Monday, December 30, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There Is Metaphysics

Although most commemorations of the jolly old elf, at least in the US, are past, the Church continues to celebrate Christmas. In that spirit, I want to share a bit of text I am ashamed to say I only recently read: the 1897 editorial from the New York Sun which includes the famous line, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

I recall, as a child, watching one of the films of the same name. I do not recall the precise age at which this occurred, but it was one of those awkward years of elementary school during which most of the students had come to discover the truth about Santa, but several children - frankly, the slower and more childish - still persisted in their belief. This placed teachers, administrators, and the unbelieving majority of students in the position of having to profess at least agnosticism, in spite of their own better knowledge. In such a climate, my young rationalist self found this film and its catch phrase a poor rearguard defense of ignorance, a blatant lie in the face of the evidence.

But a few weeks ago a Dominican student brother brought to my attention the actual text of the Sun editorial. It takes Santa as its ostensible subject, but is about much more. Specifically, it is a defense of the idea that there may be more than that which can be measured or physically identified. I find this terribly refreshing, particularly in an age which frequently indulges in a rationalist denial of all that is immaterial.

To be fair, this editorial offers an incomplete argument. As my wife points out, belief in things unseen, any and all manner of things, can be terribly dangerous. Such unseen objects of belief, in addition to being false, can be horrifically evil. Thus, let us not fall into the fideist belief that belief itself, irrespective of the essential truth of its object, is virtuous. Nevertheless, I think the editorial, now more than a century old, may offer some interesting opportunities to engage with our culture and raise important questions about the limits of our knowledge what lies behind the physical world.

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Peace on Earth

In December 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for a truce amid the bloodshed of the Great War, to offer some respite and "cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World's Redemption."  The governments of Europe refused.

But a curious thing happened: On Christmas day, hundreds of thousands of soldiers laid down their arms, climbed out of their trenches, and celebrated together.  Songs were sung, small gifts exchanged.  The recent dead were buried.  Joint services were held to mark the holiday.  Modern British Christmas traditions - such as Christmas trees and many carols - are German in origin, so the festivities naturally overcame linguistic barriers.  In some sectors of the Western Front the truce lasted an entire week.

It is difficult to pin down what sparked this spontaneous celebration.  Pope Benedict's appeal likely had little direct effect.   The unofficial truce may simply have been the response of exhausted soldiers to the horrors of war.  But many, perhaps most, of these men were Christians, of one denomination or another.  It is striking that, in the midst of one of humanity's most terrible conflicts, in the midst of a conflict which nearly tore European civilization apart, in the midst of a conflict which no one seemed able to halt, grown men, surrounded by the carnage of death, paused to celebrate the birth of a little baby, the Prince of Peace.

Though "the nations protest and the peoples conspire in vain, [though] kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the Lord and against His anointed one" (Psalm 2:1-2), may God, in His mercy, fill our hearts and our world with His peace this Christmas.

This image of soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment together on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) 1914 comes from the Imperial War Museum's collection, via Wikipedia.  If you have never visited the IWM, you should.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Learning Humility This Advent

Advent is an anticipatory season. It is generally joyful. Nevertheless, there is a penitential element to it, and this is quite logical, when one thinks about it. If Christ is coming - into our hearts and at the end of days - we should want to make ready His way. And that includes undertaking penance to purify our hearts and so prepare to receive him.

In that spirit, I would like to offer the Litany of Humility for Advent devotion. Composed by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, Cardinal Secretary of State under Pope Pius X, the litany focuses on letting go of ourselves and our ambitions, that Christ may fill us. Although the tone may sound more Lenten than Adventine - and indeed it may be - I think it works for this season. The middle section addresses our need to be delivered, in large measure from our own false desires; may our Deliverer come quickly!  And the final section speaks to the way that a humble attitude toward ourselves can lead to a joyful concern for the well-being of others: "That others may be loved.... That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should." One who has learned to live these words has true joy and has indeed made room for the Holy One of God to dwell within.

The Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tradition & Historical Consciousness: A Few Random Observations: Part Two

The question now becomes: Is it possible to revive a tradition and build something of lasting value while avoiding anachronism? If so, how? These have become ever more pressing questions since the 19th century, when the rise of modern historiography threatened to turn all fields of study into relativism.

A brief examination of two thinkers’ struggle with this problem will help us grasp it better. The first thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. By education and training, Nietzsche was a classicist who concentrated on Greek history and literature. However, as he embarked on his professional career, he began to grapple with the problem that would occupy the rest of his troubled life: The modern rationalistic and scientific mind (which he ultimately traced back to Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy) had destroyed any kind of absolute value in the world by eliminating God. But, now that God was out of the picture, what point was there in living? What value could man find in life? What value could Nietzsche find in life? Nietzsche did not think that modern reason could tell man why he should want to live. This is the point of his famous aphorism in The Gay Science, in which the madman runs onto the marketplace in broad daylight holding a lantern, asking the burghers where God is now that they have killed Him. The death of God was not an occasion for joy but a reason for despair—unless man could find another source of value in this life. Nietzsche’s early dilemma, then, was that he had rejected the transcendent God of Christianity, the prior source of all value, as simply a form of “slave morality,” but had not yet found anything with which to replace Him.

Nietzsche’s solution to his dilemma—to be found even in his earlier, less iconoclastic and less stridently atheistic texts—is to make man into a creator of value. This was the Umwertung aller Werte he sought to bring about. The Dionysian ideal of The Birth of Tragedy is an early version of this idea of man as creator of value. In On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, he examines different viewpoints from which to write history, and he finds that the proper viewpoint is from the view of the great man who is capable of creating value. “You can only explain the past by what is highest in the present” (§ 6). “Thus, history is to be written by the man of experience and character. He who has not lived through something greater and nobler than others, will riot be able to explain anything great and noble in the past. The language of the past is always oracular: you will only understand if as builders of the future who know the present” (§ 6). These quotations, of course, can be read as meaning merely that the historian must himself possess a certain greatness of soul in order to understand the past; he must be on the same level as the men he is trying to interpret for the present. However, Nietzsche emphasizes less the traditional moral and intellectual virtues than the nebulous quality of creativeness; virtue is excellence in accord with a recognized standard, whereas creativity consists of creating that standard for oneself. It is in great part a rejection of the study of history.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, though, Nietzsche takes the concept of the great man who can create values even further. In that book’s prologue, Nietzsche portrays Zarathustra as a mythical figure who during his time of solitude on the mountain has become so full of wisdom that he must now descend to his fellow man and unburden himself of the values he has created. (The idea of a man spending time on a mountain to grow in wisdom is a common trope in myths.) Most tellingly, among the people he meets, he recognizes a kindred spirit in the dying tightrope-walker, in the man who could dance above the abyss—one of Nietzsche’s favorite images of how the great man should live, as opposed to the “last men” Zarathustra meets down below. The tightrope-walker knows that he has nothing solid under his feet (no Grund) but a flimsy wire and through his own virtuosity and daring he turns something pointless like walking between two buildings into a work of art. He mocks death and the ultimate meaninglessness of his own act: his own creativity is the source of value. The myths handed down by the gods have no place in Nietzsche’s thought.

Nietzsche saw the problems created by the death of God and traditional values and by the rise of relativism, but ultimately decided to bury those values even deeper by turning the Dionysian self into the creator of value. History would no longer be a real standard for Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s respect for the Greek tradition, paradoxically, led him to reject tradition as a standard for behavior—the individual would judge history through his own creativity.

Our second thinker would agree with Nietzsche that there must be a standard by which to judge history and tradition, but his own position would be more humble. Rather than looking for the standard within himself, this thinker sought it in the teachings, in the tradition, of the Catholic Church. This second thinker is J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien shared with Nietzsche an intense passion for language and literature, though they worked in different fields. Instead of concentrating in Greek and Latin (which he had already mastered before university), Tolkien chose to dedicate his studies to Old and Middle English as well as several other medieval languages, such as Old Norse and Old Finnish. While he was a historical scholar of the first rank in his chosen field, he was also a tremendously imaginative author. Many of his works arose from his desire to fuse his literature and language studies with his studies of myth. As mentioned yesterday, it was Tolkien’s discussions of myth with C.S. Lewis that led the latter to convert to Christianity. In his incomplete poem The Fall of Arthur (which was only published in 2013), Tolkien tried give these legends a more English feel by adapting the alliterative system of Old English verse. The young Tolkien started on the myths that were published after his death as The Silmarillion as a way of practicing his invented languages. Even in his invented languages, he strove for historical verisimilitude. He developed different dialects of the same language and even extensive histories of each dialect, which he described in the appendices to The Return of the King. In his myths too he strove for historical verisimilitude. In The Lord of the Rings every story has a back story and every song has a legend behind it. In all his works Tolkien intertwines history and myth in every detail. He created a mythical world by means of historical consciousness in such a way that myth and historical consciousness were not in conflict inside that world.

It is this intertwining of myth and history in a common origin that is the essence of tradition for Tolkien. Tolkien depicts the very first act in the creation of Middle Earth, in The Silmarillion, as a series of harmonious melodies springing forth from the mind of the Creator. Soon, however, an evil spirit introduces dissonance into the melodies, which the Creator nevertheless finds a way to incorporate into his own music. The harmonious melodies are the basis of all our traditions; anything we can create is a reflection of this ideal, which, as Niggle finds out (in Leaf by Niggle), can only be realized with the help of God in the next life. However, in this life, in history, the artist must be fundamentally humble. His task is to reclaim the beauty of the original melodies, but his powers are limited: he can only engage in “sub-creation,” to use Tolkien’s term. God creates history; our task in history is to reclaim our principles: the Creator’s harmonies. At the beginning of history stands a myth, and in history we must reclaim this myth.

For Tolkien, then, any tradition—whether in art, literature, language—is a historical means by which we return to our origins. History by itself is not as important. Indeed, Tolkien called this life “a long defeat.” What matters is how we shape our tradition is to lead us to God, the foundation, the Grund, that Nietzsche tried to do without, but neither successfully nor happily.

Tolkien does not give us a blueprint for how to integrate tradition and historical consciousness. There just is no easy way to synthesize historical scholarship with a distinct literary sensibility. It takes a genius like Tolkien to achieve what he did. However, Tolkien did prove in his work that it was possible to use history to re-establish a connection to myth and tradition in the modern world and he showed us what such a synthesis could look like.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tradition & Historical Consciousness: A Few Random Observations: Part One

Dear reader: I apologize in advance for the disjointed, rambling nature of my next two posts, but my vanity tells me that they are interesting enough and just barely coherent enough to merit publication here.

 Here at the Guild Review one of our abiding interests is the place of tradition in the modern world and in what way we can shape that tradition. The very idea of shaping tradition, however, may seem problematic to some. Most of us reading this blog, I assume, are Catholics, for whom the most important tradition is the deposit of faith, which was complete upon the death of St. John, from which nothing can be subtracted and to which nothing can be added; it can only be more perfectly understood and expressed by the Church. One is rightfully hesitant to shape that tradition; much safer simply to assist in handing on that deposit of faith to future generations unchanged. As graduates or friends of the University of Dallas, we went to college to learn from the tradition, not necessarily to “shape” it. It is arrogant in the extreme for a youth to think that he will revolutionize any particular field of learning; much better to listen in respect to our elders before setting on a lifelong journey of learning. Finally, the phrase “shaping tradition” also smacks of poorly-disguised novelty, usually imposed upon an indifferent group of people to encourage more “enthusiasm.” How often have we heard school administrators trying to win support for an unpopular program by proclaiming that “the tradition begins now”?

But, hopefully, all of us here would recognize that there is a legitimate place for all of us to “shape” our tradition, to one degree or another. Unfortunately, however, we tend to think of tradition as a culture’s or religion’s roots in history and not as the flower and fruit of the plant which spread the seed and preserve that plant for the future. To understand tradition and how we should shape we need to understand its relation to historical consciousness.

More precisely, we need to develop a historical consciousness that is in harmony, not in conflict, with tradition. Christianity can supply us with that proper understanding of historical consciousness and tradition. In more primitive cultures, tradition is opposed to historical consciousness in the form of myth. According to Mircea Eliade, in a pre-historical culture everything relates back to illud tempus, “that time” when the gods walked the earth. (Eliade uses the phrase “in illo tempore,” which he takes from the customary beginning of the Gospel in the Latin Mass: “At that time [Jesus]…”) Myths are concerned with origins. Any deviation from the example of the gods set forth in the myth is a sin.

Christianity clearly shares some of these qualities of myth. However, there are two crucial distinctions between Christianity and other ancient myths. The first is the distinction that Tolkien explained to C.S. Lewis in 1931: Christianity is a myth, but it is a true myth. And by “true” we of course mean “historically true.” Our God actually did create the world and then entered into that world and performed the actions that form the basis of our Christian myth. For Christians the origin with which we are concerned is not just the creation of the world, but also the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. But, as Catholics, each time we attend Mass, we also enter into what Eliade calls “mythical time”: we are present at the un-bloody renewal of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What happens at Mass is essentially the same event as happened on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago.

The second crucial distinction is that Jesus preached that he would come again at the end of time. He ends the history of this world by judging the living and the dead. Our actions on earth matter—we are not condemned to endless cycles of reincarnation. The time between our origin, redemption, and eschaton has a direction in which we are free to move closer to or further from God. Through the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Second Coming Christianity gives history a movement from beginning to end; eschatology transformed myth into history. Christianity gives history a shape; it is up to us—with God’s grace—to shape our Christian tradition within history.

But, how should a Christian shape a tradition? One way Christians have always shaped their tradition is by reclaiming their principles—their origins—in the creation, redemption, and continuing sanctification of the world. Every time a Christian meditates on the life of Jesus and ponders how to apply that true myth to his life he is shaping the tradition in his own life and those around him. But, Christianity also allows its followers to subject the principles of other cultures and religions to itself; everything that is good can be referred back to Jesus Christ in some way.

An example should make this second way of shaping tradition a bit clearer. In Scholasticism: Problems and Personalities of Medieval Philosophy, Josef Pieper depicts scholasticism as a twofold endeavor: to recover the learning of the ancient world and to synthesize it with Christianity. The barbarian invasions had devastated scholarship in the late Roman Empire and many authors have been lost in part, if not in whole. All this is well known. But, then, in a somewhat surprising move, Pieper compares the project of medieval theologians with the Great Books programs of mid-20th-century America. In both instances, there was sufficient source material, but this source material needed to be catalogued, understood, and finally synthesized. The cultures undertaking these projects were arguably intellectually underdeveloped and in need of spiritual roots to prepare them for them for the role they were to play on the world stage. Both projects sought to rescue the ancient wisdom from the barbarism of the present age.

However, there is one important difference between the intellectual atmospheres of these two periods that needs to be emphasized: in modern America, historical consciousness is far more developed than it was in medieval Europe. Until relatively recently in history, it was possible to be considered learned while having only a very general idea of the past; that is impossible now.

One key effect of this increased historical consciousness is to turn anachronisms into glaring errors. While increased historical consciousness is generally good, it can also overshadow the main point in a novel, a piece of art, or in philosophy. For instance, when he employs examples from etymology, St. Thomas Aquinas loves to explain the origin of the Latin word lapis (“stone”) as a compound of laedere (“injure”) and pes (“foot”). This etymology is, of course, incorrect. But, how many readers will lose trust in Aquinas once they find out inadequate his knowledge of historical linguistics was, even though it really has no bearing on his philosophy? Likewise, it can be more difficult to appreciate past works of art when we recognize their anachronisms. For instance, any visitor to Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen with even a minimal knowledge of the history of architecture will notice the incongruity between the original octagonal Romanesque chapel (and its distinct Byzantine influence), the high Gothic apse, and the Baroque side chapel (the Ungarnkapelle). Finally, certain ideas about art become laughable when viewed in their historical context. Opera, for example, began as a pet project of wealthy and learned Florentine noblemen who thought they were reviving ancient Greek music and drama, especially in the form of a singing chorus. This anachronism does nothing to affect the aesthetic value of any particular opera, but it may color moderns’ views of their forebears.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

C. S. Lewis on the Longing for Heaven

If you have not already caught the drift, I think Mere Christianity is an excellent work.  This is not to say that it is perfect or that I or the Catholic Church agrees with every one of Lewis' statements.  But I think non-Christians will find a compelling introduction to the faith which is grown up and thoughtful.  In spite of Lewis' own claim that the book is not for those trying to choose a denomination, I think it would be quite useful for considering the theme upon which the Christian denominations are variations and considering the degree of their fidelity.  And for those who already hold to the Christian faith, it is a cogent reminder of some of the faith's most basic truths.  So if you have not read it, buy a copy, visit your local library (virtually all have it), or read it online.  (Or, if you live in the Charlottesville area, I'll lend you a copy.)

Today's passages come from the chapter titled "Hope."

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.  If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.  The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth "thrown in": aim at earth and you will get neither.  It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters.  Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you.  You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more - food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

Most of us find it very difficult to want "Heaven" at all - except in so far as "Heaven" means meeting again our friends who have died.  One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world.  Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it.  Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.  There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.  The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.  I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers.  I am speaking of the best possible ones.  There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.  I think everyone knows what I mean.   The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us. Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one.

(1) The Fool's Way. - He puts the blame on the things themselves.  He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after.  Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type.  They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman (through the divorce courts), from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is "the Real Thing" at last, and always disappointed.

(2) The Way of the Disillusioned "Sensible Man." - He soon decides that the whole thing was moonshine.  "Of course," he says, "one feels like that when one's young.  But by the time you get to my age you've given up chasing the rainbow's end."  And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, "to cry for the moon."  This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to society.  It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior towards what he calls "adolescents"), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably.  It would be the best line we could take if man did not live for ever.   But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us?  Supposing one really can reach the rainbow's end?  In that case it would be a pity to find out too late (a moment after death) that by our supposed "common sense" we had stifled in ourselves the faculty of enjoying it.

(3) The Christian Way. - The Christian says, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.  A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.  Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.   Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.  I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."

Today's image, which reminded me of Lewis' notion of "Northernness," came from this website.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hebraic Repetition in the Canticle of Zechariah

The Canticle of Zechariah is one of the standard liturgical texts prayed by Catholic clergy and religious, and many lay people, each day.  It is a text I quite enjoy, though I must confess that it can appear - particularly when one is tired or distracted - as a bit disjointed, a series of platitudes strung together.  Today I'd like to propose a method for digging deeper into it.

In the Hebrew scriptures, repetition is a frequently used literary device.  Anyone who has seen the canticle in Daniel chapter 3 (prayed on Sunday morning of Week 1) will have a sense of this:

Every shower and dew, bless the Lord. 
All you winds, bless the Lord.
Fire and heat, bless the Lord. 
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord. 
Frost and chill, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord. 
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness, bless the Lord. 
Lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord.

And so forth.  It might suffice to say "water," but instead "shower and dew" are used.  One might assume that "fire" implies "heat," but the author uses both.  Some pairings are more complex: "nights and days" are opposites which, together, might be taken to mean "all times."

More often, this repetition in the Hebrew scriptures comes in the form of back to back lines which repeat the same concept.  We can see this, for example, in Psalm 81:

Sing joyfully to God our strength;
raise loud shouts to the God of Jacob!

Take up a melody, sound the timbrel,
the pleasant lyre with a harp.

Blow the shofar at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our solemn feast.

For this is a law for Israel,
an edict of the God of Jacob

Although the Canticle of Zechariah comes in the New Testament, it is uttered by a Jew, indeed a priest of the tribe of Levi.  Thus it comes as little surprise that it follows this convention of repetition.  I would like to suggest, however, that this repetition is not - neither here nor elsewhere - merely filler.  Nor is it simply a repetition for those who may not have been paying attention the first time (though that too is a useful function).  Rather, I believe these repetitions, in pairs or triples, invite us to consider the subtle differences between them and offer insights if we consider carefully what is being equated.  Let us begin with the first lines:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.

Notice the conjunction in the second line: He has come to His people and set them free.  This is a repetition, a redundancy.  The very act of God's coming is inherently liberating.  That is a powerful witness to both His might and His goodness.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
Born of the house of His servant David.

I think this pairing speaks of the promise that God makes to David, through the prophet Nathan, in 2 Samuel 7: "The Lord also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you.   And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm....   And I will make his royal throne firm forever.   I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me....   Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."  Any good Jew, familiar with this messianic prophesy, knows that the savior will come from the house of David.  And if he does, clearly he will be mighty, for the Lord will be with him.

Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant.

This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight
All the days of our life.

We have three promises given here, or three versions of the same promise: salvation from enemies, mercy, and freedom to worship.  The Psalms and other writings often conflate political and spiritual enemies; while such a reading is possible here, I think the repetition begins to unwind it, since enemies are not merely political rivals or opponents on the battlefield, but those "who hate us."  For those with the eyes of faith, the ultimate hate comes from Satan, born of his jealousy that mankind might be so intimate with God.  Thus, salvation from enemies is more than a promise that God marches with our armies; it is deliverance from evil.

The mercy promised to our fathers is paired with God's remembrance of His covenant.  To a Jew, bound by the ritual law and all its requirements, the covenant might seem like a burden, a punishment, not mercy.  Even Christians, bound by fewer everyday restrictions - though called to the law of love - sometimes feel burdened by God's covenant.  But Zechariah reminds us that God's covenant and rules are the fruit of His mercy.  We may trust that they are for our good.

Zechariah ties the freedom to worship with freedom from enemies; more on that in a moment.  Notice that worshiping without fear is paired with being holy and righteous.  Why would a worshiper fear?  If such worship were illegal one might fear the secret police.  Real though such a fear is, it is ultimately temporal and passing.  But what if one's worship is not pleasing to the Almighty?  This fear is eternal and of the gravest consequence.  Here Zechariah points out that, in the context of the savior's coming, God will make us holy and righteous, such that our worship might be pleasing to Him.

But let us return to the three-fold promise: salvation from enemies, mercy, and freedom to worship.  Not only does the canticle link them all together by identifying them as God's promise, but Zechariah explicitly notes that God sets us "free from the hands of our enemies, / Free to worship Him without fear," thus linking these promises.  Why?  Because they are all pieces of the larger movement of God's salvation, brought by the Davidic savior: In God's mercy we are protected from the malevolent powers of evil, made holy and righteous, called to a new life as God's people, and invited to worship Him.

You, My child shall be called
The prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way,
To give His people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.

Notice that the prophet - John the Baptist - is doing three things here.  Or, rather, three dimensions of his task are explained: he prepare's the Lord's way, he imparts knowledge of salvation, and he speaks of the forgiveness of sins.  Recall that we have already seen the Lord's coming linked with salvation; the latter is the natural consequence of the former.  Thus, the Lord's way is not prepared with triumphal arches or flower-strewn roads, but by communicating the reality of His salvation.  Whereas earlier stanzas understood salvation as freedom from enemies and the promise of holiness, we now understand it in a new way: forgiveness of sins.  This is not a contradiction but a viewing of the same reality from another side.  Satan, the Tempter, lures us into sin and thereby deprives us of holiness.  But the savior will free us from the Evil One, forgive our sins, and thus bring holiness.

In the tender compassion of our Lord
The Dawn from on High shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Finally, we are told that the Dawn from on High - that is, Jesus, the Davidic savior - will do two things: He will shine on those in darkness and He will guide us into peace.  The interconnection between our human sin and spiritual warfare is already seen above.  Likewise, we have implicitly been hearing about the communal nature of sin and salvation: notice that Zechariah always speaks in the plural about "us."  In these final lines these concepts are brought together.  Those dwelling in darkness - the darkness of demonic oppression and of personal sin - cannot live in social harmony, and so their lives are lives of conflict.  But Jesus brings something different.  He brings His light, His saving presence, and by dispelling the darkness shows us the way to harmony and peace.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

C. S. Lewis on the Cosmic War

Having already shared passages from Lewis' Mere Christianity on the complexity of religion and on views of non-Christians, I would now like to share a third set of passages, about the reality of the cosmic war in the midst of which we live.  The first two paragraphs come from the chapter "The Invasion"; the third comes from "The Practical Conclusion."

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe - a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference [from Dualism]  is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory - that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.  He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery.  I know someone will ask me, "Do you really mean, at this time of day, to reintroduce our old friend the devil - hoofs and horns and all?"  Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know.  And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns.  But in other respects my answer is "Yes, I do."  I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance.  If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person, "Don't worry.  If you really want to, you will.  Whether you'll like it when you do is another question."...

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil?  Why is He not landing in force, invading it?  Is it that He is not strong enough?   Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when.  But we can guess why He is delaying.  He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely.  I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.  God will invade.  But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does.   When that happens, it is the end of the world.  When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.  God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else - something it never entered your head to conceive - comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left?  For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.  It will be too late then to choose your side.  There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up.  That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not.  Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side.  God is holding back to give us that chance.  It will not last for ever.  We must take it or leave it.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A New Virginia State Flag

Regular readers will know that I have proposed new arms for both the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County in Virginia.  Today I would like to make another, less modest proposal: a new state flag.

Virginia has the "standard" state flag: the state seal on a blue field.  This design has been panned by flag enthusiasts as the worst design we've got.  Every one of the ten worst flags in the North American Vexillological Association's ranking of state and provincial flags has this design.  Virginia came in 54th of 72.  (And one of those, Georgia, introduced a new flag since the poll, probably resulting in a jump ahead of Virginia.)  This is not simply a matter of vexillological snobbery or angling for a better ranking.  The whole point of a flag is to be identifiable.  If twenty states have basically the same flag, how can you tell them apart?  Virginia's state seal is more recognizable than some, but on a hazy day or at a distance the distinction is a modest one.

The basic design that I propose (above) has two layers of meaning.  The colors are drawn from the flags of Britain, from which so many of Virginia's first colonists came.  The horizontal bar recalls the Cross of St. George on the flag of England; the angled bars recall the Crosses of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, from the flags of Scotland and Ireland, respectively.  Alternatively, the shapes and colors may be read as an allegory for Virginia's history.  The bloodshed of the Revolution and Civil War (red) is now enfolded in the reign of peace (white) and Virginia, having passed through the trial of succession is bound once more by loyalty (blue) to the United States.  The shape of the stripes recalls the way people of many cultures and backgrounds have come together to form this state.  (If you say that the only thing this flag recalls for you is the flag of Iceland, I have no rebuttal except to say that I hear Icelanders are very nice people.)

Having sketched out the above design, I began to wonder if perhaps the state seal, representing the female figure of Virtus striking down Tyranny, might be incorporated.

I played around with a couple versions (see left) which incorporated these figures, as they exist on the arms of Virginia Army National Guard units (see, for example, the 276th Engineer Battalion).  But I was not entirely satisfied with these.

Finally, I settled upon the notion of placing the state seal, used on the current flag, at the junction of the angled and horizontal bars.  I must admit, I was rather pleased with the result:

Am I serious about the adoption of any of these flags for use in Virginia?  Well, sort of.  In all honesty I think them superior to the present one, but things should not be changed for light and transient causes and I do not know that a change would be worth the trouble.  I suppose I am a bit inspired by the little-known Kansas State Banner, a flag rarely used except by the Kansas National Guard, though co-equal in law with its better known counterpart and of much greater vexillological merit.

Tip o' the hat to Fix the Flags, a blog dedicated to creating better flags!  I only discovered it after drafting these, but Jack may have inspired me to work on more.

C. S. Lewis on Christian Views of Non-Christians

Here is another passage from Mere Christianity, this time from the chapter "The Rival Conceptions of God."

I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic - there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

C. S. Lewis on the Complexity of Religion

I have been re-reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.  I am not entirely convinced that every one of his arguments holds or is presented in the best way possible, but I am nevertheless struck by how much the content of this work, now seventy years old, continues to speak to the questions posed by modern men, both believers and non-believers.  Here are a few paragraphs I thought particularly forceful (but too long for Facebook statues), from the seventh chapter "The Invasion."

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of-all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain-and, of course, you find that what we call "seeing a table" lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of. A child saying a child's prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not-and the modern world usually is not-if you want to go on and ask what is really happening- then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple.

Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made "religion" simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your tune. Notice, too, their idea of God "making religion simple": as if "religion" were something God invented, and not His statement to us of certain quite unalterable facts about His own nature.

Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match-all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go farther from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies-these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simpler either.

The full text of Mere Christianity is available here.  Thanks to Wikia for the image.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Remembering Hugh Seagrim

Tomorrow marks the sixty ninth anniversary of the death of Major Hugh Seagrim. Born in 1909, Seagrim attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhust and joined the British Indian Army and then the Burma Rifles. As a young officer, Seagrim practiced the official religion of the British Army: lapsed Anglicanism.

In January, 1942, the Japanese Army invaded Burma. Several months before the invasion an Assistant Superintendent of the Burma Frontier Service began organizing and training guerrillas. Seagrim, who had become fluent in several Burmese languages, was recruited and formed a guerrilla force of Karens, one of the loyal hill tribes.

The Karens are a curious people. Wedged between the Thais and the Bamar (the dominant ethnic group in Burma), the Karens have long struggled to exert their own identity. Nineteenth century European anthropologists suspected that the Karens might be a lost tribe of Jews: they worshiped a single god, Y'wa. The story goes that Y'wa had three sons, a Karen, a Bamar, and a pale son. To each he gave a copy of his laws: the Karen received the laws on tablets of gold, the Bamar and the pale son on tablets of lesser materials. When the Bamar lost his tablets, he tried to steal those of the Karen, who in turn entrusted them to his pale younger brother. The pale brother sailed off to the west with the golden tablets, promising to return with Y'wa's laws some day. So when Christian missionaries arrived in Burma, they found many Karens ready to welcome them with open arms; after all, they were the decedents of their little brother, returning with God's law. As a result of missionary work by American Baptists, as well as Catholics and other Protestant denominations, approximately 15% of Karens came to accept the Christian faith.

While in the jungle of the Karen Hills, plotting attacks on Japanese convoys and trying to maintain contact with the outside world, Seagrim rediscovered his Christian faith. He and his men - who affectionately referred to the 6' 4" British officer as "Grandfather Longlegs" - would read the Bible together and pray before turning to their work of resistance. The extent to which his new-found love of Christ infused his life and work is best exemplified by his death.

Seagrim's Karen forces were a major thorn in the side of Burma's Japanese occupiers. So much did the Japanese fear him that they undertook a major effort to find and capture him. But Seagrim enjoyed the support of the local Karen population and had a superior command of the local geography. He always remained ahead of his would-be captors. Frustrated by their failures, the Japanese began undertaking a tōbatsu, a "punitive expedition", into the Karen Hills. Hundreds of villagers were arrested and tortured. Many died for their refusal to reveal Seagrim's location.

In the end, Seagrim, sickened by the destruction being visited on the people he had come to love, saw only one way to end the violence: by giving himself up. So on 15 March 1944 he surrendered to the Japanese. He was taken to Rangoon, where he was sentenced to death, along with eight of the Karens with whom he worked. Seagrim begged for their lives, arguing that they had merely followed orders, and that the responsibility for resistance activities had been his. But Seagrim's companions - much less their Japanese captors - would hear none of it; they were fiercely loyal and vowed to die with him. Seagrim was killed on 22 September 1944.

In 1985, the Karens gave a plaque to Seagrim's native village in England:

Hugh Seagrim and his brother Derek, who won the Victoria Cross in another theater of the Second World War, are also remembered on the village sign:

Those interested in Major Hugh Seagrim can read more in Ian Morrison, Grandfather Longlegs: The Life and Gallant Death of Major H. P. Seagrim, G.C., D.S.O., M.B.E. (London, 1947).

Today's image of Major Seagrim comes from the Karen Heritage website.

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Arms for Albemarle County, VA

Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in designing better heraldry for my local institutions in Virginia.  Today I would like to consider the Albemarle County seal.

The biggest shortcoming of the seal is that it is not readily identifiable from a distance.  While it includes symbols of the University of Virginia and the local countryside, as well as the state flower (dogwood) and the scales of justice, what is most obvious from any distance is the yellow border and yellow circle, with some blue/green things going on in between.  Most of the details are lost.

In place of this seal I offer the following mock-up of arms:

The blazon, the technical description, is: Argent, between a pall Azure three scallops Gules.

The blue Y-shaped design (called a pall in heraldry) represents the Rivanna River, whose North and South Forks come together in Albemarle County.  The three red shells are drawn, with reversed coloration, from the arms of the Earls of Albemarle, for whom the county is named.  Red and white represent the blood that was shed here during the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the peace which now reigns.  Red and white are also the heraldic colors of Sir Walter Raleigh, founder of the Colony of Virginia, while Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, used red, white, and blue, in his arms.

If one wanted to include elements of the current seal - e.g. the "Founded AD 1744" or the dogwood flowers - these might be incorporated onto a motto banner, a crest, or a compartment.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Against Rejectionism


"This Is [Still] the Best School That Is"

It seems to be vogue to reject one's past: "Oh, I use to do/believe X, but now I do/believe Y."  John Maynard Keynes is reported to have said that when the facts change he changed his mind.  Certainly there is nothing wrong with one's views changing as one grows in wisdom.  But it seems the zeitgeist now presumes a rejection of past views.

One manifestation of this general trend is the rejection of past institutions, particularly educational institutions, most especially those with unique characteristics.  I think I speak for many, perhaps most, of the University of Dallas' graduates when I say that some of my views have changed since attending that school.  But on the whole I am struck by the solidity of the values I imbibed there.  In answer to the broad trend of rejectionism, let me offer a specific defense, a defense of my own alma mater.

Should I reject UD's politics?  I came to the school as a self-consciously conservative Republican.  I attended the 2000 Republican National Convention and was on the floor when George W. Bush was nominated for the presidency.  Did UD embrace and foster the political views I brought?  The Princeton Review ranks UD the 6th most conservative school in America.  (Though UD did not appear on recent lists from the Young America's Foundation or The Daily Beast.)

In my four years there I would not say I became more or less conservative, but more smartly conservative.  It was at UD that I was introduced to the writings of Russell Kirk and first attended a meeting of the Philadelphia Society.  I became less interested in the views of the Republican Party.  In the years since graduation I have come to shed the language of left/right, liberal/conservative almost entirely.  I would now describe myself as an integral Christian humanist and I try to take my cues from the Church's social teaching, including Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, works I first read at UD.  Have I rejected UD's politics?  Not exactly.  My views have evolved, based largely on UD's own education.

Should I reject UD's theology?  Some might describe UD's theology as conservative.  I think orthodox - that is, in accordance with the teaching of the magisterium, the pope and the bishops in communion with him - is a more accurate description.  But let us investigate this notion of conservative theology for a minute.  If one uses the term "conservative" in the literal sense of preserving something from the past, this is an accurate description: UD teaches the Bible as well as dead theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.  Even more recent figures studied look back to such historic thinkers. (I recently re-read Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of History in St. Bonaveture, a book assigned to me my senior year.  The title theologian died in 1274.)

One sometimes hears today that Christianity is not necessarily conservative or even that it ought not be.  If by this one means that Christianity ought not be identified with the Republican party, a party supportive of the death penalty and often ambivalent about aiding the poor and migrants, I would agree.  (Though it would be naive to make such a criticism and overlook the Republicans' defense of unborn children, support for traditional marriage, and pro-growth policies aimed at creating jobs, yes, even for the poor.  Likewise, the opposite observations could be made of the Democrats.)

If, however, one means that Christianity ought not be attached to the idea of conserving things from the past, this is a more dubious claim.  If one rejects the ancient scriptures of the faith and the historic teaching of the Church's bishops, one does not cease to be conservative; one ceases to be a Christian all together.  (If one rejects only the authority of the bishops, while retaining the Bible, one becomes Protestant.  There is, of course, great overlap between the two bodies of teaching.  In 325 the Council of Nicaea affirmed the Incarnation, the notion that Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Any Protestant would accept this doctrine not because he accepts the authority of the bishops gathered in council, but because the prologue to John's gospel says as much.)  While there is a progressive quality to Christianity - just look at the unfolding of God's grace and revelation in the Old Testament - a Christian cannot be so anti-conservative as to throw out stuffy old doctrines like the Incarnation and the Trinity, such historic practices as fasting and observance of weekly communal worship, and such hierarchic notions as leadership.

Should I reject UD's spirituality?  Spirituality is not exactly the same thing as theology; the latter is a system of beliefs; the former is the personal practice of those beliefs.  My spiritual life has followed an interesting trajectory: toward traditionalism while at UD, away from traditionalism afterward.  I might be tempted to dismiss the Gregorian chant, polyphony, monastic vocational discernment, and the rest as a passing fad, something beyond which I have now moved, except that, as my wife and I settle into family life together, those things from UD have taken on new meaning.  We recently changed parishes, for example, for a more traditional liturgy and Thomistic teaching.  Time appears to be proving the resonance of the spirituality I acquired as an undergraduate.

Should I reject UD's demographics?  Without a doubt the University of Dallas is a white upper-middle class school.  Having subsequently lived alongside Salvadorians and African-Americans in some of Greater Washington's less affluent neighborhoods, the narrowness of UD's demographics has become more obvious to me.  A greater diversity of races and classes at UD would not be a bad thing.  However, I am now struck by two things.  First, UD was - and, by all accounts, still is - an extremely diverse place.  Some of my closest friends had parents with MDs, JDs, and PhDs.  Their incomes were often similarly elevated.  But I also spent a spring break in Arkansas with a friend whose family lived in a mobile home heated by a wood stove.  Second, having spent four years at a large public university, I have seen the lack of diversity which programs aimed at producing it create.  The statistics for race and class may look better on paper, but intellectual diversity or vitality does not necessarily follow.  In contrast, Princeton Review writes, "What truly sets [UD's] curriculum apart... is not the challenge, but rather the scope and diversity of it. As one student enthused, 'I never thought I'd have so many different takes on all the subjects I've studied.'"

One of the simplest measures of diversity which affirmative action and its watered-down variants ignore is geography.  I grew up in Arizona with parents from the Great Plains; I instinctively believed that New York was some distant den of iniquity and pollution which no one would ever want to visit.  That view changed when I became friends with a New Yorker at UD.  Likewise, my classmates came from public, private, and home schooling in roughly equal measure, a diversity unlikely to be matched by most schools professing to promote diversity.  I do not believe in placing people in racial boxes; whenever I can, I skip the race section on forms.  UD's admission form did not even ask about my race.  That seems to resonate with a world in which people are not "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Should I reject UD's social worldview?  The phrase "social worldview" may not be the best, but I could not think of another to address the broad charge of closed-mindedness.  Let me consider two particular issues which may elucidate this vague criteria.

I came to UD in 2002, in the shadow of the fallen Twin Towers.  Iraq was invaded in my second semester.  There were many discussions about Islam and the threat from Islamic terrorism.  I regret that not all of those discussions were as well informed as they might have been.  In the last few years I have learned a great deal more about Islam and developed considerable respect for its adherents.  I would, however, add two qualifiers to my regrets about some misdirected notions of Islam that may have circulated.  First, there is a kind of apologia for all things non-Western which can be every bit as blinded as pro-Western jingoism.  There are real shortcomings in the Islamic world, like the widespread prevalence of pederasty in Afghanistan and Central Asia.  A frank discussion of Islam and Christianity should recognize the virtues and shortcomings of each.  One is at least as likely to find that at UD as anywhere else.  Second, UD equipped me with the tools - historical, philosophical, spiritual - to come to a greater appreciation of Islam.  Although that development did not happen while I was there, the connection is quite clear in my mind.

Princeton Review recently placed UD on its list of schools least friendly to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.  As I have written before, the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."  If this fails to occur at UD, I regret that, deeply.  However, the Church also teaches that, "basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."  I suspect that those answering the Princeton Review's queries likely assumed that such a condemnation is unfriendly.  Certainly it must be proclaimed with sensitivity.  But if the Church is correct in its teaching, sharing this truth, however painful it may be to many, is an act of charity; to hide the truth and proclaim falsehood is no act of kindness.  That UD hosts the Courage program is little known, but proof that the school supports both teaching and practice.

"This is the best school that is."  With these immortal words Dr. John R. Sommerfeldt endorsed the University of Dallas.  (Why make an ordinary statement when you can make it existential, right?)  I have attended several schools, visited several more, and met students from a variety of others.  I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about higher education.  And the longer I am away from UD, the more convinced I am of the truth of this endorsement.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Pope Francis Said WHAT?

There has been plenty of media attention of late given to comments made by Pope Francis regarding the ordination of gay men to the priesthood.  Yet, so far as I can tell, there has been little cause for fuss.  But what exactly is the Church's teaching on the ordination of men who experience same sex attraction?

An analogy may help clarify the situation.  (Like all analogies, of course, it breaks down at points, but I hope you'll find it useful.)  Does the Church ordain alcoholics to the priesthood?  The answer is, well... sort of.

If an alcoholic has confronted his problem, learned to resist his temptations, and has been sober for several years, yes, most bishops would be comfortable ordaining him.  What if he were just entering Alcoholics Anonymous and the long road to recovery?  A bishop would likely ask him to persevere in this important work for some time before coming to the diocese for the discernment of a priestly vocation.  What if our alcoholic suffered frequent lapses into drunkenness, but hated his sin, wanted to be free of it, and wanted to serve the Lord?  A bishop would likely encourage his sense of contrition, encourage him to seek help, and persist in prayer.  But to ordain, or even suggest the possibility of ordination, to such a man would be imprudent.  Finally, what if a man who routinely got drunk, encouraged others to do likewise, and contended that drunkenness was not a sin (contrary to the teaching of the Church) desired ordination?  Clearly, no bishop would consider him for ordination.

The Catholic Church considers homosexual acts sinful.  Whether one agrees with this position or not, it is clear and easy to understand.  However, the Church makes a distinction between sin (which is a moral error) and the inclination to sin (which should be discouraged, but is not itself an error on the individual's part).  Thus, the mere experience of same sex attraction is not sinful and those who struggle with such a temptation are not ipso facto barred from ministry in the Church.  But prudence does require that bishops and those responsible for priestly formation carefully consider whether a man seeking ordination has overcome his temptation or whether it is likely to be a serious struggle for him, one which might be a cause for scandal or impair his ministry.  Precisely delineating such a distinction in the form of administrative policy is apt to be tricky, but I think the general concept is fairly clear.

The one category of men experiencing same sex attraction who are unambiguously barred from ordination are those who claim that homosexual acts are not sinful or behave in a manner which indicates the same.  They are prohibited from being ministers of the Catholic Church because they do not believe the Church's own teachings.  Again, whether one agrees with the Church or not, this position on ordination is commonsensical.

As Pope Francis noted, the Church's teaching on the ordination of women is straightforward: "The Church has spoken and says no."  The Church's teaching on the ordination of men who have experienced same sex attraction is more complicated and therefore it is unsurprising that when several people (e.g. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis) explain this position, the explanation is made in a slightly different way.  Does that mean that the Church's position has changed?  Doubtful.

Finally, a word on Francis' actual comment: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"  This reminds me of Augustine's well known line: "Love and then do as you will."  People sometimes interpret Augustine's comment as libertine, permitting all manner of behaviors so long as they are done with a loving intention.  In fact, love is a very specific notion for Augustine; while there may be a great many ways to express love (as Augustine emphasizes), many behaviors are intrinsically at odds with love, and thus would be utterly rejected by one who is moved by love.  Only someone completely unfamiliar with Augustine would make the mistake of assuming that he saw no place for rules or limits.

In a similar fashion, let me break down Pope Francis' comment for those who might lack a broader understanding of the Catholic Church.  "If someone is gay..."  Francis certainly refers here to one who experiences same sex attraction, not someone who commits homosexual acts.  The Church, following St. Paul's lead, does pass judgment on particular acts.  "If... he searches for the Lord and has good will..."  Such seeking is not a casual matter but the total giving over of one's life to the Almighty and His ways.  The proof of such good will in the life of someone experiencing same sex attraction would be the practice of celibacy.  Thus, we might paraphrase Francis' comment as follows: "If someone experiences temptation, but gives his life over to God and resists that temptation, I would not withhold ordination simply because he had been tempted."  That's not really such news, now is it?

PS  I must make brief mention of the FT's coverage of this story.  While it reported the buzz among Vatican watchers, it also highlighted the continuity: "In line with Church teaching, Francis said gays should not be judged or marginalised but integrated into society, while maintaining that homosexual acts are a sin."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

New Arms for Charlottesville, Virginia

Last month I complained about the mediocre seal sported by the City of Charlottesville.  So I decided to try my hand at designing some heraldic arms instead.  Here's the mock-up:

The blazon, the technical description, could probably be given several ways.  Here's one:

Tierced per fess: I azure a griffin passant or; II or a lion passant guardant gules; III gules a scallop argent.

The basic background colors of blue, gold, and red, come from the flag of Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the home of Queen Charlotte (b. 1744, d. 1818), for whom the City of Charlottesville was named when it was established in 1762.  The gold griffin also comes from the coat of arms of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

The red lion on a gold field is inspired by Charlottesville's British heritage.  The Colony of Virginia was established in 1606 by a joint stock company from England, whose coat of arms feature three gold lions on a red field.  In 1707 Scotland - whose arms feature a red lion on a gold field - was united to England to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  The lion also signifies Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville's most well-known institution; Jefferson included a lion's head on the crest of his arms.

The white shell on a red field recalls the Earls of Albemarle.  The second Earl of Albemarle, Willem van Keppel, was the son of a supporter of King William III (whose colors the University of Virginia bears) and was governor of the Colony of Virginia from 1737 to 1754; Albemarle County, in which Charlottesville is located, was named for him.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Dangers of Other-Direction


What Daycare and Prom Have in Common

Some of my co-workers have children in daycare.  At present, our son is not.  There are many sound arguments for placing children in such an arrangement, but I would instead like to address one fallacious argument.  Some people say they want to place their children in daycare to teach them good social skills, or - presented it its more striking opposite form - so that they don't turn out as unsocialized loner weirdos.

Sociability is a good thing so far as it goes, but as David Riesman points out in his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, sociability has its limits.  Riesman describes three, or rather, four, types of people.  Tradition-directed people live by the standards and customs of their culture, even if no other members of that group are around, or are even left alive.  Such people are virtually unknown in the modern industrialized experience.  The inner-directed person lives by the standards of a inner gyroscope spun up by his or her parents.  The other-directed person lives in accordance with the opinions of those around him or her.  As Riesman points out, a world of other-directed people can end up all trying to emulate one another, without anyone having a clear sense of purpose.  Hence the title.

I recently spoke with a social worker in the Federal City who said the young people she worked with precisely fit Riesman's description of contemporary other-direction.  They were utterly lacking in the drive and self-discipline which characterize the inner-directed person, instead constantly indulging their various whims.  However, these troubled youths were so other-directed that they could not even decide what it was they wanted, and thus frequently brought trouble on themselves in the course of seeking not their own desires, but the perceived desires of those around them.

Such a situation is not unique to difficult neighborhoods.  It should also be familiar to anyone who has considered the problem of high school proms.  As a student government faculty adviser once explained to me, no one wants to go to prom when no one is going to prom.  But once everyone is going to prom, everyone wants to go.  If one were to graph prom plans on the Y against time on the X, the result would be an inverted L: for a long time no one wants to go, then suddenly the zeitgeist shifts and interest soars.

This isn't really a post about daycare or prom; it's about that sudden shift in public attitudes.  The rapid turnover in fashions of all kinds - sartorial, dietary, technological - exhibits this phenomenon.  So too do American views on same-sex marriage.  As late as 2005, many polls showed that a majority of Americans - perhaps as much as two thirds - opposed same-sex marriage.  By 2012 a majority of Americans supported the recognition of such unions.  The pace of change has caught both supporters and opponents by surprise, prompting analysis among pundits and rapid position changes by politicians.  Let me suggest that this rapid change may be the result of our contemporary other-directed society.  Everyone now supports same-sex marriage because everyone supports same-sex marriage.

Opponents of same-sex marriage may rail against other-direction on this point, but other issues could be raised on which the left opposed the zeitgeist.  Rather than tallying partisan points, let me suggest that Americans of all political stripes should be concerned about this problem.

The answer is not to remove children from daycare or quit holding proms.  Rather, a solution begins first by recognizing the problem and then envisioning a solution.  I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that Riesman described four types of people.  Whereas the tradition-, inner-, and other-directed are all directed by other people, directly or indirectly, he posits a fourth kind who is not: the autonomous person.  Such a person makes decisions for him or herself.  If cultivating such autonomous reason is a difficult task - and surely it is - perhaps it can be tempered with a stern adherence to received values and a regard for traditional ways.  None of these are perfect guides which can guarantee a correct outcome, but at least they avoid the madness of the crowd.  It's something worth attempting.