Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reflections: So, It Can't Happen Here?

This is going to be a longer-than-usual post. But I hope that if you begin it, you will stay with it to the end. I intend it as a striking of the tocsin, and I think that it shines a tiny bit of light on something worth thinking about.

I have, from time to time, when commenting at more politically-oriented blogs, insisted that I see evidence of an organized “power behind the throne” operating in this country. I have suggested that men like George W. Bush are tapped for office by this unseen “shadow government” and trotted out as figureheads to provide to the people, through the media, a semblance of governmental leadership, while they actually do the bidding of powers-that-be operating behind the scenes, beyond the reach of the press and the knowledge of the people. Such speculation on my part is almost always dismissed out of hand as the paranoid ranting of a left-liberal dupe of the Marxist academic elites.

As it happens, I am currently reading The Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis. I have finished the first two titles, Out of the Silent Planet, and Perelandra. I was, just this morning, coming up on the one-quarter mark of the concluding title, That Hideous Strength, when I encountered the plot element that has inspired this post. I shall have to quote large chunks of two pages of the text, after providing a very minimal summary of the story-line, in order to give the excerpts a bit of context.

I am writing this post because C.S. Lewis provides an excellent depiction of the emergence, in a fictional England, of the kind of “shadow government” for which I see evidence here in America, and of the prevailing attitudes in ordinary people which make such an emergence possible. I am also writing this post because no person in his right mind would accuse Lewis of being a "left-liberal dupe of the Marxist academic elites.”

The scene from which I will quote takes place between a youngish academic named Mark Studdock, and a scary diesel dyke named Miss Hardcastle. Miss Hardcastle (nicknamed “Fairy” by her colleagues) is the head of the private police force of a secretive, but apparently very powerful, NGO called the N.I.C.E. This mysterious entity is recruiting Studdock away from his sociology fellowship at a small, but ancient and prestigious, college in bucolic England. Studdock visits N.I.C.E. headquarters for a kind of orientation. He becomes increasingly frustrated there as he is repeatedly put off by those in charge when asking routine questions concerning his prospective job title, his duties, to whom he will report, his salary, etc. As a result of these prevailing ambiguities, Studdock threatens to leave and return to his fellowship at the college. (The significance of the fact that another individual from his college, who has made a similar decision the previous day, was murdered by persons unknown on his way home, has not registered with Studdock.) At this point he is confronted in a hallway by the formidable Miss Hardcastle and forcefully ushered into her offices, where she proceeds to set him straight with some “friendly advice.”:

Miss Hardcastle tells Studdock, “You haven’t yet realized what you’re in on. You’re being offered a chance of something far bigger than a seat in the cabinet. And there are only two alternatives, you know. Either to be in the N.I.C.E. or to be out of it. And I know better than you which is going to be most fun.”

When Studdock reiterates his demand to know precisely what his title and duties will be, or else depart immediately, Miss Hardcastle informs him that he has been recruited not as a sociologist, but because of this writing skills. His first assignment will be to write a series of articles, to be planted in the newspapers, which will gradually rehabilitate the public reputation of a man who had been executed as a criminal some time in the past. Studdock protests that he is not a journalist, but a sociologist, adding that even if he were a journalist, he’d be an honest one, not a propagandist. He then states that, in any case, he’d want to know much more about the politics of the N.I.C.E. if he were going to write propaganda pieces for it. Was the N.I.C.E. of the Left, or of the Right? Miss Hardcastle’s reply to this question is at the center of my reason for writing this piece, so I shall be quoting it at some length:

“Both, honey, both,” said Miss Hardcastle. “Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each outbidding the other in support of us—to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.” [emphasis added]

To this, Studdock replies, “I don’t believe you can do that… Not with the papers that are read by educated people.” Hardcastle’s response to this conjecture is one that should deflate the confidence of all readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and even The Village Voice:

“That shows you’re still in the nursery, lovey,” said Miss Hardcastle. “Haven’t you yet realized that it’s the other way around? …[It’s] the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.” [emphasis added]

There you have it. I ask you to wonder how it is possible that a mediocre failed businessman like George W. Bush could hold what is ostensibly the most powerful position on earth? I ask you to think of an entity such as Halliburton as one division of a shadow organization such as the N.I.C.E. I ask you to consider such an outfit as Blackwater as Miss Hardcastle’s employer. I ask you to recall that the low-level military personnel who committed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were apparently being supervised by contractors, rather than by their legitimate chain-of-command. I ask you to fucking wake up!

UPDATE: 1/2/08 Kyle R. Cupp's contribution to the comment section made me realize an error in my exposition above. Where I said a left-liberal dupe of the 'Mainstream Media', I should have said a left-liberal dupe of the 'Marxist academic elites'. I have, therefore, made that change.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reflections: Some Random, Unfocussed Thoughts

Three weeks into it now, the pain of which I wrote below has finally begun to dissipate. For the past couple of days I've been able to walk pretty much anywhere I needed to go, with only a bearable level of discomfort resulting from the effort. I've been able to sleep on my back, as well as on my right side, which has been a great boon to the level and duration of the rest I've been able to get at night. So things are looking up.
The strange thing about it, though, is that there is almost a let-down setting in. It's like the feeling one has after an adventure has run it's course, or something really fun has ended. When one is fighting a lot of pain, 24/7, one is never bored. One may be frustrated, and even a little bit frightened, but one is not depressed. In moments of crisis there is no room for depression. And, at least for me, self-pity does not have the clout necessary to wrest consciousness away from the struggle to endure, to keep going, to do the possible.
But I'm now left intellectually flat. Nothing much has greatly interested me since the pain abated.

I wanted to note the passing of two pretty good jazz musicians during this holiday season: first, the alto sax maestro, Frank Morgan--of all the Charlie Parker clones perhaps the most talented, next to Cannonball Adderley; then piano player, Oscar Peterson, a true giant of the keyboard.
I don't like to embed YouTube clips on this blog much, because it makes it take too long to refresh the screen on this old Dell wood-burner I use at home. But I'm sure that you can find clips on both of these men, and I urge you to take the time to do so.

When I first started listening to a lot of jazz in the mid-'80s, I thought that jazz musicians had to be black to be great. It wasn't until about ten years into it that I bought many albums by white musicians. I had some: Stan Getz, Bennie Goodman, and a couple of others--but not many. Then I started to explore a bit more. Among the white jazzmen I discovered was the pianist, Bill Evans. I knew that he was okay to admire, because Miles Davis used him on Kind of Blue--'nuff said. I also had an old vinyl album featuring baritone sax player, Gerry Mulligan. I met him through Miles Davis, also, on The Birth of the Cool. The vinyl album, on which Mulligan was the leader, included a bunch of cuts featuring Chet Baker on trumpet. I was hooked. I'm not too sure that it's cool to be a Chet Baker fan, but frig that: I'm a Chet Baker fan. This startling confession is something that I plan to write about sometime in the future, when I'm not so mentally blah.

Your assignment, kids, is to get on YouTube and find some Frank Morgan; some Oscar Peterson; some Bill Evans; and some Chet Baker. Check it out. Report back. God speed.

Final note: I'm also reading, due to a second-hand recommendation, a crime novel by Charles Willeford. I'd never heard of him, although I do occasionally dip into the genre. The novel I got from the library in order to check the guy out is Miami Blues. I've read about the first third, and I'm not that impressed. James M. Cain, he's not. Even Elmore Leonard, he's not. Jim Thompson? Maybe. Has anybody read this guy? What'd you think?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reflections: The Banality of PC

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Will Smith is angry over celebrity gossip Web site articles that he said misinterpreted a recent remark he made in a Scottish newspaper about Adolf Hitler.

In a story published Saturday in the Daily Record, Smith was quoted saying: "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today.' I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good.'"

Will Smith needs to stick to his guns; he needs to stop being angry and immediately begin insisting that he was right in the first place. Human beings, no matter how morally depraved they are, do talk themselves into believing that their agendas are good ones. We convince ourselves of that every time we tell that harmless little lie; make that nasty little comment about a co-worker; perhaps even enact those little thefts, eh? Like that roll of tape from the office to use on Christmas presents, because there just wasn’t time to stop at the store. And besides…they owe you, don’t they?

Hitler is an extreme example, but the principle is the same. Will Smith was exactly correct: Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today.'

Hang in there, Will. Your statement was a philosophical and psychological bull's-eye. Political correctness may (very rarely) have its place, but we must not let the hideous magnitude of Hitler’s self-justified crimes so overshadow our own rationalized transgressions that we allow ourselves to dismiss them as “trivial.” Because they are not.

(The full article from which the excerpt above was clipped is here.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


If you lacked simplicity, how then
should this fall to you that midnight skies
are ashine with? God, who stormed at men,
mild in you now comes to mortal eyes.

That he’s not more great – does this surprise?

What is greatness? Sweepingly his fate
cuts across all human measurings.
No star, even, has a path so straight.
Look, these coming now are great, these kings

dragging to your lap, as presents, things

which, they hold, are greater far than all.
Maybe they astound you, gifts like these –
look, though, how within your folded shawl
he excels already all one sees.

Amber, shipped across great distances,

golden ornaments and fragrant spice
such as makes the heavy senses swim:
these were pleasures over in a trice,
and regretted when their power grew dim.

But (as you will see): joy comes of him.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

(from The Life of Mary, tr. J.B. Leishman)

Image source

Monday, December 24, 2007

Reflections: Remembering Mailer

Back in November, 2007 I noted the passing of the great American writer, Norman Mailer. This morning, in my travels around cyberspace, I came upon this remarkable interview with Mailer, from five years ago. It is full of wisdom and insight into contemporary America, the human condition, politics, the Middle East, the war in Iraq, the implications of hegemony, religion, the evils of flourescent lighting, and much more.

To perhaps pique your interest in reading this long interview, I give you the excerpt below, which is Mailer's take on an observational refrain my own, to which I have frequently referred as cognitive dissonance:

A lot of Americans [in the aftermath of WWII] were very happy to be prosperous, but they also felt secretly guilty. Why? Because we are a Christian nation. The Judeo in Judeo-Christian is essentially a grace note. We are a Christian nation. And the idea, if you really are a Christian and a great many people in America at that point were significantly devout, was that you were not supposed to be all that rich. God didn’t want it. Jesus certainly didn’t. You were not supposed to pile up a lot of money. You were supposed to spend your life in reasonably altruistic acts. That was one half of the collective psyche. The other half: Beat everybody you are in a contest with because you’ve got to win. To a certain extent, and this is a cruel, but possibly an accurate remark, to be an American is to be an oxymoron. On the one hand, you are a good Christian, and on the other, you are viscerally combative. You are supposed to be macho and win. Jesus and Evel Knievel don’t necessarily consort too well in one psyche.

I hope that I can encourage anybody who has never read Mailer to do so now. I believe that he will be known to history as one of two or three definitional voices of the generation immediately preceding my own, and a major, if subliminal, influence on the generations thereafter.

Photo credit

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Riffs: A Musical Gift via the Ohio Magus

A ceremonial yuletide toast to Madscribe! Skol, bro'!

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Reflections: Greeting the Season

These are trying times. The Spirit of Christmas seems swamped; not only by the unseemly, sometimes violent, consumer frenzy that annually bemerdes the season, but this year also by the tedious broadcast bickering of partisan politics; by the grisly news constantly trickling in from the Never-Ending-War; and by the uncertainties of a national economy, the assets of which are being pillaged and plundered domestically by those plutocratic few soaring near the clouds in their steel and glass bunkers, or alternately, sold abroad like boatloads of shackled slaves. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Therefore, by way of an antidote, and in the spirit of my previous post, I invite you to join me briefly on the short line leading to the wisdom of the philosopher Spinoza, whose words below will indicated by italics:

Unable to find an objective good in the usual surroundings of social life, Spinoza finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good, having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly to the exclusion of all else.

Spinoza undertook his project having found that the ordinary surroundings of life which are esteemed by men (as their actions testify) to be the highest good, may be classed under three heads—Riches, Fame, and the Pleasures of Sense: with these three the mind is so absorbed that it has little power to reflect on any different good.

Here, Spinoza had pressed his finger against the pulse of the problem: we habitually take as “good” things which are not good-in-themselves, but only objects of desire which, once obtained, leave us always wanting bigger-and-better-of-the-same. And men praise us and stoke our pride to the extent that we vigorously pursue this empty life until we wear ourselves down to stumps and nubs against the abrasive futility of it all.

All the objects pursued by the multitude, Spinoza observed, not only bring no remedy that tends to preserve our being, but even act as hindrances, causing the death not seldom of those who possess them, and always of those who are possessed by them. In these things resides the decadence of our culture; the destruction of the human spirit.

These toxins, Spinoza concluded, arise from the love of what is perishable… But love toward a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength…[for} while my mind was employed with these thoughts it turned away from its former objects of desire, and seriously considered the search for a new principle…

But, Fear not…search no further…for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

May God’s grace be with you in this joyous season, and throughout the new year to come.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Reflections: Huck Line and Thinker

This is not an endorsement. Nor does it make any kind of political statement, whatsoever. But it is something to think about.

I saw presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, being interviewed and commenting on the hot tabloid issue of the day--the pregnancy of Britney Spears' sixteen year-old sister.

Huck said (and I paraphrase from memory): "I'm not going to condemn her. There will be plenty of people lining up to do that. And I always look for the short line."

I always look for the the short line: I like that. I agree with that. I find wisdom in that. Most often, when I find myself in the short line, I find myself in the correct line. I may not be waiting for the most pleasant, the most entertaining, or the least challenging eventuality by hanging in there on that shortest line. But I inevitably find myself in the best company.

Reflections: The Pain of It All

For the past two weeks I have been coping with a considerable level of pain emanating from, but not limited to, a wrenched back. Due, apparently, to related sciatic nerve impingement, any walking has been accomplished only with the help of narcotic pain pills and muscle relaxants (for the first week), and mass quantities of Ibuprofen. The impossibility of finding a comfortable position in which to sleep; the more or less constant, sometimes severe, pain (now, thankfully, beginning to diminish); the lack of mobility, either walking or driving, and the inability to undertake any of life's little routines, including necessities such as bathing and going to the bathroom, without great effort, I find to be a consciousness-altering experience: the whole world has looked different to me. I sit in my familiar recliner, looking at my familiar surroundings, and feel out to sea. It is an alienation from self. I watch other people walking down to street with envy, unable to firmly believe that I will ever again do so myself. But I'm not complaining. It is humbling to be so struck down, and therefore valuable. Every moment of life must be looked upon as an undeserved gift; and even pain as a precious opportunity to transcend the forgetfulness that plagues our existence.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Readings: Chesterton's HERETICS

It had not been my intention to put up any more posts on G.K. Chesterton in the near future, even though I borrowed Heretics from the library immediately upon having finished Orthodoxy. But when I came upon the passage below, from the chapter in Heretics entitled “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling”, it seemed so appropriate to our current national dilemma that I was forced to modify my game plan:

The truth is that exploration and enlargement make the world smaller. The telegraph and the steamboat make the world smaller. The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope that makes it larger. Before long the world will be cloven with a war between the telescopists and the microscopists. The first study large things and live in a small world; the second study small things and live in a large world. It is inspiriting without a doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them. [emphasis mine]


Readers might find it interesting to compare the above to Kyle R. Cupp’s take on Interpreting Nations on his blog, Postmodern Papist.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Among the obituaries in the New York Times the other day was one for the writer, Elizabeth Hardwick. She was aged 91 and I would not have guessed that she had been still alive in 2007. Until quite recently, I had never read anything by her, and knew her primarily as the sometime wife of the American poet, Robert Lowell (with whom she is pictured here), with whose work I was fairly conversant. I first came to read Hardwick when a paperback copy of her short roman à clef, Sleepless Nights, caught my eye in a bin at a fund-raising sale of used books at the public library, and I brought it home.

It was not what I would consider to be an important piece of fiction, but I enjoyed it for its convincing depictions of life in New York City. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Midtown—look toward the east, toward many beautiful and bright things for sale. Turn the eyes westward—a nettling thicket of drunks, actors, gamblers, waiters, people who slept all day in their graying underwear and gave off a far from fresh odor when they dressed in their brown suits and brown snap-brim hats for the evening’s inchoate activities.

Although I never in my life donned a snap-brim hat, nor knew anybody who owned one, that passage is still familiar to me from my years in New York, and many nights spent on the streets of the theater district on the West Side of Manhattan. Here’s little more, touching briefly upon her acquaintance with jazz diva, Billie Holiday:

And the shifty jazz clubs on 52nd Street, with their large blow-ups of faces, instruments, and names. Little men, chewing on cigars, outside in the cold or the heat, calling out the names of performers… And there she often was—the “bizarre deity,” Billie Holiday.

…She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron… The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian.

The Times obituary interested me in looking into a least one of the books of short non-fiction pieces Hardwick had published. From the university library I borrowed the collection entitled Bartleby in Manhattan. I was pleased to find that the volume included an article on Simone Weil. It is the only one that I have read thus far. Unlike several of the essays on Weil by literati that I’ve read over the years, Hardwick’s is unreservedly positive. Simone Weil’s life was one of such extremes that many of her contemporaries were simply unable to accept it all as genuine, and not at any time the strange doings of weird poseur.

Characterizing Simone Weil as “one of the most brilliant and original minds of twentieth-century France”, Hardwick noted, “What sets her apart from our current ascetics with their practice of transcendental meditation, diet, vegetarianism, ashram simplicities, yoga, in that with them the deprivations and rigors are undergone for the payoff—for tranquility, for thinness, for the hope of a long life—or frequently, it seems, to fill the hole of emptiness so painful to the narcissist. With Simone Weil it was entirely different."

With the passing of Elizabeth Hardwick, we have clearly lost a woman of keen perception and deep understanding.

Photo source

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Readings: Good-bye to ORTHODOXY

My last post consisted of three excerpts from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy which were controversial enough to evoke a bit of discussion in the comments section. I didn't choose them because they are controversial; they chose me by striking a sympathetic chord in my conscience. That said, I have no doubt that Chesterton meant the ideas presented by each of them to be striking, if not scandalous, to his readers. I've finished reading Orthodoxy now, but I had one last excerpt squirreled away, and I shall present it below. This one is not controversial, I think; but I like it. It describes a state of mind which, on some of my better days, I catch a rare glimpse of:

Plato told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you
with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But
imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture tomorrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare tomorrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before.

Nice, huh?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Readings: Chesterton's ORTHODOXY

I've been greatly enjoying my reading of G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. His aphoristic style is a joy in itself, regardless of whether or not you agree with everything he says. I've had occasion, as I've slowly read this beautiful book, to quote from it in the comment boxes of other blogs. An excerpt from Orthodoxy used in my previous post (which provides the requisite links), elicited an appreciation from a new reader, who is also a fan of Chesterton. For all of these reasons, I thought that I would just post a few more excerpts from this great book, and sit back to see if anybody who happens to come across them is inspired to make any pertinent comments:


The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same Father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.
(On a personal note, as an only child, I was particularly moved by this.)


We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.

The Rich:

Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. ...The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. ...For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes.

Tell it like it is, G.K.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reflections: Why I Read

As I was making the morning rounds of my regularly-visited blogs, I read a gorgeous post on Catholic and Enjoying It which begins like this:

“When Evangelicals ask me why the Church keeps holding up Mary alongside Christ, the best answer I can think of is this: There's one thing that even Jesus cannot do.

”He cannot show us what a disciple of Jesus looks like.”

Mark’s post was inspired, I believe, by the Pope’s recent encyclical. It speaks of the Virgin Mary as “the first apostle”. I was inspired by Mark’s post to submit the following comment:

“As a Protestant, let me ask, with reference to all the beautiful (no sarcasm there) writing above, how Mary is to be considered an exemplar for those of us struggling to attain discipleship?

”As the Immaculate Conception, born without Original Sin, it would seem that Mary would have had to struggle supernaturally to turn away from God; whereas the rest of humanity, born with, in effect, two strikes against it, needs to struggle supernaturally in order not to turn away from God, and this, knowing that we will continually fail. Mary never failed. She never needed to fear failure. I will. I can contemplate her with envy, but I can't do what she so effortlessly did. And I say "effortlessly" knowingly. Each and every one of us will face all of the sorrows that she faced, but we will face them as potentially damned sinners, while she faced them with full confidence of a crown and a heavenly throne for both her Son and herself, once the ordeal had been endured. We face our sorrows in hope, perhaps, in our strongest moments, but also in fear. Mary, ultimately, had nothing to fear.
It's all well and good to tell me to do what she did; but I can't do it. I am a sinner; she was not. And this sinlessness was of her essence; it is not of mine.
If Protestants don't get it, I think this, at least in part, is why.”

Having sent the above comment off, I clicked on “Home” and walked across the room from my computer to my recliner in order to pick up one of the books I am currently reading, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

Okay, so here is why I read:

On the very next page from where I had left off reading last night, in the chapter entitled “The Eternal Revolution”, Chesterton answers the question posed in the opening paragraph of the comment I had, only three minutes before, submitted to Mark Shea.

And here is how Chesterton does so:

“This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed. Whistler used to make may rapid studies of a sitter; it did not matter if he tore up twenty portraits. But it would matter if he looked up twenty times, and each time saw a new person sitting placidly for his portrait. So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its own failures are fruitless. The question then becomes this: How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art? How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always satisfied with working?” [emphasis added]

And thus the demise of my too clever objection to Mary as the ideal for the struggling apostle. Do I thank Mark Shea? Do I thank G. K. Chesterton. Do I file it under “synchronicity”? Or do I thank something Higher?

All of the above.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Readings: from The Notebooks

When Kyle, the major-domo of Postmodern Papist quoted the French Catholic existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, here, it reminded me that one of my purposes in launching this blog was supposed to have been posting excerpts from notes I had taken in the course of my various readings. For the most part, however, new readings have prompted immediate postings, and the contents of my notebooks have gone untapped.

Well, Kyle reminded me that I had been reading Gabriel Marcel some months back, so I went to the notebooks to look for a pithy quote from Marcel in order to give it an airing here. I found several quotes, from two different texts, to choose from. As a consequence of the fact that I refer to myself as a “pilgrim” in the profile adorning Rodak Riffs, I offer the following from Marcel’s book, The Mystery of Being:

There is not, and there cannot be, any global abstraction, any final high terrace to which we can climb by means of abstract thought, there to rest forever; for our condition is this world does remain, in the last analysis, that of a wanderer, an itinerate being, who cannot come to absolute rest except by a fiction, a fiction which it is the duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength.

But let us notice also that our itinerate condition is in no sense separable from the given circumstances, from which in the case of each of us that condition borrows its special character; we have thus reached a point where we can lay it down that to be in a situation and to be on the move are modes of being that cannot be dissociated from each other; are, in fact, two complementary aspects of our condition.

There’s your pilgrim. And while looking for a good Marcel quote, I came across whole pages of notes that I had scribbled down while reading Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity. I find the excerpts quoted below to have particular relevance to the rather heated disputation in which I was involved in the comments section of What’s Wrong With the World here. And so, Kierkegaard:

That an individual man is God, declares himself to be God, is indeed the “offense.” …Can one demonstrate that to be a rational reality which is at variance with reason? Surely not, unless one would contradict oneself. One can “prove” only that it is at variance with reason. The proofs which Scripture presents for Christ’s divinity—His miracles, His Resurrection from the dead, His Ascension into heaven--are therefore only for faith, that is, they are not “proofs,” they have no intention of proving that all this agrees perfectly with reason; on the contrary they would prove that it conflicts with reason and therefore is an object of faith.

…the certitude of faith is something infinitely higher [than a “proof” from history]

Everyone who has the least dialectical training can easily perceive that the whole argument about consequences is incommensurable with the decision of the question whether it is God…whether he will believe that He is what He said He was; or whether he will not believe.

…”History,” says faith, “has nothing whatever to do with Christ…”

Jesus Christ is the object of faith; one must either believe on Him or be offended. For to “know” signifies exactly that the reference is not to Him. …Knowledge demolishes Jesus Christ.

Given that the discussion got a little bit hot at WWWtW the other day, it is probably just as well that I didn’t come across the following Old Testament tidbit at the time:

May the Lord strike you with Egyptian boils and with tumors, scabs and itches, for which you will find no cure. [Deut.28:27]

I feel much better now.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Readings: Mizu No Oto

Mizu no oto is the final line of a haiku by Bashō, the consensus choice as the greatest of the Japanese practitioners of the form. As most of you will know, a haiku is a poem consisting of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto In English: The old pond: A frog jumps in – The sound of water. I was introduced to the haiku form, to an understanding of its relationship to Zen Buddhism, and to this particular haiku, by the writings of R. H. Blyth, decades ago when I was an undergraduate. I have “known” during all this elapsed time that Furuike ya epitomizes the genre. I had thought to be able to find words to this effect in one of the three books by R.H. Blyth that I have in my personal library; but I came up dry. It is possible that I gained this appreciation of Furuike ya from D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, or one of the other translators of, and commentators on, Asian poetry, culture and religion whose works I was reading back then, and continue to read today. Of Bashō, Blyth writes in volume one of his great multiple-volume study Haiku, Eastern Culture: There are three great names in the history of haiku, Bashō, Buson and Issa; …Bashō is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist. Bashō is concerned with God as he sees himself in the mind of the poet before flowers and fields. Buson deals with things as they exist by and for themselves, in their own right. Issa is concerned with man, man the weak angel…” Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644. He was the son of a feudal lord. Bashō left the samuri service at the death of his father, when he was 23 years old. At the age of 29, he traveled to the capital, Edo. He spent most of his life on the road. In addition to his poetry, Bashō is the author of the often-translated Narrow Road to the Deep North, a diary in prose and poetry of his travels through the villages and mountain temples of Japan’s northern interior. I recommend reading Bashō and Japanese and Chinese poetry, in general, if you have not done so already. Asian art forms have a beauty that is distinct from those of the West; and it is a distinction from which there is much—very much—to be gained. But my real purpose in this post is to introduce the writings of R. H. Blyth. I own three books by Blyth: Haiku, volume one, Eastern Culture; A History of Haiku, volume one; and Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I highly recommend all three. Blyth was a genius, in my opinion, in synthesizing for the Western mind the elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen both in their historical and cultural context in Asia, and as they relate to Western ideas of religion, art, and culture. For this reason, I particularly recommend Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics as a text that will repay the effort put into finding a copy and reading it, many times over. Here are the opening sentences of his preface: The history of mankind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature. In his introduction to A History of Haiku, volume one, Blyth writes: Haiku is an ascetic art, an artistic asceticism. Of the two elements, the ascetic is more rare, more difficult, of more value than the artistic. The preface to the book I most highly recommend, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, begins: Zen is the most precious possession of Asia. With its beginnings in India, development in China, and final practical application in Japan, it is today the strongest power in the world. It is a world-power, for in so far as men live at all, they live by Zen. Wherever there is a poetical action, a religious aspiration, a heroic thought, a union of nature within a man and the Nature without, there is Zen. Chapter 1 of the book is entitled “What Is Zen?” and begins: Consider the lives of birds and fishes. Fish never weary of the water; but you do not know the true mind of a fish, for you are not a fish. Birds never tire of the woods; but do not know their real spirit, for you are not a bird. It is just the same with the religions, the poetical life: if you do not live it, you know nothing about it. As an example of the practical application of Blyth’s critical sensibilities, I will quote a bit of his comparison of a haiku by Buson, whom Blyth ranks second only to Bashō, that is superficially similar to Furuike ya. Here is Buson: The old pond, A straw sandal sunk to the bottom: Sleet falling. In comparing this to Bashō, Blyth states: To put it in a word, Buson lived in the world of phenomena, and his inner life was thin compared to that of Bashō. … Bashō’s verse has a life within it, it has Life, whereas Buson’s verse is dead, in this sense. The dreariness of the scene with the straw sandal is not superficial, but it does not involve within itself all the dreariness of the world; it is the thing-as-it-is, but not the Thing-as-It-is. We choose one or the other, according to our character and mood. We all need, be we Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, be we even Marxist materialist or Logical Positivist, to be in touch with the Thing-as-It-is. As a Christian, I recall that St. Paul admonished us to pray constantly. I find that the writings of R.H. Blyth are an aid to understanding what Paul meant by that. The bibliography of books by R.H. Blyth on is here.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Readings: Visual Versification

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the owners of the graphic referred to below seem to have made it unavailable. Too bad, as it was beautiful.

Having today off work, I was surfing around the blogosphere in a casual manner when, just now, I came across the graphic composition to which I will link below. It is an artifact, not an image of the "real world"; yet, it's just God-awful beautiful. It is, in fact, a poem in visual images. First read these lines from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

[dead link removed here]

Does it not recall these other lines of Eliot's, from the first of the Four Quartets, "Burnt Norton"?:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Which is to say:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done;
And there is no new thing under the sun.

~the Preacher

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, yo...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reflections: The Verb "To Be"

Most people have seen all of the below, but perhaps not all in one place, at one time, and considered in conjunction. So, mix 'em, match 'em, trade 'em with your friends:

I am that I am.

Tat tvam asi.*

The Tao of which one can speak is not the true Tao.

Before Abraham was, I am.

Existence precedes essence.

The world is all that is the case.
*Thou art that.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


In a slight variation on what has become a Thanksgiving tradition in our nation's capital, President George W. Bush pardoned not one, but two, freakish white turkeys to celebrate the official opening day of the Christmas shopping frenzy.

Reached for comment, an unnamed White House spokesperson denied rumors that the names of the two turkeys pardoned were Karla and Faye.

"Pardoning birds is hard work!" Bush was heard to exclaim. "I'm all tuckered out."

On this Thanksgiving Eve:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures, here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost;

Reflections: 'Buked and Scorned

I have for the past couple of days been involved in a comment box “conversation” based on this post at What’s Wrong With the World. It hasn’t gone well for the Kid. Your host has been dissed and dismissed. The post links to a 60-plus page philosophical treatise which purports to make a “Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” and which is “Now Available in Draft.” No wonder I’ve always preferred bottles.

I, in fact, agree with all of the conclusions made in the article. My purpose in posing counter-arguments in the comment section has been to serve as the devil’s advocate. I tried to pose objections to the conclusions drawn by the authors that I felt could plausibly be made by a very sceptical non-believer reading the piece with a jaundiced eye. An introductory paragraph of the article states that, although philosophical arguments can tend to get rather sticky, it is possible for the skilled philosopher to pose an “argument that an educated non-specialist can readily grasp.” Rodak has, alas, failed, in that rôle, to provide the proof of these philosophers’ skills. After well more than a dozen exchanges with one of the co-authors of the article, my cumulative comments drew this observation from a lurking sage:

I don't think Rodak is up to following an argument on this subject. You've done your best, but he lacks the background required to get across the
pons asinorum.

Ouch. But this little snippet of dismissive grandiosity only betrays the fugitive truth that the article was never designed to be persuasive to a skeptical non-specialist in the first place. Rather, it is a gaudy clockwork canary of a piece, cleverly designed to whistle and trill as it dances along its gilded perch, evoking the hooting, foot-stomping kudos of the Byzantine lords and ladies of minor league academia. Well, hoo-rah.

Pons asinorum” indeed. Try “bridge to nowhere.” It seems that I didn’t come properly equipped. It’s as if some poor schmuck, his house a-blaze, called the fire department, only to have the Chief inform him brusquely that he and his men would be happy to come over and extinguish the flames, provided, of course, that the unfortunate home-owner supplied the hoses and ladders, the axes and pumps needed for the task.

Perhaps I’m just not equipped. Or, on the other hand, perhaps one could say that my intellect is just not so jury-rigged by hyper-edjumacation as to be susceptible to an argument that glitters and gleams like a gilded canary, but has no life in it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Readings: Luther - CRUX sola est nostra theologia!

I had resolved to post concerning the book Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Alister E. McGrath (referred to hereafter as LTC), once I finished reading it. And so:

It seems that the genesis of Luther’s Theology of the Cross was the existential angst arising from his contemplation of the question: How can a righteous God justify and accept a perpetually sinful human being? We recall that St. Paul experienced similar psychological/spiritual pain :

Romans 7:18 For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. 7:19 For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. 7:20 But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.

It must be noted that Luther was not operating in a vacuum, but within the context of a current of theological thought (the via moderna) which prevailed in the Augustinian Order in which he had been mentored, and was in the process of himself becoming a mentor. I’m not going to dwell on the inside baseball of late medieval theological discourse here, however. My purpose is only to outline Luther’s eventual conclusions as they arose from the combination of his study and his prayer. His quest was to be centered upon interpretation of Holy Scripture:

“For Luther, scripture was to be respected because through it the theologian had access to the Word of God: the phrase sola scriptura was to be interpreted in an exclusive sense, meaning ‘through scripture, and through scripture alone’. “[LTC, p.51]

Luther’s doctrine of justification developed into a concept in which the causality of justification was to be found in God gratuitously offering man a covenant, or pactum. Through the acceptance of this offer, the sinner, though not worthy in himself of salvation, is made worthy in the eyes of God. In Luther’s own words:

“Even grace and faith, through which we are justified today, would not justify us of themselves…without God’s covenant. It is precisely for this reason, that we are saved: God has made a testament…and covenant with us, so that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. In this covenant God is truthful and faithful, and is bound by what he has promised.”

This faithfulness of God to his promise is assured, despite the fact that God must even move to supply the sinner with the grace and faith which render the human acceptance of the offered covenant possible. On his own, the man can do nothing to effect his justification. It will be noted that, in order for this covenant to make sense, ideas of human justice, as embodied in Roman law, must be abandoned for an understanding of a counterintuitive divine justice, through the workings of which that which is unworthy is deemed worthy and that which is unsalvageable is nonetheless saved.

These ideas, as I have very simplistically outlined them, lay the groundwork upon which the Theology of the Cross can be erected.

The paradoxical nature of the salvific covenant offered gratuitously to the unworthy sinner, which was based on a concept of divine justice that reason and logic did not seem to endorse, caused Luther to contemplate the nature of a God who worked in these mysterious ways. As stated by McGrath, “Luther’s answer to this question…can be summarized in one of his most daring phrases: the God who deals with sinful man in this astonishing way is none other than the ‘crucified and hidden God’ (Deus crucifixus et absconditus) – the God of the theologia cruces.” [p.147]

In a disputation at Heidelberg, Luther made these essentially significant statements in Theses 19 and 20:

19. The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian.

20. The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian.

Per McGrath: “For Luther, the sole authentic locus of man’s knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that revelation. Luther’s reference to the posteriori Dei serves to emphasize that, like Moses, we can only see God from the rear: we are denied a direct knowledge of God, or a vision of his face (cf. Exodus 33.23). The cross does indeed reveal God – but that revelation is of the posteriori Dei…but a genuine revelation nonetheless.” [p.149]

The truth of this revelation is discerned only by the eye of faith. That God is revealed in the cross means that the faith of salvation corresponds directly to a recognition and acceptance of the abandonment and suffering of Christ Crucified: God makes himself known through human suffering.

McGrath again: “For Luther, God is active in this matter, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God. …In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognize that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature…results in an action which belongs to his very nature: God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ “ [p.151]

An interesting component of Luther’s thought is that, in God’s project of bringing about the sense of utter helplessness and humiliation that allows for man’s ultimate salvation, the devil is God’s instrument – an idea similar to that which I formulated earlier, with reference to the Fall of Man.

A crucial term here is Anfechtung: “For Luther, death, the devil, the world and Hell combine in a terrifying assault upon man, reducing him to a state of doubt and despair. Anfechtung is thus a state of hopelessness and helplessness, having strong affinities with the concept of Angst.” [LTC, p.170] It is a form of temptation meant to test man’s faith by ordeal: the last and only refuge from the wrath of God is in God’s mercy.

At this point, we might well say, Wha'?—we know some Lutherans, and none of them seem to be going through anything even remotely like this stuff! Ah yes: cheap grace; I’ve spoken of it before.

McGrath writes: “Anfechtung, it must be appreciated, is not some form of spiritual growing pains, which will disappear when a mystical puberty is attained, but a perennial and authentic feature of the Christian life. In order for a Christian to progress in his spiritual life, he must continually be forced back to the foot of the cross, to begin it all over again…”

(Albert Camus, call your office: message from a Mr. Sisyphus)

But, in fact, paradoxical though it may seem, this mystery of the cross, this on-going Anfechtung, is to be regarded always--through the eyes of faith--as an occasion for joy, since it is the one and only way to salvation.

“Everything which is concerned with the theologia cruces hinges upon faith. Only those who have faith understand the true meaning of the cross. Where the unbeliever sees nothing but the helplessness and hopelessness of an abandoned man dying upon a cross, the theologian of the cross…recognizes the presence and activity of the ‘crucified and hidden God’, …who is not merely present in human suffering, but actively works through it.” [LTC, p.175]

In Luther’s own words: “The cross is the safest of all things. Blessed is the man who understands this.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Readings: Backing a Winner

It has been announced that Denis Johnson's excellent novel, Tree of Smoke, has won the National Book Award. I don't like to brag, but I told you and here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Reflections: The Loyal Opposition

I've been wanting to post something about the book on Martin Luther that I'm reading. The work traces the development over time of Luther's Theology of the Cross. The problem has been that Luther's been having a new insight every two or three pages, so anything I might write concerning today's reading would need to be revised tomorrow. As a result, I've decided that I'll wait until I've finished the whole thing to reflect on it.

Meanwhile I've been out roaming around the cybersphere, leaving my contrarian observations in the comment boxes of several other blogs:

I've been discussing the best way to talk to disbelievers in the comments section of the November 8th post, "My Latest for Catholic Exchange" at Catholic and Enjoying It.

At What's Wrong With the World I've been commenting sagely on the genetic basis of racism and its implications for a Brave New World scenario to come.

The owner of The Catholic Libertarian, a title which I have characterized as oxymoronic, has had to put up with my dubiety regarding his posts on the Jihad and Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul.

I've also been very briefly involved in a set of rather eclectic comments at Postmodern Papist.

Finally, I've been boycotting my former home-away-from-home Ragged Thots in a fit of pique. But you shouldn't. Go there and make yourself heard. Really. Just do it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mailer Photo: Take 2

Mailer's New York Times obituary offered a slide show that included this photo. I would have used it yesterday, if I had seen it on time:

Who says that there's no hope for Jews and Muslims to get together, eh?

Rodney King, call your office.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I have just read that Norman Mailer has died. In my estimation, he was a giant of American letters. As I am not fit to lace up Mailer's boxing gloves, I will leave it to others more capable than I to eulogize the man: the mensch. I will say, however, that if there was a rush this year to award the Nobel Prize for Literature one step ahead of the Grim Reaper, then the Nobel committee fucked up, big time. Doris Lessing, talented as she is, wouldn't make a patch on Norman Mailer's ass.

Graphic credit

Reflections: And Forgive Us Our Trespasses...

Among the titles listed here, which I am currently working my way through, is Catholic novelist Ron Hansen’s book, A Stay Against Confusion, Essays on Faith and Fiction. Last night I was reading his essay “Anima Christi”, in which he translates, and then comments on, each line of the title prayer. In light of an unpleasant exchange* in which I recently become involved in the comments section at Postmodern Papist, I was particularly struck by Hansen’s commentary as follows:

Ab hoste maligno defende me.

“From spiteful enemies protect me.”

I have translated this line to underscore that the writer is not talking about a devil (diabolus) or demon (daemon) here, as a great many translations would have it, nor is the host, or army, as pernicious and hateful as enemies that are malignant in the English way. Every definition of malignus indicates pettiness and unkindness. A hostis malignus is stingy, ill-natured, grudging, small, the grouch next door, the snipe up the street, nothing so grand as an Evil One, nor even a bête noire. And I love that about the prayer.

Jacques Derrida has pointed out that our enemies are persons we haven’t met yet; when we have met them, when we have done our best not to meet them and met them often and hour after hour, then our enemies are no more than maligno and too much like ourselves. How wise and practical of the “Anima Christi” to address the humdrum problems of Christianity rather than martyrdoms and persecutions: the frowns and jokes and put-downs, the belittlings and smirks.

~ Ron Hansen

‘Nuff said.
*UPDATE: This post originally included a link to the referenced post and subsequent conversation at Postmodern Papist. I find that the post has since been deleted, which is, perhaps, just as well. That said, Hansen's insights illuminate situations that we all regularly face, and remain valuable.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Interlude: Unsolicited Promotional(s)

I want to draw the attention of my huge community of readers to a blog that I recently discovered and by which I've been impressed: Postmodern Papist. The owner, Kyle Cupp, posts some timely and intelligent stuff that I find to be conducive to contemplation.

It turns out that Kyle also has a very talented wife, Genece, an artist, whose works can be sampled here.

You should visit Kyle's blog to become engaged in what's happening through interaction with an active, wide-ranging, and intelligent mind.

You should take a look at Genece's art because, as Simone Weil puts it in the pages on beauty in Gravity and Grace,

In everything which gives us the pure authentic feeling of beauty there really is the presence of God. There is as it were an incarnation of God in the world and it is indicated by beauty.
The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.
Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence. (That is what people have forgotten today.) A Gregorian melody is as powerful a witness as the death of a martyr.

and because, as indicated by the following, beauty can be an occasion of detachment from the snares of the material world:

Beauty: a fruit which we look at without trying to seize it.

But do seize the links.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Reflections: Déjà Vu, All Over Again

I have started reading yet another of the books on the list that I posted last time, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, by Alister E. McGrath. It is a scholarly text, some of it soaring well above my pay grade, with its untranslated Latin terms, but it is instructive in placing the career of Luther within its historical, academic, and ecclesiastical context.

These sentences particularly struck me as I was reading this morning:

“How can a sinner enter into fellowship with a holy and righteous God? How can the troubled conscience find peace by discovering a gracious God? Luther was not the only one to ask such questions, and was not the only one to find himself confused by the variety of answers given. In practice, it may be noted that the questions which were to torment the young Luther and others so appear to have been asked but rarely in the later medieval period, the predominance of external (and, it seems, largely superficial) forms of the religious life tending to rob such questions of their force.

“Possessed of a tired spirituality, morally bankrupt, doctrinally confused, each succeeding study of the later medieval period confirms this depressing evaluation of the then prevailing state of the Christian church in Europe.”

I find myself similarly confused by the variety of answers being given to this perennial question today. Although there is supposedly great ferment taking place in the Protestant world, it seems that a large part of the excitement is over the involvement of evangelical, and other fundamentalist congregations, in right-wing politics. This often leaves their members supporting leaders such as George W. Bush, and following such men, like so many bleating merinos, into clearly un-Christ-like acts. How can it be that American Christians are even debating, for instance, the morality of torture?

Charity and brother-love among Christians in general, particularly with reference to the Other, be that Other of a different religion, different race and/or nationality, different religious denomination, non-heterosexual gender orientation, etc., seems to be at a premium today. Love of money, not for use in helping the afflicted, but for personal use in the pursuit of frivolous distractions from the quest of a troubled conscience to find peace, seems to be the cultural norm. For the most part, Catholics seem indistinguishable from Protestants in their, perhaps largely unconscious, idolization of this fundamentally nihilistic Zeitgeist; Catholics the victims of “cheap sacraments,” where Protestants are the victims of “cheap grace.”

Jesus said: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me."

I wonder: What did He mean by “my”? And what did He mean by “least”?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Readings: Prudence, meet Whimsy

From time to time I go online to check my account at the university library. It is my habit, at any given time, to be reading several books, of various genres, concurrently. I have found that the books communicate with each other, like, perhaps, several experts seated around the table of a multi-disciplinary symposium. I am their privileged and grateful witness.

But, I borrow so many books that I sometimes lose track of them. It is therefore prudent to peruse the online record of my borrowings. I found this morning that my current list of borrowings numbers nine, as follows:

1. Alone of All Her Sex, the Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary
~ Marina Warner

2. Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks
~ Simone Weil

3. The Quick and the Dead, a novel
~ Joy Williams

4. A Stay Against Confusion, Essays on Faith and Fiction
~ Ron Hansen

5. The Complete Stories
~ Flannery O’Connor

6. State of Grace, a novel
~ Joy Williams

7. Mary Today, the Challenging Woman
~ M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.

8. Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough
~ Alister E. McGrath

9. The Problem of Evil
~ Mark Larrimore, editor

Of these, I am currently reading numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, with the rest waiting “on deck.”

The following paragraphs are the result of a whimsical experiment by which I selected at random one sentence from each of the nine books above, arranging them in three paragraphs, each containing three of the nine sentences, in approximate order of length:

In other words, philosophic theism has always shown a tendency to become pantheistic and monistic, and to consider the world as one unit of absolute fact; and this has been at variance with popular or practical theism, which latter has ever been more or less frankly pluralistic, not to say polytheistic, and shown itself perfectly well satisfied with a universe composed of many original principles, provided we be only allowed to believe that the divine principle remains supreme, and that the others are subordinate. Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a headstrong Carmelite nun in the sixteenth century, would tear off her habit and flamboyantly embrace a statue of Jesus while crying out in an orgasmic way, “O love, you are melting and dissolving my very being! The paying customer saw not at all what had been promised or inferred, only a vague, grainy drift, an emptiness that with effort might suggest some previous thriving and striving, but all in all a disappointment.

That horse represented the life he loved and couldn’t get enough of—the gear and the parades and the good camaraderie and the dragging for criminals or fishermen who drowned off the keys or in the swamp. The intense controversy between Bizer and Bornkamm over this issue has served to demonstrate how intimately the two concepts are linked, rather than to resolve the question. The relationship of the cube, which, properly speaking, is never seen in the appearances produced by perspective, is like the relationship of the stem of the sundial to the shadows.

The prolific Luke is still credited with hundreds of statues and paintings all over the Catholic world (figure 43); and there are still many
acheiropoietoi images in Catholic churches. The past and the future were the same thing to him, one forgotten and the other not remembered; he had no more notion of dying than a cat. When we, in spirit, unite our yes with Mary’s, it becomes integrated with the yes of humanity that Mary is saying.

Okay, so I’ve got too much time on my hands. Things could be worse…

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Reflections: You Don't Know What Love Is

Luke 10:27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Love is central to the Christian religion. We say "God is Love." Jesus Christ charged us to love God, neighbor, and self, as the supreme commandment. Yet what do we really know of love? Love is sometimes seen as that which temporarily manipulates the mutual activities of a Kid Rock and a Pamela Anderson, for the titillation of the public. It is seen by some as the relationships that they have with their golden retrievers. Love is experienced by nearly every contemporary person as the jealous, competitive, co-dependent possessiveness which entangles mates and family members in nets of anxiety-ridden, yet voluntary, emotional slavery. So who knows what love is?

In her essay “The ‘Symposium’ of Plato” from the anthology Imitations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, Simone Weil quotes the following, from the discourse of the tragic poet, Agathon:

196b. The most important is that Love neither causes nor submits to injustice, be it among the gods or among men. For, when suffering happens to him he does not suffer by force, for force cannot reach Love. And when he acts, he does not proceed by force, for each one consents to obey Love in everything. That agreement which is made by mutual consent is righteous, according to the laws of the ‘City royal’.

Weil herself next comments:

“These lines are perhaps the most beautiful in Plato. Here is the very center of all Greek thought, its perfectly pure and luminous core. The recognition of might as an absolutely sovereign thing in all of nature, including the natural part of the human soul, with all the thoughts and all the feelings the soul contains, and at the same time as an absolutely detestable thing; this is the innate grandeur of Greece.”

Does this not speak directly to the power-plays at the heart of every domestic drama, or “family romance”—a stuggle between affinity and repulsion—the initial desire to be as one, which gradually morphs into a struggle to be oneself?

Weil continues:

“Today one sees many people who honor might above all, whether they give it that name or other names possessed of a more agreeable sound.”

Right, a more agreeable sound--such as “democratization” or “nation-building.”

“One also sees many, however, in rapidly decreasing number, who despise might. This is because they are ignorant of its powerful effects. They lie to themselves, if need be, in order not to learn about it.”

Here, I believe, Weil has her finger on the pulse of that evidently numerous variety of “religious conservative,” whose moral cognitive dissonance renders him at the same time hawkish, and, in his own mind, pious. He is unable to see the conflict between the coercive use of force against his neighbor, in pursuit of his creature comforts and personal security, and the commandment to love his neighbor.

“But who knows the whole extent of the empire of might and at the same time despises it? ...perhaps some Christians very near to saintliness, but seemingly few.”

Amen, sister. You got that right.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Readings: I Like This:

The following is from the essay "Divine Love in Creation" which is included in an anthology of the writings of Simone Weil entitled Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks:

"Proportion and harmony are synonyms. Proportion is the bond established between two numbers by a mean proportional; thus 3 establishes a proportion between 1 and 9, that is 1/3 = 3/9. Harmony is defined by the Pythagoreans as the unity of contraries. The first couple of contraries is God and the creature. The Son is the unity of those contraries, the geometrical mean which establishes a proportion between them: He is the mediator."

File under: Topics Not Covered in Confirmation Class

(And they want to label me sola scriptura. Ha!)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Religion: Who Said It Was Gonna Be Easy?

The comments section of the October 23rd post over at Disputations entitled "The Hard Way" is headed up by TSO's comment:

Given that the evidence is pretty solid that Christianity is indeed hard, it does take faith to emphasize: 'My yoke is easy, My burden light."

There ensued from this some discussion of how it is possible to reconcile this saying of Jesus to the fact that Christian discipleship is hard, as indicated by the post's title and purport. I made an attempt at addressing this question at Disputations, and since the topic relates nicely to reflections previously posted here and here, and especially here, I have decided to make a post of it, as follows:

To live in this world is inevitably to experience sickness, pain, loss, death. It is to experience the agonizing shame of sin and the humiliation of being seen as culpable by God, and by our fellow man. It is to experience the false sense of personal power that comes with the illict pride we nurture when we think we've gotten the upper hand in life and have risen above our brothers.
Suffering is the antidote for such false pride.
With regard to suffering per se, the key concept is acceptance. We may understand our acceptance of the Necessity entailed by our existence as obedience. God has made us as we are, towards which creation our proper response and orientation is praise and gratitude.
As Christ, who was perfect in His innocence, was obedient to the Necessity that He suffer and die on the Cross for our sake, so must we, with the help of grace, in praise of God's goodness, and in gratitude for His sacrifice, pick up our own meager crosses and follow Him.
His yoke is easy, because it is simple. We don't have to find it, or figure it out for ourselves; it has been given to us, gratis. His burden is light, because it is all that we need, henceforth, to bear. We have put down the crushing weight of the world and all of the unbearable burden of our sins, and all that we need to shoulder now is that bare minimum which is asked of us, in exchange for Life Eternal.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Readings: Skip to My Lou, or Skip to My Lai?

I have now finished reading Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. In my October 13th post, in musing about where the novel was headed, two-thirds of the way through the plot, with particular reference to the character, Skip Sands, I wrote:

What does Johnson have in mind for Skip? As a symbol of patriotic, casually Christian America, will Skip become even more the fascist than he already de facto is? Or will he veer off in the direction of sainthood, persevering, but suffering, in his new-found acknowledgement of the agony of existence in a fallen world? As a symbol of America, where will Skip find his will-to-power?

Well, I now know the answer to that question—kind of. But, as part of my purpose here is to promote the reading of books that I have found worthy, I’m not going to announce a spoiler alert and then disclose what becomes of Skip Sands in the end. Tree of Smoke is rife with mysteries, the significance of which is best left to the individual reader.

What I think that I’ll do instead is present a kind of impressionistic mashup of some of the thematic threads at which I’ve been pulling in my last several posts.

In the post previous to this one, I wrote:

A fundamental characteristic of atheism is its banality. Compared to the intellectual and spiritual richness of myth, religion and theology, it is simply boring. The last really interesting atheist may well have been Nietzsche.

That said, I had also noted in my October 13th post that Tree of Smoke had interested me in the writings of E. M. Cioran—along with Nietzsche, an interesting atheist, imho. Having now read a bit of Cioran, if I understand him correctly, one of his themes is that words intervene between human perception and reality. It does seem to be the case that only mathematics can express reality purely objectively. But math can only prove that a thing is there; it can't put us in contact with it, or allow us to see it as it is. Using words we can attempt to give an impression of things as they are, but words alone cannot prove that there is really any there there. A unicorn built of words is as real as a donkey described on the same page. This use of words to separate human perception from reality relates to the project of Skip’s uncle and mentor, the legendary and Kurtz-like, Colonel of Tree of Smoke, and thus, to Skip’s fate.

One of the Cioran texts I am reading is The Fall into Time, translated from the French by Richard Howard; Introduction by Charles Newman; Quadrangle Press, Chicago, 1970 (it seems to be out of print in English, so no link provided). The following is a quote from Newman’s Introduction:

"[For] Cioran, language is a sticky symbolic net, an infinite regression from things cutting men off from the world, as they once cut themselves off from God; and so, to scramble the metaphor, humans are no more than shadows who project their images upon the mirror of infinity." (p. 12)

Consider, too, these quotes from Cioran’s essay “Civilized Man, a Portrait” from that same book:

“If you try to convert someone, it will never be to effect his salvation but to make him suffer like yourself, to be sure he is exposed to the same ordeals and endures them with the same impatience.” (p. 57)


“Once someone is shackled by a certainty, he envies your vague opinions, your resistance to dogmas or slogans, your blissful incapacity to commit yourself. Blushing in secret for belonging to a sect or a party, ashamed of possessing a truth and of being enslaved by it, it is not his acknowledged enemies he resents, those who profess another, but you, the Indifferent, guilty of pursuing none.” (pp.57-58)

I see this as having relevance to both the American project as exemplified by Vietnam, and to the resistance of Simone Weil to enter the Catholic Church (to pull in another thread).

I have been struck by the similarities between some of the thought of Cioran, an atheist, and Simone Weil, a freelance Christian. Both of them express the opinion that the way to salvation is to strip the Self, through suffering, down nearly to the vegetative level. For Cioran, this would eliminate all that is false in human existence, providing the salvation of utter authenticity. For Weil, the effect would be to remove the “I” from one’s existence, leaving room for God to move in and take over. The main difference between the atheist and the theist here seems to be that Weil, as opposed to Cioran, had a personal experience of Christ—a special revelation—that converted her from a secular leftist into something resembling a saint.

Compare, for instance, these two excerpts:

“Once man, separated from Creator and creation alike, became individual—in other words, fracture and fissure in Being—and once he learned, assuming his name to the point of provocation, that he was mortal, his pride was thereby magnified, no less than he confusion. At last he was dying in his own way—he was proud of that; but he was dying, dying altogether—and that was humiliating. No longer reconciled to a denouement once fiercely desired, he turns at last, and longingly, to the animals, his former companions: all, vile and noble alike, accept their fate, enjoy it or resign themselves to it; none has followed his example or imitated his rebellion. The plants, more than the beasts, rejoice to have been created: the very nettle still flourishes within God; only man suffocates there, and is it not this choking sensation which led him to stand apart from the rest of creation, a consenting outcast, a voluntary reject? All other living beings, by the very fact that they are identical with their condition, have a certain superiority to him. And it is when he envies them, when he longs for their impersonal glory, that man understands the gravity of his case.”

~ E. M. Cioran, The Fall into Time, “The Tree of Life” (pp.37-38)

“The vegetative energy alone has the right to remain attached to those things that are necessary to the vegetative life. One must not appropriate anything to oneself, whether it be an object or a being, through the exercise of the supplementary energy. Poverty.”

~ Simone Weil, Notebooks, Vol. 2

And, finally, this, (quoted in the Introduction p.26):

“The self, triumphing over its functions, shrinks to a point of consciousness projected into the infinite, outside of time.”

~ E. M. Cioran

I leave to you the choice: connect the dots, or not.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Reflections: Atheism and its Discontents

I was planning to write a reasoned, well-constructed, rhetorically air-tight little essay contra atheism this weekend. But I’m not gonna do it. I’m just not in the mood. What I need to do instead is go into my room, shut the door, get down on my knees, and ask God…WTF!?! Or else punch a hole in the plasterboard.

A fundamental characteristic of atheism is it's banality. Compared to the intellectual and spiritual richness of myth, religion and theology, it is simply boring. The last really interesting atheist may well have been Nietzsche. Most atheists, regardless of the complexity of their presentation, or the opacity of their academic jargon, have but two messages for the world: 1) There’s no God, and you can’t prove that there is one; and, 2) Religion is responsible for everything that’s been wrong with the world since before the dawn of history.

Okay. Fine. Messages received. What else you got?

What originally set me off on this little rant was being faced with the fact that my latest literary love, Rebecca Goldstein, has hooked up with a professional atheist named Steven Pinker. I had been informed of this anecdotally already, by Madscribe, but I didn’t allow my mind to dwell upon it at that time. Then I came across this article, and all possibility of denial went down the proverbial drain. That Rebecca Goldstein is, herself, an atheist did not so much surprise me, although I would have guessed “agnostic.” But that she would join forces with a preening professional blasphemer was a hard blow.

Right now there are at least three other "intellectuals" making a good buck as professional atheists. You’ve got Richard Dawkins. You’ve got Sam Harris. (“Sam” for chrissake?) And then you’ve got pathetic, drunken Christopher Hitchens. Obviously the times are ripe for a resurrection of the spirit of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Organized religion is undergoing a period of global resurgence, whether it be in the form of Protestant fundamentalism, or of Muslim militancy. We know from Brother Ike Newton that for every action there’s an opposite reaction, striving to become equal. Steven Pinker is among the strivers.

Dawkins I can ignore. He’s Brit, and we all know about them, don’t we? Eccentric though they are expected, almost obligated, to be, they automatically sound intelligent, even if slightly cockney in their delivery. All of which explains why they are more and more in demand as spokesmen in American TV commercials. But I’m not buying. Dawkins is an evolutionary scientist, so he’s got a professional axe to grind. And he has mouth-breathing mobs of bible banging, fundie adversaries, ready-made to attack him and thereby juice the sales of his books and elevate the price of his speaking fees. Next, please.

Ah. Sam Harris. What can I say? Follow the link, read his bio, and then try to find it in your heart to practice a little charity, preferably in the form of pity. The guy is obviously all jacked out of shape and striking back blindly at those forces, far beyond his control, which have left him in the shape he’s in; forces which he mistakes for the God whose existence he denies. Atheism is, after all, every bit as subjective as religious faith. One can no more prove that God does not exist, than one can prove that He does. Pro- and con-, it’s all faith-based. All of it.

Christopher Hitchens…my, my, my. Through a boozy haze, Mr. Hitchens now squanders what’s left of his talent, and formerly fine intellect, by railing mean-spiritedly against the obvious. By “obvious” I don’t mean that he’s obviously right, but that he sets up every obvious straw man in the atheist arsenal and then kicks it to pieces for the delighted amusement of his adrenaline-pumping audiences in an alcohol induced frenzy of over-the-top wrath. Poor Hitch! Butch as he is, he has yet to realize that since death is inevitable, to die tough is nothing. Oh, yeah--it takes a real mensch to diss the memory of Mother Teresa.

Finally, Steven Pinker. Or should we call him “Little Steven” Pinker, since he’s doing his best to be taken seriously as an intellectual, while simultaneously looking like the foal of Kenny G. out of Adam Ant?

I just don’t know. Becky! Becky! Where did it all go so terribly wrong?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Religion: Thanks For Sharing

I realize that I haven’t posted anything new for going on a week now. This is in great part because my cyber-energies were being drained off by an on-going discussion following the Wednesday, October 10th post at Disputations, entitled “Neither Pretense Nor Trump” which is now at 230+ comments and counting. It has been pretty much Protestant me against the Catholic field. But that’s par for the course. I’m not whining. That’s why I read that blog.

The original post, in which Tom, the Lord and Master at Disputations, discusses the urge of some Catholics and non-Catholics toward Christian unification and intercommunication, and the problems inherent therein, contains this statement of a Msgr. Wells:

“To pretend a unity that does not exist may feel good at the moment; but it allows us to avoid the painful truth that we are still far from the oneness in faith and action intended by the Lord.”

This was followed immediately by Tom’s statement:

“True enough, but if I may, I don't think Catholics and non-Catholics who desire intercommunion are pretending a unity that does not exist. At the very least, they surely don't think they are.”

I have argued before for an open communion as a necessary condition to allow for even the hope of a future Christian unity, and I took this opportunity to argue for it once again. Those interested in the topic might want to read through the comments following Tom’s post, as they are interesting from a number of different angles. I will not try to recapitulate all the points here. But I do want to mention an argument that occurred to me rather late in the discussion, which was that the episode in the Gospel of John concerning “Doubting Thomas” was a good analogy for a Protestant wanting to receive the Catholic communion.

The decisive argument against a Protestant receiving the Catholic communion, as forcefully articulated by Zippy, and others, is that the Protestant would be done great harm by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, while not believing in the Real Presence. I argued that Thomas was allowed to touch the resurrected body of Christ, while not believing it to be the Real Body of Christ, and Thomas was in no way harmed; in fact his faith was confirmed and he received an immeasurably great gift:

John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. 20:25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

20:26 After eight days again his disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace be to you.” 20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me,* you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.”

Here is but one of my comments in this long, long thread:

No, you're missing my point. The analogy obviously assumes that the Eucharist IS the Real Presence, as it was in the case of Thomas. The point is that Jesus did not send Thomas away because of his unbelief. Rather, Jesus allowed Thomas contact with His body, and thereby Thomas came to believe that it was Real.
We recall that first Thomas refused to believe the reports that Jesus has risen. Next Jesus appears in a room *with a locked door*. In other words, as in the Eucharist, the REAL body is present; but it is present *supernaturally*. The analogy is really very close.
Unbelievers should not be denied contact with the Eucharist because of their unbelief, but rather should be allowed the opportunity to come to belief *through their contact with it*. This, even though it would be better if they just believed without having it proved to them.
It is, in fact, difficult to see what the point of the inclusion of this episode in the Gospel is, if not to make this point and teach this lesson.
Rodak | Homepage | 10.14.07 - 7:15 pm | #

I was not able to convince a single Catholic that my analogy was any good, although I did receive some moral support from a loving soul named Anna, for which I was grateful. I have extensive notes for a post on the subject of the banality of atheism, that I will get to this weekend. Meanwhile, I would welcome any comments that would continue the conversation here.