My dear friend Frederica Mathewes-Green has never taken a public position on same-sex marriage, but recently caused a row when she said on her Facebook page that she is not particularly against it. In a long, good post today, she clarifies her stance. Excerpts:
It was a nerve I never intended to strike, for I am not actually in favor of gay marriage. I’ve just never opposed it publicly (what I meant by saying I “don’t” oppose it). I don’t think it’s the catastrophe my friends do.
FMG says that she is not for gay marriage, because she doesn’t believe that it is a marriage, not in the sense that Christians do. More:
That makes me not worry about it so much. As a conservative Christian, my beliefs about the meaning of marriage already diverge from secular assumptions at a number of points. If the differences between Christian and secular marriage become even more clear, that’s not a bad thing.
In fact, I wish those differences were more clear. What’s the main reason I haven’t joined up with the anti-gay-marriage movement? Sheer exasperation. It mightily annoys me when opponents of gay marriage use the term “traditional marriage” to mean solely “not gay.” Straight marriage is much more threatened by the things straight people do: internet porn, adultery, and most obviously, divorce. To blame gay people for destroying marriage seems a classic case of “Look over there!”
Here’s what I mean. Some years ago I received a Christmas letter from the head of an evangelical organization. About halfway through he shared that, sadly, he had gotten divorced that past year. But in the next paragraph he had great news: God had given him a new wife!
Well, maybe there were extenuating circumstances, maybe I shouldn’t judge—but it still irritates me how blandly Christians accept this sort of thing. It used to be that, if gay people were expected to live celibately, married people were expected, at least, to preserve marriage for a lifetime. Even if divorce was unpreventable, remarriage wasn’t assumed. That line about “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder” comes from Jesus himself. (Mark 10:8-9).
Gay marriage is only the last in a long series of shifts in sexual morality. Why didn’t premarital sex or cohabitation galvanize our attention, like this has? Where were the protests then? How did divorce and remarriage become about as frequent among Christians as in the general population?
When reminded of those higher standards, of not that long ago, people say, “But it would be too hard for divorced people to remain unmarried. It’s too hard to live without love.” Yet that’s exactly what we ask gay people to do. We should at least admit that it is not easy; it is in fact a kind of heroism, and we should honor it better than we do. I don’t advocate relaxing the rules (of the faith) for gays, but I wonder how straight people came to relax the rules for themselves.
So I don’t care what other people do in bed, and I don’t think that a gay couple living down the street undermines the marriages around them. But I do think that gay sex damages the soul, and I’ll tell you why.
She says that she’s not joining any movements over this, because the other side isn’t listening. FMG says her “live and let live” perspective only gets her branded a bigot and a hater by the other side, so she’s willing to bear the scorn of others, but not going to bother trying to change their minds, because they don’t want their minds to be changed. I think this is right. I think people on our side should gear down and expect the worst, because it’s coming. And be of good cheer: it will be okay. We will know who we are by this.
At Q Ideas, I will be talking tomorrow morning about how we should prepare.
An old friend writes about How Dante Can Save Your Life:
I was worried that the book was going to be so far over my head that I would have to lie to you about it. I guess I thought you were going to take us through, line by line. Started it last night and read way too long before putting it down. Congratulations on reaching people like me. I love it.
That’s so gratifying to hear. I told her that I wrote the book for people like her, and people like me: those who aren’t literary scholars, but who still need to read Dante because there is so much life-changing wisdom and beauty to be found there. Here is the first chapter of my book. The whole thing is written in this tone and in this spirit. You do not have to have any familiarity with the Divine Comedy to read my book and to learn from it.
This morning I’m sitting in the airport in Houston, after having had a fantastic evening last night at Houston Baptist University. I shared the stage with Prof. Lou Markos, a literature scholar, a Dante specialist, and an absolutely mesmerizing teacher. Folks were so generous in Houston, but then, they’re Texans, so I expected that.
I’m headed to Boston, where I’m going to be attending and addressing the Q Ideas conference. Really excited about that. Andrew Sullivan is going to be there, and I’m looking forward to catching up with him in his post-blogging life and finding out how he’s faring. If you’re a reader of this blog and a Dante enthusiast, please come out to hear me talk at Boston College on Thursday evening, from 5:30 till 7. Information is here; it’s all free and open to the public, but BC asks that you please register so they can get a good idea of how many to expect. I’m excited to be going back to Boston, and so grateful to Alan Wolfe, Yael Levin, and all my friends at the Boisi Center for having me around.
As you might guess from my anonymous friend’s e-mail, this will not be a scholarly lecture, because that’s not how my book is. This is about applied literature and spirituality. I’m going to tell stories. There will be books for sale, and there will be Q&A. Come out and say hi.
Another reason I’m eager to be in Boston — aside from the fact that I have dinner plans tonight that involve raw Massachusetts oysters — is that the Dante Society of America was founded there in 1881, and is headquartered there. If you discover that you have a love for Dante, please consider joining the society. It’s almost exclusively an academic society, but it doesn’t have to be. I understand they are eager to welcome lay members (so to speak) who love Dante. I joined.
The first president of the Dante Society was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made the first American translation of the Commedia. His is a staggeringly tragic story. Look:
The last and somewhat diminished stage of Longfellow’s career began in 1861 with the tragic death of his wife Fanny. In the midst of melting sealing wax, she set fire to her own gauzy clothing and was enveloped in flames. She died the next day. In his futile efforts to put the fire out, Longfellow burned his hands and face. To hide his facial scars, he eventually grew the beard that gave him the sage, avuncular look reproduced in so many later paintings and photographs, such as the famous Julia Margaret Cameron image. A month after Fanny’s death, on August 18th, 1861, Longfellow gave voice to his despair in a letter to his late wife’s sister, Mary Appleton Mackintosh. He wrote, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not. I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly – as I have from the beginning – for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end.” It was 18 years before he wrote “The Cross of Snow,” his only poem that deals directly with his grief.
Following his wife’s death, Longfellow immersed himself in translating Dante. The task aided his inner healing. I am looking forward to the June release of Joseph Luzzi’s memoir Into a Dark Wood, which tells a similar story about himself and his wife’s death. Dante is for anyone who has suffered, and who struggles to make sense of the suffering.
I hope to see you in Boston.
Let’s give credit to Pope Francis: he yanked the scandal-ridden Bishop Finn from Kansas City. From John L. Allen at Cruxnews:
In what is likely to be hailed as major step toward accountability for Catholic bishops who mishandle sexual abuse allegations, the Vatican has announced the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
The announcement came Tuesday in a brief statement in the Vatican’s daily news bulletin, released at noon Rome time. Finn, whose resignation is effective immediately, will remain a bishop, but no longer lead a diocese. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City-Kansas has been appointed as the apostolic administrator of Finn’s diocese until Pope Francis names Finn’s successor.
Finn, 62, is the lone American bishop ever to be found guilty of a criminal charge for failure to report an accusation of child abuse. His September 2012 conviction on a misdemeanor charge stemmed from Finn waiting several months before telling police that explicit images of young girls had been discovered on the computer of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, one of his priests.
Finn was sentenced to two years of probation, and the diocese received a fine of $1.1 million when an arbitrator ruled that it had violated the terms of an earlier settlement.
The fact that Finn has remained in office for almost three years after the outcome has been a central bone of contention for critics who regard the Catholic Church’s official “zero tolerance” policy on abuse as inadequate as long as there aren’t consequences for managers who fail to implement it.
It is ridiculous that Finn held his see for three years after his conviction, but let’s give thanks that justice was finally done by the Vatican in this matter. David Gibson has some takeaways:
1. This is a big deal
During the past decade, the most intense years of the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy sex abuse scandal, thousands of priests have been punished or defrocked for abusing children, and a few bishops found guilty of molestation have also quit.
But until Finn, no American bishop had ever been forced from office (despite the terse Vatican announcement that he “resigned”) for covering up for a predator priest.
That sets a precedent in an institution where many have regarded the hierarchy as a privileged caste that should not be held to the same standards as others in the church. Some feared that if a bishop were pushed out for failing to do his job, it would create a domino effect that could topple the entire superstructure.
“We all know there are other US bishops wondering ‘who is the next?’” tweeted church historian Massimo Faggioli.
But Francis seems to be betting this sort of accountability at the top will strengthen the church, and even help restore the credibility of the bishops.
I think that’s right. Gibson, who is a liberal Catholic, says that the Finn resignation is a blow to Catholic conservatives, given that Finn is a member of Opus Dei, and has been a favorite of leading conservative prelates. I take his point, but I’m not as certain that it’s as big a blow as Gibson thinks. Finn’s conviction showed that there is nothing about a given bishop’s orientation within the political cultures of the Church that show that he’s going to be good or bad on abuse. Liberal bishops did it as often as conservative ones. Sensible conservatives understand that the Church is more important than any given bishop, and they want the Church to maintain its moral authority. If a bishop like Finn causes the Church to lose credibility in the eyes of the faithful — and he most certainly did — then he needs to go. It weakens the Church to see the Vatican propping up bishops guilty of complicity in sexual abuse. By now, nobody, liberal or conservative, should be under the impression that the only bad bishops are those on the Other Side.
That said, I hope Francis will stand by Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco, who is facing a mutiny in his diocese not because he is guilty of any crime or gross mismanagement, but because he is trying to govern the diocese in accord with Roman Catholic teaching. Sacking Cordileone because well-heeled Catholic laity are raising hell about him would send a deeply discouraging signal.
I don’t think Francis will budge. I hope he won’t. Cordileone needs to know the pope has his back on this issue, and so do the five Marin County nuns who walked out of class yesterday to protest a propaganda stunt:
At issue was Friday’s annual Day of Silence, promoted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network — whose corporate sponsors include McDonald’s, Target, Disney/ABC, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Google and the NBA. It bills itself as a group of “students, parents, and teachers that tries to effect positive change in schools,” but the nuns at Marin Catholic High see it as anti-Catholic.
The school declined to participate in the Day of Silence. Instead, a morning prayer was read over the school’s PA system “to acknowledge and pray for students everywhere who have the experience of being ostracized, marginalized or silenced by bullying,” school officials wrote in their letter.
“Our intention was not to take part in a Day of Silence, but rather take a moment in the morning to pray together as a school community,” the letter to parents said.
Unfortunately, the administrators said, the school’s message was “compromised and misinterpreted” the night before when it was linked on Facebook to the campaign by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, “an activist group with which we are not affiliated.’’
When some Marin Catholic High students began handing out Day of Silence-related stickers and flyers on campus Friday morning, the five nuns felt “felt compromised, offended and uncomfortable,” Sister Clare Marie, one of the teachers, later wrote in a lengthy e-mail to her students.
She said the sisters “do not support bigotry or any kind of prejudice,” but that they were compelled to act out against an event promoted by a group that “believes actively in promoting homosexuality in all classrooms, K-12.”
Her e-mail also accused the group’s members of speaking out “against Christians who do not share their views” and handing out materials that “say that any church which teaches homosexuality is sinful is an ‘oppressor’ and should be opposed.”
Five faithful nuns versus Big Banks and Big Business. Francis will stick with the actual Catholics here, who happen to be the underdogs.
A judge in Manhattan has ordered a hearing that will touch upon the continuing debate over whether caged chimpanzees can be considered “legal persons,” in the eyes of the law, and thus sue, with human help, for their freedom.
At issue in this case — one of several percolating through the courts in New York and elsewhere — is the fate of Hercules and Leo, chimpanzees who their legal representatives say are “unlawfully detained” at a university on Long Island.
Some legal experts, however, seemed to offer support for the idea that animals could file suit for their freedom. Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard Law School scholar, said he believed habeas corpus ought to be available to test the treatment and confinement of “other beings whose capacities are limited but who are potentially capable of bearing rights,” a category he contended ought to eventually include chimps like Hercules and Leo.
Mr. Tribe added that Justice Jaffe’s decision was “a legally sound and suitably cautious step forward in the struggle to extend legal protections,” regardless of “whether or not we are yet ready to crown those others with the title of ‘human person.’ ”
This is quite insane. If the chimps are being treated cruelly, we have animal protection laws for those cases. They are not persons, and must not be thought of as persons. I find it more shocking that Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law actually believes in erasing a legal line between animals and humans.
A reader wrote just yesterday:
I wanted to let you know that the charges you level against the loony bin that is the humanities in higher ed (especially graduate education) is absolutely on point. Long-outdated psychoanalysis, tired Marxism, and deconstruction hold sway over the field of literature, such as it is. My professors and fellow graduate students care little for literature as such. They only care about their pet ideologies (theories) and use literature to try to prove them “true.” One funny (or sad) example happened today:
In a seminar I am taking, there was a “debate” between the professor (a post-colonial theorist) and some of the students who are interested in so-called animal studies. The debate was on whether animals have suffered oppression in a way analogous to other oppressed groups. The professor, the “conservative” in this exchange, argued that elevating animals in this way is bad because it minimizes the oppression that humans have suffered and that we should hold to the theories and critical approaches (identity politics, race and gender constructionism) propagated by our forefathers in the 70s and 80s. The animal studies students insisted that we need to all get on board with the recent breakthrough of New Materialism and Trans-humanism, and that the professor risked being painted as a (and I’m not kidding) human-exceptionalist.
The reader, understandably, is so discouraged by the intense politicization of his PhD program in literature that he’s dropping out at the end of this semester.
Once Hercules and Leo are free, I think they ought to apply to join the English faculty at this reader’s university. Sounds like they’d fit right in.
That, my dears, is one of the best meals I have eaten in ages. My hosts at Houston Baptist University took me to dinner at Mala Sichuan Bistro, a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall in the Sharpstown neighborhood. It was fantastic, just fantastic. I love spicy food, and this did not disappoint. I confess that I was not brave enough to try the soupy dish in the foreground. From the Mala menu:
COUNTRY STYLE BLOOD CURD DISH $12.95
Beef tripe, pork intestines, congealed pork blood curd, baby bokchoy, and sweet potato vermicelli, all carefully cooked with a special Sichuan cooking technique called “mao”
Yeah, well. That was something. I asked one of the guys at the table what the congealed pork blood curd tasted like. “A little like blood,” he said. I took his word for it.
Anyway, how lucky you Houstonians are to live in a city where you can eat at a place like this. I had a great night at Houston Baptist, and discovered that some Communion and Liberation folks in town from New York City — their Crossroads Cultural Center, founded by the late, great Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, co-sponsored the talks that the great Prof. Louis Markos and I gave on Dante — are friends with my old CL pal Tom Sullivan, who is mentioned in How Dante Can Save Your Life, because he gave me a collection of the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien once, and that book helped me greatly. Small, small world. We are all connected. It’s in Dante. Everything is.
And God is good. I wish I could write more tonight. I got four hours of sleep last night, and have been awake for the past 20. It’s time to face-plant, and think of Sichuan peppers.
Apocalypse (n.), an unveiling; from Greek apokalupsis, from apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal.’
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” — Morpheus, The Matrix
In How Dante Can Save Your Life, and in my talks on it, I focus almost exclusively on the practical, moral aspects of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These are the most immediately graspable and useful elements of the poem. Consequently, I spend very little time in my book on the Paradiso, the third and final book of Dante’s trilogy.
This is not because I think the Paradiso is irrelevant. Far from it; the Paradiso is very, very deep, so deep that I know I will struggle for the rest of my life to fully comprehend it. Dante knows this, and warns the reader in Canto II, at the outset of the journey across the ocean of Being toward full unity with God, thus:
Turn back if you would see your shores again.
Do not set forth upon the deep,
for, losing sight of me, you would be lost.
To experience God as Dante is about to, and as he is about to reveal to his readers, is to be forever changed. Be warned.
Though the lower parts of the journey through the Comedy are chiefly concerned with moral improvement, it would be a gross misreading of the text to construe it as a manual for How To Be Good. If you think that life in Christ is only about believing the right things and behaving in the correct way, you have a very shallow grasp of reality. This is why you can’t really understand the Inferno and the Purgatorio without seeing them through the lens of the Paradiso. (For that matter, the Comedy is Trinitarian: you can’t understand any one book without reference to the other two).
But to enter the text of Paradiso is to plunge into the mystic depths. The best guide I’ve found so far is one that is fairly difficult itself, but one that I also find indispensable: The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, by Christian Moevs (pron. “mayvs”), a Notre Dame scholar who said incredibly nice things about my Dante book yesterday.
Here are some lengthy quotations from Moevs’ book to give you a better idea of what Dante is up to. Keep in mind that this understanding of metaphysics (that is, the structure of all reality) was universal in Christianity until just after the end of Dante’s life, and that as the contemporary Christian theologian David Bentley Hart has argued in his widely praised book The Experience of God, it is still the dominant metaphysical stance outside the West (and that includes in the Christian East). Here is Moevs:
The point of the Comedy is that understanding is practical. It must not be confused with anything that can be thought or taught, with any “doctrine” or “belief.” Understanding-happiness-salvation, for Dante, is not a set of ideas; it is to have experienced the true nature and foundation of reality, to know it as oneself, and thus to live it. This is the foundation of ethics, and of all political and social reform: such experience alone is capable of changing, rather than just temporarily suppressing, human behavior. The Comedy tells us that there is no path to understanding, happiness, or immortality that does not go through self-sacrifice, through the death to blind self-interest that is an awakening to love, to freedom, to the infinite in and as the finite: to Christ.
He’s saying that in Dante, and in classical Christian metaphysics, the point of the pilgrimage is theosis, or mystical union with God. It is not to be present in heaven with a “Supreme Being” — that is, a being like ourselves, except vastly more powerful. No, it is to be absorbed into Being Itself, but not an impersonal being (e.g., “the Force”), but rather a personal one who has made Himself known as Jesus Christ). As D.B. Hart writes in his book:
If God is the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge, then the journey toward him must also ultimately be a journey toward the deepest source of the Self.
In the Comedy, Dante’s descent into the Inferno is to go into his own heart, to see how very far he is from God. He has made his own heart, his own ego, the deepest source of himself, and this is an illusion caused by his will. After his purification on the mountain of Purgatory does he open himself to the light of God’s grace, and discovers his true self: in a radically transformative relationship with God.
The distinction between the material and the spiritual is a fundamental illusion. Back to Christian Moevs:
The truth is that what has been said of Indian philosophy applies equally to medieval Christian thought: it “believes that reality is ultimately one and ultimately spiritual. If the comedy has a philosophical or theological foundation and ‘message,’ that is it.
To restate: the point of the Comedy is not moral reformation (though that is unquestionably part of the point); the point is to bring people to spiritual regeneration through direct experience of the Divine. More Moevs:
[T]he claim of history, or of a narrative that typologically discloses the meaning of history or human experience, can only be conversion, awakening, becoming what one is revealed to be, which is to conform one’s life to Christ’s. To use another Wittgensteinian phrase, Scripture seeks to prevent understanding unaccompanied by inner change. The phrase applies perfectly also to the Comedy.
In other words, if you read Holy Scripture and are not changed by it, you have not understood it. Same with the Comedy.
Moevs says that in Christian thought, the world cannot be made sense of if taken in itself. Without God, the world is an endless string of zeroes: nothing. God adds a “1″ to the zeroes, and through this logos makes everything comprehensible, filled with meaning. All the damned in the Inferno have refused the divine 1, and have instead made themselves the “1″ — and have made their lives into nothing, both in the mortal life and for eternity. In other words, if we refuse God, we are already dwelling in the vestibule of Hell.
The Comedy, in the end, poses a question to us: is the world our home, or is eternity? To recognize something of eternity, of the Divine, within us is to say yes to Christ; to say no, that we will not cross over, Moevs writes, “means we live with Francesca and Ulysses in the flux of the ephemeral, that their world is our world, that we have lost the ’1′ in front of the world’s string of zeroes.”
In the conclusion of his great book, Moevs talks about how the classical Christian metaphysics of the Comedy align with the discoveries of quantum physics. Excerpts:
Relativity tells us that all spatiotemporal attributes (dimension, mass, and rate of change) are a function of velocity. The speed of light constitutes the limit of motion, and thus the boundary of space-time it is the constant of conversion between matter and energy or electromagnetic radiation. The substance and limits of the physical universe seem in some sense to consist in the nature of light, broadly conceived, and its mysterious convertibility into spatiotemporal form, and thus into gravity. Bonaventure and other propoenents of the “metaphysics of light” would not be surprised; Dante, whose Comedy describes physical reality as the contingent “re-reflection” of the self-subsistent light that is the Empyrean [that is, heaven -- RD], might wonder at our long recalcitrance.
What science has not yet probed is the convertibility between light-energy-vacuum (or strings) and consciousness, what Dante calls luce intellettual. This is to be expected: to use Wittgenstein’s image, the visual field does not include the eye itself; what alone is absent from any description of experience is the subject of experience, because nothing can be said about it, it is nothing. One of the most revolutionary developments of modern physics, however, is the realization that every description of reality is simply a picture that is in part determined by the act of observation itself. The observing subject’s point of view as an entity within the world, its frame of reference, and the questions it asks are all factors that determine its picture of the reality it seeks to describe: they are part of that picture The ‘world in itself’ may be approximated and imaged – but never grasped or communicated – by descriptions, concepts, or equations: reality lies beyond, beyond all concept, all description, all thought, all image. That beyond, the architects of quantum physics unanimously concluded, lies in consciousness itself. There is no such things as the world “in itself” autonomous of consciousness.
Our separation from God, from each other, and from Creation is an illusion. That is, we choose to believe the lie that we are separate, and there is and will be consequences for believing that lie. But a lie it is. We are fundamentally one with God, with Being, with Christ. The principle of nonlocality – that information can travel faster than the speed of light; quantum entanglement, or what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – tells us, says Moevs, that
reality is ultimately one, and ultimately dimensionless. Dante might say that he tried to awaken us to this experience of reality in the Comedy: consciousness, luce intellectual, is the omnipresent and indivisible reality in which all finite attribute consists, and it is itself unbound by time, space, or motion, because it is extensionless, a point.
All this is very heady, and you know me, I could write acres of discursive prose noodling on it. But I have been flying from South Bend since 5:30 a.m., through Atlanta, and am now briefly on the ground in Baton Rouge, headed to Houston, via Dallas. Whew! I want to get something new posted here, so please try to be satisfied with my incomplete entry here. And by the way, lest you think that Dante is all maximum heaviosity, and are intimidated into staying away from the Commedia, here’s a quote from a five-star review of How Dante Can Save Your Life by a reader, on Amazon.com:
I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. I enjoyed the author’s last book, an uplifting and complex tribute to his late sister. I wanted to read more by Dreher, but I was nervous about a Dante book because the Great Books can be downers – somber, serious trudges through the oatmeal of the old world’s old literature.
I figured I’d never jump into Dante, because it’s intimidating. So I bought Dreher’s new book as a primer, something I could warm up with, to let me read and appreciate Dante without constantly looking in the endnotes to find my bearings.Well, it worked. Dreher’s new book is fresh and airy. It’s not an academic analysis, but the story of how his own mid-life crisis parallels Dante’s. The text is roughly equal parts Dante and Dreher, but the book overall is unquestionably about the Divine Comedy. The Dreher parts are just illustrative – his story could be replaced with mine or yours, but Dreher’s personal story nicely matches various aspects of Dante’s, and there’s a real flow to the writing. You don’t get the feeling he’s straining to make a point.
The red pill of Dante goes down very easily. But you will never be the same once you’ve swallowed it.
By the way, another reader wrote to remind me of this post on September 29, 2011, when I was still living in Philly, but had recently decided to move later in the year back to Louisiana in the wake of my sister’s passing. Excerpt:
Yesterday I was in the supermarket and spotted an interesting button on the check-out lady. It was a woodcut image of some Renaissance figure. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Dante Alighieri,” she said. And I thought: how often do you go into the store for milk and bread and run into a check-out lady wearing a Dante button? OK, yes, it was Whole Foods, but the kind of buttons you expect to see on its employees exhort you to Coexist With the Gay Married Whales, and so forth. But this was Dante!
I told her that I had never read the Divine Comedy, and that one of my great regrets about my college education was that I had never taken the famous Dante course taught at LSU by a particular professor. “We’re about to move back to Louisiana,” I said. “I’m going to look him up and see if he’s still teaching. I’ve got to get into that course.”
I looked him up online last night, and it turns out that the great man has retired. My deep loss.
I had completely forgotten about that. It was a sign, perhaps, of what was to come. Spooky action at a distance across time? (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.)
So, Houston, are you coming to see Louis Markos and Your Working Boy tonight? All the cool kids are going:
My friend the academic Catholic theologian Chris Roberts e-mails:
Last week when we had breakfast in Philadelphia, you mentioned that Ryan Anderson’s high school deleted a post praising Ryan, and that this had happened under controversial circumstances. Apparently most of this debate happened on Facebook, which I missed, since I’m not a Facebook member. I was very interested because, as you know, I admire Ryan’s work and graduated from that same high school. In the last four days, I have had the chance to read some of the articles about the situation, as well as exchange several emails with Headmaster Matt Micciche.
Headmaster Micciche asked me not to quote him publically. I agreed. But as I also told him, my words are my own, so what follows is a paraphrase of what I said to him. Please feel free to quote it on your blog if you think your readers are interested.
Here’s Chris’s letter:
Dear Headmaster Micciche,
I graduated from Friends in 1987. Like Ryan Anderson, I’m a past winner of the annual “Bliss Forbush Sr. Award For [the] Spirit of Fellowship Practiced by a Senior Throughout his or her School Life.” I mention that in order to say that, like Ryan, I thrived at the school and was happy at Friends. Also, once upon a time, it was possible for somebody like me to be a leader at the school. To this day, I wish the school well and would like to see it flourish.
I was the editor of the Quaker Quill in 1986-1987. On assignment for a journalism class, I remember going to interview Dr. Byron Forbush about a concept that had recently entered the school’s lexicon as a virtue to be cultivated. That word, reasonably new at the time but now central to the school’s identity, was “diversity.” I remember learning at Friends that among many other things, diversity meant dialogue. It meant be open to new ideas and identities, and testing them in conversation and encounter. It meant standing up to make sure all perspectives get a hearing, even unpopular ones. [I just noticed today, after my correspondence with Headmaster Micciche, that this idea is even articulated in the school’s current mission statement: “The search for truth requires a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.”]
By taking down the Facebook post praising Ryan and disavowing the possibility that his work is important, honorable, and wise, it appears that you’ve given up engaging with Ryan and his ideas. It appears that, rather than engage with Ryan’s work and what he is actually saying, you are letting the Friends School community be governed by an uninformed crowd’s emotional reaction (as you have put it, “the anguish and confusion” of many members in the community).
You could have read Ryan’s work and engaged it. You could have said “as an educational leader, I want you to know that even if you find Ryan’s conclusions distasteful, his ideas are rigorous and deserve a hearing. I’ve invited Ryan to come to school and make his case.” But you did the opposite.
Ryan’s work should not be frightening. If people are anguished by it, the fault is not Ryan’s. The whole point of the original Washington Post article was how patient and civil Ryan is. If his principled philosophical arguments cannot be engaged in an academic environment like Friends School, then the school is letting down its own ideals.
Take, for example, one idea that Ryan questions: the proposition that marriage should be modified to include same sex partners. This idea is new in our civilization and even more recent in our legal system. Whether that proposition is right or wrong, to give the idea examination in an academic manner, to give it a critical questioning, which is what Ryan does, is a legitimate exercise. That kind of discussion is what philosophers, theologians and legal scholars are supposed to do. If a student thinks such a discussion makes them personally anguished or confused, then the educator’s job is to help the student get a better purchase on what is actually at stake and return to the conversation with a clearer head. I suggest that’s especially so for people who hold progressive views at odds with Ryan’s — progressives should welcome the chance to test their ideas against the anvil of the most rigorous and civil counter-arguments. Again, that’s what academic philosophical conversation is all about, and preparing students to have that kind of discussion should be a school goal.
Ryan deserves better than the way you have treated him, and Friends School deserves better. Ryan’s arguments are honest philosophical arguments in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. Knowing how to engage this tradition ought to be a characteristic of a truly educated Friends graduate. But by forgoing that engagement, you’ve violated what I once understood to be the Quaker way of handling diversity. The Washington Post could treat Ryan with respect, so why not Friends School?
Incidentally, I agree with Ryan on the debate about marriage. I too have written widely on the question of Christian tradition, sexual ethics, and homosexuality. See here for more about my work. So that makes two of us, two Bliss Forbush award winners who once regarded our old school with affection, and who are now wondering if engaging even unpopular ideas with respect is still possible at the school.
Christopher C. Roberts, class of 1987
From Uncle Chuckie, the Patriarch of Cosimanian Orthodoxy. It really is hard to imagine any review of How Dante Can Save Your Life meaning more to me personally than this one. I’m actually not kidding. Excerpt:
It is easy to dislike Rod. I certainly did when I first read his blog on Beliefnet. He came across as a reincarnation of Cotton Mather. And no doubt he repaid the compliment wondering how he had managed to attract this inhuman monster. But years have a way of sanding down the rough surfaces and the illness and death of his sister were a veritable belt sander. In this book he tells of one exchange where his sister calls him “holier than thou.” He was taken aback by it but his sister was right. He was! And in the beliefnet days I took great pleasure in poking holes in that holiness. But with time a funny thing happened. We got used to each other. He found that he could joke about me and I would not get mad. I enjoyed it. And I would joke back. This puzzles some close friends of mine who cannot understand why I like his blog so much. It is not just that I have a soft spot for lunatics, and Rod can do a good imitation of a lunatic at times, but I’ve seen the man in his writings and the change in the man.
This book is the culmination of that change and the story of it. Join Dante on his trip. You will not find everything to your liking. You will find things that you cannot accept. But that is ok. Take what is given as you find use for it and discard what you cannot.
And now a bit of a personal afterword. Rod was so moved by his experience that last year he made a pilgrimage to Florence and the surrounding countryside, visiting all the Dante sites. I, of course, had to make a joke that he should visit the spot where they burned Savonarola and to my surprise he did, and when he did, he remembered to say a prayer for me, an act he repeated later. I have friends, who not understanding, would be offended at that. They are foolish. Rod could have given me, the Terrible Uncle Chuckie, no greater gift. Not that I am likely to convert or anything, but the fact that he saw fit to remember me at what for him was the pilgrimage of his life, giving thanks to the man, long dead, for saving his life.
And so now I return the favor. Thank you Dante, not only for your poem, but for keeping Rod alive.
Thank you, Uncle Chuckie. You made me happy.
I really do pray for Uncle Chuckie. I always assumed my prayers bounced off his psionics helmet, but this review is evidence that they get through sometimes. Heh.
I just spent a wonderful hour drinking coffee with Prof. Vittorio Montemaggi, a Dantist here at Notre Dame. We talked about You Know Who. Vittorio said that he’s been reading Dante since he was twelve years old, and was introduced to the Commedia by his father. To have grown up with Dante — what a privilege. I felt that we only scratched the surface in the hour we had, but I especially liked what the professor had to say about the importance of coming to Dante not as an analyst — though of course that’s precisely what scholars like him must do — but as a fellow pilgrim. You must walk through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in Dante’s shoes to understand what the poet is trying to say.
Vittorio also said that one of the most important things Dante teaches is that religion is not so much about doctrine but rather about what we do — and also about the encounter with God. I told him how much I had learned about this point from living and practicing as an Orthodox Christian, which heavily emphasizes the mystical encounter with God, resulting in achieving metaphysical union with Him, which we call theosis. It was shocking to me, I told Vittorio, to begin reading Paradiso and to see Dante speaking openly about theosis as the ultimate goal of the Christian pilgrimage.
“I spent 13 years as a highly engaged Catholic, and I never knew this was in the Catholic tradition,” I told him.
Vittorio, who is Catholic, said that theosis was very much in the writings and thoughts of the Church Fathers, but that it’s sadly true that the West has lost the ability to understand the faith and the Christian journey in this way. It’s my hope that reading How Dante Can Save Your Life will help Western Christians — Catholics and Protestants — rediscover this older, patristic understanding of holiness. [UPDATE: I'm saying here that this is buried within the general historical Christian tradition, and it is possible that non-Orthodox Christians, especially, of course, Catholics, can profit from learning more about it. -- RD]
I was disappointed not to be able to meet on this trip Notre Dame professor Christian Moevs, who is one of the top Dantists in the country, and a friend and colleague of Vittorio’s. He is out of town today. But Prof. Moevs e-mailed this morning about How Dante:
It is indeed very beautiful! It’s deeply engaging reading as well. A page turner on Dante! A real one! You do exactly what must be done with Dante to make him come alive, and show this is not outdated dogma and abstractions but living practical reality. I love the way you interweave the key elements, mirroring in the book how they work together and came together for you: reading Dante, relating to family and others, spiritual counsel, and psychotherapy. All that has to go together, and Dante is a way of putting it all together. It’s all about coming to ever deeper and truer self-awareness, which is the same as growing in wisdom and love.
(A non-academic friend also wrote today to say he had just finished reading the book. His judgment: “Fresh, I guess, is the word. I figured something about Dante would be morose and dusty and stale – my general impression of anything from Gilgamesh up to and including The Scarlet Letter.” Nope, not How Dante; it’s a book written for people who are disinclined to read Dante, because they think the Commedia is morose and dusty and stale.)
I’m so humbled by and grateful for both critical opinions, especially Prof. Moevs’ particularly because his book about Dante’s metaphysics was a tremendous help to me in writing How Dante Can Save Your Life. Unfortunately, he’s out of town tonight and won’t be at the lecture, but some of his students will be.
Are you in South Bend? Come here me talk at 5pm — just over an hour from now. Books will be on sale there, and I’ll hang out signing them:
Later this week, I’m speaking at the Q Conference in Boston — from what I can tell, it’s TED for Evangelicals, but focusing on religion and culture – about the Benedict Option: what it is, and why it’s needed right now. As longtime readers know, I’ve been talking about this for years, but I’ve been more or less vague about it, mostly because I haven’t felt the urgent need to focus on it. That has changed, and in preparation for this talk, and the book I am soon to undertake, I’ve been doing a lot more reading.
Today at Notre Dame, I’ve had a few casual conversations with students, professors, and even tonight at vespers, with a friar, and I’m really taken aback by how much the Indiana blow-up has shaken people. There is real fear for religious liberty now, and they are right to be afraid. The feeling seems to be that the Left has all the momentum now, and they’re not going to stop at anything. I’m hearing conversations now — serious conversations by serious people — about the need to prepare for job losses, the pulling of professional licenses, the closing of institutions, capitulations, and personal attacks on oneself and ones family and friends.
One person I talked to brought up an idea that seemed fanciful, and I said, “Do you really think something like that would happen?”
“I don’t think anything is off the table anymore,” he said. And I had to agree.
Anyway, I’m not going to give too much away from my Boston talk here, but I did want to make note of something really interesting I discovered in the past few days from my reading, thinking, and writing the speech.
What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what me must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given. As Jonathan Wilson has pointed out about the New Monasticism movement (a form of the Benedict Option), the church must do this not to hide away as a pure remnant — the church would be unfaithful to Christ if it did so — but to strengthen itself to be the church for the world.
From reading James K.A. Smith, Jonathan Wilson, Alasdair MacIntyre and others, I made a list of the kinds of things a Benedict Option community — a church or a parachurch group, that sort of thing — would need to do.
First, it should have worship that is heavily embodied — gotten out of one’s head. That means ritualistic. It needs to be worship that gets into the bones of the worshipers. It needs to be liturgical, because liturgies build in practices, habits of prayer that train the heart in ways of loving. If we want to thicken our commitment to our community and its way of life, we have to train our hearts through worship. (Read Jamie Smith on the meaning and power of cultural liturgies.)
Second, it should be disciplined, and ascetically oriented, because asceticism trains the passions.
Third, it should have a strong pastor, a strong creed, and enforce it. Communities with weak pastor, weak creeds or weak corporate commitments to creeds will be too feeble to stand up.
Fourth, it should demand serious, steady involvement. The community is going to have to be the center of your life, not just something you do on Sunday.
The ethos of the community is going to have to be one of pilgrimage, of constant moving forward in discipleship. It’s not going to work if church is only a place to go to feel good without having to be challenged to change your life. The pastor is going to have to be engaged as a leader committed to guiding his flock toward deeper conversion, not just gladhanding them and given winsome sermons about nothing much.
And the Benedict Option church, school, or community is going to have to be open to outsiders who are interested, but must not change its practices to be “seeker friendly”.
Finally, it needs to be mission-minded, and that mission has to be the search for holiness, which is to say, to find unity with God. All the evangelizing and good works done by the congregations must be subordinate to the prime love, which is of God.
The other day, in a Dante Q&A, I told the questioner that even though the dream of perfect reconciliation I had with my family when I moved back to south Louisiana did not work out, I was not going to leave Louisiana. The main reason for this, I said, was one that I never anticipated: I found a church, and a church family.
Tonight, putting together this speech, I realized hey, we have a Benedict Option church, and didn’t even mean to. We’re small, we’re poor, but we’re faithfully Orthodox, and we’re going to make it. Man, we’re lucky. We work hard to keep the St. John the Theologian mission going, but it is a stronghold.
I’m taking my stand there. I have made more progress towards healing and wholeness in the past two years at that mission than at any time in my life. St. John the Theologian Mission really is a “school for conversion,” to use St. Benedict’s phrase from his Rule. Without even knowing what we were doing, and by following standard Orthodox liturgical and spiritual practices, we have built a community institution that, in my view, keeps its members focused on what the church is for.
UPDATE: There’s a reason why I said that you should read that James K.A. Smith link about his ideas of “liturgy.” James is a Reformed Protestant who is strong in that church (I’ve talked to him personally; he’s interested in learning from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but he’s committed to the Reformed tradition). He does not advocate that everybody must convert to a more liturgically committed tradition; rather, his point is that liturgical practices — and he uses the term broadly — are part of what it means to be human, and that the broader culture has its own “liturgies” that form our hearts. The churches must recognize that life is essentially liturgical, and respond by changing the way it worships to inculcate practices that form our souls, not just train our minds. I am not telling you readers to convert to Orthodoxy; I’m saying that I was startled as I started reading and preparing for this talk to discover that my own little parish has been doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing on this front. There’s no reason why people in other churches cannot adapt at least some of these practices to their own congregations.
More Jamie Smith here: