copt at a funeral for Christian victims of army massacre, 2011 Bora Kamel/Flickr

Here’s a really good, detailed piece today by Mollie Hemingway, whose reporting and commentary from the Ted Cruz debacle helped make it an issue. She was, and is, a Cruz critic on this, but she asks us all to step back from the high emotions and consider that both sides have good points. Excerpts:

Reports coming out of the In Defense of Christians Summit through its first couple of days were quite positive. The media coverage wasn’t much but the group had gotten a wide variety of Christians to participate, both globally and in the United States. The first sign of trouble came on Wednesday, when the Washington Free Beacon ran a story headlined Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.

Many people have criticized that story but let’s remember we’re trying to just look at the best parts of everyone’s arguments. And the best version of this argument is simply that it’s absolutely true that all sorts of Christians in the Middle East have aligned with all sorts of bad guys. It’s something everyone does, sure, (we went with Stalin in World War II, for example) but that’s not a blanket excuse for same.

Syrian Bashar al-Assad is a horrible tyrant. He may be keeping the Christians alive right now, but he’s still a bad guy. Assad has killed who knows how many of his people in recent years, even using chemical weapons and bombs. His forces rape and pillage. Even if he’s protecting Christians currently, he’s also known for killing them.

On the other hand:

For people focused on this issue, the over-arching concern is the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, a shrinking and threatened minority throughout the region. It’s as simple as that. These people are dying out and need help. All people of goodwill should set aside political differences and secondary concerns and focus on saving them, which was the stated goal of the conference.

If you want to talk about all the things these Christians shouldn’t be doing, people who hold to this view say, that’s fine, but the context of when to talk about it and consideration for how such conversations might disrupt the already tenuous ecumenical gathering are in order by sitting U.S. Senators.

Read the whole thing. It’s especially valuable in Mollie’s discussion of the fact that Middle Eastern Christians hold a variety of opinions on Israel, and for different reasons. She talks about how some are quietly supportive (quietly, because their lives would be in danger if their views were known), some are opposed, and some are unhinged fanatics in their hatred. I personally have talked to all three kinds of Middle Eastern Christian. As I have written here before, it was a real lesson to me on how complicated all this is to have spent about half an hour listening to two young Palestinian Christian men in Jerusalem talk in detail about how miserable their lives were under Israeli occupation, and how their options for education and professional advancement were limited by that fact — but then talk with tangible fear about how terrified they were of the prospect of living under Hamas, which would be far, far worse for Christians than Israeli rule.

Here’s an important point: The two men were willing to speak on the record, if I cared to write down their words, about how awful Israeli rule is, but under no condition would they speak on the record about Hamas. Why not? Because, they said, nothing would happen to them if they criticized Israel publicly. They would be beaten up or even killed if they publicly criticized Hamas.

Unsurprisingly, both men wanted to emigrate. They saw no future for themselves in the Holy Land.

Since I first heard of the Cruz stunt, a conversation I had in 2006 over a meal overseas with the Coptic Bishop Thomas has been at the forefront of my mind. I hadn’t brought it up because our conversation was not on the record, and the things he told me could have gotten him killed by Islamists back home in Egypt. I learned just yesterday that he repeated the same basic facts and analysis at a 2008 lecture in Washington — and went home to face calls for his trial and execution.

Here is a transcript of Bishop Thomas’s 2008 speech. Excerpts:

Just one other story to tell you about these levels, another story that was published as well in the newspapers – I’m not saying anything that’s not published anyway. This is a story that happened in El Fayoum. A young girl converted some time ago to Islam and married a man and lived with him, and then suddenly she ran away from this man. Whatever the reason was. It’s a story that was published. What would be a normal reaction for normal human beings? This girl would go to the court if she wants to divorce her husband, or this woman would go to seek psychological advisors or social advisors. She just would go back to her family to seek refuge and help. But, because this girl was a Christian, she converted, when the rumors came that this girl would return back to her village, suddenly there was an attack on all the Christian villagers in this village. Just simply because a rumor came that this girl will come back to this village, the villagers had to pay the price. Houses were destroyed, shops were robbed, and the story will not stop. Unfortunately the girl was not there. Police had to search for the girl and they found her, took her back to her husband, and she has to live with him the rest of her life. I don’t know according to what will she has to live there.
This is a glimpse of what is happening. What do you expect from a Coptic person who lives under this atmosphere? What do you think would be their reaction? Do I have to protect myself and protect my family? Do I have to open up and go and seek communication with others? I will tell you – we are not a weak church, we are not a weak people, we are a strong people and we will survive. And the love in us, the love is much stronger than hatred. And with this love we can continue and go and work and be integrated into this society and work for the goodness of this society and try to reach out to our fellow brothers and sisters who live in this country. And if the fundamentalists or those who are spoiling the minds of people do not like it, we have to work for it. And we have to find some of the moderates and work with them. We still have some moderate writers – very very very few, but still there are one or two who still can say the truth. But the majority would go for the stereotype propaganda of what the majority wants. And this is what we want to say: that even though we are facing a lot of hardship, still we are not weak because, simply, truth is strong, love is strong, hope is strong and that makes the Christians in Egypt continue. Still, we have a lot of immigration that is happening and coming to this country. We are worried about the large number of immigrants that is leaving Egypt, like all the Middle East, that the Christians are leaving this area. This is a big question mark and this is a big cry for help to let the Christians stay in their own country.

You should read the speech, which is very mild. There is a two-minute bit of Bishop Thomas’s address on YouTube, which is worth seeing and listening to so you can get a sense of how gentle this man is. In our conversation, the bishop spoke in more details about the specific incidents that Copts have to live with day in and day out. It could reduce you to tears, listening to these stories. This is the reality of life for the Christians in Egypt.

After the bishop gave his Washington talk, among the criticisms leveled against him in the Egyptian press was that he was a closet Zionist, spreading lies against Islam on behalf of the international Jewish conspiracy. In 2011, Nina Shea, who had introduced the bishop at the Washington speech, wrote about its aftermath:

In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”

The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.

Do you understand why it is so difficult for the region’s persecuted Christians to be seen siding with Israel? Bishop Thomas is a man who puts his life on the line every day to speak up for peace and justice and dignity of his persecuted people. His enemies in Egypt are powerful, and think nothing of inventing reasons to persecute him. If Bishop Thomas were to take a public position on Israel, his already extremely difficult position within Egypt would be far more difficult.

I doubt very much that Israel ever crosses Bishop Thomas’s mind; he has far more important things to worry about. The idea that he and Egypt’s Copts would be obliged to take a public position sympathizing with the state of Israel before their plight would be worthy of American concern (Cruz: “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you”) infuriated me, because it brought me back to that breakfast with Bishop Thomas. To sit across the table from a man who has seen anti-Christian persecution, sometimes savage, with his own eyes, and to learn that this is everyday life for the Christians of Egypt — well, to hear an American Christian politician expect people like him to sign their own death warrants as a condition of his solidarity is repulsive.

This is why the incident has made me so damn angry: the utter arrogance of Cruz and his followers, ignorant of what they demand of these Christian peoples who have knives at their throat. I appreciate that Mollie Hemingway can step back and examine both sides in the Cruz dispute dispassionately. Me, I’m still not over it.

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Marijuana & Mercy

I spent most of this day, the third anniversary of my sister Ruthie’s death (read about it on the Rod Dreher blog, apart from the TAC front page), driving to and from a wake for my friend Dave’s wife Alison, who died late last week from cancer. She was 42. She and Dave have a two-year-old daughter.

I discovered this morning as I was looking online for information about the funeral home where Alison’s body was that Alison had testified back in May before a Louisiana state legislative committee about the benefits of medical marijuana. Excerpt:

Louisiana laws allows patients suffering from glaucoma, chemotherapy treatments and spastic quadriplegia to receive marijuana for therapeutic use.

Alison Neustrom, a 42-year-old mother of a toddler, told the committee about her medical treatments since she was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. She said there has been weight loss and nausea.

“I ask you to consider this option. I believe people and doctors in Louisiana should have this option,” Neustrom said. “I think it’s important that those suffering not be denied the option.”

“Make the compassionate vote, the courageous vote and moral vote to pass this bill,” she pleaded.

Jacob Irving told of living with spastic quadriplegia — a condition where the muscles do not develop properly.

“It’s painful all the time,” he said.

Irving said he’s tried every pharmaceutical option. “They were not effective,” he said. “There are no other treatments available for people with cerebral palsy and spasticity. There’s nothing else but this.”

“I don’t want to be a freak my whole life. I want to be a real person,” Irving said.

What was the point of the hearing? To consider a bill that would have set up medical marijuana dispensaries and protocols, so these suffering people would not have to depend on buying pot illegally to get the relief to which they are entitled under law.

The state Attorney General was against the bill:

Prosecutors said marijuana is a controlled dangerous substance according to the federal Food and Drug Administration and its use in violation of federal law, they said.

“I’d rather study the issue and force the federal government to come to the table so our oath of office can be upheld,” said Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who added he had not read Mills’ bill.

The bill failed in committee.

I don’t understand this at all. Happily, the state does not criminalize marijuana use for medical reasons. But it does force very, very sick people to deal with criminals to get the help they need. I hope this bill comes back, and that it has Alison’s name attached to it. Alison, whose father is the sheriff of Lafayette Parish, did a lot of good for people in life; may she continue her good work here among us.

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Ruthie Leming: Gone 3 Years


It was three years ago today. From The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming:

“I’m having trouble breathing,” she rasped. “Turn my oxygen up.” Mike did, but the blood kept coming. Ruthie tried to wipe it away with tissues, but couldn’t keep up. Mike retrieved the pulse oximeter, to check the oxygen level in her blood.

“I can’t breathe!” Ruthie gasped. “I can’t breathe!”

The oximeter reading was 84 – far below the normal measure. Mike knew this was a real emergency, and phoned Tim, who was with a patient. He left a tense voicemail.

“Hey Tim, it’s Mike,” he said. “Ruthie’s having a real tough time breathing. Bleeding a lot. Her oxygen is about 84, 85. Just wanted to … see what we needed to do. Thanks.”

Ruthie choked out words conveying to Mike that she couldn’t breathe at all. “Call 911!” she rasped. Mike was alarmed before, but now he was terrified. He ran to the kitchen, made the call, and before he could get off the phone heard the fire department dispatch notice go out on his police radio. Mike darted into the living room to look in once more on Ruthie, still on the couch. She was struggling to catch her breath, drowning in her own blood. (Doctors later said that the main tumor had most likely knifed through an artery in her lung.)

Mike, panicked and feeling helpless, dashed back into the kitchen and phoned the fire station where he had just visited, to tell the rescuers that the call was for his wife, and to please, for God’s sake, hurry. He hung up, shot back to the living room, and saw the love of his life, spattered with blood and terrified. For the first time since they had begun this journey, Mike saw fear in Ruthie’s big brown eyes.

“I’m scared,” she whispered. Then Ruthie fell forward, into her husband’s arms, dead.

Since then, we’ve lost Ruthie’s two chemo buddies, Miss Joyce and Stephanie, to cancer. Today a friend of mine buries his wife, who died last week from pancreatic cancer. Like Ruthie, she was 42. She leaves behind a two-year-old daughter.

So much sorrow, so much pain. It is my hope that the story of Ruthie, and the story of everyone who meets their cancer with faith, hope, and love, inspires and strengthens those who are carrying that particular cross, or who one day will. I’m thinking this morning of Kara Tippetts, who has had to shave her head again as cancer has returned, and she begins the chemotherapy that will cause her to go bald. Kara knows that the odds are very long that she will beat cancer this time. She writes, with characteristic honesty:

It felt like an impossible day to get through. But we made it. We cried hot tears. My girlfriends stood by and watched through tears, but they showed up. They were there. And a thousand more would have come if I had asked. Just to smile at me through my tears. And in the smiling, letting me know it’s going to be okay. Somehow, it will be okay.

Shaving my head felt devastating this go around. I know what this is. I know what this means. So hot tears ran down my face as my kind friend Evan shaved my head. It hurt. Not the bald, but what the bald represents. That I will likely never again enjoy hair. It hurts. It feels so ugly. And you all are so kind to lift my spirits and tell me I’m not ugly, but today. I feel it. And it’s not a feeling a I often carry. Grace will meet me. I will learn to live with this again. But today, it’s hard. Having the kids watch gave me courage.


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Guilt-Free Abortions

Merritt Tierce wants you to know the circumstances under which she had her two (three?) abortions, and that she’s not sorry:

I have been pregnant five times. I had a son, then a daughter, and my third pregnancy ended in abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic, at a gestation of about six weeks.

I had an abortion because we were poor and I was depressed and I didn’t know who the father was. I had been having an affair. My kids were 2 and 3, and the debilitating morning sickness, which I experienced early in each of my pregnancies, made it difficult to work or care for two toddlers. I got pregnant again soon after, but miscarried. A few years later I had another abortion because the man I was seeing was emotionally abusive. I had no control in that relationship, so I sabotaged my birth control to get some back. The whole situation was a complete abscess. In spite of my awareness of our miserable present and inevitably doomed future, I didn’t really want to have an abortion. I wanted the man to love me or at least be forced to publicly acknowledge our relationship existed. But he didn’t want to have a baby with me, and I knew that having that baby would have been a terrible thing for my children. And for me.

This is how it really is, abortion: You do things you regret or don’t understand and then you make other choices because life keeps going forward. Or you do something out of love and then, through biology or accident, it goes inexplicably wrong, and you do what you can to cope. Or you do whatever you do, however you do it, for whatever reason, because that’s your experience.

Tierce says that we’ve got to stop dividing abortion  morally into “justified” or “unjustified.” The desire to abort, she contends, justifies itself.

The reader who sent this story to me writes:

I think abortion should be legal –I’d probably be considered “pro choice” however I would strictly limit it after the first trimester.  But this woman’s attitude makes me understand why people who want to ban abortions may be sincere and concerned about where we are going as a culture.

There was NOTHING, no acknowledgement–that abortion is a sin and a tragedy.  I don’t believe it’s equivalent to say, infanticide, but even the most hard-boiled abortion rights supporters can be persuaded that the closer a fetus gets to viability, the greater the harm/sin in abortion.

The refusal to see the loss in even an early abortion is, I am sorry to say, a validation of the pro life argument. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable supporting the criminalization of first trimester abortions, because it seems to me that the harm in doing that is greater than the harm in not doing it, but I am sure uncomfortable with the callous detachment that this author exhibits toward her two (!) abortions.

Curious if any other readers who support access to abortion ever think “Gosh, maybe the Catholic  pro-lifers were right about the overall effect on our humanity.”

UPDATE: The reader Venice writes:

When I was in college, I was a very strict liberal, and that of course included being pro-choice. But the abortion debate never sat perfectly right to me. Once I went out to dinner with a group of friends, and the wined flowed particularly generously. We were all lefties there, and we spent some time congratulating each other on this fact. Then someone suddenly put one of our comrades on the spot: wasn’t he actually pro-life?
We all turned to look at this strange case. He was a stereotypical hippie, extremely liberal in every way…except apparently for this. He nodded his admission, without elaborating. He was questioned a little, but no one was being mean-spirited so much as genuinely confused. Turns out he was a strict Catholic, though he didn’t exactly observe all the other sexual teachings of the Church.
This was an awkward moment, but my friend handled it with grace and I remember thinking how much more I admired him than the other people at the table. Holding an unpopular opinion is very difficult, even though we all like to pretend that we do it all the time.
Later that night, the thought crossed my mind for the first time: what if he was also *right*? what if fetuses are actually people, actually babies? If that’s true, isn’t this the greatest evil imaginable? But I pushed the thought out of my mind. It couldn’t be true. No one would stand for it. It’s too awful.
I never followed up with him, to ask him more. I never sought out any information that would help me come to a conclusion. I just went on ranting about Bush and the Iraq war. But I never forgot that night either.
I’ve changed my mind since that night (another story) but I never mention this to people I know in real life. I run in a very liberal circle, and that would mean exile. I tell myself I will work up the courage eventually, but don’t bet on it.
I bet there are others like me too. The horror of abortion is just too much. You don’t want to admit it, especially if you have been a part of it. Once you admit what it is, even if just to yourself, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

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Pro-Israel And Pro-Christian

Palestinian Catholic priests  Ryan Rodrick Beiler /
Palestinian Catholic priests Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

The Ted Cruz stunt last week continues to be much on my mind. I still could not get over the audacity and the cruelty of the act, and the shamelessness of his using the most persecuted and threatened Christians in the world to boost his own political prospects or to cover his flank with his domestic audience. I don’t know why Cruz did it, but he did, and was widely praised for it on the right. This should not be soon forgotten. A conservative Catholic friend, not an Arab-American, who was in the audience wrote last night to say of the Cruz speech:

You can’t quite imagine how painful it was if you weren’t sitting in that room with all those people for whom the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians is an up-close-and-personal reality.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but imagine someone going to address a group of persecuted Chinese Christian leaders who had come to Washington to try to figure out how to keep their communities alive, and who had been instructed by a US politician that they needed to denounce the Beijing government as a condition of having his support. Or imagine a US politician telling Nigerian pastors whose flocks were being routinely savaged by Boko Haram that they needed to denounce anti-gay violence before he would endorse their cause of survival. In that case, you would have African Christian leaders who really do hate gays, but you would also have African Christian leaders who have more moderate views on gays, but who know that to be seen as aligning with gay rights would be to give their Muslim persecutors a powerful weapon to use against them (this is genuinely a problem for Anglican leaders in Nigeria). The idea that a people facing genocide — whatever their religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs — must first perfect themselves in the eyes of American politicians before they merit our help is repulsive. But you know that I believe that.

What I want to mention here is how this incident reveals the lack of space on the Right for talking about Middle East policy, politics, and culture — and how that needs to change. It is no secret that I stand apart from most of my TAC colleagues in that I count myself a supporter of Israel. I support Israel’s right to exist, and I support its right to defend itself. It’s not a matter of religion for me. I believe that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland. Besides, the savagery and the fanaticism of the other states and peoples in the region make it easy for a Westerner to sympathize with Israel in most cases. And I do.

Having said that, I don’t believe that Israel is without sin. I think Israel can and must be criticized when warranted (e.g., on the settlements), just like any other country.

What is frustrating is that there seems to be little middle ground on the American Right for discussing Israel. As a general matter, it seems that among mainstream conservatives, Israel must be considered always and everywhere correct; among Israel’s critics on the right, the state’s flaws often seem to be exaggerated, and the flaws of its enemies often minimized. The knee-jerk anti-Semitism we see on the streets of Europe, and among the progressives who push for boycotting Israel but who turn a blind eye to far, far worse governments in the region, makes me more determined to stand by Israel as an American, in part because I know that if Israel’s enemies had their way, all its Jews would be killed, and many Europeans would shrug their shoulders.


The Cruz incident involved Christian people who really and truly are in danger of being exterminated. They do not have the most powerful standing army in the region to defend them. They do not have weapons, and certainly not nuclear weapons. They have nothing. If they were not Christian, their plight would warrant our urgent concern, but because they are Christian, it seems to me that citizens of the largest and most powerful nation of Christians in the world ought to be particularly concerned about their plight. This is even more true given that it was the war we launched that brought about the instability leading to their own persecution and potential genocide.

Do the Christians of the Middle East hold opinions contrary to our own about the state of Israel? Many, probably most, probably nearly all of them, certainly do. Are they Jew haters? Some are, no doubt, and that is wicked. Are they driven by conspiracy theory? Sure, and I have been on the West Bank and heard some insane ones — but the entire Arab world works that way, to a degree that beggars belief. The Middle East Christians are like us: flawed, sometimes badly flawed. But they are unlike us in that we are not at the mercy of hostile Muslims, many of whom wish to exterminate us. They are like the Israelis in that way, but again, they are unlike the Israelis in that they have no way to defend themselves except by their wits.

That usually means making alliances with unsavory actors. People who have to be afraid at every moment for their lives don’t have the luxury of being morally selective in who their friends are. If you are looking for somebody clean in Middle East politics, you will search in vain. It is troubling that the pro-Assad Lebanese billionaire Gilbert Chagoury funded the recent gathering in Washington. But who else was offering to pay for it? Should the organizers have put off getting the top Christian leaders from the region together for a meeting until they could get Bono to foot the bill?

Besides, as much as it bothers me that the brutal Assad regime has been the protector of Syrian Christians, it happens to be true. I would love for there to be a rich, morally pure, militarily powerful force to keep the Christians in that region from being massacred, but that force does not exist, and it never will exist. Unlike their co-religionists in other nations, Lebanese Christians are not, in fact, powerless, though good luck trying to fathom the complexities of Lebanese politics. But such power as they have depends on their ability to negotiate an extraordinarily complex situation involving Druze warlords and Hezbollah, which has been an Iranian and Syrian proxy.

I enjoyed reading David Harsanyi’s defense of Cruz, in which he points out, legitimately, that if you are a Christian in the Middle East, you are better off living under Israeli government than just about anywhere else. The Lebanese would probably object to that, but it’s more or less true. Still, that’s kind of a “best ballerina in Galveston” claim to make for Israel. The situation for Christians in the Middle East is truly horrible all over. My guess is that the Lebanese Christians would rather not have to depend on good relations with Hezbollah for their own safety, but given how heavily armed Hezbollah is, and how the Lebanese Christians have no regional patron to funnel them arms and money (as Hezbollah does, from Iran and Syria), is it really that hard to figure out why the Maronites make nicer to the vile Hezbollah than they do to Israel?

The point is simply that if you refuse to help desperate Christians in the Middle East until and unless they are unstained by contact with nasty people, you will never lift a finger to help them. If the United States refused to help Israel until every Gentile-hater in the country repented of their bigotry, we would never lift a finger to help them. Though the Lebanese Christians are in a stronger position than Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, all are in a precarious situation that is getting worse. Did the United States and Great Britain have the luxury of refusing Stalin’s aid against Hitler because Stalin was himself a mass murderer? Often the choices before us, if we would prefer not to die, are only variations of awful.

Imagine a group of Spanish bishops meeting in Washington during the Spanish Civil War, to talk about the persecution of the Catholic Church at the hands of the communists, which was severe. Imagine an American politician expecting them to denounce Franco and his fascist sympathies as a condition of his support. They would have cut their throats had they done that. I know for a fact that some Maronites sympathize with Israel; the Sabra and Shatila massacres, which happened 32 years ago today, were carried out by Lebanese Christian militias with Israeli cooperation (an Israeli investigative commission found that Israel bore responsibility for the massacre because the IDF had control of the refugee camp at the time of the massacres, and failed to keep the Lebanese Christian militias out; Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister, had to resign). But today, given how powerful Hezbollah is in Lebanon, and how weak the Christians are, no Maronite patriarch can afford to sympathize publicly with Israel. To do so would invite mass murder. As I said, the politics of religion, ethnicity, and nationality in the Middle East are impossibly complicated, and that’s something we Americans find intolerable.

So it is no surprise that there is little middle ground on the American right to talk about our country’s political relationship with Israel. That hasn’t bothered me much, because we can’t care about everything equally, and I don’t have nearly as much interest in what happens in the Middle East as I do in other areas, and so don’t write about it much. This, perhaps, is why it is easy for Commentary‘s Jonathan Tobin to write of the “clear anti-Israel bias of … those who write for The American Conservative”. I will leave my colleagues to respond to this accusation themselves, if they wish. It surprises me to learn from Tobin that I, as a TAC writer, have an anti-Israel bias, and I bet it really surprises Noah Millman to learn that about himself. But if thinking that Ted Cruz was way out of line for doing what he did constitutes anti-Israel bias, I think quite a few Christians who count themselves friends of Israel will be startled to learn that they must agree with Cruz or be considered enemies of Israel. I hope that is not what Tobin meant; if it is, I would suggest that this kind of thinking does Israel no favors by forcing American Christian conservatives who consider themselves its allies to turn their backs on Middle Eastern Christians facing genocide as the price of being thought well of. That’s not going to end well.

I don’t have a lot of interest in foreign policy, but religious freedom is an issue that I really do care about, and the persecution of the ancient Christian churches and communities of the Middle East is of particular concern. The idea that these desperate people would be potentially sent to their deaths because Israel’s American backers — especially among American Christians like Ted Cruz — will not allow them a hearing because these Middle Easterners do not share their views on  Israel — well, it’s infuriating.

I suspect that Ted Cruz did not do what he did because of the Jewish vote, which is tiny, and which almost all goes to Democrats. He likely did it to keep from being smeared by the conservative media for speaking to a “pro-Hezbollah” group. He may also have done it to galvanize the conservative Protestant vote. It is likely that US Christians who come out of a dispensationalist theological tradition will never take a more nuanced view of Israel, because they believe that the establishment of the Jewish state is a prophetic precursor to the Second Coming of Christ. But there are many conservative Protestants who do not necessarily share that absolutist 19th-century theological view, and who simply do not know much of anything about Christianity in the Middle East. They are not necessarily antagonistic to the ancient churches there; they just don’t know much if anything about them, and accept without thinking about it the standard conservative line on Israel.

That’s how I was until by happenstance, in 1999, I started to attend a Maronite Catholic parish in Brooklyn. That opened a new world to me. Along those lines, the Cruz incident tells me that we need to open up a space on the Christian right in this country in which we Christians can speak of two goods — supporting Israel’s right to exist, and supporting the right of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East to exist — without drawing down the wrath of Conservatism, Inc., and its propaganda outlets that police the boundaries of conservative expression.

It is time for conservative Catholics and sympathetic Evangelicals to stake out a space on the right independent of the standard Religious Right stance on Israel — one that treats Christians of the Middle East as brothers and sisters worthy of our strong concern in our political activism. I believe now is the time to do this, with the passing of an older generation among Evangelicals and with the old model of conservative Christian activism having broken down, along with the conservative coalition.

To be clear, I am raising the prospect of a coalition of American Christians who, when it comes to speaking on Mideast issues, pursue parallel goods: the safety and security of Israel, and the safety and security of Christians throughout the region. These suffering Christians must no longer be invisible to us, must no longer be held hostage to American domestic politics, and they must hear our voices defending them. We must not be intimidated into silence on their fate, either by cynical Republican politicians or the smear factories of Conservatism Inc., who seek to tell Christians who among their brethren they are allowed to support.

I urge you to read Kathryn Jean Lopez’s report from the event. Especially this part:

This wasn’t a foreign-policy conference, it has a very specific and critically urgent goal. From inside the ballroom Wednesday night, Cruz’s remarks were widely agreed to be unnecessarily off-topic and divisive, sabotaging the good work that was in progress. Christians are dying and we’re throwing political slogans at one another and making judgments.

In both the literature put out by the conference and throughout talks Thursday, it was clear that in defending Christians, leaders of this movement were seeking to defend the rights of all – explicitly naming Jews and Muslims and people of no faith, among others, in addition to the Christians in the group’s name.

Speakers Wednesday evening and Thursday morning were humble yet firm in response: It is not Christian to hate people. We must defend Christians because they are our brothers and sisters and because they have human rights, the rights of every one of us, made in the image and likeness of God.

A key goal of the summit was to bolster resolve here in the U.S., focusing people on the looming elimination of Christianity over in the Middle East. As best I could tell from that ballroom Wednesday night, they booed Ted Cruz because, instead of using his platform to help nameless, foreign, forgotten Christians targeted by Islamic extremists, he added yet another distraction to the mix.

It is perverse that an avowedly Christian politician and his followers would expect these people to “stand with” the state of Israel as a condition of his standing by them in the face of their own genocide — especially inasmuch as the conference had been careful not to make Israel an issue.

But hey, Ted Cruz is going to do what Ted Cruz is going to do. What about you?

Here’s my idea.

Though their interests will inevitably conflict around certain issues, as a general matter, I believe that it is, or should be, possible to support both Middle East Christians and Israel, and seek their common good. There are conservative American Christians whose theological commitments preclude admitting that. But there are more than a few of us conservative American Christians who do want to see that. It is time for us to find our voice, on behalf of the martyrs and the persecuted. And if Christians in those countries believed they had more support from the US, perhaps they wouldn’t feel compelled to make deals with various devils to keep from having their throats cut. Perhaps the nonpolitical IDC is that voice (and in any case, we ought to support its work). But shouldn’t there be a political voice too?

Maybe I’m being too idealistic here. Maybe it’s unworkable. But after that debacle in Washington, the status quo among conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, is unacceptable. If we do manage to put something together — something funded independently, by Americans —  we can thank Ted Cruz and the Washington Free Beacon for showing us what should have been obvious to us Christians all along.


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How Roger Ferguson Saved America — And The World

Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. Federal Reserve/Flickr
Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. Federal Reserve/Flickr

Here is an amazing story that had been buried until now in boring reports from the Federal Reserve system. Arliss Bunny recently read the reports, and reconstructs in nail-biting fashion how the Federal Reserve acted with incredible coolness and resolve in 9/11, to keep the nation’s financial system from collapsing. Excerpts (all emphases in the original):

On the morning of 11 September 2001, when Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. arrived at work in his office in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, DC, he was alone. I don’t mean there weren’t other people in the building it’s just that it was a busy day and all the other members of the Fed Board of Governors who are normally in Washington were traveling. In fact, Ferguson was the only member of the Board who was anywhere near the District. Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Fed, along with William J. McDonough, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (which is, in case you didn’t know, the first among equals in the Fed system) were both in Zurich, Switzerland at a meeting of central bankers. Actually, it was worse than that, Greenspan was on a commercial plane in route back to the US and was out of contact with his staff. (Remember, this was before wifi was available on flights.)

Ferguson, considered a deliberative and thoughtful man by his staff, settled into his office and turned on his television to keep track of the markets. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center no one had to tell Ferguson, he knew the country was under attack and he already knew that the attack was aimed at the financial backbone of the world, lower Manhattan. Ferguson declared an emergency and all over the Fed stunned staff found assurance in going through emergency procedures for which they had prepared. The Joint Y2K Committee Ferguson had so recently headed proved to be a windfall of emergency planning and the entire Fed system referred back to those decisions and the associated training throughout the 9-11 crisis. By the time employees could all hear the muffled thump coming from the direction of the Pentagon and smoke could be seen out the windows the staff had secured themselves and the premises and they had started to organize their war room.


In the days and weeks which immediately followed 9-11 analysts drew together important data and lessons (hopefully) learned which inevitably came out of this shared, national experience.The first and most important is that our monetary system, with its redundancies and unusually diverse brain trust was able to absorb a blow intended to, quite literally, disintegrate it. Great human tragedy was not magnified by a financial meltdown which would have spread another form of tragedy nationwide. The virtue of the Feds great big toolbox and the way in which all the tools interact with one another during a crisis was in evidence daily. Certainly, no other organization within the government was positioned to respond as quickly and to reach as deeply down into the fabric of the emergency as was the Fed. Not to be underplayed was also the value the Fed had come to place on person-to-person relationships. On a day when “trust me” really meant something the Fed was able to draw upon well established positive relationships in order to keep the economy of the United States and of the world moving.

Really do read the whole thing.  You think of these men and women maybe as gray bureaucrats, or, depending on your politics, maybe even as disreputable characters. But they saved us from something really terrible.

[Via The Browser]

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Cruz, Conservatism & Christianity

Phish Photography/Shutterstock

Ross Douthat says what needs saying, and needs saying over and over until it sinks in among Christian conservatives that it’s wrong to care more about loyalty to Israel and to movement conservatism than it is about the fate of their brothers and sisters in the faith who are facing extermination. Excerpt:

Some of the leaders of the Middle East’s Christians have made choices that merit criticism; some of them harbor attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors that merit condemnation. But Israel is a rich, well-defended, nuclear-armed nation-state; its supporters, and especially its American Christian supporters, can afford to allow a population that’s none of the above to organize to save itself from outright extinction without also demanding applause for Israeli policy as the price of sympathy and support.

If Cruz felt that he couldn’t in good conscience address an audience of persecuted Arab Christians without including a florid, “no greater ally” preamble about Israel, he could have withdrawn from the event. The fact that he preferred to do it this way instead says a lot — none of it good — about his priorities and instincts.

The fact that he was widely lauded [on the Right -- Rod.] says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

Read the whole thing.

I am not used to believing that the choice in geopolitical matters is fidelity to the state of Israel or fidelity to the Church in the Middle East. I believe you can have both, and in most instances should. I always have. It has been my experience that if you scratch someone who is vehemently anti-Israel, you find a Jew hater. Jew hatred has been one of the great sins of the Christian church throughout its history, and must always repent of it. Read the transcript of Cruz’s brief remarks. Ted Cruz was absolutely right to say, “If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ” — and the room applauded that! But if you read everything he said, he keeps pushing the political point about Israel, goading these people into a reaction. He knew exactly what he was doing.

When someone like Ted Cruz, son of a fundamentalist Christian pastor, has the unspeakable arrogance to go into this group of Orthodox, Catholic, and Coptic Christians who are facing the martyrdom of their entire communities and expect them to recite the gospel of American neoconservatism — that is, not simply to denounce anti-Semitism, which the people in that audience were willing to do, but to affirm the goodness of the state of Israel,  even if doing so would put their own lives in danger once they return home – he forces the rest of us Christians to make a choice. Which is more important to them: the fate of Israel, or the fate of the Church?

Again, I support the right of the state of Israel to exist, and the right of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East to exist. But if circumstances force us to make a choice, Christians must ordinarily choose the Church, just as I would expect Jewish Americans in most circumstances to choose Israel, and would not for a second hold that against them. If you will not be for your own people, what kind of person are you?

That choice implies a second choice: which is more important to conservative American Christians, their Christianity, or their conservatism?

If that is the choice, I know which side I am on. And if that makes me anathema to American movement conservatism, I’ll wear that badge with honor.

UPDATE: +1 to Seth Mandel at Commentary for reminding us that there are Jews who have been helping persecuted Christians (remember my blog in praise of Ronald S. Lauder for that), and to David Benkof of the Times of Israel for saying that he would have booed Ted Cruz too. Excerpt:

Of course it’s always good when people praise our People, our Nation, and our Land. I do it all the time. But this specific event existed to garner attention to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – and hijacking that cause to promote Israel is just as bad as exploiting the world’s disgust for ISIS to attack Hamas.

The persecution and murder of Christians is an affront to good people everywhere. Communities of Christians numbering in the hundreds of thousands in places like Lebanon and Iraq have been decimated. Huge numbers of Christians have become refugees. ISIS is a constant, terrifying threat.

Folks, if there is ever a “V’im ani l’atzmi mah ani?” moment (“If I am only for myself, what am I?”) this is it. As a people that suffered terribly during the last century from persecutions in tsarist Russia, Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Arab lands (among other places), we cannot focus only on our own problems – important as they are.

So for Cruz to ignore the agenda of the gathering and harp on a pet issue of his – knowing that it would resound beyond his immediate audience – was shameful. Politicians simply don’t lecture anti-Obamacare rallies about capital punishment. If I were there, I probably would have booed, too.

Jews, of all people, should understand that morality requires juggling devotion to many challenges at once – some close to home, some more distant. Let’s stop our knee-jerk cheering for anyone who says something nice about Israel and look at the broader context. Because there are non-Jews suffering who need our help, too.

And if not now, when?

Jews and Christians are not against each other here, and should not be against each other. Ted Cruz inserted his own political agenda where there was none and need not have been one.

UPDATE.2: This is true. Do not forget:


MBD publishes tweets from a senior editor at The Weekly Standard:


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Paradiso, Canto XXVIII

This week, I had lunch with a friend who said that he loved reading my Purgatorio blogging, but dropped off the Paradiso threads early, because it was too abstract. I felt oddly comforted by that. I have stretched Paradiso blogging out way, way longer than I ought to have done, because it is such a difficult text. I have been preoccupied with a side project for the past two months, a writing endeavor that has taken a great deal of my time and energy. I haven’t flagged on blogging in general, but Paradiso blogging has been especially difficult, because it requires concentration and more research than I did on Purgatorio to make sense of. Yet if you would understand Dante’s vision, Paradiso is no less vital than Inferno or Purgatorio. 

I’m not making excuses for my tardiness here, only trying to explain to you why I haven’t been diligent with these posts. I’m committed to finishing Paradiso this weekend, because I would really like to go through the entirety of Inferno before I leave for Florence in a couple of weeks. Before I get to the final three cantos (which I’m going to cover in a single post), I have to retrace my steps and blog Canto 28, which I inadvertently skipped. It is an important canto to understanding the final three, so I appreciate the reader who pointed out my oversight.

You might find it helpful to go back to our discussion of Canto 27, paying particular attention to the fact that it is in that canto, and the two that follow it, that Dante sets down his cosmology — that is, how the universe is designed. In Canto 27, we learn that in Dante’s vision (which the poet puts into Beatrice’s words), the material universe is a projection of the divine (immaterial) mind. It depends entirely on the world of Ideals — that is to say, God and his transcendent reality — for its existence. The line between the spiritual and the material worlds is paper-thin; the material world depends entirely on the energies emanating from God, transmitted through the Primum Mobile, for its life.

Canto 28 is mostly a description of the angelic hierarchies. The point for the general reader to take away from all this is that the cosmos is hierarchically designed. This will not be a surprise to you if you’ve been reading Dante all along. But there is more to be revealed. The pilgrim begins his narration by seeing reflected in Beatrice’s eyes a piercing point of light. He turned to look at it himself. Beatrice tells him that point of light is God. The reader will be reminded of the Big Bang theory, which says that everything that exists began as an almost infinitely dense point of light, which exploded and created in a single instant the universe. Dante calls this point of light “the Pure Spark of Being.” Then:

My lady, who observed my eagerness

and my bewilderment, said: “On that Point

depend all nature and all of the heavens.


Observe the circle nearest it, and know

the reason for its spinning at such speed

is that Love’s fire burns it into motion.

Note that Love is what causes motion. Whirling around the point of light are nine orbits of angels. The ardor with which these angelic beings regard God determines the velocity of their motion. It’s as if God were the nucleus of an atom, and the orders of angels were electrons.

An interesting aspect of this, something that will come up in the final cantos, is how the angelic orders all rotate in a circular motion around God, in Dante’s conception. Remember this for later.

Beatrice explains further about the brightness of the various angelic orders. The brighter they are, the greater their participation in the life of the Mind of God:

‘And you should know that all of them delight

in measure of the depth to which their sight

can penetrate the truth, where every intellect finds rest.


‘From this, it may be seen, beatitude itself

is based upon the act of seeing,

not on that of love, which follows after,


‘and the measure of their sight reveals their worth,

which grace and proper will beget in them.

There was an argument in Dante’s time about whether love precedes knowledge, or knowledge precedes love. Another way to think of it is like this: which comes first, vision or will? Dante, like Aquinas, comes down on the side of vision preceding will. As I wrote earlier this year, in Dante’s view (following St. Bonaventure’s), the Seraphim represent Love, and the Cherubim stand for Contemplation (that is, Knowledge). The poet says here (in Beatrice’s voice) that Knowledge — that is, seeing — precedes Love, because you have to first see something before you can love it, but that one is not higher than the other. They both work together. To know God is to love Him, and to love Him is to know Him. Earlier in Paradiso, Dante underscores the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and love by having St. Thomas Aquinas (a Dominican) speak in praise of the rival Franciscans, and St. Bonaventure (a Franciscan) speak in praise of the rival Dominicans. Yet vision comes first.

Furthermore, for Dante, the deeper you see into the truth of things, the greater your love. This is what happens to him as he rises through the heavens, drawing closer to God. The journey is a series of unmaskings, with his sight improving the stronger in spirit Dante becomes.

In his book Universe Of Stone, about the building of the Chartres cathedral, Philip Ball talks about the neoplatonic “near-worship of light” that dominated the mind of 12th and 13th-century Europeans. Ball contends that this attitude towards light led to the architectural revolution of Gothic cathedrals, which flooded dark church interiors with light — light that was also analogized by the Schoolmen to Reason. Think of the Gospel of St. John, describing Christ, the Logos, as the “light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Further, Ball writes:

This suggests that the mundane and material can lead us towards the transcendental and immaterial by an affinity of their essence is an example of the concept of anagogy (literally, “upward-leading”). It is a difficult idea for us who lack the Neo-Platonist’s sense of the connectedness of the universe or the medieval notion of world as symbol.

What he’s saying is that for the medievals, contemplation of ordinary things like stone and light can lead one to awareness of higher realities. The Divine Comedy is saturated with this kind of thinking. Indeed, Dante repeatedly indicates that the divine must communicate to us finite creatures symbolically, because we lack the vision to see divine reality as it truly is. As I said, the entire Paradiso is about a journey into sight, and into Dante’s growing in spiritual strength until he is at last capable of bearing heaven’s blinding light at full strength.

Interestingly, in Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante grows by acquiring knowledge of how sin works, and how man is corrupted, but he is also required to repent. In Paradiso, no one repents — it would be pointless to repent in Heaven — but Dante does grow in the power of vision as he learns more about divine reality by gazing up on the progressively higher levels of heavenly being, and by accustoming himself to the progressive experience of ever more intense light. The closer a creature is to God, the brighter it glows with the Uncreated Light, which indicates the degree to which it has been deified. Crucially, this is also in heaven a bond of love. The light of knowledge is different from but also inseparable from love.

This is why all the material here about the Angelic Hierarchies is not simply a matter of medieval fussiness and a fetish for classification. Dante is trying to convey here a sense of metaphysical order.

And all of the angelic ranks gaze upward,

as downward they prevail upon the rest,

so while each draws the next, al draw toward God.

The Great Chain of Being. It’s intense and heavy stuff, at least to a novice like me. It raises interesting philosophical question about the nature of ultimate truth. Or rather, it puts (for me) a somewhat new way of thinking about a familiar question: is truth objective or subjective? As you know, I think there are truths that are true whether or not you believe them. Mathematical and scientific truths are like this. But there is a category of truth that can only be realized subjectively. I believe, with Kierkegaard, that all the truths worth living and dying for are subjective truths, which is to say, things that are objectively true, but can only be properly realized in subjectivity. God is like this. God exists objectively, but that truth means nothing unless I appropriate it inwardly and commit myself as a subject to it. Here’s Kierkegaard’s own definition of truth (in this sense):

An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual.

It would be wrong to call the The Divine Comedy pre-Kierkegaardian, but it’s not entirely crazy. What I mean is this: for Dante, growing in Truth is inseparable from growing in personal and intellectual union with God. It is not simply something one does with one’s mind, but with the totality of one’s being. The “intellect” is better understood by the Greek term “nous” (pron. noose) the perceiving faculty of the soul. For Orthodox Christians, salvation — which is to say, theosis, dissolving oneself in total unity with God — depends on sharpening one’s noetic vision. Though I hesitate to pronounce a Christian poet so thoroughly Scholasticized as Dante as one who is consonant with Orthodox theology — I ask your correction if I here err — it was remarkable to me, as an Orthodox Christian, to read Paradiso as a long poem about the cleansing of Dante’s nous (his ability to perceive God as He is), a cleansing that of necessity increased the divine love within Dante.

The thing is, he could not love to the utmost without having the strength and the clarity of vision to take in more light, and he could not take in more light without having the capacity to love more perfectly. Dante says that the act of seeing precedes the act of loving, and that makes rational sense. But isn’t it also true that some things cannot be perceived except insofar as one loves?

Here’s what I mean. You walk through the mall, you see strangers, but you don’t perceive the reality of those strangers. You can’t see them as they are, because you have no subjective experience of them. You don’t love them, and can’t love them, because you don’t know them. You perceive them in your eyesight, but you don’t see any deeper than the surface of these people, because you have no subjective knowledge of them. You don’t know them like their wives, their husbands, their children, their parents. You don’t, for that matter, know them like their Creator. Now, it is also true that within our subjectivity, we may fail to perceive objective truths about a person. The mother of the school bully may not perceive her child’s cruelty, for example. Only God, who has perfect omniscience — that is, perfect objective knowledge and perfect subjective knowledge — can say for sure. The point I want to make here, though, is that I don’t think Dante is quite right to say that perception always precedes love, or to be more precise, that the distinction between seeing and willing is so cleanly delineated.

There is something else to notice about the Angelic Ranks. They are divided into three ranks or three beings each. Dante is intensely interested in numbers. The number three, of course, symbolizes the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For Dante, all creation is mathematical — that is, the mathematicality inherent in the universe is a sign of the Divine Mind. And more, the trinitarian principle is manifest throughout the cosmos. Our relationship to God is trinitarian, consisting of three parts: God, us, and the relationship itself. More, from the Dante scholar Prue Shaw:

For Dante, it is not just the fabric of the cosmos that yields the pattern of three-in 0ne. Time and space, the defining conditions of human existence, embody a three-in-one principle: past, present, and future; height, depth, width. Human activity within our world also lends itself surprisingly well to analysis in these terms. Three key kinds of human functioning — thinking, doing, making — all invite examination, albeit in somewhat different ways, in terms of three stages or three aspects of three constituent parts that make up a single whole.


Dante saw direct parallels between the act by which God created the universe, the workings of the natural world, and the productive activities of human beings who operate within that world. In other words, in our everyday lives we are all engaged in activities that are in some way analogous to the way God works.

Reality itself is trinitarian, according to Dante. The material world is the clay, God and His design is the idea (form), and the Primum Mobile is the potter’s wheel through which the Creator imprints Form onto Matter. See how that works? The creative energies of God pass through the Primum Mobile to fashion creation into the ideas in God’s mind. For us, it doesn’t matter whether or not the Primum Mobile actually exists. This is a mental construct to help us understand how God’s trinitarian nature plays out in the creative act. One more lengthy quote from Shaw, as long as we’re talking about numbers and metaphysical design:

Dante’s is a world where the number three seems to be a key to understanding reality in many of its fundamental aspects. The numerical pattern three-in-one is built into the very structure of things, a medieval version of what modern thinkers call a “fractal.” (Fractals are self-similar patterns: at whatever degree of magnification one uses, one sees the same pattern reappearing.) It is perhaps not surprising that  Dante used the principle of three-in-one to structure his imagined world and the poem which celebrates it. What is astounding is how successfully he did so.

The Commedia as a product of human making — a man-made work of verbal art — was designed by Dante to embody the three-in-one principle. With satisfying symmetry, it does so both in its overall structure and in its individual component parts. The poem has three sections — Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso — which constitute one poem, the Commedia. The basic building block from which it is constructed is the terzina, or tercet, a single metrical unit consisting of three lines. Dante invented this metrical scheme, and by so doing made three-in-oneness a part of the very fabric of his poem.

Each line of each tercet is 11 syllables long, making 33 syllables per tercet. He keeps this up for 14,000+ lines. There is much more to be said about the ingenious mathematical structure of the Commedia, but not here. The point is that Dante, by infusing mathematical design to a breathtaking degree in his poetic creation, invites us to contemplate the order embedded into creation by the Creator.

Now, you may wish to re-read the reflection on Canto XXIX, and the one on Canto XXX. I intend to make one more long post this weekend, summing up the last three cantos. Thanks for your patience.

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