Rod Dreher

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Faithful Ginger


“Who is that dog at the back door?” I asked Julie this morning.

“Awww, that’s Ginger. She belongs to [a family that lives half a mile down the road]. She’s the sweetest thing. Her best friend used to live here.”

“The family we bought the house from?”

“Yes. She loved playing with their dog. Every now and then she will show up and just wait for her old friend to come out. She doesn’t know that he’s gone.”

Ginger stayed on the back porch almost all day long. Below, a photo of her I took this morning. Above, I managed to get out little chicken-turd-eating rascal Roscoe in the frame. Ginger had moved around to the front porch. It’s been raining all afternoon, which is why the window looks like it does. Roscoe has been growling and ready for a fight all day long, but that sweet old Ginger just sits out there looking like Labrador retrievers all do, like the best friend of everybody in the world. She doesn’t know that she hopes in vain for her buddy to come out and play.


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Ferguson: A View From County Kildare

If you read nothing else about Ferguson — and especially if you are reading other things about Ferguson — read Brian Kaller’s excellent TAC essay about what’s happened to the St. Louis suburb. He grew up in the town next door, and his grandparents lived in Ferguson. Brian now lives in rural Ireland, in County Kildare. He says that the media are going to Ferguson and seeing only what they want to see; that Americans, on the left and the right, are making of Ferguson an icon that confirms what they prefer to believe about race and crime in America.

The most interesting part of his essay is Brian’s talking about what Ferguson looks like from where he lives in the Irish countryside. Excerpt:

When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordinance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor. They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate. Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.

Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few. Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world. They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police. Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief. Guns were unknown except for hunting in season. Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life or themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers. People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.

I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago. Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.

Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors. Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs. Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.

Low incomes carry a social stigma, yet traditional means of saving money or being more self-sufficient are often socially discouraged or even legally prohibited. Many Americans feel their main emotional connections to and through electronic media, and they are the most heavily medicated people in history. Perhaps these things seem irrelevant to police vs. rioters in Ferguson, but that’s the point. When something like this happens, the left and right argue about how to change institutions’ top-down policies toward handling people, not to give people less cause to be handled.

Read the whole thing. And check out Brian Kaller’s blog.

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Paradiso, Canto XXVI

To sum up the meaning of Cantos 24, 25, and 26: Just as the penitent Dante cannot ascend the mount of Purgatory without first climbing the three steps representing recognition of one’s condition as a sinner, confession of one’s sins, and resolution to turn from those sins (Purgatorio Canto IX is all about this), so must Dante now, if he would mount the summit of Paradise, affirm that he has acquired the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.

This comes, of course, from the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he said that faith, hope, and love were the three virtues that believers must demonstrate as a sign of their redemption. In fact, you can’t understand the meaning of the Commedia without knowing I Corinthians 13, which says that all forms of human knowledge are mortal and incomplete; only love never fails. That is, when the day of resurrection comes, and we are fully restored to God, we will have no need for faith or for hope. But we will see that the love we had in this life is the only thing that remains, because it is the nature of the God with whom we will be joined. But for now, says St. Paul, “these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

Having passed his examinations on Faith and Hope, Dante must now answer an examination on Love. Before we go further, it is important to note that the word “love” in I Corinthians 13 is imprecise. What St. Paul actually wrote in Greek was “caritas,” which means “charity.” It is the highest form of love, a love that is rooted in God. Pope Benedict XVI, in his great 2005 encyclical Deus caritas est, draws the necessary distinctions. It is worth quoting at length:

True, no one has ever seen God as he is. And yet God is not totally invisible to us; he does not remain completely inaccessible. God loved us first, says the Letter of John quoted above (cf. 4:10), and this love of God has appeared in our midst. He has become visible in as much as he “has sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). God has made himself visible: in Jesus we are able to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Indeed, God is visible in a number of ways. In the love-story recounted by the Bible, he comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross, to his appearances after the Resurrection and to the great deeds by which, through the activity of the Apostles, he guided the nascent Church along its path. Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church’s Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first”, love can also blossom as a response within us.

In the gradual unfolding of this encounter, it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man’s potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved. But this encounter also engages our will and our intellect. Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the “yes” of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all- embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never “finished” and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. Idem velle atque idem nolle —to want the same thing, and to reject the same thing—was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self- abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy (cf. Ps 73 [72]:23-28).

And this:

If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its real- ism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

For the Christian, caritas is the highest form of love, a love that is active, and communal. It may be said to combine eros with agape, and to transcend them both. Caritas is the love that unites heaven and earth, and that makes faith and hope real. If we do not love our fellow man actively, we do not love God. For Dante, faith, hope, and love (charity) exist in dynamic relationship, in the same way that we exist in dynamic relationship with God and each other. Pope Benedict XVI again:

Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practised through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God’s mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness. Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory. Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world.

You are thinking: what does all this have to do with Dante? Hold on, we’re getting there.

Canto 26 begins with Dante temporarily blinded by St. John, who tells him:

“Until you have regained the sight

you have consumed on me, you will do well

to make good for its loss with speech.

“Begin, and tell me what goal your soul has set.

And be assured that your power of sight

is but confounded, not forever lost…”

Dante has been blinded because he must not rely on his senses to account for love. St. John goes on to liken his temporary blindness to St. Paul’s being struck blind on the road to Damascus, which was the occasion of his conversion. Dante here is being blinded so that he can better see the ultimate truth of love, which must be approached through the senses, but cannot ever be fully known by them.

St. John tells Dante that Beatrice will be his Ananias, the Christian in Damascus through whom God healed Paul of his blindness. Dante replies:

And I said: “As soon or as late as she wishes,

may the cure come to eyes that were the portals

she entered with the fire in which I always burn…”

This is important. When Dante first saw Beatrice, he burned with eros. Because of his purification via his journey through Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory, he now sees her with the eyes of true love, which is charity. The broader point here is that we first learn to love with our senses — our sight, our hearing, our touch, taste, and smell. Our desire must be purified, and rightly ordered, to come to a proper fruition. As we have seen throughout the pilgrim’s journey, sin is a disharmony that comes into the world by mankind loving the wrong things, or loving the right things in the wrong way. What Beatrice taught Dante when they met in the Garden of Eden atop Mount Purgatory is that he loved her in the wrong way. If he had loved her properly, he would have seen her not as an end in herself, an object of passion, but as a fellow subject in the Kingdom of God. It’s no wonder, then, that after she died, Dante, misunderstanding the nature of love, sought to fulfill his longing for love by searching after false goods. Beatrice was an icon of Christ, through which God’s love shone. But Dante couldn’t see it. He made of her an idol, and suffered when she “fell,” that is, died.

I’m sorry for taking all these seeming detours here, but it’s so important that we understand what Dante the poet means by love, given that his pursuit of love is what this quest is all about. Let’s go back to our study of Canto XXX of Purgatorio, and read what the Dante translator Andrew Frisardi has to say about Dante and love, in his discussion of Dante’s pre-Commedia memoir, the Vita nova. Excerpt:

A principal theme of the Vita nova is the human tendency to confuse the visibility of things with their actuality. In medieval Christian thought, and indeed in the thought of most times and places, the “real world” was not the one of external phenomena, which was known as the world of appearances, but the eternal one of the gods or God. By “eternal” was meant that which is neither coming into existence nor going out of existence. What was considered most real was the essential being of things in the mind of God, self-subsistent Being-Intellect. Each thing that exists does so only as “a qualification or participation” in pure awareness or Intellect, which is not a “thing” but is “the active power to be everything and nothing.” Only God truly is, all else merely participates in this Reality. The world is radically contingent, dependent in every instant on what gives it being. The creation, then, was considered to be essentially knowledge, and the intelligibility of things was thought to be ontologically prior to their sensible manifestation. Modern thinking, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that the real is matter, which is the fundamental thing onto which all else is added. We see this, for example, in empirical science’s notion that we move toward what is essential when we reduce experience and things to matter, disregarding mind, intelligence, and being as merely accidental, subjective effects brought about by material causes. This is the reverse of the medieval view. For the medieval mind, that which is most knowing (God) is that which is most real or actual.

Frisardi continues, saying that even though Dante’s theological views had considerably deepened by the time he wrote the Commedia, we can still see in Vita nova that the young poet had been reflecting on the things of God:

Already in the Vita nova, Dante would have agreed with Hugh of St. Victor, when he wrote: “But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book, looks at the figures, but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish and natural man, who does not perceive the things of God, sees outwardly in these visible creatures the appearance but does not inwardly understand the reason.” Augustine applies the same concept explicitly to love, making the Christian distinction between eros and agape or caritas: “I mean by caritas that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of oneself and one’s neighbor in subordination to God; by lust [cupiditas] I mean that movement of the soul which aims at enjoying oneself and one’s neighbor and other corporeal things without reference to God.” Dante and Marsilio Ficino and the Renaissance Neoplatonists bear witness to the fact that there is a tradition within Christianity that seeks a fusion of eros and agape, a Christian tantra of sorts, which attempts to channel and concentrate erotic desire for the sake of a Christ-centered spiritual intensity and focus. It is a spiritualization or interiorization of beauty and sensual pleasure, which in turn requires making a distinction between icon and idol. An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the intelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon — our approach to it is what makes the difference. [Emphasis mine -- RD] As William Blake expressed it, one can see through the eye rather than with it.

So. In everyday life, we first have to see something to love it, though that initial love that comes into our hearts through the portals of our eyes may become perverted (that is, it may lose the straight path). Remember how in Purgatorio, before he could love the virtues, Dante had to first see them depicted in beautiful art? This is what the poet is telling us here: that we learn to love first through our senses. But those senses only crudely approximate what is really Real. We err when we think that our senses alone are reliable guides to the Real. This is what asceticism teaches us: to re-order the relationship between flesh and spirit. Losing our mortal senses prepares us to see and to comprehend revelation.

In giving his account of love to St. John, Dante does not use a formulaic description, as he did with Faith and Hope. He declares that Love is the Ultimate Good, “the Alpha and Omega of whatever scripture Love teaches me in loud or gentle tones.” Christ calls himself the “Alpha and the Omega,” meaning the first and the last. It is a way of stating His completeness. In St. John’s Gospel — and remember to whom Dante is speaking here — the Gospel writer says of Jesus, Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” What the pilgrim Dante is saying here is that he came to believe in God through the revelation of Scripture, and came to love God through the application of Reason. If God is the source of all Creation, then He must be good, and not only good, but the supreme good, worthy of love. Hence Dante:

“Both philosophic reasoning

and the authority that descends from here

made me receive the imprint of love

“for the good, by measure of its goodness, kindles

love as soon as it is known, and so much more

the more of goodness it contains.

To that essence, then, which holds such store of goodness

that every good outside of it is nothing

but a light reflected of its rays.”

God is the Source for all things. When we perceive the world and everything in it, and do not perceive the world as an icon of God, then we see wrongly. No good thing can be separate from God; no thing can be identified as good if it is not of God.

Our love of created things — of other people, of food, of sex, of adventure, et cetera — is where we first learn what love is, but it must not stop there, or we make idols of our loves, as Dante had done, landing himself in the Dark Wood. Dante says it was rational faith in Christ that drew him out of that disorder, “from the sea of twisted love, and brought me to the shore were loves is just.” Similarly, faith is absolutely necessary to have a relationship with God — Reason alone cannot get you to God; if it could Virgil would be in Paradise — but Reason is also an instrument of the God. Says Pope Benedict XVI:

Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.

Not for nothing does the poet have his pilgrim self address St. John here. The first line of John’s Gospel calls Jesus the Logos, or Word. Jesus is the principle of rationality in the cosmos, of creativity, the personification of the Holy Trinity’s wish to communicate. The Divine Logos appears in all Creation, which reflects the light of its rays. Because God is, in essence, Love, then the only way to know the Logos, says Dante, “must, more than anything, be moved by love.” In other words, you must first love God before you can understand God. And God, because He is Love, will not force Himself on man, because love cannot be compelled.

But the world did not understand the Word, according to St. John. The Word — Jesus — came “as a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” See what’s happening here in this canto? Dante is temporarily blinded; he is in darkness, but he is demonstrating that he comprehends the Light, even though he cannot see. In his wonderful Christmas 2005 homily, the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright told his congregation that the failure of listeners — listeners in Jesus’s day, listeners in our own time — to hear the Word is at the heart of the drama of Christianity. Excerpt:

Unless we recognise this strange, dark strand running through the gospel we will domesticate John’s masterpiece (just as we’re always in danger of domesticating Christmas), and think it’s only about comfort and joy, not also about incomprehension and rejection and darkness and denial and stopping the ears and judgment.  Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right.  John’s gospel isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying ‘Of course!  Why didn’t we realise it before?’  It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, and the darkness not comprehending it.  It’s about God, God-as-a-little-child, speaking the word of truth, and nobody knowing what he’s talking about.

There may be somebody here this morning who is aware of that puzzlement, that incomprehension, that sense of a word being spoken which seems as though it ought to mean something but which remains opaque to you.  If that’s where you are, the good news is that along with this theme of incomprehension and rejection there goes the parallel theme of people hearing and receiving Jesus’ words, believing them and discovering, as he says, that they are spirit and life (6.63), breathing into the dry, dead fabric of our being and producing new life, new birth, new creation.  ‘As many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, who were born not of human will or flesh, but of God’.  ‘If you abide in my words, you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free’ (8.31f.).  ‘If anyone keeps my words, that person will never see death’ (8.51).  ‘You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you’ (15.3).  Don’t imagine that the world divides naturally into those who can understand what Jesus is saying that those who can’t.  By ourselves, we none of us can.  Jesus is born into a world where everyone is deaf and blind to him and what he’s saying; but some, in fear and trembling, allow his words to challenge, rescue, heal and transform them.  That is what’s on offer at Christmas; not a better focussed religion for those who already like that sort of thing, but a Word which is incomprehensible in our language but which, when we learn to hear, understand and believe it, will transform our whole selves with its judgment and mercy.

Bishop Wright’s Christmas sermon helps us understand the rest of this canto. Having passed the test, Dante regains his vision, then is shown a light that Beatrice identifies as Adam. Reading the pilgrim’s mind, Adam tells Dante he knows what his questions are. They include wanting to know why he (Adam) was thrown out of the Garden, and “the language that I used and that I shaped.”

Adam tells Dante that his exile came because he “trespass[ed] the boundary line.” Adam says this in a single tercet, but the implications for the entire poem are enormous. The Yale Dantist Giuseppe Mazzotta compares this with Inferno Canto XXVI, where Dante meets the explorer Ulysses, damned because he cast aside all boundaries in his craving for knowledge.

“God’s imposition of the boundary between the human and the divine was a way of letting Adam know that he had to be aware of his limitations,” says Mazzotta. Adam’s fall re-established limits Adam thought he could transgress. The quest was for knowledge, the knowledge that only God has. It was curiosity, but mostly, it was pride. We can only be with God, and only be as God if we unite ourselves to Him according to His ordering of the cosmos, not ours. As Mazzotta puts it, “We have to grow into a recognition of boundaries between ourselves and something that we aspire to but have not yet attained.”

Adam lived in primordial unity with God because he accepted this rightly-ordered relationship with Him. When Adam fell — and we may, of course, see Adam and the Fall as a mythological expression of the loss of unity with God, which was a real event — he fell into darkness. To be cast out of the Garden is to be thrown into the Dark Wood. The only way back is through Christ. We cannot get there on our own, but it’s also the case that God will not force us to accept Him and the Way. We have to cooperate with grace by opening ourselves up to the process of illumination. This is through prayer, fasting, and repentance — and through acts of charity, which reveal how much we love God.

I confess that pilgrim Dante’s query of Adam about language puzzled me. What does the language spoke by Adam have to do with anything? Gradually, through researching this canto, I found the answer.

Adam tells Dante that there was no primordial language that existed before the Tower of Babel, the story from Genesis about how God punished the people of the earth for their hubris by scattering them and giving them different tongues. What Adam means by this is that there never has been any language capable of fully conveying the Truth:

“For nothing ever produced by reason –

since human tastes reflect the motion

of the moving stars — can last forever…

There are no words capable of expressing the Word in its fullness. It is part of our condition of exile that we speak in different tongues, and that we cannot ever express in word what we know to be true. Think of what it means for a poet, especially one as great as Dante, and as confident in his own powers as Dante, to express this thought. We have seen Dante struggle throughout the Paradiso to find the language capable of capturing what he sees — and often he admits that there simply are no words. We have reached the limit of what can be known by merely human means. To believe that we are capable of knowing everything through our own reason is to transgress a fundamental boundary. It is what got Adam thrown out of the Garden. It is what caused the people of Babel to be struck down in confusion. It is what condemned Ulysses to death and damnation.

It is a temptation that is always with mankind. Once again, let me return to Pope Benedict XVI, whose writing I have become more familiar with as I have made this pilgrimage through Dante, and for whom I am praying for the chance to meet and to thank when I go to Italy in October (it would be a miracle, but God grants them sometimes). This is from God And The World, a book-length series of interviews then-Cardinal Ratzinger did with the journalist Peter Seewald, which were published in English in the year 2000. The quote is long, and I am sorry that this post is turning mostly into a clip job, but the points are so vital to get clear, and the voices of these others is so much stronger than my own:

Ratzinger: The Christian picture of the world is this, that the world in its details is the product of a long process of evolution but that the most profound level it comes form the Logos. Thus it carries rationality within itself, not just a mathematical rationality — no one can deny that the world is mathematically structured — not, that is to say, just an entirely neutral, objective rationality, but in the form of the Logos also a moral rationality.

Seewald: But how can we know that with such certainty?

Creation itself offers indications as to how it should be understood and upon what terms it should be accepted. This can be obvious even to non-Christians. But faith helps us recognize the clear truth that in the rationality of creation is to be found not only a mathematical message, but a moral message.

Ratzinger says the promptings of conscience are a sign of the moral law written on our hearts. Through the process of education, we learn to refine these intuitions — and this is “one part” of the path to Christ, of illumination. But we can never get there on our own, because our knowledge is always only partial. Ratzinger says that the Tower of Babel myth reminds us of the disaster we court when we come to believe that our own abilities — in the case of the people of Babel, their ability to construct a tower they believed could reach heaven — can make us like God. The fall of the Tower of Babel is a replay of the Fall of Adam, which was a replay of the Fall of Lucifer. Says Cardinal Ratzinger, of the Tower of Babel myth:

Basically this is the same as the dream of modern technology: possessing divine power, being able to get at the controls of the world itself. In this way, these images truly embody warnings from a primitive knowledge that can still speak to us.

But why language? In the myth, why does God punish man by making everyone speak a different language? Because the ability to communicate universally is connected with the belief that mankind is the master of its own fate. Because they could understand each other, they thought they could understand and master everything. Ratzinger:

We can perhaps interpret this image in this way: In Babel, both the unity of mankind and the temptation to become like God, and to reach up to his height, are linked solely with technical ability. But unity on this basis, we are being told here, will not hold and leads to confusion.

… We can say that the story of the Tower of Babel takes a critical view of a certain way of uniting the ways in which man arranges his life and his world, a way that achieves only apparent unity and only seems to make man greater. In reality, it robs him of his depth and of his greatness. Besides this, it makes him dangerous, because, on the one hand, he has great power, but, on the other, his moral capacity lags behind his technical capacity. Moral strength has not grown in correspondence with the power to make or destroy things that man now has. That is why God intervenes to oppose this kind of unification and is creating unity of a quite different kind.

Cardinal Ratzinger compares Babel to Pentecost, the day in which the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of the Resurrected Christ, and caused them to speak different languages, not as a punishment but as a manifestation of holiness. It is the day that the Church was born:

Multiplicity remains, but it is now transformed, by a unity at hear, into an inner unity. Pentecost shows the opposite pattern to the Tower of Babel: a unity in which all the richness of humanity is preserved. God does wish for unity. It is to that end that his whole activity in history is directed; to that end Christ came into the world; to that end he created the Church. But he wishes for a unity that is both higher and more profound.

If you’ve been following our reading of Paradiso on this blog, you’ll recognize that this is exactly the picture of the cosmos that Dante has been portraying: unity not as uniformity, but as harmony. We become our true selves not by speaking the same language — an artificial outer unity — but by speaking the inner language of faith, hope, and above all, love. Love is a language for which there are no adequate words, or sounds, or images. Because God is Love, we can hardly begin to testify to the power and the reality of the Ultimate Love through any creation of human hands. We must accept the limits of what we can know in this life, and not transgress the boundaries. Every human thing must be situated within God’s order if it is to be good. If it is not ordered by God, by divine Love, it is “twisted love,” and it can only result in shipwreck.

What does this mean for us — for you, for me? There is no formula for living. The words of the Bible, the words of the liturgy, the beauty of all things, are nothing if they do not bring us into unity with God, the sign of which is caritas in our hearts and lives. The words of all the poets, the pigments of all the painters, the stone of all the sculptors, the movements of all the dancers, only have validity insofar as they reveal and participate in Being, which is to say, the life of God. Christian Moevs writes in the introduction to his book on Dante’s metaphysics:

A text will reveal being only if it is in some sense transparent to (embodies) what is, pure love/awareness: the text in this sense will not be other than the reality that spawns (dictates) it.

If you want to live in Truth, then, you will live in God. Dramas and doctrines, lyrics and liturgies, all of it matters only insofar as it manifests the presence of the living God. They are not important because they tell us about God; they are important if they open the doors of perception for us to experience God, because the transforming, deifying experience of the living God is the realest thing there is. This is what true knowledge consists of: not superior intellection, but unity with God. We first come to love God through loving the things He has created, especially other people — this is the fire that Beatrice sent through Dante’s eyes into his heart — but as we grow in the spirit, we come to understand that those created things are only icons, doors into the Real. When we love them, we don’t have to understand them to be in relationship with them. Insofar as we truly understand, it is through love, though loving does not give us comprehension. In the darkness of this life, we cannot hope to comprehend the light, but we can hope to merge with it.

It all sounds impossibly metaphysical, but it boils down to this: if you want to love anything, first love God — but understand Who God is, and is not. He is in the Church, but He is not the Church. He is in theological principles, but He is not theological principles. He is in the liturgy, but He is not the liturgy. He is in good food, beautiful architecture, angelic-sounding symphonies, but He is not those things. He is in especially in acts of compassion and mercy and forgiveness, but they are not Him. We cannot look on Him directly, but we may know him by analogy — through works of beauty and acts of charity. We must strive in our everyday lives to live in unity with Him, by consecrating our words, our thoughts, and our deeds to achieving that unity with Him, the one Adam lost by transgressing the boundary out of love of Self.


And so we conclude the story of the virtues found in Cantos 24, 25, and 26. Dante uses theology and examination of theology only to place us back in this world, where we go on believing, hoping, and loving. we come to realize that these are all mysterious terms, which can only function together, and each is understood in terms of the other, for there is no love without faith in an ongoing circulation. Where we have hope as the realization of faith, and love as the realization of hope, the meaning that mysteriously escapes us no longer matters.

One who loves as God loves does not need explanations. He is like the father of the Prodigal Son, who did not demand an accounting of his penitent son’s journey, but only gave thanks that he was once again united with the one he loved.

In the past, I thought that if only I created the perfect moment, I would be happy. If I lived in the perfect city, if I married the perfect woman, if I had the perfect job, if I joined the perfect church, if I could go on a perfect vacation and drink the perfect wine, if I could have perfect relationship with my family, if I could behave with perfect morality and honor — if I could have and do all of these things, then I would be happy. And at the very end, it came down to: if I could be welcomed home, having completed the circle, then that would make me happiest. But it did not happen, because none of it is possible. It was in the pain that came from the breaking of those dreams, the smashing of those idols, that I became blind enough to begin to see.


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When The West Had An ISIS

William III (1659-1702), Prince of Orange. Stadtholder, since 1689 also king of England. Willem Wissing. Wikimedia Commons
William III (1659-1702), Prince of Orange. Stadtholder, since 1689 also king of England. Willem Wissing. Wikimedia Commons

Michael Brendan Dougherty remembers when the English state and its religious manifestation, the Church of England, behaved like ISIS toward the Irish:

Convert, leave, or die. That’s the trio of awful options ISS is giving to Christians in Iraq.

Sadly, there’s an all-too-familiar ring to this ultimatum. These were the exact options given to all Catholic clergy in Ireland when England instituted the penal laws against Catholics several hundred years ago.

When William of Orange defeated his father-in-law, the deposed King James II, along with his Irish Catholic allies at the Boyne in 1690, Parliament was determined that an Irish Catholic uprising never threaten their rule again, and so they passed penal laws, or “papist codes.” As author Thomas Keneally put it, these codes were “aimed at keeping the native Irish powerless, poor, and stupid.”

The details of these laws should still shock us.

Read his column, and you’ll be shocked, I guarantee. I hadn’t realized the laws were so harsh (nor had I realized that the Penal Laws also applied to Presbyterians). MBD says that the parallels with ISIS are not perfect, but close enough to make us reflect.

I do hate the knee-jerk attitude many left-of-center people take toward stories of Islamist atrocities. I offered a definition of this phenomenon a while back, based on observations about the phenomenon made by this blog’s frequent commenter, Erin Manning:

Manning’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law: In any online conversation about an incident of violence perpetrated by adherents of Islamic fundamentalism, the conversation will inevitably devolve into claims that Christians commit the same type and degree of violent acts, regardless of how demonstrably false that is; further, the claim will be made that past historical violence involving Christians means that present-day Christians are morally incapable of denouncing current violence involving Muslims.

I don’t think MBD is at all engaging in Manning’s Corollary in his column. He points out that the process of expelling the spirit of religious hatred that manifested itself in the Penal Laws took hundreds of years to be accomplished:

Over 300 years passed between the Boyne and the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which seems to have been the final extinguishment of violent religious hostility and counter-attack in Ireland. If the past teaches us anything, we have many generations of misery to go in the Middle East.

And we could talk about the Catholic French crown’s persecution of the Huguenots, if you like. Or the Russian Orthodox Church’s persecution of the Old Believers.

The point is not to engage in an intra-religious neener-neener contest, but rather to reflect, as MBD does, on humanity’s chronic penchant for religious violence.  I think it should also be noted, and noted strongly, that the absence of religion doesn’t make people less likely to murder the Other. The Catholic-vs-Protestant civil war in Northern Ireland — the Troubles — was not really a religious conflict at all, but an ethno-nationalist one. (The original IRA was Marxist.) The anti-religious French revolutionaries, those paragons of Enlightenment, were utter savages toward Christians. Messianic secular ideologies — Nazism and Communism — killed far, far more people in the 20th century than did any religious ideology ever did.

But then, Nazism and Communism were political ideologies that had all the trappings of religion. The English political philosopher John Gray points out that ISIS has more in common with 20th century secular political fanaticism than with traditional religion. Excerpt:

Though al-Baghdadi constantly invokes the early history of Islam, the society he envisions has no precedent in history. It’s much more like the impossible state of utopian harmony that western revolutionaries have projected into the future. Some of the thinkers who developed radical Islamist ideas are known to have been influenced by European anarchism and communism, especially by the idea that society can be reshaped by a merciless revolutionary vanguard using systematic violence. The French Jacobins and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guards all used terror as a way of cleansing humanity of what they regarded as moral corruption.

Isis shares more with this modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West.

Gray makes an important point here (emphasis mine):

It’s sometimes suggested that ideology played no real part in the invasion of Iraq – grabbing the country’s oil was what it was all about. No doubt geopolitical calculation played a part, but I think an idea of what it means to be modern was more important. The politicians and opinion-formers who clamoured for the invasion believed that all modern societies are evolving towards a single form of government – the type that exists in western countries. If only tyranny was swept away in Iraq, the country would move towards democracy and the rest of the Middle East would follow. Until just a few months ago, some were convinced that a similar process could take place in Syria.

The truth that Gray sees is that ISIS is not a throwback to the seventh century; it is in fact very modern. We in the West can’t see that because our idea of what it means to be modern has to do with secularism, and the separation of Church (Mosque) and State. I think Gray, an unbeliever who has been highly critical of the Ditchkins-style atheists,  would argue — see his book Black Mass — that modernity has been characterized by utopianism shorn of its religious trappings and reified as a political goal. Gray recalls that Lenin once said that the failure of the French Revolution was not to have guillotined more of its opponents for the sake of creating a new France. Writes Gray, ”Russia’s misfortune was not in failing to absorb the Enlightenment but in being exposed to the Enlightenment in one of its most virulent forms.” He calls Islamic radicalism in our day not Islamofascism, but “Islamo-Jacobinism.” In his criticism of the Iraq War, Gray characterized liberal democrats like George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and their followers as utopians whose idea of utopia is universal liberal democracy. Just because a crusade is not framed by its architects in religious terms does not mean it lacks a religious core. The communists who preached and who advocated worldwide revolution were every bit as religious in their mode of thought and being as any Muslim revolutionary ready to fight and die for the worldwide caliphate.

It’s hard to know quite how to characterize Muslim groups like ISIS, given that Islam itself sees no distinction between mosque and state. Is ISIS the same old Islam in a new, vicious, and paradoxically modern form? Is it something different, and only superficially religious? Or is this a distinction without a difference? Something in me recoils whenever I hear a bien-pensant, Muslims and non-Muslims both, react to this or that Islamist atrocity by saying that such people are not true Muslims, and their deed is un-Islamic. Oh? Let’s turn that around. In 2005, a video emerged of Bosnian Serb militiamen murdering six Muslim prisoners near Srebrenica a decade earlier:

The video begins with a Serb Orthodox priest blessing the camouflaged paramilitary troops in a boot camp in Bosnia. Later, it shows members of a paramilitary group called the Scorpions taking six emaciated young men out of a truck with their hands tied behind their backs. They are led to a clearing where at least three are shown being shot at close range.

The faces of the perpetrators can be seen and their insults to the scared young Muslims can be clearly heard. The video was shot by a member of the Scorpions.

It grieves and sickens me that a priest dirtied himself by blessing these murderers. True, there is no justification for it in the Christian scriptures, which is not something you can say about the Quran (note here a Muslim scholar arguing that jihad can be something one does to free people “oppressed” by unbelief). But in one sense, that is a meaningless distinction. ask the Christians and the Yazidis of northern Iraq what they believe about Islam. Ask the Bosnian Muslims what true Christianity is. As the Irish Catholics of the Penal Laws era what Anglicanism is. And so forth.

Is a religion what its adherents say it is, or is a religion what its adherents do? When a political entity — the State, let’s say — appropriates the authority of religion to press for a political goal, as the English state did in Ireland with the Penal Laws, to what extent can the acts resulting from that religious claim be justifiably interpreted as an authentically religious act? The line between authenticity and inauthenticity in such matters is blurry and porous. I think it is crucially important to attempt to sharpen it, because it really does matter whether or not a religion sanctifies violence in its name. This is why Catholic Christianity came up with just war theory. Islam also has its own rules about when a war is just. In the United States, Christian abolitionists used Christian arguments to justify waging war on the South to free the slaves, while Southern Christians used Christianity to justify slavery. Which one was authentically Christian? If the South had won the Civil War, would we think differently about that question today? These are important questions to ask, and to attempt to answer.

But it’s easy to do this from the perspective of distance, geographically, culturally, and historically. If I am a Chaldean Christian in 2014 or a Bosnian Muslim in the 1990s or a 17th century Irish Catholic, I don’t have the luxury of teasing out the theological distinctions within the religion of the men who want to oppress and even kill me.

I can’t settle on answers to these questions that satisfy me one way or the other. What do you think? The religious craving in man — that is, a need for transcendent meaning — never goes away, even if formal religion does. A religious community has to set boundaries among its adherents, borders that delineate what is authentic thought and behavior, and what is inauthentic thought and behavior. Again, we return to a fundamental question: is a religion what its believers think, or what its believers do? The late sociologist Robert Bellah believed the latter, and explained in his magisterial 2011 book Religion In Human Evolution where religion comes from, and offered a theory of how it is to be understood. But I digress. As usual. Over to you, readers.


Putin Told Us So

If John McCain dies and goes to hell, he will spend eternity in a phone booth with Justin Raimondo reading this Ishaan Tharoor column to him. Excerpt:

What a difference a year makes. Around this time last year, the West was gearing up for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was accused of carrying out chemical weapons attacks on his own people. That intervention never came to pass, not least because domestic public opinion in countries such as Britain and the United States was opposed to further entanglements in the Middle East.

Now, the U.S. is contemplating extending airstrikes on Islamic State militants operating in Iraq in Syria — fighters belonging to a terrorist organization that is leading the war against Assad. The Islamic State’s territorial gains in Iraq and continued repression and slaughter of religious minorities there and in Syria have rightly triggered global condemnation. “I am no apologist for the Assad regime,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told NPR. “But in terms of our security, [the Islamic State] is by far the greatest threat.

The irony of the moment is tragic. But to some, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

According to Tharoor, this is exactly what Vladimir Putin warned about in his New York Times op-ed last September advising the West not to engage in airstrikes against Syria to help the rebels.

This doesn’t make Putin a saint, but it does make him more of a sage about the Middle East than Barack Obama and John McCain.

UPDATE: Judging from the comments, some of you have forgotten that Barack Obama wanted to bomb Syria, and went on national TV on 9/10/13 to make the case for doing so. Excerpt from that speech:

 And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.  The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.

That’s my judgment as Commander-in-Chief.  But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.  So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress.  I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress.  And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.

The public declined to support his policy, and the president prudently declined to follow through on his threat. But he wanted to strike, and would have done so if he had managed to get the public and Congress behind him.

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OTOH, Maybe We Should Give Civil Unrest A Chance


Because they’re good enough, they’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like them.

Suddenly, I have a Strange New Respect for the up side of rioting, police brutality, and general mayhem.

UPDATE: It strikes me that I had better say now that I’m being sarcastic, about TV therapists and media hyperbole, before people start to accuse me of actually sympathizing with the cops or the rioters in Ferguson. Because that’s how the Internet rolls.

I bet Dr. Phil hates that Iyanla Vanzant for beating him to town.

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The Crimson Tide Will Die A Happy Death Prophecy


What is the symbolism of this photograph? Answer me, people! It’s making me a little crazy since Ryan Booth brought it to my attention. People can’t figure it out. From an Alabama football fansite:

Are they a family of twins, each of whom had that identical twin die in the past year? Did they murder these twins? If so, why are they so cool with each other after this? Does every Alabama fan have a cloudy Other awaiting them in the heavens? Are these cloud-giants, come to crush their tiny, human doppelgangers? If so, did they lose to Auburn last year, too? We have so many questions, and so few answers. Please help us, and make the terror go away.

I choose to interpret it as a prophecy that the Crimson Tide’s football season will be a disastrous one — the black clouds — but that this faithful family will rejoice in their crown of martyrdom, because being able to suffer for the sake of Satan Saban is its own reward. Speaking of suffering for the sake of Saban, ‘memba this? And ‘memba this [NSFW]? ‘Cause I sure do.

What the hell does the symbolism of this photograph mean? Please, semioticians of the SEC, lend us your expertise.

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The Benedict Option & The Assimilation Apostasy

Matthew Sitman, writing on the Jeremiah Option and the Benedict Option, mischaracterizes (no doubt inadvertently) the Eagle River, Alaska, community I wrote about in my TAC piece late last year:

I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.

There’s a reason why it’s not isolation or separatism: because Eagle River is not a “remote Alaska village.” It’s suburban Anchorage. The people live within greater Anchorage, but many who worship in the church live in physical proximity to the cathedral and each other so they can be more of a traditional community. But they’re open to and welcoming of outsiders. I’ve been there twice. My wife and son Lucas spent two weeks there this summer, in the company of a group that was mostly non-Orthodox. It’s fine.

Here’s Alan Jacobs on this point. Read all of it, but especially this passage:

I think individuals and communities often consider the Benedict Option not because they’re trying to avoid the wrong kind of people — a seriously uncharitable assumption on Sitman’s part — but because they feel that their spiritual lives are undernourished and unstable. Benedictine-style communal retreats aren’t usually meant to last forever, or to build permanent barriers to contact with non-Christians, any more than people who shelter under a bridge during a thunderstorm mean to set up housekeeping there.

And typically, even when the retreats themselves become permanent, their population is always in flux: some are always coming in for rest and renewal, others (now well-fed) are going back out into the highways and byways.

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

Yes, this. I’ll quote from Matt Sitman’s piece once more, then add my own:

While not being uncritical of modern life, I’m not in rebellion against it – and thus don’t seek to escape it. I also resist the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about morality, at least not in the ultimate sense. Christianity is premised on our inability to be moral, and it’s most important idea is that of grace, or God’s one-way love for us, which isn’t premised on how much we have our acts together. So I’m suspicious of religious movements that value purity above all else, which, in a way, I think the Benedict Option does. Withdrawal from mainstream culture can only mean that a desire for purity has trumped the risks of engagement.

But most of all, Christianity teaches us that God is love, that God loved the world and so should we – a notion that I find difficult to square with retreating into a remote community waiting for the world to burn. I actually am hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life, and seeing the brutality, violence, and indifference to suffering all around us, I can’t help but think the message of Jesus will retain it’s power. But that hope is premised on living in the world, not apart from it, while also letting go of apocalyptic rhetoric and the acute sense of persecution so many Christians feel.

One of the more frustrating aspects of this ongoing Benedict Option conversation is that so many of its critics repeatedly mischaracterize it as hiving off in separatist compounds. I keep pointing out that strict separatism is not the goal of most of these people. In the article I wrote that Matt quotes, I wrote this about the Catholic community around Clear Creek Abbey:

Many Clear Creekers are teaching themselves old-fashioned skills that will allow the community to get by in case of emergency, but they are not neo-Amish. Some work the land, but no family supports itself with farming. The monastery’s abbot tells me relative material poverty exists among the laity, but there’s also a richness in spirit and family life that you can’t put a price on.

“I think there’s a kind of gratitude we all share,” Pudewa says. “That’s what bonds people together a little more, rather than that we want to push our version of how to be more Catholic on other people.”

Clear Creek’s mothers and fathers bring up their children largely disconnected from mainstream American popular culture. Yet, though homeschooled, the community’s children are not being raised in, well, a monastery. They go to Tulsa for swing dancing twice a week, for example. Still, their relative isolation makes the mission of forming the children’s character easier, Pudewa says.

Stressing that the kids are not being taught to shun life outside the Oklahoma hills, Pudewa adds, “The purpose of the cocoon is not to be wrapped up in yourself forever; the purpose is to prepare the butterfly.”

I don’t know how to make it clearer than that. These are not people running to the hills waiting for the world to burn. So many of these Benedict Option critics are arguing with a straw man. Again, I wouldn’t claim that there doesn’t exist a strict separatist strain within the general line of thinking here, but it’s not something I believe is feasible or desirable for non-monastics, nor do the folks I choose to write about. It happens so often, this cartoon rendering of the Benedict Option, that I begin to wonder why so many of those who criticize it can’t seem to help themselves from framing it that way. I can’t read their minds, of course, but I do wonder if by characterizing it in such an extreme way, it makes it easier to dismiss their concerns. It’s like conservatives who take environmentalists at their most extreme and treat them as if they were normative, and then use that as a reason to convince themselves that everyone who expresses concern about the long-term environmental costs of living beyond our limits is silly and unrealistic.

Pudewa’s comment about the butterfly is exactly what Alan Jacobs is getting at. Benedict Option people believe that the mainstream culture in this time and place is so powerful, and so antithetical to what they (we) believe is true, that we have to engage in some kind of withdrawal in order to hold on to what we know to be true, and pass it on to our kids. Look at the piece I wrote yesterday about how Jews within Modern Orthodoxy are struggling to hold on to their Jewishness in modernity. People don’t want to hear it, but it’s clear that if you are part of a religious community that does not define itself strongly against modern secularist culture, you are all going to lose yourself in it — if not yourself, then your children likely will. It’s just too strong.

An important example: Alexander Griswold runs the numbers on Mainline Protestant churches that have embraced gay marriage (and, more broadly, modern sexuality), and they are in collapse. He says that modern Christians contend that if the church is to remain relevant and attract new believers, it will have to conform to the times. Excerpt:

These arguments often see church acceptance of homosexuality as a carrot as well as a stick. It isn’t so much that denouncing homosexuality will drive people away from church, but that embracing it will also lead people into church. LGBT individuals and their supporters, many of whom hold a dim view of religion after a decades-long culture war, will reconsider church if denominations remove their restrictions on gay marriage and ordination.

But a number of Christian denominations have already taken significant steps towards liberalizing their stances on homosexuality and marriage, and the evidence so far seems to indicate that affirming homosexuality is hardly a cure for membership woes. On the contrary, every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization of sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership.

As I wrote in the much-cited Sex After Christianity essay, the cause-and-effect in this dynamic is not one way. We’ve talked about this essay on many occasions here, and I don’t want to go down that path again in this thread. The relevant point here is that for whatever reason, there is a deep connection between the rejection of Christian sexual orthodoxy and the rejection of Christianity entirely. I bring sex up because even though many progressives, especially progressive Christians, don’t want to accept it, sex, more than any other issue, is at the center of our cultural and religious divisions.

The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?

To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for? 

This is why the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism critique is so powerful: it reveals that for modern Christians (and for most modern religious people), religion is not meant prophetically, to guide and correct our failings, and to show us what it means to live faithfully to God’s order, but rather to give us a peaceful, easy feeling about reconciling ourselves to the world. I’ll give you a right-wing version of this kind of thing. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, directly challenged local religious leaders to repent of their indifference to the grave injustices Jim Crow inflicted on Negroes. Note this passage:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In this prophetic Letter, King accuses the Birmingham religious establishment of paying lip service to Judeo-Christian morality as a way to assuaging their own religious consciences in the face of their personal and collective failure to do right by the standards of their own professed faith. Those pastors and rabbis were moralistic, they were therapeutic, and they were deist — but they were not behaving as Christians and Jews ought to behave, according to the Scripture and traditions of their faiths.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi martyr, addressed the same exact mentality in his book The Cost Of Discipleship. Excerpt:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or
fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

… The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

Christianity is a call to die to the world, even as we live in it. If Christians ever grow too comfortable with themselves in the world, they risk losing their faith. The particular challenges facing Christians in second-century Rome are not the same as the particular challenges facing them in 14th-century Constantinople, 1930s Germany, or America in 2014. But the universal challenge is always the same: what does it mean to live as an authentic follower of Christ? That is, what does it mean to think as a Christian, and to act as a Christian? The answers are rarely clear, but the answer can never be, “Whatever seems right to me must be right with Jesus.”

I recall a friendly argument I once had over religion and racism with a white man who expressed truly appalling opinions about black people within a general conversation about the life of the church. I pressed him on how he reconciled those opinions with Scripture, and he didn’t even try to. Here’s what amazed me about that conversation: he didn’t see that it was necessary to reconcile his own opinions and behavior with what he professed to believe about the Bible. He wasn’t even defensive about it. He felt at liberty to write off core elements of Biblical teaching because it just didn’t seem right to him, as a white man. I realized quickly enough that I was a guest in this man’s home, and that it would have been rude to have pressed it further, but I did ask him, “How do you know that you are a Christian?” — by which I meant, tell me about your conversion, and the difference it made in the way you saw the world and lived your life.

“Well,” he said, “I was baptized as a baby, and I guess I’ve always known I was a Christian because of that.”

Technically speaking, he was right. He may have been a bad Christian, but a Christian he indeed was because of his baptism. But that wasn’t the real meaning of his statement. What he was saying was that he believed he was an authentic Christian because of his formal membership in the Christian church. He was raised a Christian in a small-town culture where people went to church, and nearly everyone professed Christianity. That was all he needed to know. There was no chance that the message of the Bible could reach him, because his conscience was untroubled; cultural Christianity had inoculated him against the possibility of conversion.

Soren Kierkegaard had this man’s number. Excerpts from his Attack Upon Christendom, a jeremiad against the Danish state church and the comfortable bourgeois Christianity of 19th-century Denmark:

In the New Testament the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, represents the situation thus: The way that leads to life is straight, the gate narrow—few be they who find it!

—now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark, since it is the way in which we all are walking, besides being in all respects as convenient, as comfortable, as possible; and the gate is as wide as it possibly can be, wider surely a gate cannot be than that through which we all are going en masse.

Ergo the New Testament is no longer truth.

All honor to the human race (p. 115)!


The Christianity of the New Testament rests upon the assumption that the Christian is in a relationship of opposition, that to be a Christian is to believe in God, to love Him, in a relationship of opposition. While according to the Christianity of the New Testament the Christian has all the effort, the conflict, the anguish, which is connected with doing what is required, dying from the world, hating oneself, etc., he has at the same time to suffer from the relationship of opposition to other men, which the New Testament speaks of again and again: to be hated by others, to be persecuted, to suffer for the doctrine, etc.

In “Christendom” we are all Christians—therefore the relationship of opposition drops out. In this meaningless sense they have got all men made into Christians, and got everything Christian—and then (under the name of Christianity) we live a life of paganism. They have not ventured defiantly, openly, to revolt against Christianity; no, hypocritically and knavishly they have done away with it by falsifying the definition of what it is to be a Christian. It is of this I say that it is: (1) a criminal case, (2) that it is playing Christianity, (3) taking God for a fool.


The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of
being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most securely secured against … Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of, and
therefore industrial priests have invented under the name of Christianity a sweetmeat which has a delicious taste, for which men hand out money with delight.

The situation of Christians in 1850s Copenhagen was not the same as that of Christians in contemporary America. But then again, it was.

There’s a great line I once heard: “If someone put you on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?” There is no Christian alive who can ever afford to quit asking himself that question. Ever. We are faced with a culture that became apostate in exactly the way Kierkegaard predicted it would, and is now moving into post-Christianity. Benedict Option people see what happened to “Christendom” Christianity — think 1950s America, for example — and see that it led to people abandoning Christianity. The wiser ones do not seek total retreat, because to cut a culture off entirely from the world, and to attempt to preserve it under glass, is to suffocate it, and to ensure its death. But to accept assimilation into a broader culture that embraces beliefs and practices that are so opposite to Biblical Christianity is suicide by a different route. As far as I can see, nobody yet has the answer, but those who don’t even see that there’s a question are at great risk of seeing their faith parish, if not in their own lives, then in the lives of their children. Again, Alan Jacobs’s post is worth reading in full, and this excerpt from it worth repeating:

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

I am a prosperous middle-class Christian living like the King of Exurbia in the freest and richest nation that ever was. And if the Christian faith exists to make me comfortable with myself and my American way of life, instead of struggling every day to see the world and myself as God would have me see it, and repent of my sins against Him and my neighbor — well, then, to hell with it. The questions asked by the Benedict Option people do not become meaningless because some believers — angry fundamentalists, say — have answered them badly. Nor do the questions become meaningless because their implications are radically disruptive to the way we wish to live.

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How The Media Ruin Everything

A reader sends a short, powerful post by Ryan Schuessler, a freelance journalist who is leaving Ferguson because he’s disgusted by the behavior of the media (and by locals who are now performing for the media). Excerpt:

One anecdote that stands out: as the TV cameras were doing their live shots in front of the one burnt-out building in the three-block stretch of “Ground Zero,” around the corner was a community food/goods drive. I heard one resident say: “Where are the cameras? I’m going to go see if I can find some people to film this.”

Last night a frustrated resident confronted me when he saw my camera: “Yall are down here photographing US, but who gets paid?!” 

There are now hundreds of journalists from all over the world coming to Ferguson to film what has become a spectacle. I get the sense that many feel this is their career-maker. In the early days of all this, I was warmly greeted and approached by Ferguson residents. They were glad that journalists were there. The past two days, they do not even look at me and blatantly ignore me. I recognize that I am now just another journalist to them, and their frustration with us is clear. In the beginning there was a recognizable need for media presence, but this is the other extreme. They need time to work through this as a community, without the cameras.

We should all be ashamed, and I cannot do it anymore. I am thankful for my gracious editors who understand that.

It’s like the Heisenberg Principle applied to media and society: the observation of a thing changes the thing itself. Read the whole thing; the Anderson Cooper anecdote will make you throw up in your throat.

Here’s the thing: it cannot be denied that media attention can be a positive thing. I’ve seen that up close and personal, and been a part of it myself. But it also cannot be denied that at a certain point, it becomes a harmful thing. What’s the tipping point? How can we tell? Is it even possible to pull back, or do these stories take on a momentum of their own, like a tsunami wave rushing relentlessly toward shore from the deep?

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What Do Near-Death Experiences Tell Us?

Reader Tim G. passes along this fascinating 2012 essay by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard saying what we know to this point about Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Beauregard tells the amazing story of Pamela Reynolds, an Atlanta woman who was put into clinical death (no measurable brain activity) in an operating room to allow surgeons to perform an extremely delicate procedure on her brain. When she was brought back to life, she reported having had a classic NDE:

At this point, Pam’s out-of-body adventure transformed into a near-death experience (NDE): She recalls floating out of the operating room and traveling down a tunnel with a light. She saw deceased relatives and friends, including her long-dead grandmother, waiting at the end of this tunnel. She entered the presence of a brilliant, wonderfully warm and loving light, and sensed that her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the light (the breathing of God). But this extraordinary experience ended abruptly, as Reynolds’s deceased uncle led her back to her body—a feeling she described as “plunging into a pool of ice.”

Her case is unusual in that it was induced under controlled medical conditions, and recorded in detail. Here’s another interesting one:

Some skeptics legitimately argue that the main problem with reports of OBE perceptions is that they often rest uniquely on the NDEr’s testimony—there is no independent corroboration. From a scientific perspective, such self-reports remain inconclusive. But during the last few decades, some self-reports of NDErs have been independently corroborated by witnesses, such as that of Pam Reynolds. One of the best known of these corroborated veridical NDE perceptions—perceptions that can be proven to coincide with reality—is the experience of a woman named Maria, whose case was first documented by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark.

Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.

Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”

This case is particularly impressive given that during cardiac arrest, the flow of blood to the brain is interrupted. When this happens, the brain’s electrical activity (as measured with EEG) disappears after 10 to 20 seconds. In this state, a patient is deeply comatose. Because the brain structures mediating higher mental functions are severely impaired, such patients are expected to have no clear and lucid mental experiences that will be remembered. Nonetheless, studies conducted in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States have revealed that approximately 15 percent of cardiac arrest survivors do report some recollection from the time when they were clinically dead. These studies indicate that consciousness, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings can be experienced during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity.

Beauregard takes on various theories attempting to explain NDEs as hallucinations caused by a brain dying (e.g., from oxygen deprivation), and says the data simply do not fit those conclusions. More:

The scientific NDE studies performed over the past decades indicate that heightened mental functions can be experienced independently of the body at a time when brain activity is greatly impaired or seemingly absent (such as during cardiac arrest). Some of these studies demonstrate that blind people can have veridical perceptions during OBEs associated with an NDE. Other investigations show that NDEs often result in deep psychological and spiritual changes.

These findings strongly challenge the mainstream neuroscientific view that mind and consciousness result solely from brain activity. As we have seen, such a view fails to account for how NDErs can experience—while their hearts are stopped—vivid and complex thoughts and acquire veridical information about objects or events remote from their bodies.

NDE studies also suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality.

Before you comment on this, read the whole thing.  I have a couple of general observations, neither of which are surprising. For one, the NDE research pretty clearly undermines, even demolishes, a purely materialist viewpoint on consciousness. For another, NDEs undermine generally the received Christian teaching on life-after-death. As Beauregard reports, the basic NDE experience doesn’t really change across religions, and even unbelievers report the same ones.

However, David Sessions at the Daily Beast writes that about one in five NDEs are hellish. I knew a man once who had an NDE like this, and it radically changed his life. I believe in Hell, and not only because the Bible tells me so. I believe it exists, and it is possible to go there. The fact that the great majority of NDEs are “heavenly” does not mean that an incorporeal realm of darkness, rage, and pain does not exist. It does mean, however, that strict Christian orthodoxy may not accurately describe the afterlife. I will point out, though, that NDEs broadly support the Christian teaching of salvation as theosis, a merging with God, an “engodding.” If you’re reading Dante’s Paradiso with me, you understand this.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s difficult for me to shed the idea that I had for much of my life that heaven is a place where we are as we were on earth, only everything is always wonderful, everybody you love is there, and not annoying in the least, and God’s down in City Hall in the New Jerusalem, like an omnipotent Mr. Rourke, making sure everything on Fantasy Island is going just swell. I put it crudely, but my guess is that most of us Christians who believe in the afterlife conceive of it in that way, more or less. If that’s how you see it, it’s easy to think that salvation consists of doing what’s necessary in this life to make sure you gain entry into the Ultimate Resort. Especially since becoming Orthodox, I’ve been trying to understand salvation as theosis, a process that starts now. Nothing has helped me grasp and absorb this like The Divine Comedy. Salvation is moving towards union with God, of joining our spirits to His. We don’t pray, fast, do good deeds and avoid sin because we want to keep a clean record and build a good transcript so we can graduate to heaven after we die. We do these things because they allow us to participate more fully in the life of God both right now, and after we die.

I hope you theologians among us will correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this way of conceiving salvation could explain why most NDEs, if they are real, show good people of all (or most) religions, and no religion, ending up in the same place: united with God. If true, it is first an example of God’s great mercy, but also a logical consequence of this model of how we are saved. That is, if the goal of our earthly life is to move toward ultimate union with God, then this is something people who did not have the Christian revelation have managed to achieve by the grace of a God they may not have fully understood (as if any of us could fully understand the Infinite, the Absolute!), or even believed in. But they lived as if He were real. All of us Christians know people who are unbelievers, or who believe in another religion, who live more lovingly and mercifully than many who profess Christ. In fact, Jesus himself taught that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will be with Him in Paradise.

None of this is a reason not to preach the Gospel. If we are to be saved, we are saved by Christ, whether we confessed Him with our tongues or not. I believe, though, that in God’s boundless mercy, it is possible to confess Christ with our hearts, by our own deeds, and by the power of God’s grace. We believe and follow Jesus not transactionally, so we can get into heaven when we are at life’s end, but so we can begin entering into union with God today, in this moment.

That’s a theory, anyway. I’m not a theologian, or even very smart about this stuff. I welcome correction. This is all speculative.

To me, there’s also an interesting question in what these stories — in particular the Pam Reynolds case — say about metaphysics (as distinct from theology). In modernity, we who are not materialists tend to believe that there is a sharp, clear line between the soul and the body, between the material and the immaterial. This is called dualism: the belief that the mind (that is, consciousness, or the spirit) and the body are separate. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (and perhaps some forms of Protestantism; I don’t really know the theology well enough to say) teach that were are not ghosts dwelling in a corporeal home, but that we are incarnate — literally, we are enfleshed spirits. The spirit and the flesh separate at death. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense that it’s perfectly natural for the spirit to make that separation when the flesh reaches a certain biological point of no return (or at least, almost certainly no return)? Maybe I’m making this more complicated than it has to be, but I’m trying to think through what NDEs tell us about the way the nonphysical aspect of our being relates to the physical. Do NDEs tell us that the spirit and the flesh are less distinct from each other than we may believe? I think of consciousness/spirit not as bound to the brain, but as a field that pervades our flesh, but that finds its focus in the brain.

An imperfect analogy that may nonetheless indicate what I’m getting at: I’m sitting at my kitchen table writing this on a laptop that is connected to the Internet via wi-fi. The wi-fi signal is filling this room, but it finds its focus in my laptop. If my laptop crashed, the wi-fi signal wouldn’t cease to exist; it would simply no longer be accessible to me.

Again, this is all mere speculation. But these are things I like to think about. If you’d like to have a conversation about them, I’m eager to hear from you. If you just want to be this guy, either from a theistic or non-theistic point of view, don’t bother; I’m not going to post it.

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