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I was looking for some sort of Christmas or Christian or inspirational movie to watch while I cleaned the kitchen on Christmas Eve (yes, it’s a full-movie job sometimes), and I couldn’t come up with anything. The particular problem for which I was seeking a balm is difficult to represent in cinema.
Namely, living my life, I can bring things to a point. I can have an adventure. But what then? The day-to-day grind is the hard part (even when comfortable).
As a writer and (for that matter) a business consultant, I’m well aware of story arcs. Bringing people to that moment of crisis and resolution is one thing. Helping them to trudge along day by day by day by day is another, and that’s where I, for one, have the most difficulty.
In one way or another, the response one typically finds to this problem is to set another target. When you can curl 30 pounds, now you move on to 40; do the same with your life goals. The challenging thing is that the entire series of ratcheting projects has to be part of a grand objective, and so the narrative high (or the dopamine hit) of reaching each step can be overwhelmed by the desire to reach the next one.
Movies embody this conflict. The cinematic structure requires the characters to achieve some goal, which contrasts with the lifelong requirement to sometimes rest in the moment.
The Christmas Nativity story captures this dilemma well. Some years ago (I’m tempted to say, “many”), when my eldest daughter was newly born, back before podcasts and Spotify, I went for a walk in Common Fence Point, Portsmouth, Rhode Island, on Christmas night and happened upon a dramatic radio broadcast of the Bethlehem innkeeper’s reaction upon realizing what had just happened in his barn. The performance was excellent (as proven by my still remembering it twenty years on), but the premise has always puzzled me. Did the innkeeper know? How did he know? Who else knew? (And he just left everybody out in the barn?)
The presentation of the Nativity is strange, that way. On the one hand, Jesus was born among the animals… the nondescript secret soldier, slipping under Satan’s eye by His humble beginning. On the other hand, the magi knew to travel the world to find him, and (as Handel’s Messiah puts it so memorably) “there were shepherds abiding in the fields” encountering the “Heavenly host” with an Earth-shaking song of “Glory to God!”
This, for me, is the most significant difference between Christmas and Easter, and it echoes the disconnect between the culture of the holiday and its theological import. Scrooge has a crisis to allow an engaging story, and then the rest of his life was just “keeping Christmas well.” That sort of summary of the “happy ever after” may work for movie and books, but something in the human soul recoils from the insinuation of a humdrum life.
The movie that I’ve watched every Christmas Eve for several years, It’s a Wonderful Life, comes a bit closer to my Christmas Eve mood. George Bailey has a crisis, we see a summary of each step of his life to that point, and he gets a view of what the world would have been like in the absence of his own day-to-day grind. Even so, what now? The community helps to bail him out of his problem as recompense for his good works. The viewer sheds a happy tear.
What does George do the next day? Proceed to keep Christmas well? Sure, the moral is that his ordinary life was dramatic — heroic — but is he past that, now? All the striving that kept him going, does he put it aside and simply take up an ordinary life?
Perhaps in the odd mix of anonymity and profundity in the Nativity we see the key message that Christmas is not Easter. Soon will come Lent, and then the Passion of our Lord. And the lesson there? Maybe I’m being too flip, but it seems like the New Adam, correcting Original Sin, brings us to resolution by making every inconsequential moment a Passion. Every moment is at the same time mundane and profound. Every day is Christmas. Every day is Good Friday. Every day is Easter. And every day is just another day on the road to Jerusalem.
Agnostics to whom I’m close have expressed their problem with the notion of Heaven as an inability to imagine how it could be anything other than boring. Or worse… think of the cliché of preferring to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. For Heaven to be heavenly, though, the experience would have to be very different — like a life in which every day is an inspiring movie.
Featured image by Jacopo Bellini on WikiArt.
The two preceding essays traced the concept of consciousness down from its highest form of abstraction, in God, to human beings. This essay turns things around and builds up to the same point from the bottom — from the stuff of the Universe.
In the beginning is the radical proposition that there is no stuff. No matter how minutely we manage to drill into matter, we will not come to a material substance out of which everything is built. The notion of particles is simply an imprecise metaphor we’ve used to help us understand the concepts.
As at the top, so at the bottom: There are only ideas. At the top, the full set of concepts equates to a personality, which is God’s, who disaggregates through relationships. At the bottom, at their most disaggregated, the concepts manifest as qualities and rules.
Articulated individually and in combination, the qualities generate points in space-time, giving each point and then combination of points identity as a thing, or a concept on a higher level. The rules create what we perceive as distance and motion by requiring, for instance, that spins, charges, and “muchness” (i.e., mass) repel or attract each other. Where some points are unable to pass through others, it is not because there exists an impenetrable wall of stuff. The metaphor, at this level, would be more like the invisible fence to keep a dog in the yard, or the force that absolutely prevents a person who is afraid of heights from nearing a high edge or a person who is terrified of public speaking from stepping out on stage, but rather than representing a phobia, the force is simply an essential rule. This identity, with its particular collection of qualities, simply cannot approach those identities, closely enough to slip by them, while their qualities draw them together.
We’ll explore how pure ideas cohere into substance when we return to the topic of reality as a relationship between observers. For the moment, the key point is that Creation consists of identities that cohere as distinct things based on the qualities that they possess. The quark is an identity. Protons, neutrons, and electrons are identities. One level up, when they combine into atoms, those are identities. And so on. They are distinct things only inasmuch as they are identified as such at a particular level of analysis or conception. Zoom far enough in on a digital picture, and you’ll see a field of dots, differentiated only by the quality of color that you perceive. Just so is the Universe-wide field of points in space-time. One must zoom out to a higher level of observation to see the patterns and discern the rules by which they take shape, and those patterns make up things — identities — on the level at which they can be observed.
It is helpful to personify identities at least to the extent of imputing to them knowledge. However, without implying consciousness, we’ll define knowledge as the recording within an identity (however fleetingly) of information through some sort of internal change. If you add a marble to a jar, the jar “knows” there has been a change; that is, it has recorded it. If the jar only has the one marble and you spin it, then the jar “knows” something is happening to make the marble move around within it.
At the most fundamental level, particles do not know that they are moving, spinning, vibrating, or whatever, because they have no means of recording that information with a change inside themselves. They are only in motion relative to other identities from a higher level of observation. Think how human beings did not know they were moving through space at great speed because that fact causes no change inside of us by which to record the information. We only figured it out through distant observations, which ultimately caused a change inside our brains to record the information.
Fundamental identities simply are as they are, and they exist underneath the rules by which they abide. From an external perspective, they may be moving toward each other, but inasmuch as nothing changes within them, the motion has no meaning for them. By definition, space-time will adjust such that opposite charges move toward each other, but that information is recorded in space-time. The charges, as identities, don’t change internally in response; they simply exist by means of the effect they have on the next-higher conceptual level.
(Note that we may find something within fundamental particles that records the changes. My argument, however, is that eventually we will reach a point at which the level of analysis cannot go any lower and the identities simply follow the rules.)
Now, just as we stepped down by level from the core idea of God to human beings, we can begin to step up from the ideas at the bottom of creation. From atoms on up to rocks, identities record information by changes imposed on them. A piece is knocked off. A crack expands. Atoms wear away from passing wind. The inanimate object only knows what is happening outside of it when there is a direct interaction that changes the object in some way.
What we categorize as life begins when an identity responds to the environment internally. At the basic level, this is still an entirely mechanical or chemical process of direct interaction, but the change occurs within the organism. The plant does not observe that sunlight exists at some elevation and grow toward it. The plan only knows that the chemical reactions that sunlight causes are not happening, and that fact produces a different internal reaction.
The most basic animals are not much more advanced. Ants, for instance, are responding to chemical changes when they follow a trail, but their processing is less direct. The detection of pheromones by antennae doesn’t mechanically change the direction in which the ant’s body moves, but the decision-making is basic.
Moving up the scale, as senses improve, they introduce a layer of awareness of the wider world, and the mechanism for processing and responding to stimuli, the nervous system, becomes able to address indirect information. The light carries information that a threat or food source is out there, and the animal responds accordingly.
The capacity for identities to respond to indirect information generates a higher conceptual level from which they can observe changes and understand new rules for how reality works. Importantly, this higher level allows animals to begin existing across time, in the future or the past, inasmuch as they can predict what might happen and respond as if it is, indeed, happening. A deer running from a wolf is not reacting to being bitten or even, necessarily, chased, but to a possible future in which that occurs. The deer exists in a range of probabilities over a certain distance of time and reacts accordingly.
Human beings achieve the next-higher level of conceptualization through our ability to think in abstractions. Spreading our existence to an abstract realm of forms, we can understand by logic another layer of rules (metarules, if you will), which we perceive not only intellectually, but also emotionally, through the chemical mechanisms of our feelings. These two species of information give the realm of forms observable influence on the world around us, by means of our responses, as well as those of other people.
In our sensing of something higher, we’ve reached the level of angels. We can’t fully know what reality looks like for them — at the level of words, as I put it while disaggregating the top-down teleology — because we lack the sensory apparatus to observe it and the cognitive apparatus to store the information. We can begin to sense the rules of the relationships that would be visible from that higher level; we can aggregate ourselves into groups, form longstanding institutions, and join in with intellectual and emotional movements that take on a life of their own; but we can’t know what it’s like to exist at the level that hovers fully above material Creation.
Obviously, each of the points made thus far in this series of essays demands more-detailed exploration, and the paths that lead away from them into specific disciplines and practical conclusions are as limitless as life itself. However, in the present sketch, the purposeful, or teleological, hierarchy of reality has now met the consequential, or nomological, hierarchy. The next step will be to decide whether they merely crash into each other or overlap from top to bottom and explore the implications our decision has for Creation and for us.
Featured image on Shutterstock.
Tracing reality from the singular Idea as it became a being and ultimately a universe — subsequently giving expression to independent ideas acting under their own wills as beings — suggests that reality is fundamentally conceptual, not material. It is fundamentally purposeful, or teleological, rather than sequential, or consequential. The metaphorical scheme to describe such a reality should therefore shift from the simple geometry used to visualize the relationship of the core concepts of Idea, Expression, and mutual Awareness to a metaphor associated with ideas themselves: language.
In this context, it is more relevant and more crucial to understand that we are merely using a metaphor to describe a concept. With quantum physics, for example, we should by now have realized that the idea of “particles” is, itself, a metaphor — one that imperfectly describes the strange ways in which these things act. This point we’ll put aside for a future essay, raising it only to emphasize the distance between language as a practical tool to describe reality accurately in our everyday lives and language as an approximate representation of a reality that is fundamentally conceptual.
Consider a book. The initial utterance that brought everything into reality — “Be” — is like the title of a book to the unfathomably brilliant person who has every word memorized and has understood it completely. The relationship of the Idea to the Expression (the Father to the Son) is a total and perfect communication whereby each knows in its entirety and simultaneity everything that “Be” signifies.
As the Being who is reality describes Himself to Himself in ever-greater detail, the separation of detail from the whole creates distinct beings. Each lower being, in focusing upon details, is no longer the Being who observes it all simultaneously, and in this way, free will arises as the choice of which detail to observe and in what sequence. The observation, the experience, and the resulting relationship with God (the unity) can differ. Each being remains an expression of God, and a participant in God’s experience of His Creation, but they cannot be God, because aspects of His Idea are unknown to them.
At one step of remove, these beings observe and understand God’s Idea at a level akin to unit headings in a textbook. They understand each unit in its entirety, all at once, but not the whole book. At this level, perhaps they are not eternally distinct; perhaps, like the explosions of flares arching from a star and falling back into it, drawn by gravity and other forces, an understanding at the level of units can collect into understanding of the entire concept of the book as the beings are drawn toward and achieve unity with the Idea. Or perhaps they remain held apart by the ontological level of observation.
Another complicated, but crucial, point emerges from the concept of beings drawn toward the unity of God. Namely, all of reality is a relationship, beginning with the mutual Awareness of the totalized Idea and its Expression. Each lesser being chooses to observe an aspect of the Multiverse (as already defined), and God expresses the Universe in response, so as to be observed in that aspect. That is, every moment is the experience of the being and its relationship with God, who is also experiencing every possible moment all at once. If a being is able to achieve perfect unity with God — meaning that it achieves the ability to experience the Universe in totality — then it becomes indistinguishable from, and therefore identifiable as, God.
Be that as it may, the layers of conceptual detail continue, and at some threshold, beings must become permanently independent because they cannot fully conceive of the whole. Within the units are beings who understand reality at the level of chapters. And then sections. And then paragraphs, followed by sentences, followed by phrases, followed by words. At the lowest level come the letters.
The metaphor stops with letters for two reasons. First, the next step would bring us into the creation of the text, its substance, and that represents a distinct aspect — the distinction between the message and the medium. Whether the message explains the medium or the reverse — that is, whether the medium exists in order to convey the message or the message appears as a consequence of the medium — is a question to which we’ll return down the road. For the moment, our emphasis is on understanding the notion of a text as a metaphor. Beings at the level of letters in the metaphor are not literally letters, so we can decide later whether and how the metaphor extends to ink and paper.
Second, taking care to stay within the frame of concepts, letters must be the base. They are the baseline of intention, of significance, of a non-incidental action to convey meaning. By whatever method the letters are made, they are the primary indicator of shapes being made deliberately with the intent to convey an idea.
Nonetheless, beings at the level of letters — human beings — can only glean meaning by stringing letters into words or maybe, if we strive and work together and build on each other’s discoveries, into phrases and sentences. In truth, we can’t even be sure which direction we’re supposed to read across the page, which makes it plausible for some to conclude that there is no such thing as coherent meaning.
With the metaphor drawn out in this way, we can think of angels and demons as beings at the level of words. Words allow no ambiguity as to whether meaning exists. A word is conceptual in its essence, unlike letters, which are arbitrarily drawn to construct a word. Yet, words can still be read across the page, rather than along the intended sentences, which is to say, they can convey a meaning contrary to God’s intent.
Evil ― which is the pursuit and construction of a meaning contrary to God’s nature ― enters reality in this way. While God is good, as is His Creation, independent wills can construct their own meaning using the substance He provides in ways that He did not intend.
At all levels of conception, the initial pattern of God replicates for all beings: idea, expression, and awareness. Each being is defined as the full set of its potential actions (meaning its potential observations of reality at its level) and its experience of choosing among them as an expression of unique will. In these terms, the greater the willfulness of reading across the page, the greater the sin.
Adam and Eve, as their Original Sin, realized that they could controvert God’s will, but that only set them adrift. In contrast, the serpent acts to convert God’s story into his own, as lunatic as it may be ― as lunatic as it must be by definition — so as to represent something separate from God and the Devil’s own. As the ancient story of the Fall also hints, it is not enough to be evil alone. To make a being’s distorted reality real, it must be shared in experience by others.
Put differently, others must aggregate their beings to the false reality because it is the observation that makes a moment real by means of the relationship between the Creator and the observer. The project of evil is to hijack the very essence of God — the beings who, as limited expressions of Him, make the Universe real in relationship with Him — to express a will that is not His.
Featured image by Vincent van Gogh on WikiArt.
Nine months ago, something in me and in reality shifted — imperceptibly, at first — and all I’ve been able to do has been to capture the growing flood of comprehension in scores of notes as each wave of thought pushes me deeper. Now I find myself feeling that I must begin to express the ideas, but with no notion of how to begin. Such ideas require years to organize and a book (at least one!) to articulate. So, perhaps I’ll strive to organize my thoughts in writing of a sort somewhere between my quickly scrawled notes and the perfected chapters I hope one day to craft.
The challenge is that, when I mention a flood of comprehension, I mean thoughts touching on, well, everything. They’re not all connected, and probably cannot be (at least by me), but thoughts and intuitions that have lingered in the air around my contemplation for decades like a damp mist have begun to take shape and to flow. Everything is making sense in a way it never has before, and I’m not sure I can convey that sense without sounding as if the exact opposite has happened to me — as if I’ve lost whatever coherence (and sanity) others might have credited to me in years past.
Where do I begin? Do I build up from subatomic particles, or down from abstract meaning? Or would it be better to trace history forward, or maybe backwards? Maybe moral principle would be a firm foundation on which to build. Or maybe intangibles like love and awe should first be painted in order to capture the imagination. Is theology primary, or physics, or history, or psychology, or literature, or… carpentry? Do I build my paragraphs around the scaffolding of thinkers and ideas with whom and with which readers may already be familiar, or do I first lay out before you that which I think is fresh and new?
I find I must abandon artifice and any plan to draw you along with me edgewise. We can only begin at the very beginning of it all and place our trust in the writings of St. Mark:
[Jesus] said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
Here it is: In the beginning was the Idea. Whether He reposed thus for unknowable eons or for the merest of moments is a nonsensical distinction, because there was no time. Time had no meaning until the Idea gave Expression to Himself, like a Father begetting a Son. Begotten, not made. Between this Father and this Son, the Expression was a complete and total reflection of the Idea all at once, as if speaking a single syllable — “Be” — communicated all that being could possibly mean.
So perfect and complete was this relationship that the Idea and the Expression would have been only the Idea, itself, but for their mutual Awareness of each other, their Paraclete. This Awareness… experience… or Spirit was also complete and total with the other two, but in such a way as to make all three facets of the Trinity distinct: an idea, an expression, and the relationship between them.
This fundamental concept, this primary identity, is God, who expresses Himself, in total, as Self-Observation, itself, and the experience of this mutual relationship is Existence. Thus emerges a second syllable (“Yahweh,” or “I Am”) and a secondary trinity: an idea, expression, and relationship forming, together, another unique identity on a more-detailed plane, and it is Being.
That which Being expresses is Creation, and their relationship is Reality — still total and complete, yet now with conceptual differences, such that “we all are.” This is the Universe.
Now the concept gains such abstract dimension that an image cannot capture it. (Although some artistic license produces the featured image of this post.) God expresses Himself as the Universe, and this mutual observation is Being, forming, as an identity, the Multiverse because it contains all but can be observed otherwise than as a whole. Just as the Spirit created space by which the Father and Son could be aware of each other and be different, so does this layered existence create space for God and the Universe to be aware of each other in varying depths of Being.
This framing contrasts with the understanding of the multiverse popularized in science and in fiction. In my model, the multiverse is not a higher plane on which many universes exist. Rather, the Universe contains every probability that the nature of God (the Idea) allows. What produces the appearance of multiple universes is that this one Universe can be observed from different angles.
Next, this choice of observation creates Will. One step down from the unity of God, free will creates different beings, each simultaneously following different sequences, and each defined, as an identity, according to the expression of its will. The idea of each entity is the probability of its observations, which is expressed in the action of observing one thing and not another, and the relationship between these two aspects, their mutual experience, is the entity’s consciousness of being.
Across the Multiverse every possibility exists, in a sense, just as the word “Be” contained every possible meaning of “being.” Likewise, every possible sequence of observations exists, but as a probability. Each is real, because observed by God, but it does not become what we tend to think of as “real” until it is observed by another, who by that observation establishes a unique relationship with God.
Revelation is what one hopes for when attending a Lenten parish mission at a Roman Catholic church. A mystical vision might be a bit much to expect, but something more on the order of an intellectual realization is within reach. Attending a talk or Mass for several nights in a row can renew and refresh, and sometimes it can knock into place a connection in one’s contemplation of meaning, life, and God.
Such was the case when Fr. Jordan Zajac — a Dominican from Providence College — gave his first mission as an ordained priest for the joint parish of St. Christopher and St. Theresa in Tiverton.
The connection involved two compelling images that Fr. Zajac raised separately during his homily on the first night. He did not present them as thematically connected, but sometimes that’s how revelation happens: While cogitating about a theme, a speaker’s mind naturally pulls together related points, images, analogies, and metaphors. Receiving that collage on the background of his or her own cogitations, a listener spots a more-explicit line between two nodes.
The first image caught my attention in particular as a former carpenter. Fr. Zajac juxtaposed three masons at work. The first sees himself as simply laying bricks; he has a job. The second sets his line of sight more broadly, recognizing that he is helping to complete a project that, if done well, will lead to future engagements of similar or greater size and intricacy; he has a career. The third mason, even while side-by-side with the others doing the same work, contemplates the significance that this project is to build a church and that the people who utilize it will perhaps gaze upon the very bricks he has laid as they pray; he has a vocation. (In witness of their influence, I recall an essay that the builders of the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., inspired in me.)
We are most fulfilled, Fr. Zajac was suggesting, when we find meaning in what we do.
Of course, his example is only illustrative; few people can manage to spend their lives laying bricks for churches. The rest of us must infuse meaning into whatever work we find ourselves doing. Even a mere job, for example, can be supportive of a family, which is an obvious source of meaning. A career extends that meaning to the benefit of an organization, as well as the community that it serves and the families whom it touches. A vocation incorporates all of this with the purpose of drawing people toward God.
The second revelatory image, raised some five or ten minutes later, drew attention to itself through the rhetorical device of humorous shock. Before it is consecrated, the species of the Eucharist are merely “some flat bread and,” Fr. Zajac said with a chuckle, “third-rate wine.” It takes the priest’s working of transubstantiation to make these mundane materials sacred.
The revelation to which this led me (and to which, admittedly, I may have been slow in coming) was that “sacred” and “meaningful” are synonymous in this context. Making our actions meaningful — properly being Christians — means sacramentalizing them. It means transubstantiating our lives, making Jesus truly present with us, in us, and through us. As the ritual of the Mass makes Jesus present in the Eucharist, the mason’s sense of vocation makes Christ present in his work.
Without the intention of being sectarian, the Catholic difference is significant, here. In the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is not just a symbolic breaking of bread; it really is the Body and Blood of our Lord. Just so, we should not merely imagine for our own benefit that our occupations and daily lives are meaningful. When we offer them up to Jesus, they really do connect us with his life and work. Our attitude moves from the symbolic offering of “I do my work in Jesus’ name” to the factual reality that “my work is his work, and he is doing his work through me.” The bumper-sticker question, “What would Jesus do?,” becomes, “What is Jesus doing through me?”
Because they approach such concepts from the point of view of the Church and theology, homilists and Christian writers going back to St. Paul — even Jesus — often drape them in frightening phrases like “dying to yourself.” On a subsequent evening, Fr. Zajac emphasized suffering. From the vantage point of the modern pew, however, this perspective has too much the off-putting sound of things you must do, when it really should be at the heart of Christianity’s attractiveness, as things you want.
That attraction can be — should be — more than a mature sense of delayed gratification based on faith that it will pay off. Even the great C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, found himself having to address this point in a section titled “Counting the Cost”:
We were once rather like vegetables, and once rather like fish; it was only at a later stage that we became like human babies. And if we had been conscious at those earlier stages, I daresay we should have been quite contented to stay as vegetables or fish—should not have wanted to be made into babies.
But why should it be a cost? If evangelists ever could, we can no longer assume that the desirability of being a saint is self evident. Moderns are sufficiently conscious to be “quite contented to stay as vegetables or fish” if austerity and a gamble on life after death are the rewards of sainthood. Nobody can say with certainty what will happen to me after I die, so why should I hurry to die to myself while still alive? As St. Augustine put it, “O Lord, make me pure and holy; but not yet.”
To be sure, it’s easiest to see the value of God’s grace while suffering, and such times are when we need to feel Jesus’ presence most. Similarly, the act of giving up material goods as a tangible sacrifice shows others (and ourselves, most of all) that we aren’t merely mouthing comforting platitudes.
Logic might therefore lead us to want to make ourselves suffer in order to make connecting with God easier, and many saints have done so. Yet, there are risks, both of vanity and of overestimating our capacity. Like Pharisees in the street, we can fall into pride at how eager we are to suffer, and like Peter pledging to die with Christ, we can stumble on a promise that we shouldn’t have made.
And then, if you are offering up your suffering as a sacrifice to Jesus, what does it mean when you eagerly accept assistance or a new medicine that alleviates your suffering? Is that reneging on your offering? Such questions do have answers that are not rationalizations. After all, Abraham was going to offer Isaac to God, and God provided him a lamb instead. Importantly, the lamb didn’t float down to him in a cloud, but Abraham spotted it caught in a bramble. A cynic might present that as a convenient accident and say the same of a well-timed medical miracle.
How, then, do we know whether we’re accepting hardship as a pleasing sacrifice to God or rejecting His gifts in the name of suffering that He does not want for us? A focus on suffering can limit the scope of God’s grace and create a paradox and an obstacle.
In that way, Christianity begins to feel like a religion for the suffering, despite a faint voice saying, “I suffered so you don’t have to.” Perhaps a better phrasing would be that we might suffer, but we might not have to. Indeed, perhaps distinguishing between suffering and not suffering misses the point. Their transgression brought upon Adam and Eve embarrassment and pain they had not noticed before, but that doesn’t mean their bodily experiences had changed. Seeing things this way we could consider that, in order to redeem their sin, Jesus made suffering not suffering on the cross.
Our lives can be sacred and meaningful while we are not suffering, and by the same rule, when we make our lives sacred and meaningful, we are also less apt to see suffering as suffering when it comes. In such a life, the sacrifice is not so much deprivation in material terms (although that can be a useful catalyst) as it is relinquishment in spiritual terms: “I give this work (that is good, just, and done with love) and my experience of it over to God, whatever its material effects on me.”
The mystery of the Eucharist is that it is both bread and the Body. It is spiritual food, but as far as we know, our bodies still dissolve it and derive nourishment from it. Just so, when you sacrifice your life for God, you get to keep your life. You will have to give up that which is not good in it, but when you observe your fins and scales in the shadow of the cross, you desire nothing so much as to do so.
The critical distinction for evangelization, then, is that transubstantiating your life into a vocation brings meaning and joy, not suffering. People should turn their jobs into careers and careers into vocations because these are stages of fulfillment… of transcendence. Who could want more than that?
An optimist can hope, as does Barton Swaim, future generations will recognize that the supposed experts of our times have been, “at crucial moments, idiots,” but such optimism would miss fundamental explanations and incentives.
The errors of those to whom our society looks for sage guidance have been broadly infectious, but for clarity of the point of this essay, let’s focus on the political. In 2016, Swaim suggests, “America’s best and brightest political adepts turned out to know very little about the elections they claim to understand.”
That observation isn’t quite accurate; the fact that the adepts didn’t know enough doesn’t mean they know “very little.” Just so, as skeptical as we should be about credentialism, credentials aren’t only fancy acronyms (or rather, they aren’t always only that). The experts are experts; it’s just that their expertise applies to a narrower range of possible realities than they (or we, as a reliant community) like to admit.
But if the experts know, on some level, that beyond the ornamented edges of their institutional degrees lies a vast unknown in which their runes have no power, we can see how susceptible they must be to a corrupt elite who promise to operate within the experts’ necessary frame, thereby maintaining the relevance of their expertise. Politicians who more or less follow the recognized formulas make their activities predictable for those whose credibility relies upon their predictions about politics.
A problem has increasingly arisen because the inertial force of the elites’ corruption — drawn toward the gravity of total control promised by progressivism — prevents them from keeping within the necessary boundaries. The more the People challenge the progressive project, the farther progressive politicians must move, to the point that they are pressing untenable falsehood, lest truth overwhelms them before they have the total control they desire.
Thus, for example, they began with the shared principle that even speakers of ideas we find detestable have a right to the public square on the grounds of social tolerance, intellectual humility, and cultural confidence. This moved to the argument that those speakers deserved public funding (if they were progressive) so they might be better heard, which was followed by the demand that other speakers, whose ideas were opposed to the formerly detestable, must be denied government support. Next, the formerly accepted, but newly detested, ideas (i.e., traditional norms) have been said to be so pernicious that they must be declared unspeakable — with, finally, those who persist in speaking them shamed, canceled, and prevented from maintaining an ordinary life. Because progressive ideas cannot bear scrutiny at the level of their assumptions, the ban is now extending not only to adherents of old, newly detested ideas, but also to others who continue to state the originally shared principle that deplorables have a right to the public square.
For their part, the experts have no choice but to keep pace, not only because they wish to be seen as elites, but also because delusion is a comfortable bubble in which to float through the unknown beyond their expertise. Just so, they must proclaim as indisputable the fantasy that pop-culture reality star Donald Trump was some sort of Russia-controlled fascist riding a wave of palpable and systemic white supremacy, because otherwise, the experts would have to recognize that their political friends are not serving the public in some way that they — both the intellectual and political elite — do not understand or cannot accept.
No matter how much damage it might cause, the symbiotic relationship between power and knowledge in every area — politics, foreign policy, climate change, social issues, monetary theory, and more — requires that the political elite must continually double-down on disproven policies while the experts explain why the evidence proves their necessity.
We needn’t follow this path very far before it becomes existential. Eventually, one must either accept reality or rebel against it. One must either accept the nature of reality’s creator and source of volition or insist that one’s own feelings are, in actuality, the creative force of the universe and its true source of volition.
To be sure, only a vanishingly small minority of those who lean toward rebellion against reality and God will put this much thought into it. Indeed, many will actively resist any temptation or urging to do so.
In an essay about fear of religion among secular intellectuals, Matt Nelson quotes “philosopher and atheist” Thomas Nagel as writing, “The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous.” Nelson speculates that the reason for this nervousness is that “people despise religion and are afraid it is true.”
As nicely simple as it is, this formulation fills the pronoun, “it,” to the bursting point. Which “it” is true? Perhaps the fear derives from the need to answer that very question, because ultimately, again, one must either accept external rules — which may impose restrictions and which others may genuinely better understand — or accept the responsibility of being the source of rules.
Turning to New Age spirituality, Nelson cites C.S. Lewis’s description of “Life Force philosophy,” which (Lewis wrote) “gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences”:
When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children.
Put more concretely, the function of this Life Force concept is to provide a sense of connection when one wants to feel a part of something grand and good, but to painlessly and temporarily sever that connection when one wishes to do something that would harm the sparkling universal flow of life if we truly were connected. It is as if a husband or wife who values the long-term security and cultural approbation of marriage believes that removing his or her wedding band for an evening prevents an adulterous fling from harming the relationship.
As materialist New Age spirituality is to theology, so a credentialist Belief in Science is to public policy. Experts and politicians want neither to acknowledge their limits nor to take responsibility when their overextension does not work as they promised. When predictions are being made and new restrictions imposed on the public, progressive politicians provide a shape for their preferred solutions, and experts find it fulfilling to think that their expertise can have historic significance in the wellbeing of humankind. When their scheme fails and unanticipated consequences emerge, the experts insist that they lacked sufficient data, and the politicians claim their political opposition imposed too much restraint.
So, social engineers determine to dismantle more of the cultural machine, and progressive economists call for bigger, more-risky stimulus. The ideologues’ cloud of dismissal moves its shadow over truths that are even more obvious to the average person, and citizens who are even more clearly moderate face the partisans’ mandate to submit or be banned.
On it will go until a sufficient mass of the public imposes a return to sanity or reality asserts itself through irrefutable ruin. In the course of either corrective process, however, the politicians will merely shift their tones, and the experts will behave as if it was their data, rather than their principles, that were corrupt.
The likelihood that any of them will in any sense be held to account for their lunacy is vanishingly small. The best we can hope for — and an objective toward which we who have eyes to see should begin working now — is that they will be displaced by a new generation of experts who are willing to admit the limits of their expertise.
As our present era progresses toward the elevation of “gaslighting” to status as the term of the century, the image of Jesus in Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee has repeatedly emerged from the disorder in my mind. The work — stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 — depicts a scene that appears in the gospels of Matthew and Mark:
… as evening drew on, he said to them, “Let us cross to the other side.” Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?” (Mark 4:35-41)
Homilies about this passage tend to put us in the position of the apostles, with the message that we should trust in the power of Jesus during the storms of our lives. While this advice is of perennial application, our times may make it more relevant to put ourselves in the position of Jesus, himself, as our model.
After all, why shouldn’t he be calm? He’s the Son of God, and his time was not yet come during this particular voyage. “Why are you terrified,” he asks the apostles. “Do you not yet have faith?” He might well have asked, “Do you not yet know what world you live in?”
A traveler might sleep on an airplane despite traveling at high speeds at a fatal altitude, because he knows the world is such that airplanes can fly. A patient can sleep before a routine surgery because she knows her civilization has made such practices as safe as can be. Weightlifters revel in their pain because they know it foretells increased strength, and students mightn’t hesitate to throw themselves into the agony of confusion because at the other end lies confident knowledge.
Even more, the believing Christian should know that he or she lives in the world of God’s covenant, in which even death itself is not a terror. This point comes home with another attempted temptation of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Appeals to his pride in the desert at the beginning of his ministry had not worked, but now the whispers appeal to doubt, and this time, Jesus rebukes his apostles for sleeping:
When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:37)
The gospels do not say, but perhaps Jesus remembered his own preaching: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both the soul and the body” (Matthew 10:28) That is the field on which our battle takes place, and the proof of our victory is our ability to remember what world we live in!
This imperative filters down to our relationship with truth. In a timely essay titled, “On the First Duty of Intelligent People,” Dr. Tod Worner (an internal medicine physician) gives the explanation of his title by means of timeless quotations:
- “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” — George Orwell
- “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.” — Charles Péguy
- “What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. … We are on the road to producing … men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” — G.K. Chesterton
- “Live not by lies.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” —William F. Buckley
Two modes of thought — strategies of combat — are available in the battle of ideas:
- You must be wrong because I am right.
- I will strive to understand what you are saying as if it might be true so as to fairly assess who is right and who is wrong.
Note that both are distinct from the acknowledgement of objective facts encouraged in the great quotations above.
Gaslighting has become such a powerful force in the twenty-first century because its practitioners present themselves as if they adhere to the second approach, but they are adherents of the first. So persistent are they that their “I am right” engulfs the obvious reality that sits between the disputants. That is the trap.
Yet, we must always question ourselves, so as to balance between the temptation toward doubt (wherein we refuse to acknowledge that truth exists) and the temptation toward arrogance (wherein we refuse to acknowledge that truth exists outside of ourselves). And the only sure way to keep that balance is to root ourselves in the single fundamental truth. As Worner quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ … that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”
Remembering what world we live in means being capable of acknowledging error without risking the loss of Truth. The deceiver requires that the facts be seen in the way that points toward an end that he or she desires for some other reason; if the person is a self-deceiver, he or she will not even recognize that this other reason is separate from the facts. The believer strives to understand the facts in order to improve his or her relationship with Truth, which he or she recognizes to ultimately transcend material facts. The facts don’t have to be made to conform with reality, because they implicitly emit from it. That transcendent reality is the world we live in, and remembering it means having the courage to face the storm that plainly speaking the truth can raise in turbulent times because we are not truly at risk of perishing — at least in the sense that matters.
Resigning from her post at the pinnacle of the commentary world at the New York Times with a magnificent document of huge cultural significance, Bari Weiss became a hero of the movement to restore classically liberal ideals like freedom of speech, mutual respect of those with differing opinions, and trust in a marketplace of ideas. She picked up this theme in a recent essay titled, “The Great Unraveling,” warning that the loss of that spirit of freedom is beginning to manifest itself in physical reality.
Her thinking on this matter found form in a dinner conversation with Catholic intellectual Robert George, who read to her a prose poem by Heinrich Heine that warned about the consequences as the German spirit shook off the “subduing talisman” of Christianity a century before Hitler’s rise.
Notable, given the theme of Weiss’s essay, is a seemingly unnecessary interjection into her narrative:
Robby is among the most important Catholic intellectuals of our era. He is a Princeton professor, a lover of great wine, a wonderful writer, a total gentleman, and one of the most articulate opponents of gay marriage in the country.
Now is a good time to say that as soon as the pandemic ends I plan to invite all of my friends to an inappropriately large wedding where I will stand under a chuppah and marry a woman (Nellie Bowles, the love of my life). I am profoundly grateful that we have that right. And I’m grateful for all of those, including my friend Andrew Sullivan, who waged the battle to win it.
Robby might not want to go to a gay wedding. But I love that at least for now I still live in an America where he and I can sit together, over good food on a dark night in the middle of a pandemic and talk about what is broken and how we might join together to fix it. That act is the whole point of the American experiment.
Obviously, this detail is relevant by way of showing how Weiss and Robby George can converse in a friendly way despite dramatic differences on one of the most profound areas of difference in our times, but how very interesting that she would feel the need to leaven her cross-ideological sympathy with a nod of gratitude to her ideological allies and a genuflection in the direction of “the battle to win” same-sex marriage.
Stylistically, I use the phrase “how very interesting” because I’m currently caught up in the voice of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, another German production that can be understood to have predicted the rise of Naziism by judging the German character. Intellectually, I emphasize the paragraph’s interestingness because it seems to me that the “battle” she lauds was an unveiling of and test case for the trends in the American character that she is beginning to lament.
The ingredients were all there. Emotional manipulation. Evidence of academia’s proselytization among the cultural elites. A news media refusing to treat the traditional side as if it had any validity worthy of consideration. Corporations leveraging their power to promote an ideological side. Courts rewriting the definition of words as a means of changing the law, thus signaling to a large portion of the country that we are not permitted to self-govern when our cultural betters have made up their minds.
This point sharpens to a supremely relevant two-word coinage from Sullivan’s book, Virtually Normal (my analysis of which is actually mentioned on the book’s Wikipedia page), wherein Weiss’s friend wrote:
Some might argue that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman; and it is difficult to argue with a definition. But if marriage is articulated beyond this circular fiat, then the argument for its exclusivity to one man and one woman disappears. (Emphasis added.)
As I explained in 2010, “my proximate concern was that this reasoning justifies any change to marriage, and its method any change to anything.” (Emphasis added.)
And so it has gone. We should applaud both Bari Weiss and Robert George for their willingness — their desire, even — to pursue interactions with those who harbor profound disagreements. Still, we should also be honest about their demonstrated fealty to the principles they ostensibly share. When it comes to a privilege for which she is grateful, Weiss does not bend to the beliefs and rights of her ideological opponents. Rather, she waves a flag for the battle that subjugated them.
In short, she has a seat of her own on the train that is plowing through our culture and flattening the subduing talisman of our classically liberal heritage like a penny on the tracks. She may feel kinship with the “strange” people “who see clearly that the fight of the moment, the fight that allows for us to have those disagreements in the first place, is the fight for liberalism,” but when it comes to her issue, disagreements aren’t actually permitted — at least not to the extent of allowing them to produce a policy that she does not like. In such cases, the opposition’s beliefs are pounded into a circular fiat to be rolled away.
Weiss may wish to lock away the weapons by which her battle was won before others take them too far, but the great unraveling she observes is evidence that she cannot. Her fellow “strange” people certainly cannot secure the armory unless they acknowledge the role that they have played and the damage they have done.
That damage is massive, and it is hydra-headed. Even as the heads of the media, the courts, and other cultural and political forces have gone on gnawing our discourse, civil rights, and civic institutions away, another head tears at an institution that would be central to stopping the decay: the family. To wit:
Fewer U.S. adults now than in past years believe it is “very important” for couples who have children together to be married. Currently, 29% say it is very important that such a couple legally marry, down from 38% who held this view in 2013 and 49% in 2006.
If she were to ask, Mr. George would no doubt tell Ms. Weiss that this is no surprise to him. After all, to achieve her desired goal, the cultural powerhouses and the courts changed the definition of marriage such that the institution is not ultimately about children, but about adults, and if the adults feel like they are committed to each other, then why do they need some old-fashioned ceremony? Moreover, if it is all about them, why should they make it more difficult to change their minds in the future?
Weiss closes her essay with the prediction that the “credentialed journalist[s] and liberal public intellectual[s]” who are cheering on the development of Big Tech censorship “will look like fools much faster than they realize.” Perhaps we can hope her previously demonstrated courage is substantial enough that she can honestly explore the contributing role of developments for which she, herself, cheers. If she has such courage, perhaps she can blaze a path for the acknowledgment of error that would be essential to find a way back toward re-raveling.
Featured image by Wendy Winarno on Unsplash.com.
Three items that jostled near each other in the continual stream of my information input seemed fated to join together. The first was a video ad that blurted out unbidden from an article that I was trying to read, with words pretty close to: “Don’t give me what I ask for. I’m a kid.” Clicking the mute button for the browser tab cut off the sound, but as the video rolled on silently, I saw that the advertisement was for a college savings fund.
A separate item with an obvious connection was mention of a transgender activist who has come to the logical (albeit monstrous) conclusion that doctors ought to medicate all children in order to block puberty until they are old enough to consent to sex-change operations, if they decide that’s the way they want to go.
Thus, we come across yet another example of a simple, recurring principle. Reasonable, moral people will conclude that the child in the college savings commercial was correct: It is irresponsible to trust children to make life-changing decisions based on their immediate feelings and desires. From there, however, we must make a binary choice that will lead us toward irreconcilable realities.
Either children’s inability to consent to a sex change before their bodies have made the reality manifest means we move back toward the science-based understanding that human bodies are male or female and we treat conflicting feelings as disorders to address… or it means we use science to give people the option to deny biological reality, even to the point of freezing their development until they can make the decision.
When our choices are binary and existential, they tend toward logical inevitability. The initial choice is based on a first principle that follows through all subsequent choices. A particular decision may lead to resting points at which it is possible to stop short of logical inevitability, but these will be dependent upon temporary barriers of emotion or circumstances that will require something other than logical arguments to maintain.
Whether the logical consequences of a decision are, in fact, inevitable or are only apt to create a sort of momentum, it behooves us to make decisions with a full understanding of their implications. This brings us to a third item in my recent information stream.
A group of three men in California has now produced a second child utilizing donated embryos and surrogate mothers, with the three men all listed as parents on the birth certificates. The semantics are helpful to the theme of this essay. If we’re dealing with certificates, the natural question is: What are we certifying?
Certainly, it can’t be the birth, which as a plain matter of fact involves sperm from a man and an egg from a female. If that event were the essence of the certification, it could maybe extend to another woman who carried the child, but a birth certificate conveys information about the child, as a record of how that child came to exist.
What the three men — tellingly and inaccurately referred to as a “polyamorous couple” in the article — are certifying is something much more like ownership. It is not a birth certificate, but a title of parenthood, like the title to a car. You can dislike this fact for emotional reasons (and if I were still using Twitter, the social media publisher would likely ban Dust in the Light again for suggesting it), but it is a straightforward and honest statement of reality. Acknowledged or not, it comes with an internal logic, and if widely accepted, that logic will pull toward social consequences.
If our society were progressing in a reasonable and humane way, we would recognize such problems and account for them, but radicals justifiably fear we would account for them by not going down the progressive path in the first place. The claim of the movement may be that it is searching for equality and fairness, and many of its advocates surely see that as their motivation, emotionally, but if that were truly the case, intended effects would be measured against (possibly) unintended effects.
Establishing the principle that birth is more about the parents than the child will have implications for children, just as universally blocking puberty would have implications for a generation, as does refusal to privilege biological reality. As does, to be sure, the tolerance that treats radical cultural experimentation as a respectable opinion.
In early September, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin resumed his regular column in the diocese’s newspaper, Rhode Island Catholic, with an essay titled in accord with his characteristic humor, “Okay, God, You Can Stop Now.” In brief, his point was that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught some important spiritual lessons, and now that we’ve learned them, God can safely set things aright.
The lessons Bishop Tobin lists are these:
- “We’re not completely in control of our lives and fortunes.”
- “Our behavior affects others. … And what’s true on a physical level is equally true in the spiritual realm. … Our righteous conduct and good example encourages others, but our sin contaminates society and brings us all down.”
- We “need to keep our priorities in order. … Every day we should treasure the blessings the Lord has given us as if they’ll disappear tomorrow, because maybe they will.”
As much as we might wish the bishop’s literary device were true, however, we’re nowhere near done learning the lessons that our current predicament can teach.
Consider the story of Canadian nonagenarian Nancy Russell. Already struggling with the newly restrictive lifestyle of her nursing home, Russell did not want to go through another full lockdown. So, she sought and received a medically assisted suicide.
Wesley Smith notes a deep perversity to the story: “for her death, she could be surrounded by friends and family! … So companionship to be made dead but not to remain alive.” Indeed, by choosing death, Mrs. Russell gained permission to leave her nursing home as it went into full lockdown and spend eight days with her family before they all gathered around her bed to sing her to death.
A deeper illness than the coronavirus has settled upon our civilization. We are so frightened of death that we’ve consented to turn over our freedom and much of the substance of our days in order to avoid a small elevation of risk. Yet, we’re so callous about life that we consider death preferable to inconvenience.
In our response to COVID-19, we’ve laid entire industries to waste and cost countless people their livelihoods. We’ve restricted religious services and social activities. We’ve cut children off from their friends and elderly spouses off from their dying soulmates. But can we muster a willingness to expend the resources and accept the inconveniences of making life worth living?
This question reflects not only on the limited circumstances of our global panic. Did we have a willingness to sacrifice for others before the pandemic, and will we have it after? Bishop Tobin’s point is well taken, that we should treasure our blessings in the moment, because they may not be there in the next. Just so, we should be willing to make sacrifices as if we are addressing a temporary crisis even when we are not aware that one exists.
That doesn’t mean living always in panic or eschewing long-term planning and a measure of comfort. It does mean a more-reasonable balance — accepting a little more risk in crisis and a little less complacency during times of ease.
Also as the bishop says, our behavior and decisions affect each other. In the acquiescence to the fear of some, our government has imposed a strict regimen on all of us based not on actual illness, but merely on positive tests. Our ability to tell, with modest accuracy, whether somebody has the virus in his or her body has shifted the standard from being sick with the disease to simply having the virus.
Thus, a positive test can have devastating effects on a family, which influences the decisions of its members. People who might make one decision based on the risk of actually getting sick are having to make more-restrictive decisions based on the risk of testing positive. With such a test in the household, children can no longer go to school and parents can no longer go to work, which ripples to other families to the extent our coworkers and clients truly require our presence.
Yes, our behavior affects others, but we can’t apply this principle selectively. One person’s reckless behavior may bring harm to another. But that other’s timorous excess can spread harm, as well. The request for sacrifice of security so as to minimize despair has as just a claim as the request for sacrifice of liberty so as to minimize illness.
From the story of Nancy Russell, we should learn that the scale shifts if on one side we place despair unto medically assisted suicide while on the other side we place a mere positive result from a nose swab.