Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ron Hansen Ordained a Deacon

News to me:
Ron Hansen has built up an impressive resume: award-winning author, literary editor, professor.

But Hansen's latest undertaking isn't a typical literary affair -- Hansen has become a deacon in the Catholic Church. He was ordained as a permanent deacon Saturday at the Mission Church in front of over 200 of his friends and family.

French Schooling for Agitated Vandals

via Clarity's Place, an interview with Fields Medalist Laurent Lafforgue on the decline of education in France:
Look, the problem of the transmission of tradition and knowledge isn’t a problem; it’s the problem of our civilization. I recently participated in a public debate on school. My interlocutor, the famous Professor Alain Viala, was a man of letters who is very much in style these days, a professor at the Sorbonne, chock-full of all the titles and honors possible. Well, in his course on French Literature, this great professor doesn’t have students read one work–not even one, you understand?–of French literature. To pass the exam in French Literature you needn’t read even one line of Montaigne, Racine, Balzac, or Victor Hugo. For that matter, now they begin instilling doubt in the children’s heads in elementary school. Parents observe–we have thousands of witnesses to this–that their children return from school agitated, troubled, while school, in order to transmit knowledge, should above all give tranquility. Today, school destroys their faith in themselves. Just think, now they’re establishing philosophy seminars for children, "so they learn to seek," they say. But how can an individual look for something, if he isn’t sure about anything?

Laffrogue's words suggest how seriously cultural despondency has destroyed French society's capacities to instill loyalty and continuity in both its native and immigrant young. The parallels with American education are disturbing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen

W.H. Auden's one-hundredth birthday is today. The NY Sun writes a tribute to him.

By chance, I finally picked up Auden's Collected Poems yesterday. Doubtless the book was only in the ill-tended poetry section for his anniversary.

A selection fit for Ash Wednesday:

"O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

"In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

"In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day."
As I Walked Out One Evening, November 1937

Memento homo quia pulveris es et in pulverem reverteris!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What Happens When The Apocalypse Disappoints?

Like David A. Bell, Michael Vlahos probes the consequences of our apocalyptic wartime rhetoric in his essay The Fall of Modernity

This grand symbolic response—re-establishing our dignitas and reclaiming history—had to be a Great War narrative. It had to mirror, and in critical ways surpass, the mythic passage of World War II. That war reified the narrative tabernacle, but this war had an even greater charge: the divine final fulfillment of America’s world mission.

So we are, as our own government tells us, in a war of civilizations—a national testing in which we will emerge triumphant, the true beacon and best hope of humankind or else find ourselves destroyed, the detritus of history. This is not simply inflated rhetoric. It is avowed American policy.

In the president’s own words, it is nothing less than “the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history,” pitting “progress” and “freedom” against a “mortal danger to all humanity,” the “enemy of civilization.” Moreover, “the call of history has come to the right country,” and “the defense of freedom is worth the sacrifice.” Ultimately the “evil ones” will be destroyed, and “this great country will lead the world to safety, security, and peace,” a millennial world where “free peoples will own the future.”2

Here inevitably, rather than reflecting actual conditions, it is more important for reality to fit the sacred narrative. So for nearly four years, it has been “the Iraqi people” vs. “the killers,” or more broadly in the world of Islam, “good moderate Muslims” vs. “evil.”

Does it matter whether we pursue grand drama for wholly narcissistic reasons, as long as we win? What if we don’t? Failure might lead to the collapse of friendly tyrannies like Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia or even to economic crisis and an expansion of the war. Longstanding alliances could come apart. But even then our military power, our vast economy, and the strength of the American people would still be intact. Strategic recovery should still be possible. The old narrative might be in tatters, but that might turn out to be a good thing because we could then build a more modest national story.

Such recovery is foreclosed, however, in a script of civilization and its enemies. Not only did American leaders go for the existential War of History instead of dealing with reality, they chose the worst possible dramatic vehicle for restaging the national passion play. For what we are experiencing is no war of civilizations. It is not even a war.

Monday, February 19, 2007

On The Non-Existence of Religions

Questions of method, important as they are, need not be raised at all until the researcher can first determine and circumscribe the object of his studies in a convincing way. And here it seems worth mentioning-just for precision’s sake-that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call religions but that could scarcely differ from one another more. It might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions, but even that is notoriously hard to do, since the effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between religious systems and magic, or folk science, or myth, or social ceremony.

There is not even any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one’s prejudices, inklings, or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of a belief in the supernatural constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type. But all this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions amounts to little more than mistaking "all the things I don’t believe in" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution.

Moreover, the task of delineating the phenomenon of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter? What is the core and what are the borders of these phenomena? What are their empirical causes? What are their rationales? Grand, empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These, by contrast, are questions that touch on what persons actually believe, and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutical labor-an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions, and contemplative lore, and so on and so forth-which ultimately requires a degree of specialization that few can hope to achieve; even then, the specialist’s conclusions must always remain open to doubt and revision.
-David B. Hart, Daniel Dennet Hunts the Snark

I hope Hart's clever little denial of the field of religious studies will go far in ending all the vacant-eyed ramblings on religions and their threats from Daniel Dennett and his friends. In our age men find it more open-minded to dismiss religion tout court than to target specific creeds or cultures for disdain. Were one to start blasting Quakers or Evangelicals or Calvinists any other specific religion, vague contempt cannot be sustained. Religion: "creepy!"

At the same time, the vague therapeutic invocations of religion are to be shunned. The other day, one acquaintance said that True Islam wasn't anything like the violent barbarians who use its name. I wished I had pressed that idea more. For a muslim to speak of true Islam is piety. For a non-muslim to speak of true Islam is vacuity. How should a non-muslim judge the best kind of Islam? According to some other non-Islamic philosophical or theological criteria, of course.

Our present sectarian and anti-sectarian confusion is entirely because nobody knows what religion is anymore. The declension of the concept "religio has been mapped out by William T. Cavanaugh:

Religio for St. Thomas is just one virtue which presupposes a context of ecclesial practices which are both communal and particular to the Christian Church. Wilfred Cantwell Smith notes that during the Middle Ages, considered by modems the "most religious" period of Christian history, no one ever thought to write a book on religion. In fact he suggests that "the rise of the concept 'religion' is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself."32 In other words the rise of the modern concept of religion is associated with the decline of the Church as the particular locus of the communal practice of religio.

The dawn of the modern concept of religion occurs around the late fifteenth century, first appearing in the work of the Italian Renaissance figure Marsilio Ficino. His 1474 work entitled De Christiana Religione is the first to present religio as a universal human impulse common to all. In Ficino's Platonic scheme, religio is the ideal of genuine perception and worship of God. The various historical manifestations of this common impulse, the varieties of pieties and rites that we now call religions, are all just more or less true (or untrue) representations of the one true religio implanted in the human heart. Insofar as it becomes a universal impulse, religion is thus interiorized and removed from its particular ecclesial context.

The second major shift in the meaning of the term religion, which takes shape through the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is toward religion as a system of beliefs. Religion moves from a virtue to a set of propositions. Political theorist Hugo Grotius, in his De Veritate Religionis Christianae, can therefore write that the Christian religion teaches, rather than simply is, the true worship of God. At the same time the plural "religions" arises, an impossibility under the medieval usage.

The next time someone asks me if I am religious, I'll play the pedant and ask "what do you mean?" I entertain few warm and fuzzy thoughts about self and universe, and I do not recognize myself in most televised religiosity. All I can say is Credo... Amen!

The Last Men: Peter Pans

By the same token, the traditional division of a man's public and private lives has been largely reversed in our time. In the 1860s, Newman gave the world a history of his religious opinions, but kept his libidinal appetites to himself. In a college classroom today, both student and professor could more easily discuss their sexual habits than their relationship to Christ. In this too there's a juvenile aspect to the shame and a juvenile aspect to the self-display. The same churchmen who will countenance worship segregated on the basis of homosexual attraction will deplore kneeling at communion as "divisive"; to the mind of a thirteen-year-old, as we know, even someone else's devoutness can be excruciating. What is remarkable is how swift and complete the inversion has been. Perhaps only in certain parts of the military and certain parts of the contemplative monastic life will we yet find models of human dignity in which adulthood holds itself accountable to its own past -- adulthood, that's to say, according to which a man is esteemed for subordinating that which results in his own fun to that which results in the objective good of others.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Prayer Requests

For Vince F.'s father, who is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer, and his family.

For Edward T. Oakes, SJ, who has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is having a prostatectomy on February 27.

For myself, who has a bout of Bell's Palsy that is causing yet another delay in his return to full health.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Joseph Bottum Lectures in Denver

One week ago today, First Things editor Joseph Bottum delivered an energetic follow-up to his essay on Catholics in America, When The Swallows Return to Capistrano. (MP3 available here)

He believes America has always had a public church. When the Old Mainline "public churches" collapsed, Catholics and Evangelicals filled the gap in moral and spiritual influence. Yet with the decline of bishops, and ethnic communities' need for representation, there have been no clear spokesmen for Catholics as a whole. At a peak of Catholic intellectual influence, Catholic institutional influence is staggering from wounds inflicted from without and within.

Further, Catholics are now involved in a generational split. Even younger practicing Catholics are uninvolved in local parish life, often hopping to distant parishes more sympathetic to their personal ideals. Bottum thinks these youngsters' faith is highly intellectual, which I think neglects the more emotionalistic Evangelical influence in certain younger quarters. He noted youthful suspicion and dismissal of the old guard in a summary of his time with a few California college students:

"Sure, they agreed, pretty Masses are better than ugly ones, and they all preferred high-churchy smells and bells to guitar services and liturgical dance: the things their parents’ generation, poor souls, fondly imagined would “engage today’s youth.” But the radical traditionalists seemed cut from the same cloth as the radical revisionists-and the students dismissed all that kind of 1970s stuff as simultaneously boring and infuriating: the self-obsession and self-glorification of the two sides that, between them, had wrecked Catholic culture in this country. We live with a million aborted babies a year, daily scandals of corruption in the Church, millions of uncatechized Catholic children, and this is what those tired old biddies are still squabbling over?"


“You can see it clearly out here in California. That whole generation of Catholics in America, basically everybody formed before 1978, is screwed up. Left, Right, whatever....The best of them were failures, and the worst of them were monsters.”

Bottum sees the Oakes-Pickstick debate over von Balthasar as a reflection of this inter-generational mistrust. This particularly hit home for me, since before I first entered Father Oakes' religious studies classes as a transfer student I was still unsure exactly what kind of Jesuit he would be. I worried when a reputedly substandard, even heretical text showed up on my required books list that he would turn out to be just another outdated dissenter. Fortunately, it was the book list that was out of date.

Yet even such disdain for recent dead and living theological greats might have a potential upside:

"Father Oakes remembers when your choice was heresy or Hans Urs von Balthasar. Hans Urs von Balthasar felt like a lifeline in 1975 to a conservative, serious orthodox theologian. So he can't understand some young woman coming along and saying, 'but he's not orthodox!' We're going to see a lot more of this. You'll see it in Thomism as well. There's going to be a rebirth--if you look at the scholarly journals, the medieval philosophy magaines--you'll look at a rebirth of Suarezianism, for instance, and Banez, the kind of school manual versions of Thomism. Because the victory of the neo-Thomists and existential thomism was so complete, that these young scholars don't even know what the battle was anymore. And they think "Wait a minute! I just picked up from 1732 this great manual in Thomistic philosophy, and nobody's read it--except me!" We'll see a lot more of this, and it's going to be very interesting to watch it develop over the course of the church.

I believe Ben Naasko asked a question relating to the anti-parochial life of practicing Catholics today, though I didn't have the chance to introduce myself to the man.

Another man, Leo B., asked with penetrating concern how the First Things crowd could survive the looming collapse of support for the Iraqi War and the conservative coalition that instigated it. Bottum responded that he will be discussing this question in a forthcoming issue, piggypacking on his advocacy of the "New Fusionism." He will address the hypothetical question: if the Iraq War is going south, how can both moralistic interventionism and pro-life activism survive as political forces?

Michael Novak will respond, reportedly to claim all is well anyway so no worries. Oh, for a paleocon of fire...

I wish I had probed Bottum's views on the rise of anti-clericalism among American Catholics, and how it might compare to European or Latin varieties.

I also think another whole lecture can be delivered on how the disputes in the American "public church" can recapitulate old divisions: high church versus low church Protestantism, or traditions of pietism versus liturgicalism seem fruitful avenues to explore the political ramifications of American religion. Since Catholics have come into their own, intra-Catholic disputes now also manifest themselves in secular political debates(and vice-versa).

All in all this was a very nice lecture reflecting the mental powers at work at First Things. But such powers on display suggested how malign the influence of such persuasive men when they tie their abilities and reputations to defending the wrong cause.

(Any local ROFTERS, please note the discussion group run by Mr. Dennis Floyd. We have a fun time.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Long Tradition of American Catholic Dissent

Bill Cork records embarrassing and venal antebellum defenses of slavery made by American Catholic bishops in the face of a plainly-worded papal condemnation.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Homosexual Millionaires Buying State Legislatures

via Off the Record, more news on local millionaire activist Tim Gill:
Like many other state legislatures last year, Iowa’s was narrowly divided. So all it would take to break the momentum toward a constitutional marriage ban was to tip a few close races. If Democrats took control of the House and Senate, however narrowly, the initiative would die, and with it the likelihood of further legislation limiting civil rights for gays and lesbians. And, fortuitously, Carroll’s own reelection race looked to be one of the closest. He represented the liberal college town of Grinnell and had won the last time around by just a handful of votes.

Over the summer, Carroll’s opponent started receiving checks from across the country—significant sums for a statehouse race, though none so large as to arouse suspicion (the gifts topped out at $1,000). Because they came from individuals and not from organizations, nothing identified the money as being “gay,” or even coordinated. Only a very astute political operative would have spotted the unusual number of out-of-state donors and pondered their interest in an obscure midwestern race. And only someone truly versed in the world of gay causes would have noticed a $1,000 contribution from Denver, Colorado, and been aware that its source, Tim Gill, is the country’s biggest gay donor, and the nexus of an aggressive new force in national politics.
They Won't Know What Hit Them, The Atlantic Monthly

See also The Color Purple

Rice Tosses Chavez an Anti-Clerical Softball

Monsignor Roberto Lückert, Archbishop of Coro, Falcón state, and vice-president of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference (CEV), Thursday claimed that the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lied when she said that there were meetings with Venezuelan bishops supporting her criticisms against President Hugo Chávez' Government, Efe reported.

"This lady was way out of line when she said such things that are not true. This is a lie. I am the vice-president of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference and I have never felt that we have been invited or asked for a hearing with the board of directors of the CEV to say what this lady claims," Monsignor Lückert said.

The prelate told local radio station Unión Radio that the CEV board of directors met recently, and "it has not talked about the fact that the US Ambassador to Venezuela (William Brownfield) or any other US official is concerned about us. I think this lady was very clumsy" to speak otherwise, Monsignor Lückert added.

On Wednesday, Rice claimed that the Venezuelan Catholic Church was "under fire" from President Chávez and that US officials have met with Venezuelan Catholic authorities.
El Universal, via The Cafeteria is Closed

I am baffled that Rice reportedly claimed in public that Venezuelan Catholic bishops are nigh colluding with American agents. One of the Bush Administration's first foreign policy failures was its support for the abortive Venezuelan coup! The Secretary of State is writing Chavez's propaganda for him, providing free fodder for efforts to discredit his local opponents.

Anthony Daniels Slights the Hagiographers' St. George Orwell

Great writer as Orwell was, he is not beyond criticism—as I am sure he would have been the first to agree. He never encouraged anyone to turn him into a plaster saint, though his very abjuration of claims to sanctity is, paradoxically, one of the grounds for his canonization; this modesty should not obscure from us the fact that he was full of contradictions, his powers of analysis were very deficient, he often lacked the imagination to see the consequences of what he said, he accepted political clichés uncritically, notwithstanding his brilliant essay on that very subject, and though he made much of what he saw as the quintessentially English quality of decency (I don’t think anyone would make that mistake nowadays after half an hour in any English town or city), which he contrasted with the cruelty promoted by ideology, he was not himself entirely immune from the latter, at least in the abstract.
Anthony Daniels, Orwell's "Catalonia" revisited

Daniels goes on to note Orwell's weaknesses--his service to socialist cant and his cavalier attitude towards the crimes of Barcelonan anarchists.

In my teens I enjoyed the only two Orwell books everybody reads. Yet his dystopia and his political fable have certainly produced a few uncritical young admirers who go on to read the rest of his works and accept Orwell's flimsy radical advocacy. I wonder how long the average American high school curriculum will sustain Orwell's ambivalent position as an anti-Soviet moralist.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Vagaries of Undiscriminating Standards

The supreme principle of social morality today is "nondiscrimination"--the exclusive use of financial and bureaucratic classifications in place of traditional ones. Only formal qualifications and free-floating personal qualities that have somehow been separated from any larger setting can be taken into account in social relations, except to the extent the larger setting must be considered for the sake of neutralizing any effect it might otherwise have.

One must of course make distinctions, but under the new order permissible distinctions can only relate to wealth, neutral bureaucratic classifications, and things that (supposedly) no one cares about personally. Other distinctions would be invidious, so they must all be rooted out. You are allowed to distinguish Yale and Harvard graduates, but not Mayflower descendants and Senegalese immigrants. Military experience can count, but not the experience of being raised a man rather than a woman or for that matter the consequences of 1,000,000,000 years of sexual dimorphism. Personality, character and loyalties can matter, so long as they have nothing whatever to do with cultural background. You can exclude people from teaching who haven't taken useless education courses but it's a crushing objection to sex discrimination that some women are bigger, stronger and more stoic than some men.
-Jim Kalb

Hills Like White Elephants, Remixed

David Foster Wallace has penned a story reminiscent of the Hemingway Classic. From the New Yorker, "Good People."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Since the Enlightenment, Every War is *the* Apocalypse

...most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves "enlightened," but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.

Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West. Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often took on an especially hideous character.
David A. Bell, "Putting 9/11 In Perspective"