Monday, December 24, 2012

Containing China - The Historical Analogy with Japan

The following commentary comes from William D. O'Neil via H-War:

The irony of the hand-wringing over "containment" of China is that we've been here before, only no one seems to be able to remember.

As early as the 1890s, widespread alarm was evident in the United States over the specter of Japanese expansionism. This was a mixture of raw ethnocentrism and cold strategic calculation. At the same time, being the kind of country it was (and largely remains) there was no great unity in American views, and many unhesitatingly supported Japan's economic and political ambitions.

Both the Roosevelt (TR) and Wilson Administrations pursued policies of appeasement, while simultaneously building up the navy. The real departure point was the Twenty-One Demands affair of 1915. In the early 1920s the political elites in both countries attempted to build a basis for cooperative relationships, but the rise of very strongly ethnocentric groups in both nations undercut these efforts. Nevertheless, Japan and the United States managed to maintain reasonably productive relationships at many levels during the 1920s, notwithstanding some rather nasty clashes in China, and the ill-will generated by the laws excluding Japanese from American life.

Unfortunately for Japan, the military services fell under the leadership of extremely ethnocentric officers, and the Great Depression undermined those who wanted to advance Japan by economic means. The military came to power, teamed with neoconservative civilians. Japan was in a cycle in which the ethnocentrists would precipitate some expansionist action they saw as essential to national security, the west would respond negatively (even if only symbolically so), and this would evoke fears of "encirclement" (i.e., containment) leading to further expansionism to break out of the "iron ring." Thus even though the anti-Japanese ethnocentrist elements in the west did not hold particularly strong political positions in the 1930s, a self-amplifying positive feedback loop was established and maintained.

Eventually it was the external forcing function of Nazi aggressive expansionism at the other end of Eurasia that tipped Japan into war with the west. It is very possible that matters would never have reached such a pass absent the predominately exogenous shocks of the Great Depression and European War. At the same time, these shocks need not have been fatal had the ethnocentric elements not gained such dominance over Japan.

Despite many changes, the overall sociopolitical constitution of the United States remains much as it has nearly always been. There are both ethnocentric and cosmopolitan elements and neither is likely to be able to establish long-term dominance in the control of the nation's affairs. The United States will thus continue to act somewhat erratically within bounds determined by a broad consensus on basic economic and strategic interests -- which do not in themselves dictate any fundamental conflict with China.

The Chinese system, with its narrow leadership base and lack of regular mechanisms for turnover of power, gives an illusion of a steady hand on policy. But it is even more vulnerable to ethnocentric capture than its Japanese counterpart of the 1920s. Even if this takes place, even if it occurring right now, it need not have effects as terrible as those of World War II, but it would run a very uncomfortably great danger of doing so. The seeming prospect that China is contemplating its own replay of the Tsinan (Jinan) Incident over the Senkakus is anything but reassuring.

Some have objected that no military conflict could eventuate because of the threat of nuclear weapons, but these are not the words of anyone who knows or reflects on history. Ever since humankind has been fighting wars, for at least 100,000 years and very probably longer, unlimited conflicts have always threatened and frequently enough resulted in the destruction of both of the combatant societies. History says very clearly that such a threat may dampen the risks of war but cannot eliminate them. Indeed, the very fact that it is apologists for China (which by any rational calculation would inevitably suffer far more severely in any nuclear exchange) who invariably raise the nuclear specter speaks eloquently of the limited (albeit very great) power of the threat of annihilation.

This post first appeared on Statecraft & Security.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Microphones and the Mass

And while we are on the topic of technology and the sacred, I would like to pass on a short article from the most recent edition of First Things about "Marshall MacLuhan on How the Mic Transformed the Mass."

The article doesn't offer a definitive stance on whether microphones are good or bad for the Mass, but is rather an invitation to consider a phenomenon we normally ignore or are not even aware of. The article is sure to be met with glib objections by some (exhibit #1), but Professor White does a good job of pointing out why the change in the way Mass is celebrated was so momentous. For a religion such as Latin-rite Catholicism to go from observing the most solemn moment of the Mass in silence through clouds of incense to listening a man read the text from the Missal out loud is a huge change, which might not even have been considered in the 1960's.

And while we are on this topic, I should close with an even more shocking quotation from Ernst Jünger: "Where it identifies the dominion of technology with the dominion of Satan, the priesthood possesses a deeper instinct than where it places a microphone next to the Body of Christ."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ernst Jünger on Technology (2)

In The Worker Jünger makes three key points about technology. Before going any further, however, I should add that while I disagree with Jünger’s positive evaluation of technology, I do agree in many respects with his analysis of technology.

The first point is the key to understanding Jünger’s analysis of technology: technology is “not a neutral power” (keine neutrale Macht). In most discussions of technology today, however, the key premise is exactly the opposite: technology is neutral, and everything depends on what use one makes of it. Indeed, this common starting-point makes some intuitive sense. Most people tacitly define technology as a machine or tool that gives us a method for doing X in the quickest, most effective way. Technology is simply a means to an end. Everybody wants to achieve their own ends, and they want to do so as soon as possible. If the same technology can be used to achieve two opposed ends, then the technology itself is neutral. By this view, the two opposing armies in a war have distinct ends, but both armies use guns. The guns themselves are neutral. It is the goodness, or evil, of the goal of the war which makes the guns either good or evil.

The best way to understand why technology is not neutral is through an analogy. On at least one occasion Jünger compares self-identification with technology to “mastering the language of the worker.” The idea is that technology pervades and shapes how we view the world, just as language does. This was certainly the case in Nazi Germany. Both Eric Voegelin and Josef Pieper laid great emphasis on the fact of the Nazis’ perversion of everyday language in the Third Reich. The importance of language should be obvious to any American who observes how PC language has penetrated into politics and academia in this country. Certain words that were in common use fifty years ago are now banned from polite conversation and neologisms deployed to change public opinion. When, for instance, was the last time a prominent politician or academic characterized sex acts between two members of the same sex as “sodomy”? Removing that term from the public vocabulary normalizes same-sex sex acts, as well as eliminates one more vestige of Christianity in our culture. (The exception proves the rule: One summer, while working on petitions for the involuntary commitment of sexually violent persons, I was struck by the number of times I came across the term “deviate sex” in the psychological reports.)

This does not mean that if technology is bad, then every discrete act that employs technology is necessarily bad. To take the analogy of language one step further, even if a language has become corrupted it is not evil to use that language at times. Or, to use a different analogy, even if a government has been thoroughly corrupted, not every action it takes is necessarily bad, though a government has tremendous power to shape its citizens’ worldviews and to implicate them in its crimes. And that is the important point for Jünger: technology is not neutral because it has a worldview of its own and shapes worldviews.

Second, technology has the power to shape worldviews because, as Jünger says, it has a “seductive logic” of its own, which is not a “pure” logic (keine Logik an sich)but one which leads to specific ends. The logic of technology alters our relationship to the world and to ourselves. For Jünger, the purpose of technology is to “mobilize matter.” (Note the similarity to Descartes’ desire to use science to make men “masters and possessors of nature.”) Matter becomes something that is to be put at the service of man or, for Jünger, the new man, the worker, so that the worker can attain power. The technological worldview demands submission of nature to man. The process of submitting nature to the worker’s rule does not end until the distinction between technology and nature is eliminated, until technology becomes our second nature. Technology must become something that seems obvious (a Selbstverständlichkeit) for the ordinary man. Indeed, Jünger goes one step further and says that the logic of technology will ultimately lead to the merger of man and machine.

This merger of man and machine no longer sounds as fantastic as it did when Jünger wrote The Worker. The manipulation of genes, the implantation of computer chips into the nervous system, the cloning of entire human beings—all of these may very possibly be realized within our lifetimes. And yet technology’s seductive logic has been at work among us for much longer with technologies that are much more familiar and that seem innocuous in comparison to modern biotechnology. For instance, mechanical clocks have been around for centuries. They were used in the Middle Ages primarily to help monks say the canonical hours at the correct time. However, clocks have ceased to be a tool which we use to measure time and are now machines that shape how we experience time in ways that are contrary to nature, such as standardized time zones and daylight savings time. Another example of the power of technology to make men conform to their machines is urban planning in the wake of the automobile. Most cities in the 20th century were laid out on the assumption that its inhabitants would be driving, rather than walking, through their streets. For those who live in big cities with rush hour traffic jams, the conception of how much time it will take to go somewhere depends on what hour one is leaving one’s house—the “distance” to one’s destination is further at rush hour.

Third, for Jünger technology is anti-Christian because it possesses its own “cultic origin” (kultischer Ursprung). Before dismissing this as mere hyperbole, one should at least consider an example of the cult of technology: Apple products. Apple’s laptops and phones are immediately identifiable because of their minimalistic, futuristic aesthetic. These devices have become objects of devotion among the masses of loyal Apple customers, much of whose success is due to the fact that they keep the modern worker connected to his job at all times. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was practically canonized after his early death from cancer. (Part of this is due to the cult of the entrepreneur in America.)

But, even if it is true that technology has acquired certain cultic features in contemporary America, the question still remains: What exactly does it mean to say that technology has a “cultic origin”? The answer lies in the essence of religion. If technology has a “seductive logic,” and is a system capable of changing our relation to nature and to ourselves, it has a totalizing worldview. Just as Marxism is often characterized as a religion despite its atheism, so too the “technological way of thinking” can be called a religion because it subsumes widely varied areas of human activity under a general worldview.

If technology is a new cult, it necessarily sets itself at odds with Christianity. Jünger says that the orthodox Christian views technology as the “dominion of Satan.” And Jünger’s statement, while extreme, is defensible when we keep in mind that technology tries to eliminate nature or reconfigure it so that it changes in its very essence. When viewed this way, technology is another form of Gnosticism (as used in a broader way by Eric Voegelin): a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with creation that leads to the hubristic attempt to refashion the world.

Jünger in The Worker got many things wrong, and was in favor of many things a Christian should oppose. But, in some instances—and technology was one of them—his analysis should force us to consider some of our basic presuppositions about the modern world.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ernst Jünger on Technology (1)

It is impossible to discuss the life and thought of Ernst Jünger briefly. Nearly 103 years old when he died in 1998, Jünger led an eventful life: he served with distinction as an officer in the German army in both world wars. He became known as a writer after World War I when he published his journals, In Storms of Steel. In the 1920’s he studied zoology, and in later life become an avid entomologist. He earned his living as a journalist until World War II, when he spent much of his time stationed in Paris. After the war, he moved to Wilflingen, but also continued to travel, often to Africa and Asia. Throughout his life he wrote about his varied experiences. Besides his wartime journals, Jünger also published an account of his early experiments with LSD, as well as a series of futuristic novels, most notably Eumeswil.

Jünger is a controversial figure because of his political views (as well as the delight he often takes in describing violence). Always a man of the right, he was a staunch opponent of the Weimar Republic. Today he is often grouped among the leaders of that amorphous movement in interwar German called the “Conservative Revolution,” who opposed the new democratic ethos and parliamentary system of government. One of his more ardent admirers in the 1920’s was Hitler, but after 1933 Jünger found polite ways to decline the dictator’s advances. The novel he published in 1939, On the Marble Cliffs, is usually interpreted as a disguised call to resistance against the Nazis. After World War II, he refused to fill out the British occupation authorities’ questionnaires about his political activities under Nazi rule and was therefore forbidden to publish. He moved to Wilflingen, in the French zone, to escape the British censors. After the war, he continued to oppose democracy. In his 1951 essay, Der Waldgang, Jünger develops a theory of resistance, implying that the Federal Republic of Germany needed to be resisted, just as the Nazis should have been resisted.

For most of his life Jünger elaborated his positions from a secular viewpoint. It was simply assumed that Christianity was dead and was merely of historical interest; any resistance to democracy must come from elsewhere. (This changed only late in his life—he converted to Catholicism when he was 101.) Jünger’s “conservative revolution” was essentially an anti-Christian conservatism, which he tried to elaborate in a few books, particularly The Worker, published in 1932.

The Worker is a difficult book to summarize because of its vagueness. (A decent summary of the main idea, though, can be found here.) Jünger sometimes explicitly refuses to give concrete examples of the social phenomena he is describing, instead giving tautological definitions and telling his readers that they must be blind not to see what he is pointing out. Of course, things which may have been clear to a German in 1932 are not necessarily clear to an American in 2012, especially when it requires plowing through pages of dense German prose. Essentially, Jünger is trying to give an outline of the new social form (Gestalt), the new type of man, he saw rising to predominance. The worker he describes is not a member of Marx’s proletariat or simply even a working man. Rather, he is a man for whom work is his form of existence, who lives in a “total work world.” (Incidentally, some of the phrases which Jünger employs in a positive sense are later used in a pejorative sense by Josef Pieper in Leisure the Basis of Culture.) Most importantly for this post, this new man, the worker, identifies with technology. For a significant portion of the book (§§ 44-57), then, Jünger tries to define technology as the way in which this new man realizes himself in history. What will follow soon are a few reflections on what Jünger had to say about technology, or rather reflections on technology occasioned by a reading of The Worker, since I make no guarantee that I have understood this book perfectly.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The New Look

For those of you who read the Guild Review via Google Reader or another RSS mechanism, you may not have realized that the blog has a new look. The notion behind the change is simple enough: we can't post all the time, because, well, because life happens. Just last week, for example, my wife gave birth to a son. But even when we are not busy writing blog posts, lots of other folks, many of them cleverer than we, are writing. So the new layout gives greater prominence to some of the blogs we read. We do not agree with everything that all of them write, but they are generally thought-provoking, and we think our readers might enjoy them. If you have a suggestion for a blog or link which is not currently featured on the Guild Review, but ought to be, leave us a comment!

Monday, November 5, 2012

St. Clement's Prayer for Election Day

From the First Letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, 60-61:

Make straight our steps in holiness and righteousness and singleness of heart, that we may so walk and do such things as are right and well pleasing before thee, and before our rulers. Yea, Lord, cause thy face to appear to us in peace to our good, that we may be sheltered by thy mighty hand, and preserved from all sin by thy lofty arm, and deliver us from those that hate us unjustly. Give unity and peace both to us and to all that dwell upon the earth, as thou gavest to our fathers when they called upon thee with faith and truth, so that we should become obedient to thy all-powerful and most excellent name, and to those who rule and govern us upon the earth.

Thou, Lord, hast given the authority of the kingdom to them through thy almighty and unspeakable power, so that we, knowing the estimation and honour given to them by thee, might submit ourselves to them, in no way opposing thy will; to whom give, O Lord, health, peace, concord, stability, so that they may discharge the rule given unto them by thee without offence; for thou, heavenly Lord, everlasting King, givest to the sons of men glory and honour and authority over the things that are upon the earth. Do thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to what is good and pleasing before thee, that, fulfilling with peace and meekness and piety the authority given unto them by thee, they may obtain mercy from thee. Thou who alone art able to do these and greater good things among us, to thee do we give thanks through the high priest and protector of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom to thee be the glory and majesty, now and to all generations, world without end. Amen.

This translation, by Charles H. Hoole (1885), comes from I first encountered this prayer in Hugo Rahner's Church and State in Early Christianity, pp. 22-23, which we read in Richard Dougherty's course in Catholic Political Thought.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Shared Experience

In ages past, most people enjoyed shared experiences with their neighbors. Many lived in small towns or villages. They often worked the same occupation (agriculture), or at least encountered one another's occupation on a regular basis (e.g. the farmer visiting the blacksmith). Many countries enjoyed a common religion, (and some still do). A great many people were of the same racial and linguistic background as those around them. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, men shared the experience of obligatory national military service.

As a result of shared experiences, people could implicitly understand one another; they shared common terminology, values, and ways of viewing the world. Except within small towns, most Americans no longer enjoy a shared set of experiences. Christianity occupies a shrinking share of America's religious pie, and that Christian chunk is less homogeneous than it once was, due to both the increased proportion of Catholics as well as the ongoing fractures within Protestantism. Men of various backgrounds are no longer drafted together. It is no longer a safe assumption that the folks next door speak English. And Americans are increasingly expected to interact with foreigners abroad.

None of these are bad things, but all of them chip away at our shared experiences. What do we all have in common? Reference to elements of popular culture such as Facebook might be your best bet for a common experience. ("It's like when you discover that someone has inexplicably unfriended you...") The problem here is that most such elements, although they put us in touch with our neighbor, leave us cut off from the past. Grandpa's diary, devoid of references to Facebook, will remain foreign, even if Facebook users in Japan no longer are.

What are the consequences of having lost our shared experiences? One of the most obvious are the ways in which different groups completely misunderstand each other with regard to politics (a problem further complicated by the enthymemic nature of discourse). Try placing a professor of performance studies from a major coastal university in a small town in the Deep South and see how well he or she can discuss politics with the locals...

How then are we to understand one another?

It seems to me there are two clear solutions: (1) Increase our shared experiences or (2) Increase our capacity for working across diverse experiences.

The latter is the option most often embraced. But while society has gone to great lengths to affirm that one who views the world different is not ipso facto in moral error, I worry that we have done far less to help people actually view the world in different ways. This is, essentially, an intellectual problem, one requiring intellectual dexterity. Can one employ multiple frameworks with regard to the same set of data? Can one recognize that different terms may have the same meaning, or that the same term may have multiple meanings? Some of this falls into the realm of contemporary "diversity" training (to use that very baggage-laden term). But much of this does not, since intellectual dexterity is not the same thing as tolerance. The intellectually dexterous may recognize that the person who uses the name Yahweh and the person who uses the name Allah may be referring to the same thing, God. This is the tolerant or integrative understanding of difference. But the intellectually dexterous might also recognize that when two people use the term God they may actually be referring to two very different things. This is the intolerant or divisive understanding of difference. Some differences are superficial, while others are profound; alas, so far as I can see society writ large simply tells itself that they are all acceptable, and in so doing does little to really help ourselves navigate a world of people with whom we have little in common.

Alternatively, we may increase those shared experiences. This can be done in a plethora of ways. Exchange programs of various sorts do just that. But I would like to consider another avenue, that of engaging with the great cultural icons of our various civilizations. Reading classic works of literature - or, for that matter, viewing famous art and architecture, listening to major works of music, or watching great films or performances of well-known drama - provides a set of reference points which one may share with people of distant lands, or distant ages.

The appeal I make here is not exactly for more Great Books curricula. In the first instance, schooling only occupies a small portion of most people's lives, so merely appealing to schools to teach from "the canon" (whatever that might be) is only a start. Going further, our everyday lives should be imbued with the culture of our fellow man, placing us in dialogue with a broader community. In a further departure from the typical arguments for the Great Books, I do not here contend that historically well-known works are inherently more true or virtue-forming than obscure or contemporary works. (Indeed, the Great Books, in their diversity, can give rise to relativism.) But if we are imperfect, finite thinkers, a degree of humility is required in our search for truth, and that humility demands that consider the insights of others, that we look for giants on whose shoulders we may stand. Participation in a wide-ranging cultural milieu is no guarantee one will find worthy guides to the truth, but I think it is a first step. Finally, while most apologists for the Great Books limit themselves to the writings of Western civilization, I would advocate the inclusion of the cultural highlights of all the world's major civilizations, with one caution. Cultural eclecticism, the phenomenon of taking bits and pieces of various cultures and stitching them together in a way which has no real integrity, poses a real danger to shared experience in that various cultural items, stripped from their larger context, lose their value as connectors. The films of Akira Kurosawa, for example, are best understood not by themselves, but in conjunction with the plays of Shakespeare, the history of Japan, the world of psychology, and that very American genre of film, the Western.

So go crack open that Bible, watch some Shakespeare - his plays are all over Netflix Instant - or simply light a bonfire. You wouldn't be the first person to take up such practices. And you just might find that, in so doing, you have a little more in common with your fellow man.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happy Feast of St. Francis!

Following more boldly in Christ's steps
than perhaps any men before or since the thirteen century,
Francis and his friars lived in extreme poverty and simplicity.
He was the humblest and most successful
of all the reformers who from time to time
renewed the medieval Church.

Russell Kirk, The Roots of the American Order, p. 202

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Prayer for America

If lately you have been tempted to pray, "Lord, please make my 401k grow," or "Lord, please make sure those rascals in the other party lose in November," or "Lord, please keep America the greatest nation on earth," let me suggest a more excellent prayer, taken from the ninth chapter of Daniel.  If such a prayer was good enough for Daniel, a man "beloved" by God (9:23), and for God's chosen people, surely it ought to be good enough for us.

O Lord, great and awesome God,
you who keep your covenant and show mercy
toward those who love you and keep your commandments and your precepts!
We have sinned, been wicked and done evil;
we have rebelled and turned from your commandments and your laws.
We have not obeyed your servants the prophets,
who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, our ancestors, and all the people of the land.
Justice, O Lord, is on your side;
we are shamefaced even to this day:
the men of Judah, the residents of Jerusalem, and all Israel,
near and far, in all the lands to which you have scattered them
because of their treachery toward you.
O LORD, we are ashamed, like our kings, our princes, and our ancestors,
for having sinned against you.
But to the Lord, our God, belong compassion and forgiveness,
though we rebelled against him
and did not hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
by walking in his laws given through his servants the prophets.
The curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God,
were poured out over us for our sins,
because all Israel transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to hear your voice.
He fulfilled the words he spoke against us and against those who ruled us,
by bringing upon us an evil;
no evil so great has happened under heaven as happened in Jerusalem.
As it is written in the law of Moses, this evil has come upon us.
We did not appease the LORD, our God,
by turning back from our wickedness and acting according to your truth,
so the LORD kept watch over the evil and brought it upon us.
The LORD, our God, is just in all that he has done:
we did not listen to his voice.

Now, Lord, our God,
who led your people out of the land of Egypt with a strong hand,
and made a name for yourself even to this day,
we have sinned, we are guilty.
Lord, in keeping with all your just deeds,
let your anger and your wrath be turned away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain.
On account of our sins and the crimes of our ancestors,
Jerusalem and your people have become the reproach of all our neighbors.
Now, our God, hear the prayer and petition of your servant;
and for your own sake, Lord, let your face shine upon your desolate sanctuary.
Give ear, my God, and listen;
open your eyes and look upon our desolate city upon which your name is invoked.
When we present our petition before you,
we rely not on our just deeds, but on your great mercy.
Lord, hear! Lord, pardon! Lord, be attentive and act without delay,
for your own sake, my God,
because your name is invoked upon your city and your people!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Public Research University Is Broken

Shortly before my graduation and departure from Texas A&M, I had coffee with President R. Bowen Loftin and a few professors.  Money is, of course, tight, so he gave a run-down of the budget and the university's operations.

Day to day spending on things like professors' salaries and the electric bills comes in roughly equal measure from tuition, the endowment, and the state legislature.  Annual tuition is currently $8,419.  If every student paid full tuition, the university would spend about $25,000 per student per year on its dual mission of teaching and research.

Since, however, 71% of students receive some form of financial aid, we have to adjust that number down.  For argument's sake, let's assume that one third of students receiving aid get it from non-university sources (meaning those monies still flow into the university's coffers like regular tuition), while the other two thirds of aid recipients pay half tuition.  This would pull down the tuition revenue figure to $6,427, and thus the total figure to something in the neighborhood of $19,000 per student per year.

Let us now turn our attention to another school I once attended, the University of Dallas.  Current tuition is $29,140 for a full year.  Since UD is a private school, it does not receive money from the state legislature.  Thus, it must rely on its meager endowment and tuition.  Still, assuming 20% from the endowment and 80% from tuition, that would come to $4,905 and $19,629 (adjusted down for the 98% of students receiving aid), respectively, or $24,500 per student per year.

These numbers are extremely rough - I know I have seen better ones for both schools, but I cannot find them now - but they suggest that UD spends 25-30% more per student than does A&M.  This is notable, but not staggering, and probably within the margin of error for this very crude study.

But if the two schools appear to be in the same ballpark, let me add one more piece of information.  UD has a single primary mission: to educate students.

UD's talented faculty do, in fact, publish in a variety of fields, but no one would claim UD is a research university.  Yet A&M, spending as much money or less, professes to have both excellent teaching and world-class research.  I submit to you that this is an impossibility.

Take note, moreover, that A&M is no fly-by-night, University of Phoenix-style operation.  A&M is a well-respected flagship university of Texas, well ranked in a variety of fields and broadly representative of public research universities across the country.  All of which embrace the dual mission of research and teaching.  I submit to you that they cannot fulfill both, and that teaching as been the loser in this fight.  One need only take a glance at a lecture hall of two or three hundred undergraduates to realize that this is not education; it is mass production.

One might quibble that the figures given by President Loftin over coffee some months ago were for day to day operations, and did not include the big ticket research equipment required by the sciences, or the far-flung travels required by many of the arts, which are funded out of different pots.  Even so, consider that professors at UD teach three or four courses per semester; professors at A&M typically teach two, with course releases common for many junior faculty.  Research requires time and time is paid out of salaries.

What, then, are we to conclude?

I am a supporter of research and I have conducted several archival research trips myself.  These things should continue and our society would do well to find ways to fund them.  Moreover, I believe research can have a positive impact on one's teaching.  However, the case that good research leads to good teaching has been overstated.  Bundling teaching and research together has simply confused the question of where resources are going, a confusion which has often been to teaching's disadvantage.

If you or your children are looking at undergraduate educational institutions, be very skeptical of any school claiming the dual mission of research and teaching.  Perhaps it has a staggering endowment - a few do - and is able to accomplish that dual mission.  But don't count on it.

Admittedly, private education is out of reach for many Americans.  Let me suggest, however, that community and junior colleges often offer education which is every bit as good as the large public institutions, and at a fraction the cost.  ("But what about the opportunity to study under leading scholars in their fields?" some might ask.  "Who taught more of your research school classes," I answer, "graduate students or Nobel laureates?"  A&M has both, but the former do more of the teaching.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pedagogical Eros

There is something unusual about a pedagogue's love for his pupil. St. John of the Cross, in the Spiritual Canticles states (albeit in a very different context) that "the property of love is to make equal him who loves with the thing he loves." But, toward what or whom is the pedagogue's love directed? The pedagogue is supposed to guide his pupil in a certain subject area--he is supposed to inflame his pupil's intellect with a love for that subject. But, so often the pedagogue turns his attention toward his pupil instead in ways that are not so innocent. Abelard and Heloise are the archetypes of this dynamic, which has been repeated so many times down through the centuries. How many college professors have had affairs with, or secretly lusted after, their students?

That is one typical problem with pedagogues: they re-direct their pupils' eros away from the subject of their studies toward themselves, and seek fulfillment of their relationship in sex. But, there is also another common problem, which though chaster is perhaps even more insidious: pedagogues who wish to make out of their pupils converts to their cause, disciples to follow them. These pedagogues are less inclined to sins of the flesh, but their sin may be worse: they make ideologues out of their pupils in order to satisfy their own egos.

In The Magic Mountain, for example, Thomas Mann gives two good examples of the second type of pedagogue. In the novel Hans Castorp is torn between two pedagogues vying for his attention: Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta. Settembrini represents the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment, while Naphta is a bizarre Jewish, Jesuit proto-fascist. Both men live to debate each other (for hours at a time) and, after both become acquainted with Hans Castorp, they compete for his allegiance, forcing him to listen to their endless dialogues. Each man seeks to save Hans Castorp from the clutches of the other, and the competition is often unseemly, almost like two jealous women fighting over the man they both love. In the end, though, Settembrini turns out to be less selfish than Naphta when he displays a more selfless love for Hans Castorp; he is willing to let go of him, but does not stop loving him, when he finally understands that Hans Castorp will never think exactly like him. It is perfectly fitting, on the other hand, that Naphta shoots himself at his duel with Settembrini, since he has nothing left to live for now that his only pupil has turned away from him and refused to become his disciple. This act of suicide--and a very ostentatious, narcissistic suicide at that--is the act of a man who never really loved his pupil but only saw him as a potential follower or an extension of his ego.

The danger the pedagogue runs is that he will try to turn his pupils into lovers or disciples. Either way, he is not trying to turn his pupil into an equal, into a friend, but is re-directing his pupil's eros towards himself. The challenge the teacher faces is to cultivate common interests and to enjoy a certain intimacy while allowing for other attachments. How well the pedagogue can love without jealousy is one measure of his greatness as a man.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Weird Folk Music

Bob Dylan said in a 1965 interview about folk music: "It's weird, man, full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts."

Sometimes, the legends can be traced to actual historical events. One example is the Appalachian murder ballad "Omie Wise," which tells the story of a pregnant girl who was drowned by her lover in North Carolina.

The legends, however, can also be less historical and more mythical. One song that is common to Scotland, Ireland, and the Appalachians, under various names, is "The House Carpenter." All the versions of the song tell of a man who comes back from nine months at sea to find his love married to a house carpenter and caring for a child. He then takes her out on his ship where he sinks the ship, killing the woman and her child.

This tale of jealousy, however, takes on more sinister overtones in the Scottish version of the song, which is called "The Demon Lover." In this variant, the woman does not discover until it is too late that her former lover has a cloven hoof. It is then that the demon lover decides to drown her. (The Irish version, as recorded by Dervish, is known as "The Banks of the Sweet Viledee.")

Even more disturbing than the murder ballads are those involving incest. One such song is "The Well below the Valley." The beginning of the song alludes to Christ's conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. However, instead of revealing the woman's multiple adulterous relationships, the stranger at the well reveals that she has murdered six babies she had through incest.

Finally, one reason for the weirdness of certain folk songs is the simple fact that certain words have been lost and the story line has become obscure. For instance, the following version of "Heathery Hills of Yarrow" (also known as the "The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow") was sung by Micheal O'Domhnaill in the 1970's, and later by his sister Triona Ni Dhomhnaill on the Bothy Band's Afterhours; it tells the story of the murder of a woman's lover, but the exact motive is not clear, as it appears to be missing some verses that explain the context.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Do Have Favorite Novels

The other evening my wife and I were chatting with our pastor.  The topic of conversation turned to novels and he explained that although she has no sympathetic characters and no happy endings, Flannery O'Connor is his favorite novelist.  I have never read any of her works, but I had long intended to.  She may have a genius for writing, but without sympathetic characters or happy endings, count me out!

This set me off on a small crisis: Do I have a favorite novel?  Do I even like novels at all?  As I wracked my brain, I thought of great novels that I never managed to finish (A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte CristoKristin LavransdatterThe Brothers Karamazov), novels I finished but wished I hadn't (Great Expectations, The Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying), children's novels (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle), biographies (Guerilla, Pitt the Younger), novels I like for some part, most often the ending (The Scarlet Letter, Brighton Rock), and novels that were pretty good but perhaps not great  (Many Dimensions, Dune).  But adult novels that are hands-down, unambiguously, sit-up-and-pay-attention, great works?  Do I really have any favorites, or am I a literary ignoramus?

Have no fear: my doubts were assuaged and - as my poor wife was trying to go to sleep - I assembled a list of some favorite novels:

C. S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy.  Although Lewis considered this a sci-fi series, it is really more fantasy simply set in space.  But the result is still excellent.  Weaving together Christian theology, Roman mythology, and Arthurian legend, Lewis crafts a story which contains several particularly stunning scenes and brings the medieval world-view to the modern age.

Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz.  This novel, set in post-apocalyptic America, tells the story of an order of monks which seeks holiness and truth while trying to re-build civilization.  The novel addresses questions of faith and science, Church and state, and the dignity of human life, all in a way that hangs together and is moving without being cheesy.

Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire.  I read an advanced reading copy of Gates of Fire many years ago and re-read it a couple times thereafter.  Pressfield's novel of the Battle of Thermopylae is not for everyone - the very first word of the novel is not one for polite company - but he has drunk deeply of both ancient Greek literature and the memoirs of modern soldiers, creating an account of ancient warfare which is convincing on both counts, while also asking big questions about human nature.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen produces vivid and hilarious characters; her writing, though about a society more formal than our own, is deeply witty.  But her greatest genius is for understated insights into character and virtue.  Her prose flows along in such an enjoyable and almost obvious way that one might miss the keen observations of human nature, observations which might have been termed "common sense" in another age, but are largely lost on our own.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Church's Teaching on Unions

In view of the recent attempt by organized labor to unseat Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union that unions need explicit permission to spend certain monies on political causes, I found the Church's teaching on organized labor a fruitful reflection. Below are two paragraphs from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, after which I'll hazard to offer a few comments:

306. The Church's social doctrine teaches that relations within the world of work must be marked by cooperation: hatred and attempts to eliminate the other are completely unacceptable. This is also the case because in every social system both “labour” and “capital” represent indispensable components of the process of production. In light of this understanding, the Church's social doctrine “does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the ‘class' structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life”.[Laborem Exercens, 20] Properly speaking, unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice, for the rights of workers in their particular professions: “This struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour ‘for' the just good ... not a struggle ‘against' others”.[Ibid., 20] Being first of all instruments of solidarity and justice, unions may not misuse the tools of contention; because of what they are called to do, they must overcome the temptation of believing that all workers should be union-members, they must be capable of self-regulation and be able to evaluate the consequences that their decisions will have on the common good.[CCC, 670]

307. Beyond their function of defending and vindicating, unions have the duty of acting as representatives working for “the proper arrangement of economic life” and of educating the social consciences of workers so that they will feel that they have an active role, according to their proper capacities and aptitudes, in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good.[Gaudium et Spes, 68] Unions and other forms of labour associations are to work in cooperation with other social entities and are to take an interest in the management of public matters. Union organizations have the duty to exercise influence in the political arena, making it duly sensitive to labour problems and helping it to work so that workers' rights are respected. Unions do not, however, have the character of “political parties” struggling for power, and they should not be forced to submit to the decisions of political parties nor be too closely linked to them. “In such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes”.[Laborem Exercens, 20]

Two things strike me as salient: First, the Church is extremely pro-union. That organization of workers is not only a right but also a means to promote justice and solidarity is quite clear. No meaningful discussion of unions can ignore this message. Second, however, it seems equally clear that the practice of American organized labor at present falls short of the Church's full vision.

One may argue whether unions or their opponents are responsible for the present bout of vitriol; in either case, labor relations are at present characterized by hatred rather than cooperation. Likewise, while it is reasonable for non-unionized workers who benefit from collective bargaining to share in its costs, the existence of closed shops which compel union membership suggest union leaders have not fully taken to heart the notion that not all workers need be unionized. The Supreme Court just ruled on the practice of using money collected from non-union workers for political purposes. SEIU argued that so long as workers were notified and given the chance to opt out, justice was served; the Court thought otherwise, insisting that non-union workers give their explicit permission before their non-voluntary contributions are used in this way. Even if one disagrees with the Court's ruling on the legality of the matter, it hardly seems like best practice, and suggests to me that SEIU is not properly "capable of self-regulation." The Church's teaching on the political role of unions is very finely balanced: organized labor has a duty to be active in the political sphere, but should not strive for political power nor become too closely linked with political parties, which are apt to use them for political ends. The opposition - even hatred - of many in the Republican party toward organized labor makes it unsurprising that unions are associated nigh exclusively with the Democrats. Still, one must wonder whether the cause of unions (or any other cause: the pro-life movement, environmental campaigns, etc...) is best served by exclusive association with a single party. I fear that when a party can count on the support of a given group, it tends to abandon the cause and milk the group for cash and votes.

Finally, there is the question of public sector unions, which sparked the Wisconsin recall election. The Church teaches that unions "must... be able to evaluate the consequences that their decisions will have on the common good." I would argue that this supports an idea I have considered for some time: public sector unions are a substantially different matter from those in the private sector. In the private sector, workers have an interest in ensuring their personal wages and well-being, but also the well-being of their corporation; if it loses profitability and goes bankrupt, they are likely to lose their jobs. This reality encourages prudence and discourages the temptation on the part of workers to make unreasonable demands. In the public sector, if workers demand too much and state agencies go bankrupt, such agencies either close - costing workers their jobs, but also the public their services - or turn to the taxpayers for additional money. Thus, public sector workers have far less reason to worry about demanding too much or otherwise "misus[ing] the tools of contention."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Geometric Conception of Property

Two years ago, I wrote a post comparing Aristotle and Locke's views of property, the main idea of which was that the modern Lockean view of property created a view of property that was essentially acquisitive--the owner creates the property through his labor. Under the ancient Aristotelian view, on the other hand, the owner held his land in trust--he took care of what he already had so that he could then devote his free time to politics and pass on the land to his children. The modern view naturally tends to treat the land as a commodity for use in business, while the ancient view treats land as the source of leisure. As a result of this basic change in mentality, forms of land tenure changed so that it became more readily available in commerce. For instance, in America courts have long discouraged restraints on alienation and nearly all legislatures have abolished the fee tail. This not only has made the land easier to buy and sell, but also to mortgage, thus making large-scale borrowing possible for many people of relatively modest means. The longstanding tendency in modern America has been to make land as liquid an asset as possible.

Theoretical considerations, I argued, have radically changed our views of property, but the law of unintended consequences is always at work, as witness Thomas Jefferson's introduction of sections and ranges into land measurement (see Will Hoyt's article in Front Porch Republic). Jefferson hoped to encourage local liberty by distributing property as widely as possible among a class of yeoman farmers; the pre-modern nature of Jefferson's project becomes especially clear when one notices the archaic words he borrows from Anglo-Saxon law to describe his ideal republic. However, Jefferson tried to implement this goal with a thoroughly modern means, by parceling land in a huge grid using state-of-the-art surveying technology, which spread across the Midwest after passage of the Northwest Ordinance.

As Hoyt points out, partly as a result of Jefferson's efforts, land in America came to be viewed in abstract geometric terms, as a commodity, whose value could be easily calculated in dollars and cents for sale on the marketplace. Restraints on alienation disappeared as more and more settlers wanted to be able to move on at short notice, so that today the only forms of tenure that matter are the fee simple and the leasehold. Restrictive covenants and easements, while still allowed, are generally disfavored, except for utility and railroad easements which improve a parcel's access to the modern economy. Most importantly, legally there are strict limits on the kind of mutual obligations a land owner can impose on future generations, and if there is any doubt as to the donor's intent, courts will interpret a will or trust instrument in such a way as to impose as few obligations on the donor's descendants as possible.

A recent example of the disappearance of pre-modern land tenure appeared a few months ago in Ipswich, Massachusetts (see the March 2, 2012, Wall Street Journal). The original owner of the land dictated in his will that the land was never to be sold and that the rents were to be used for the maintenance of free schools. The donor's intent was clearly to enforce mutual obligations into perpetuity, in the hope of binding the community together in one of its most important institutions, the local public school. This arrangement continued for over 300 years until a controversy arose over the trustees' management of the rents from the property, and now a court has allowed a sale of the property despite the clear instructions in the will.

Given the development in American law, it is not much of a surprise that the property will be sold and converted to a fee simple. This is simply one of the most recent victories of the Lockean view of property over a corner of the world that had resisted long after the rest of America had changed.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Happy Feast of St. Boniface!

Today is the feast of St. Boniface (c. 680-754 or 755), born Wynfryth in the kingdom of Wessex.  Legend has it this Benedictine monk invented the Christmas tree, but his most important achievements are chronicled on the door of St. Boniface Abbey in Munich:

Sankt Bonifaz, der größte der angelsächsischen Missionare, 
war der Erneuerer der fränkischdeutschen Kirche.
Er wirkte in Hessen Thüringen, 
gründete Klöster 
und die Bistümer Regensburg, Salzburg, Eichstätt, 
Passau, Würzburg, Erfurt, Buraburg, Freising. 
Zur Wiederherstellung der Ordnung hielt er Konzilien ab. 
Als Apostel der Deutschen starb er den Märtyrertod.

Saint Boniface, the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries,
was the reformer of Frankish German Church.
He worked in Hessen [and] Thüringen,
founded monasteries
and the bishoprics of Regensburg, Salzburg, Eichstätt,
Passau, Würzburg, Erfurt, Buraburg [and] Freising.
To restore order, he held councils.
As an apostle of the Germans, he died a martyr's death.

Saint Boniface is buried in Fulda, alongside St. Sturm, one of his followers, who was the first Abbot of Fulda; you should visit them, if you're ever in the area.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Religious Definition of the American South

Please forgive the lack of posting lately; I've been moving from College Station, TX, to Charlottesville, VA.  Having previously lived in Maryland and the Federal City, and having married a gal from Mississippi, I've thought a bit about what defines the American South.  The conventional definition is that "The South" consists of those states which declared their succession from the Union during the Civil War.  But such a definition pegs current cultural divisions to events which happened a century and a half ago.  I certainly believe history matters, but it still seems a curious way to cast the definition.

I was struck, however, by this map of religious observance in the US:

The concentration of Baptists in the South is striking, a point made even more striking by its obverse: almost nowhere outside the South do Baptists form a plurality.

Religious identity adds some interesting developments to the definition of the South.  Almost anyone will tell you that peninsular Florida is not culturally South; the religious map bears that out.  Likewise, although West Virginia was created as an anti-Confederate state, many West Virginians today seem to have forgotten that, a fact likewise paralleled on the religious map.  On the other hand, many Southerners (or those from the Deep South, ie Mississippi to South Carolina) contend that places like Texas and Missouri are not really Southern.  I'll not enter into that debate, but the map suggests they at least  belong in the Greater South, as does southern Illinois, which is certainly culturally distinct from Chicago and the north end of the state.

Map courtesy of American Ethnic Geography.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Return of the Grimm Brothers

Why the sudden interest in Grimm's Fairy Tales? There are two recent films featuring variations of the Snow White story:

Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror

Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman

In any event, if you're interested in reconnecting with the Grimm brothers, the FT has a story on Germany's Fairy Tale Road, through their old stomping grounds.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Have you ever read a book or an article with the attitude of the Pharisee in the Temple? “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men…” The book may have a pointed moral, but you look away, consciously refusing to see that it applies to you. Or maybe you are so blind that you do not even realize that the book is aimed at you. You recognize the truth of what the book says, and you can even think of people who could stand to learn a lesson from it, but you do not include yourself among them.

I must admit, this happened to me recently as I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann, his adaptation of the medieval English play Everyman. Hofmannsthal’s version follows the original fairly closely, but one key change he made was to insert two scenes emphasizing the role of money in Jedermann’s life. In the first half of the play, Jedermann, a wealthy man, is met on the street by a poor man as he is being taken away to prison for failure to repay a debt to Jedermann. The debtor’s wife pleads with Jedermann to release her husband, and then berates him when he refuses to do so. Jedermann responds that the man who invented money was “wise and great” and has made every man “equal to a little god.” Jedermann is clearly the master in his relationship with the debtor, and it is his money that makes him the master.

Later in the play, though, after Death has summoned him, Jedermann is trying to muster companions for his journey to death when he is visited by the figure of Mammon. Jedermann sees him and says: “You’re mine, my property, my thing,” but Mammon replies, “Your own? Ha, don’t make me laugh.” (Bist mein, mein Eigentum, mein Sach. / Dein eigen, ha, daß ich nit lach.) Mammon then proceeds to belittle Jedermann for thinking he can take him with after death. Indeed, according to Hofmannsthal’s stage directions, Mammon towers over his putative owner. Jedermann objects, though, that he had Mammon at his command during his life. But Mammon knows better: “Yet I ruled in your soul.”

The moral could not be any more pointed. But I do not generally think of myself as wealthy, and Jedermann is depicted as a rich man. How, then, could this apply to me? As an American I like to think that I am just a regular middle-class guy. The real consideration, though, is not whether I am wealthy--I certainly am when compared to the vast majority of men in history. Rather, the key question is: How concerned am I with money? Do I let money define me and shape my life?

All this should sound trite and obvious to any Christian, but it bears repeating in the American culture because money flatters us in two important ways. First, money flatters us by feeding our envy. As long as we can point to a neighbor who has more money than we do, we forgive ourselves for thinking too much about money. Here in America we like to think of ourselves as part of the middle class; we know we have money, but there is someone richer. Poll after poll shows that few Americans describe themselves as either rich or poor, and that is why campaign speeches focus on the economic plight of the middle class. We imagine ourselves as leading modest lives, but we also always come to the conclusion that we are entitled to at least as much money as the next guy. Because of our envy we define our social standing in monetary terms. Mammon, no matter what, finds a way to gain power over our souls.

Second, money flatters us by making us think we are free. Money can represent so many things to so many people, or even to the same person on any given day. As Hofmannsthal stated elsewhere, though, money becomes an end in itself, even though it is really just a means to an end. Money is supposed to give us freedom to do what we want; we think we are free because we have more money and so we can buy more things with our money. And of course, as Americans we want to be a beacon of freedom in the world. Yet, when we tell ourselves that our wealth makes us free, we discover what Jedermann learned: Mammon is the real master.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Church's View of Islam

My wife recently received one of those email forwards which suggested that Muslims are in league with liberals to destroy Christian America.  While one can easily parody a certain brand of right-wing Christian populism, the question of how Christians ought to regard Islam is one of considerable debate.  Into that discussion, allow me to interject the following from the Council Fathers at Vatican II.  In Nostra aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, they write the following:

The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
In the same document, the Council Fathers reference the following letter of Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-1085):
Gregory . . . to Anazir, king of the province of Mauretania Sitifensis in Africa.

Your Highness sent to us within a year a request that we would ordain the priest Servandus as bishop according to the Christian order. This we have taken pains to do, as your request seemed proper and of good promise. You also sent gifts to us, released some Christian captives out of regard for St. Peter, chief of the Apostles, and affection for us, and promised to release others. This good action was inspired in your heart by God, the creator of all things, without whom we can neither do nor think any good thing. He who lighteth every man that cometh into the world enlightened your mind in this purpose. For Almighty God, who desires that all men shall be saved and that none shall perish, approves nothing more highly in us than this: that a man love his fellow man next to his God and do nothing to him which he would not that others should do to himself.

This affection we and you owe to each other in a more peculiar way than to people of other races because we worship and confess the same God though in diverse forms and daily praise and adore him as the creator and ruler of this world. For, in the words of the Apostle, "He is our peace who hath made both one."

This grace granted to you by God is admired and praised by many of the Roman nobility who have learned from us of your benevolence and high qualities. Two of these, Alberic and Cencius, intimate friends of ours brought up with us from early youth at the Roman court, earnestly desiring to enjoy your friendship and to serve your interests here, are sending their messengers to you to let you know how highly they regard your prudence and high character and how greatly they desire and are able to be of service to you.

In recommending these messengers to Your Highness, we beg you to show them, out of regard for us and in return for the loyalty of the men aforesaid, the same respect which we desire always to show toward you and all who belong to you. For God knows our true regard for you to his glory and how truly we desire your prosperity and honor, both in this life and in the life to come, and how earnestly we pray both with our lips and with our heart that God himself, after the long journey of this life, may lead you into the bosom of the most holy patriarch Abraham.
Both documents leave considerable wiggle room, both in terms of theory and practice.  Still, they declare two very important things: that "we worship and confess the same God though in diverse forms" and we are called to work together for the good of the world.

Today's image of St. George's Maronite cathedral and the Mohammad al-Amin mosque in Beirut comes courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week 6

[Sorry this is late; life has suddenly become quite busy.] This week we have three remaining questions derived from Matt Bird's insights into what makes characters work.

How might their first actions foreshadow their actions for the rest of the script? As personal discernment is concerned, there are two directions we can take this. First, how do your actions reveal who you are? That's a big question, but one worth asking. Consider thinking through a generic day: what do you do? How do you do it? What does this reveal about your priorities? Your approach? Likewise, consider also an actual day (say, yesterday). Sometimes our sense of how we usually conduct ourselves does not accord with very many actual days. Our actions can reveal a great deal about our moral choices. But I would add one note of caution here: habits can be very confusing. Aristotle says virtue is a habit, so I certainly don't want to dismiss its significance. But often we have grown up with certain habits, or acquired them unintentionally. These habits may be virtuous or vicious, but I think often they are of greater interest for the long-term impact they have on us, rather than what they tell us about our own moral decisions. If one grows up going to church every Sunday morning, this is a good thing and beneficial, but one ought not take too much credit for a practice bequeathed by parents. On the other hand, one who grew up spending weekends doing other things may have trouble consistently remembering to make time for church. The second person would do well to make such time, but ought not infer that his struggle, in comparison to the non-struggle of the person who attends church out of habit. In other words, I think our conscious efforts to shape our habits (which are, admittedly, powerful things) are at least as telling as the habits themselves.

Second, if we consider all of our lives a grand story written by the Master Storyteller, what do the events of our past suggest about our future? This has been a kind of recurring theme for us, as we asked about age, profession, and hobbies in the first week, and considered past secrets last week. The story of the nation of the Israelite nation, God's chosen people, constitutes part of sacred history; but with the incarnation of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel to all nations, with the baptism of believers into the priesthood, prophetic office, and kingship of Christ, all our lives are caught up into sacred history. Thus, just as the events of the Israelite past and the personal lives of the ancient prophets were signs of God at work among His people, so too the events of your life have been telling a spiritual story.

Moral center: Matt Bird asks, "What is the thing they just won’t do? This is an especially good way to define a villain." But it is also a good question to ask of ourselves. Hopefully there are lots of things we won't do (serial killing, grand theft auto, etc., etc.). The key to making the question meaningful is placing it in the right context. What won't I do at work to get ahead? What behaviors - generally accepted by my peers - are beyond the pale for me? For the Christian, our moral center should be God's law. Thus, examining our own moral center should prompt two stages of discernment: (1) What is my own moral center? (2) What do I need to do to better conform it to God's law?

You philosophy: Bird describes this as "an actual line of dialogue that sums up how they think about the world. Every character has a philosophy, whether they know it or not." This is similar, in many ways, to the one-line description we considered in our first week: some statements are more substantial than others. There are two ways to go about discovering your philosophic tag line. You could listen to yourself careful (a task that, in itself, takes some doing) and keep an open ear for something good. But you might also consider thinking about what you'd like your philosophy or worldview to be. If you're not expressing that now and again, why not?

And here, dear friends, I shall leave you, like Virgil leaving Dante. I have pushed this little thought experiment as far as I can take it. I now entrust you to the Holy Week liturgies which begin in a few days with Palm Sunday. Hopefully these meditations have helped you learn just a bit more about who you are and the hero God calls you to be. May the grace of Holy Week and Easter transform these natural insights into supernatural wisdom.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Red State, Blue State - 8 Years Later

Eight years ago at the Democratic National Convention, then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address.  I recently returned to it and thought it worth sharing for two reasons: (1) The speech is a great example of political rhetoric.  Large passages sound like something Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan might have said.  Any politician who tells you he doesn't dream of giving speeches like this is lying to you.  So whether you support(ed) Mr. Obama or not, the speech is deserving of study.  (2) This was the speech that established Mr. Obama's national reputation (even as the country has moved on and largely forgotten the candidate he endorsed: John Kerry).  To what extent has the president met the expectations he established in Boston?

On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, Land of Lincoln, let me express my deepest gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention.

Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father -- my grandfather -- was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.

But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.

While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton’s army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through F.H.A., and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.

And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter. A common dream, born of two continents. My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or ”blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined -- They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential. They're both passed away now. And yet, I know that on this night they look down on me with great pride. They stand here -- And I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our Nation -- not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That is the true genius of America, a faith -- a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted -- at least most of the time.

This year, in this election we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we're measuring up to the legacy of our forbearers and the promise of future generations. 

And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, I say to you tonight: We have more work to do --  more work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour; more to do for the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay 4500 dollars a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on; more to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet -- in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks -- they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead,  and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.

They know we can do better. And they want that choice.

In this election, we offer that choice. Our Party has chosen a man to lead us who embodies the best this country has to offer. And that man is John Kerry.

John Kerry understands the ideals of community, faith, and service because they’ve defined his life. From his heroic service to Vietnam, to his years as a prosecutor and lieutenant governor, through two decades in the United States Senate, he's devoted himself to this country. Again and again, we’ve seen him make tough choices when easier ones were available.

His values and his record affirm what is best in us. John Kerry believes in an America where hard work is rewarded; so instead of offering tax breaks to companies shipping jobs overseas, he offers them to companies creating jobs here at home.

John Kerry believes in an America where all Americans can afford the same health coverage our politicians in Washington have for themselves.

John Kerry believes in energy independence, so we aren’t held hostage to the profits of oil companies, or the sabotage of foreign oil fields.

John Kerry believes in the Constitutional freedoms that have made our country the envy of the world, and he will never sacrifice our basic liberties, nor use faith as a wedge to divide us.

And John Kerry believes that in a dangerous world war must be an option sometimes, but it should never be the first option.

You know, a while back I met a young man named Shamus in a V.F.W. Hall in East Moline, Illinois. He was a good-looking kid -- six two, six three, clear eyed, with an easy smile. He told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week. And as I listened to him explain why he’d enlisted, the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all that any of us might ever hope for in a child.

But then I asked myself, "Are we serving Shamus as well as he is serving us?"

I thought of the 900 men and women -- sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, who won’t be returning to their own hometowns. I thought of the families I’ve met who were struggling to get by without a loved one’s full income, or whose loved ones had returned with a limb missing or nerves shattered, but still lacked long-term health benefits because they were Reservists.

When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world. Now let me be clear. We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued. And they must be defeated. John Kerry knows this. And just as Lieutenant Kerry did not hesitate to risk his life to protect the men who served with him in Vietnam, President Kerry will not hesitate one moment to use our military might to keep America safe and secure. John Kerry believes in America. And he knows that it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper -- for alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga,  a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper -- that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope.

I’m not talking about blind optimism here -- the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Hope -- Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!

In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.

I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair.

I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us.

America! Tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do -- if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as President, and John Edwards will be sworn in as Vice President, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.

Thank you very much everybody. God bless you. Thank you. 

Text via