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In a case of intellectual serendipity, I happen to be listening to an audiobook version of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Taleb, during this peculiar election season. More acutely, just the other day, I heard his compliment of the United States as a place where it’s still acceptable to take risks:
My colleague Mark Spitznagle understood that we humans have a mental hang-up about failures. “You need to love to lose,” was his motto. In fact, the reason I felt immediately at home in America is precisely because American culture encourages the process of failure, unlike the cultures of Europe and Asia, where failure is met with stigma and embarrassment.
An apparent deterioration of this American trait is among the illnesses that have coincided with the proliferation of social media. “Just do your best,” “better to have tried and failed than to have done nothing,” even “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” — all such sentiments are more difficult to maintain when petty, envious people might capture a moment of weakness or failure and replay it without mercy for your entire life. When it comes to anything cultural, political, or simply visible, some there will be who take to social media gleefully at your every misstep.
Even without antagonists, though, it’s all too easy to imagine some future potential employer or love interest bringing up for explanation some mark that you missed years or decades earlier. So… no risks of ideas, words or actions. It’s safer to adhere to the common fashion (whatever it is), even as it thrashes wildly around. At least then a great many people will be working to excuse your shared past errors.
But we should take a higher perspective than our curated media personas, and we should be suspicious of people who want temporary failure to be taken as another’s endemic state. Indeed, there’s something evil about wanting failure to be somebody else’s defining feature.
What motivates such people?
In episode 2 of Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, then-Father Barron meditates on the Beatitudes. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”! In summary, Barron suggests that giving up worldly needs and satisfying them with God — aligning one’s life with His plans — fills one up, leaving one needless. Giving up a need for approval makes one free to love. A person who does not need anything from the other cannot have the most-essential thing taken from him or her, so he or she has no need for hatred, envy, or insecurity, because the only thing that ultimately matters is fully secure. That person is blessed.
Conversely, it may be an error to think of our worldly antagonists as motivated by hatred. Maybe hatred is the surface expression, and a useful shorthand to describe their demeanor, but behind it is a neediness and insecurity — cursedness.
This theme emerges in episode 3 of Catholicism, wherein Bishop Barron addresses the problem of evil. Evil, he says, is not an active force of opposition, but a deprivation. It is the absence of goodness and love. Just so, hatred does not exist as a thing in itself, but either as a disordered love (loving that which should not be loved) or an expression of deprivation of something that one needs.
The hater senses that something important is missing, so he or she looks for a scapegoat upon whom to place the blame. Hating the bad is a manifestation either of an inability to truly love the good or an insecurity about the good, as if it can be taken away. And anything that actually can be taken away is not a suitable resting place for our security.
In the final conclusion, the only suitable security is God. If you have love of Him, then nothing else can harm you. Evil has no holding point, because every possible outcome or circumstance — pleasure, pain, health, illness — is a blessing in its way.
Bishop Barron says that God creates the universe not by conflict, as banging against some substance that was originally formed in a different way (as a different thing). Rather, he coaxes reality, guiding it toward His purpose. Consequently, because no outcomes or circumstances are deformities to be hammered out of the mold, they are instead stages toward God’s intention; thus they are good.
So, too, with risk and loss. We should always be striving, and to insist that we should never fail is not only to prove ignorance of the process of learning and improvement, but also to miss the point of what we should be striving toward.
Existentially, we should be striving toward God, but this existential perspective should filter down into practical life and professional endeavors, even for those who struggle with faith. Ultimately, we should be striving to fulfill God’s will, but at a closer level (one that we are better able to discern), we should be striving to build and to improve the world.
If such is our heart’s desire, then the effort alone is success, and we should welcome humbling failures as opportunities to improve ourselves. Inasmuch as America is a shining city upon a hill, this is its source of righteousness — not that it is always successful or that it was born sinless from the forehead of civilization, but Americans strive and are not afraid to fail, because we have a higher purpose in mind.
“Love is love” is one of those wonderful-sounding slogans that people ought to be able to dismiss as a serious idea almost immediately upon hearing it. It’s a good t-shirt, but ridiculous analysis and foolish policy.
Do you love your spouse as you love your friends? Do you love your child as you love your parents? For that matter, do you love your mother as you love your father? Some forms of love can be weighed against others, as comparing your children against your friends, and others can’t, or shouldn’t be, as comparing one child against another or your mother against your father. But love is not simply love.
That is why Greek philosophers drew love into multiple categories very early in the formation of our culture. Playful love, or ludus, must be distinct from pragma, or the mature, life-long love that develops over decades of marriage. Loving one’s self, philautia, cannot be the same as agape, which is a selfless love for all. (Indeed, the former is not a unitary whole, inasmuch as it involves both narcissism and the much-healthier self-compassion.) And abiding love for a friend, philia, is distinct from passion for a lover, eros.
Arguably, this taxonomy is not complete. Where, for example, does love in the form of obligation (as for our parents) become distinct from love in the form of responsibility (as for our children)? What about the difference between love of our home and love of our homeland?
What the slogan, “Love is love,” means to insist is that the sort of love that characterizes marriage does not depend on the sexes of those involved. In the lifecycle of marriage, a man can experience ludus turning into eros, which then develops into philia and pragma with a woman, ideally with healthy development of philautia as the reward for feeling loved and needed. If instead that man follows the same process with another man, then the slogan proclaims them to be the same sort of love.
That is too limited, though, when it comes to what marriage is. Traditional marriage also fosters agape, and we must at least entertain the possibility of difference when the relationship does not mix the two sexes of our species; being bound in love with a person of the other sex surely assists sympathy with that half of humanity.
Practical distinctions also exist between men and women, most especially that they jointly can have children. Thus, marital eros places one face to face with agape as intimacy generates children and places the couple in the continuum of humanity.
To be sure, same-sex couples can adopt or come to raise children by some other means, but that is a separable decision from their coupling. At the heart of the matter is whether our society should — indeed, should be permitted to — acknowledge a distinction of a type of intimacy and of love that creates children by its very nature.
But isn’t all of this just an over-intellectualized rehashing of a debate that’s already been lost in the public square? Maybe, but it’s important for us to remind ourselves regularly so, as the consequences emerge, society won’t be puzzled as to the reason.
Consequences, there will be. For example, a recent analysis of research found that fathers’ involvement with their children tends to increase their desire to be involved, and then this trend builds on itself from one generation to the next. Other studies repeatedly confirm the importance of fathers, which can be distinguished from the importance of mothers, especially biological fathers.
In messy life, such families are not universally possible, and compassion requires us to mitigate the harm to everybody involved (rather than amplify it through stigma). Still, how could it not have consequences when a society refuses even to recognize the ideal circumstance as something unique? If procreation is not intrinsic to marriage, then fathers have less encouragement to develop healthy families for their children when having them was not a deliberate choice.
The fundamental error of “Love is love” — indeed, the fundamental error of the juvenile ideology that would erase all distinctions — is the insistence that unless all items in a broad category are the same, then some are devalued. This error harms all of us, not only by taking away the tools by which we encourage each other toward better decisions, but even by depriving us of the ability to be enriched by differences.
If all love is simply love, then ideas like friendship and parenthood are either corrupted by lingering questions about eros or they cannot involve “love.” As much as our unconscious social heritage may make such statements seem bizarre to us now, a generation or two of “Love is love” could make them seem unremarkable and even desirable. When such shifts produce their inevitable harm, we’ll need a record of dissent that can help future generations rediscover the new old truths that were nearly lost in the social revolution.
Increasingly, we’re being called upon to raise our fists as a show of solidarity. This is yet another way in which the zeitgeist of our times is demanding that we affirm a falsehood. Several falsehoods, actually.
The most direct is the notion that Western civilization is founded on and persistent in systemic racism. It is not. But a more subtle and more profound falsehood brings us to the deeper battles of humanity, on the plane of inner demons and better angels.
Namely, clenched fists are not a sign of solidarity, at least not the type of solidarity modern advocates claim to be promoting. In terms of social justice, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church provides a strong definition, quoting from Pope Pius XII as follows:
An error, “today abundantly widespread, is disregard for the law of human solidarity and charity, dictated and imposed both by our common origin and by the equality in rational nature of all men, whatever nation they belong to.”
The text goes on:
Solidarity… presupposes the effort for a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts are more readily settled by negotiation.
Perhaps universally across humanity, a clenched fist is the opposite. It’s a sign of inner tension and an outward aggression. The idea modern radicals are striving to infuse into social justice and solidarity is older, arguably reactionary: solidarity with one group in opposition to another. That is the meaning of a closed fist.
Pick up any self-improvement book about communication strategies, and you’ll likely find sections about presenting with an open posture. They’ll encourage an open stance and open hands. That is a posture of solidarity. “I am open to what you have to say. I am interested in you, as a human being.”
When a mob of young adults surrounded and berated an outside diner in Washington, D.C., in August, they were not asking her to show her openness to all humanity. They were demanding that she take their side against another. Moreover, they have drawn a hard line by which solidarity with them means repudiation of the Other. Thus, those promoting so-called “anti-racism” hold that it is insufficient not to be racist; one must actively oppose those on whom they affix the patch of “racist.”
Providing this open check to solidarity hucksters is the price of being recognized as a human being. Just so did a Black Lives Matter recently refuse to speak with John DePetro, saying that he was the only journalist who had refused to pay that price.
Lindsay Iadeluca, of WJAR, channel 10, recently wrote on Twitter that, “Social justice isn’t a personal view. It’s human decency.” Such a statement from a journalist might be defensible under the Catechism’s definition of social justice. Under the activists’ oppositional, aggressive definition of “solidarity,” it is not.
What Iadeluca (or the trap that caught her) has done is to smuggle one definition of a word into a principle of behavior that is appropriate to a different definition. Ostensibly neutral reporters can side with social justice when it means “the good of all humanity,” but changing the meaning to “support for this ideological group against another” rewrites the social agreement under which journalists operate.
Writer Andrew Sullivan encountered an intellectual’s version of this recently. He was forced out of New York magazine because it became suddenly controversial that he had published an extract from the book The Bell Curve alongside “13 often stinging critiques” for a 1994 issue of the New Republic. That is, he published a baker’s dozen of essays about a controversial book and provided readers with a little bit of context from the book itself. He now writes:
The fact I had not recanted that decision did not, mind you, prevent TIME, the Atlantic, Newsweek, the NYT and New York magazine from publishing me in the following years. But suddenly, a decision I made a quarter of a century ago required my being canceled.
Again, the terms of a social agreement were changed under Sullivan’s feet. Presenting information alongside responses to it was just expected of an intellectual magazine back then, and acknowledging that some question of science is still open when it is, in fact, open was expected of intellectuals. Now those acts are, as a New York Times reporter editorializing about Sullivan insists, indefensible.
Our society has been on this path for a long while, even if the precipitous slope is a more-recent development. Perhaps the most intellectually striking sentence Andrew Sullivan has ever written was in his 1995 book, Virtually Normal, making the case for same-sex marriage.
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.
The institution of marriage — and the laws that evolved around it — were premised on the definition that it was a relationship involving members of the opposite sex. But, suggested Sullivan, if we just change that definition, then the meaning, the institution, and the laws will all change around it. Well… of course.
Unfortunately, rationalizing that route to social change has consequences, because one can’t simply say, “as far as I want and no farther.” Once we accepted that an intellectual time machine could go back in history and change words and, thereby, rules, we opened the way for ideologues to mass produce such vehicles.
Sex distinction was written out of “marriage” (with number distinctions now following). The concept of a unified humanity, understanding of differences, is now being written out of “social justice.” And openness is being written out of “solidarity.”
If these things are done as, and understood to be part of, the evolution of humanity (whether in a better or worse direction), then we recognize them as results of change. A debate has been conducted and a conclusion reached. We move forward with a new understanding of the terms. But if definition and context are simply rewritten, then one is always at fault for believing differently than others might believe in the future because the definition and context behind one’s actions is simply erased.
No better emblem for the destination of this process could be found than a closed fist.
Featured image: Black Lives Matter activists demand conformity at an outdoor restaurant in Washington, D.C., on August 25, 2020.
Disagreement between those who emphasize science and those who emphasize religion tends to be reducible to a matter of ignoring boundaries. This can be direct, as when a religious person holds that a scientific finding cannot be true because it contradicts his or her faith, or indirect, as when a secularist implies that science is providing meaning or moral judgment.
One can see the indirect version — crossing boundaries by assumption — when scientists fail to include the possibility that a religious belief is correct while attempting to explain their findings. Whether they realize it or not, they have given to science the realm of discerning what is and left to religion the realm of what we want to believe. As we see in public education, the first principle is to leave God out of it and focus, instead, on human beliefs about Him when it can’t be avoided. This dictum crosses science’s boundary to smuggle in the belief that God can’t be real.
In a recent UPI article, Brooks Hays reports on a paper by psychology professor Adam Green. The fact that Green works at Georgetown University, an ostensibly Catholic college, illustrates how deeply ingrained is the faulty notion that real science is not permitted to acknowledge the possibility of God as an actually existent Being.
Green and his team found that people with a strong capacity for “implicit pattern learning” — meaning that they subconsciously pick up on patterns — were disproportionately religious, especially those who are very religious and believe that God “intervenes to establish order in the universe,” in Hays’s language. Without knowing that a pattern existed or being told that their task was to find patterns, these folks picked up on them.
Given increasing doubts about the replicability of social science experiments, put aside the question of whether Green’s findings are accurate. (Although they intuitively make sense.) Of interest, here, is the researchers’ conclusion:
“This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods,” said Green, who also serves as the director of the Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition. “Our hypothesis is that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power.”
If one takes away the defensiveness about possibly generating evidence of God’s existence, one can see that the conclusion isn’t strictly in line with the findings. It is the conclusion to which one would come when the first priority is to find an explanation that doesn’t possibly imply that religious people are correctly identifying something true in reality. Green’s experiment didn’t find that religious people were more likely to believe there was a pattern. Rather, it found that they were more likely to spot a pattern that did exist.
Why wouldn’t the conclusion be that his religious subjects were more adept at spotting an actual divine pattern in the universe? They weren’t more likely to want to see a pattern, and they weren’t more likely to think they’d identified a pattern when there wasn’t one. They subconsciously understood what the pattern was in the experiment. That doesn’t prove that their powers of discernment must extend to the broad complexities of the universe, but it’s possible.
If the study had found that people good at implicit pattern learning were disproportionately successful stock traders, our first hypothesis wouldn’t be that they “ascribe” patterns to the market’s animal spirits. It would be that they’re good at seeing patterns, which gives them an all-important edge in picking and choosing investments at split-second speeds.
Indeed, in that case, investment firms might start hiring Green to test their job applicants!
This isn’t to say that we should use the pattern test to find people who can tell us what to believe about the universe. But if the role of science is to discern and describe what is, it will be seriously handicapped to the extent its practitioners refuse to acknowledge that people’s beliefs can be true… even if they derive from some other source than a rational experiment.
Featured image: A serendipitous cloud formation captured by Carl Tidy.
The pop-cultural interpretation of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is that it is an encouragement to diverge from the herd — to discern the path that others have eschewed and choose that one.
A professor of literature will teach, or at least would have taught some twenty years ago, that the poem is actually ambiguous. The narrator never states which path he took, or even whether he intended to take “the one less traveled by.” He says that he will “be telling this with a sigh,” not now, but in the distant future, without detailing what kind of a sigh he means or what difference was made. The reader can’t really say whether the narrator has already confirmed that he took the less-traveled road and that it made a difference or rather is still predicting what will prove to have been the case. A different kind of society than ours might very well read this poem as a lamentation over inadvisable rebellion.
Perhaps what captures the imagination in “The Road Not Taken” is not the decision, but the affirmation that the decision matters. This wasn’t the only choice the narrator had to make. “Way leads on to way”; one choice follows the previous. In our more-or-less comfortable half-century, we hunger for the sense that it makes a difference whether we go this way or that, stand up or sit down, live or die.
For this reason, a tweet caught my eye a few weeks back from blogger, writer, and Roman Catholic priest Father Dwight Longenecker announcing the release of his latest book, Immortal Combat. The title and the cover both scream that what we do (what we decide) does, in fact, matter.
Fr. Longenecker describes the world that Jesus entered and the way he acted as the archetypal “secret son” — the unknown savior who sneaks past the enemy unseen until it is too late. He writes of the historical Gehenna, where the cult of Moloch would slide children into their idol’s mouth to the fire within as a sacrifice. With the death and resurrection of Jesus, it was as if the Father had sent in a child whom the flames could not harm, and who could ensure that no child need ever burn again.
“The torture, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus broke open the floodgates of a new power of life and love in the world” (p. 121). The modern Western ear has heard such phrases again and again, to the point that they seem clichés of poetic dogma. What does that mean? How does it work? Jesus walked the Earth two thousand years ago. If he defeated Satan, then what are we still doing wandering around in our Original Sin?
We are not, Fr. Longenecker assures us, engaged in a mop-up operation, simply cleaning up the mess of the battle after it has ended. Nor are we simply biding time until He comes again. And we’re certainly not living in the Eden of Christ’s victory. Rather, “every action of self-sacrifice — no matter how secret and small — helps to bring alive in every moment and hammer home the eternal victory of the Crucified” (p. 125).
Expanding beyond the argument of Immortal Combat, this line of thought recalls the notions of paganism discussed in this space last week. The pagan world was one of battling tribes under competing gods. In our “post-Christian” world, that sense of society is returning, only our paganism has gotten more abstract.
The battle between tribes once was a battle between their gods. Whoever won a battle, that army’s gods were said to be with them. In humanity’s early awareness of Yahweh, the God called “I am” was simply the greatest god. Pharaoh obstinately refused to heed Moses as long as his magicians were able to replicate Yahweh’s miracles. Only when Aaron and Moses brought forth gnats from the dust did the magicians credit the unique power of God, and even then pharaoh needed more evidence.
This sort of divine battle faded with the concept that there is only one God, and our task is to discern His will. The battle then became a question of who was right. Bloody as those disputes have been, the change is still an improvement, because at least everybody is focused on the same divine person, presumably with an agreed-upon text as a guide.
But now, relativism has brought the pagan divergence back in a worse way. Instead of all having different gods, we suddenly find ourselves in different realities. The battle isn’t to defeat the others’ God; it’s to obliterate their entire understanding of the meaning of the universe. It is no longer “your god is defeated”; it’s “God is dead.”
If the will and power of the gods was once known by who won in battle, the warriors were, in a sense, acting as the bodies of those gods. In the abstract battles of relativism, we more-literally give body to competing realities defined by different meanings, different intentions for creation, which is to say, different capital-G Gods. Thus, when we “bring alive in every moment and hammer home the eternal victory of the Crucified,” in Fr. Longenecker’s words, we are giving Christ a Body that makes Him real. To an ecumenical relativist, this can mean that every variation of God is equally valid. To the nihilist, a God who requires human beings to will Him into existence cannot be real in the first place, so there can be no such thing as God.
Years ago, I proposed that we should see reality as a mesh: infinite threads of probability leading from one moment to the next, with free will being our ability to choose which path to take. In that model, souls communicate and pull each other toward one direction or another. The idea might appeal to relativists except that God is the ultimate reality, being the One who existed before He created this web of possibilities called the universe and the One who will continue to exist when it has run its course.
To give relativists their due, free will still means (must mean) that we can drift off so far from God that we become practically incapable of hearing His Spirit communicating across the threads. We can choose a different intention of the universe, a different meaning, which is synonymous with a different God, by making that the underlying principle that guides our choices from moment to moment. The more people we draw in, the more real that God becomes. Even so, the physical rules of how the universe works, and the rules of our human nature, are only fully in harmony with the God who created them.
The continuing mission of Christians, therefore, is to live along the path (the physical dimension) in which God saves us all. Fr. Longenecker comes very close to this precise statement when he writes that “The Way of the Lamb… means living in a new dimension of reality — a supernatural renewal of heart and mind that draws us ever closer into an intimate union with the Lord Jesus Himself” (p. 123).
Even if we conclude that our decisions matter in this way, the question of our lives remains: How do we know that we’re actually on the right path and not just talking ourselves into believing it for nothing? How do we know that “somewhere ages and ages hence,” as Robert Frost put it, we will be assured that our path made all the difference, and how can we be assured, unlike Frost’s narrator, that the difference will have been positive?
The answer draws on the two great sides of our personalities — our two basic ways of knowing. We first must have faith, drawing on the intuition of our consciences and our feelings. We must then apply our scientific reason. If we find that the velocity of our understanding is toward harmony of fact, feeling, and faith, then our chosen path is more apt to be true. If we find, however, that “way leads on to way,” and that it is proving necessary to deny physical reality because it is out of harmony with the Reality we take as the purpose of the universe, we should retrace our steps.
Featured image: Cover art from Immortal Combat, by Fr. Dwight Longenecker.
A common theme characterized the objections that came my way after some social-media expressions of astonishment that Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo had strolled out into a crowd of hundreds of people in Providence without a face covering, without social distancing, sharing a microphone, and holding hands. Had it been just her, one could (maybe) say she’d made the conscious decision that the atmosphere at the Black Lives Matter rally was tense enough that she needed the full, bare expression of her face to reinforce the message of her words. But there was her husband right behind her, also without a mask and without social distancing and wearing his “Knock it off!” t-shirt.
He wore that shirt, no doubt, in homage to his wife, who had made the phrase something of a trademark while chastising Rhode Islanders to follow her pandemic rules religiously. Her commands to lock down at home and adhere to a restrictive code while out in public were necessary, she’d insisted, in order to save lives.
But on that Friday night in early June, a governor who had insisted for months that religious Rhode Islanders could not be trusted to conduct community worship in a safe way led the protesters in prayer.
The objections to my spontaneous reaction uniformly implied that it was superficial (and probably racist) to care about the governor’s COVID-19 hypocrisy more than the anti-racist message of the event, which misses the point in an astonishing way. The attitude that the governor displayed — in harmony with medical professionals who insisted that the rallies were important enough to justify the increased risk of a wave of infections — is more significant than just the politics of it. Her demonstrated belief is that, while the disease is dire enough a threat to shut down our economy and impose the untold cost of forbidding every shared life experience from graduation ceremonies to bedside death vigils for loved ones, political considerations could supply the exceptions.
Now, I don’t mean by this that the rallies were ultimately theater intended toward a political end (which they certainly were for some of the participants), but that the political favorability of the cause that they promoted was what granted the exception to coronavirus restrictions. In the end, what the governor was displaying so gratuitously that Friday night was that the government officials who have seized emergency powers over their territories will determine what is important and what is not.
It is fundamentally religious discrimination imposed by the government when officials determine where rules will be enforced and where they won’t. During the early days of the quarantine, police in one Ocean State city interrupted a religious service where participants had judged 25 people in a space that could fit over 500 would be able to worship in safety. One can reasonably guess that those 25 people thought their actions and its risks were an active way to bring about a better world. We now know that only mass displays called “protests” intended to appease the diversity gods have sufficient gravitas for the governor’s dispensation.
My phrasing, there, may sound flippant, but it is an entry to a deep, and deeply subtle, battle simmering throughout our culture. Consider a recent essay by Joshua Mitchell in a periodical providentially called Providence. In Mitchell’s understanding, what we’re seeing is the emergence of a modern form of paganism. Whereas Christianity emphasizes that Original Sin has its origin in each of us as individuals, which means we can neither be collectively saved nor collectively condemned, paganism locates sin in a people — a tribe united under its own identifying gods.
If Christianity is receding, then we will likely see the return to the pagan understanding that peoples are the proper objects of cathartic rage. That is a sobering truth, which defenders of secularism deny. The real alternatives might not be Christianity or secularism, but rather revelation or paganism. Should we return to paganism, one people will seek to cleanse themselves of stain by venting their cathartic rage on another people. The war between the gods of the nations would resume in full. The “blood and soil” nationalism that is straining to emerge on the Alt-Right is a witness to the reemergence of this pagan view, which is contemptuous of Christianity’s counter-claim, and always will be. What counts in the pagan world of blood is not me, the “person,” but the people of which I am but a representative. What counts in Christianity is the Adam, whose stain I present; and Christ’s sacrifice, through which I am represented to God as righteous. The distance between these two understandings is infinite and unbridgeable.
Even non-believers can recognize that the sides are aligning along something like religious principles. One such non-believer, who is more on the Christian than the pagan side, is National Review columnist Andrew Stuttaford. He writes:
[In the cases of Chinese aggression against the Uighurs and Hong Kong], the malefactors are not part of the wicked West; they are not the white us. The horrors they inflict are of little concern to a generation (or, now, generations) of whites caught up in the delirium of identity politics. Their interest lies in highlighting, and then sharing in the blame for, the offenses committed by whites. In accepting their guilt by reason of ethnicity, they proclaim their innate sinfulness and use such confessions (followed by performative repentance) as evidence of their moral superiority and, in a good number of instances, a power play: narcissism with benefits. Being able to navigate the ever-more-demanding rules of wokeness is a skill well-rewarded in academia, politics, and, increasingly, the workplace.
For Stuttaford, the defining angst of our time is an “elite overproduction,” wherein our society has produced too many more people with the skills and expectations to join the upper crusts than it has crusty positions to fill. In this setting, being adept at wokeness can be a valuable and differentiating skill under the right political pressures. That will not last, however. With the development of artificial intelligence, many of the day jobs of our elite will evaporate, or at least will lose the advantage of their remuneration.
Being an atheist, Stuttaford can only see “a power struggle that will eventually deliver much greater trouble ahead.” Thus, his is essentially than an updated lament along familiar lines for those who’ve worried about the ability of a free, Western economy to accommodate the coming technological advances.
A religious context is more helpful, here. If we are not pagans in Mitchell’s sense, then we must realize that the movement we oppose is made up of individuals trying to fill some need… to answer some calling. If that is the basic challenge, then the solution is simple: We can win this victory for God by supplying His meaning.
Governor Raimondo’s Catholic background is strong enough that she naturally turned to the Christian framing for her June 5 protest prayer:
Pray with me. Ask our Lord, the Awesome Almighty, for wisdom, for peace, and for love, and for each of us to find humanity in one another. Everybody wants [others] to know what it’s like to be them. So let’s commit ourselves to understanding what it’s like to be the Other.
The progressive works that she enumerated in her speech to the crowd, however, are not sources of meaning. They simply constitute a platform of using government to take from some people to give to other people. We’ve seen this in the overt Marxism of leaders of Black Lives Matter. More-locally, we can see it in the head-spinning pivot of Democrat Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell from complimenting the “good symbolic step” of changing Rhode Island’s name to the demand that we address “poverty and inequalities,” including a requirement that employers pay workers no less than $15 per hour regardless of the market value of the work being done.
The meaning that progressive policies provide is one and the same as that which Mitchell calls “pagan.” The emphasis is not on the experiences and attitudes that make one’s life better; it is on the contrast between groups. And in the progressive framing, those groups aren’t temporary and circumstantial categories of individuals — people who happen to be employers now and people who happen to be low-wage workers for the time being. They are identity groups with implicitly permanent and distinct conditions and beliefs. The emphasis is on the method of punishment and reward through redistributed wealth between two groups. One group pays, and the other receives.
So as to sweep away the inevitable fog that economic policy brings to social questions, look to a later tweet from Ranglin-Vassell:
Good morning family, friends and supporters ! I need your help . Word on the street is that I will have a primary by a white guy who is determined to replace me with the sole intention of keeping the Status Quo in place and silencing my Voice.
She clearly delineates two groups: hers and the Other’s. She doesn’t merely need support to overcome a challenger; she needs help fighting against that demon of our modern day, the “white guy.” Her opponent doesn’t merely have ideas with which she disagrees; his desire to represent a different perspective is, itself, an attempt to silence her “Voice,” capitalized so as to imply that it is actually the shared Voice of her People.
This is the profound conflict underlying Governor Gina Raimondo’s failure to wear a mask to an identity politics protest. As a civic leader, she had been exercising power well beyond what our representative democracy ordinarily allows, and she found this event to be meaningful enough to suspend her rules of life and death. Moreover, it was the activity that made it meaningful, the activism.
During a period while religious worship had been decreed insufficiently meaningful, a protest had sufficiency. Placing our culture war in this context, conservatives’ competing to have protests and political events that are equally meaningful would spell ultimate defeat, because it would cede the central question. It would accept the assumptions of secular progressivism, thereby ensuring that secular progressivism ultimately wins.
What’s needed is an alternate source of meaning that is at the same time more-individualistic and more-unifying.
Featured image: A still from the Facebook live video of Gina Raimondo’s speech posted by WPRI.
Yesterday, I came across this video from a protest in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the weekend, under the headline, “Generations of pain”:
I wish the video had more context, because how the discussion started could add import to what was said, allowing one to understand what happened beyond the words exchanged. What ideas entered the ring, and which one ultimately won? A video from another angle starts a few moments earlier, with the older man pointing to somebody in his late teens or twenties while saying, “Next week, he’s going to die,” presumably a victim of racism. So, it appears the man in the “Freak” shirt was making the case against whatever happened to be happening near them and the older man was defending it.
However it began, the closing point of the video is unambiguous: Marchers have been marching, protesting injustice for generations, and they keep finding themselves in the same place. The exhortation to the young-adult generation: “Putting yourself in harm’s way is not the way… Come up with a better way.”
There arises the problem. What is “the better way”? Click around any social media platform, and you’ll find different enclaves where conflicting solutions are promoted as if they’re obvious. In the thread of replies to the video above, it doesn’t take long for “universal healthcare” to appear as a solution. I’d offer that particular ideology as the problem, as a constituent part of the way that has led us to this point of division.
In the enclaves where I feel most agreement, people frequently point out that American cities have largely been governed by a single party for generations, and that this party is determined to increase the power and engagement of government, and that the police toward whom so much of this aggression is directed are the community-level manifestation of a more-powerful and more-engaged government. Indeed, one could say they are the working-stiffs only trying (and, because they’re human, often erring) to implement the rules created by the politicians who are even now exploiting this disharmony for their own aggrandizement.
But the specifics of that disagreement are a topic for another day — or rather, for many, many other days. The burning question with which we have to start is how do we begin to create the conditions for the better dialogue that can help us sort through the lunacy of life in a fallen world and thereby move toward the needed better way?
Here, once again, the past few months of our unprecedented experience have provided a relevant lesson. The coronavirus pandemic has shown globally the degree to which we look to others to understand what are reasonable beliefs and what is reasonable behavior. Even those of us who have been skeptical throughout the crisis and who’ve concluded that the facts show the reaction to have been disproportionate find ourselves reluctant to be contrarian — in words, yes, but even more so in action.
No matter what you believe, acting on those beliefs comes with a greater weight of responsibility (indeed, of culpability) when everybody around you disagrees. If a credible authority (or a credible consensus) says allowing your children to see their friends is the pathway of death, you have a responsibility to verify that the claim is credible, yes, but if you do not follow it, that is much more truly your decision. Just so, one might conclude (as I have here and here) that Original Sin entered the world along with the need to take responsibility, because after the Fall, a human being is ultimately acting according to his or her own sense of right and wrong rather than God’s.
Although Adam and Eve bequeathed us that responsibility, we still find it uncomfortable, and we long instinctively for affirmation, taking cues from our groups as to what will bring it. Thus, our “knowledge of good and evil” finds us relying on consensus on those very questions. Somehow, we don’t actually know what is good or what is evil, but must figure it out, which means we are often wrong, and we have responsibility for the error.
One can see this in the contrast between comment threads on Twitter or Facebook in different ideological corners. Two groups of people who might be very similar in most respects can be picking up very different standards for what is acceptable from their groups, and those standards come into conflict when we move outward or are forced to interact politically.
Click on one thread, and you’ll see snarky expressions of disbelief that people who were recently angry that they couldn’t get haircuts are now calling on government to take action against protesters to stop the spread of COVID-19. Click on another thread, and you’ll see snarky expressions of confirmed suspicions that the very people who were just days ago shaming people for ignoring “the rules” have nothing, apparently, to say about “the rules” at all.
When partisans from either camp venture out and begin discourse with those from the other, they can’t help but bring with them some smug certitude, which reads to the others as contempt. For that reason I’ve begun muting and blocking people, which I’d never done before. I’m doing so now not because I’m not interested in or unable to tolerate different ideas, but because in order to add that healthy diversity to my intellectual diet, it has begun to seem as if I must also take a dose of radioactive attitude.
What’s more, I know I’m not innocent of doing the same! Worse, I doubt my ability ever to be infallibly innocent. Some things require response, in the name of justice and in the name of truth, and some things produce outrage. It seems a saintly achievement to keep the other person’s well-being so central in one’s response as to prevent justified opposition to obvious error from bleeding into the sickness of the day: snark.
At least with an acknowledgment of culpability maybe we come a step closer to the solution. As much as we can, we have to stop contributing to the problem ourselves, and in turn, we have to give those with whom we disagree the space to gradually move away from their own contributions.
Maybe little by little, we can begin to feel a part of a larger group in which it is not considered a moral failing to come to different conclusions or even (Gasp!) to be wrong.
The newest coronavirus seems uniquely designed to challenge a modern people. If it were more deadly and contagious, we could only react as it ripped through society like a conflagration. Because it is not deadly to most people, however, COVID-19 forces us to make decisions, and foremost among those decisions are what we believe and what we think is important.
The governor of Rhode Island, a “practicing” Roman Catholic, believes that beer, liquor, and wine are sufficiently important to our community that we should risk the interactions necessary for people to procure alcohol. She believes that the items in grocery stores, including flower bouquets, are necessities. Even abortion makes the list of “essential” services. But in Gina Raimondo’s view, an institution that blesses wine, bread, and palm branches is not sufficiently essential to provide spiritual sustenance, regardless of the risk that believers might be willing to bear or the precautionary measures that churches might put in place.
In December, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston declared 2020 a Year of the Eucharist, “to bolster the faith of those who already believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and to encourage those who struggle with this belief.” In a promotional video, Cardinal O’Malley says, “the Eucharist gives us the inspiration and the strength to carry out the mission that we have to transform this world.” It is at the center of our identity as Catholics. It is a definitional quality of Catholicism that we believe in this direct physical interaction with God, and this awe-inspiring point of contact resonates throughout our daily lives. The need to remain eligible to receive the Eucharist helps us to resist sin in matters large and small.
Another definitional Catholic belief is in the institutional authority of a Church that traces its leadership back to the first apostles of Jesus, the Christ. In the twenty years or so since my conversion, the institutional Church has had a rough time of it. I converted when the sparks of scandal were beginning to catch flame, so by necessity I understand how an institution of human beings can go astray, even on a structural scale. I can see how an organization that has a unique relationship with God would attract both damaged souls hoping to be healed and evil forces intent on corrupting it, exploiting the inherent risk of trust and good will.
My faith has also remained strong as I’ve grappled with the elevation of a pope whose statements and public persona lead me to grave reservations. I trust that God has a plan, and I can reconcile my doubts by confessing them, in that way remaining in communion with the Church and, therefore, eligible for the apotheosis of the Roman Catholic faith: the Eucharist.
In the parade of days, ordinary and extraordinary, Catholics trust the institutional Church to balance the centrality of sacraments with the circumstances of lived life, allowing, for example, bishops to offer dispensation such that one species of the Eucharist (wine) is not offered during flu season, which could invite anxiety and judgment into a profound experience. Moreover, dispensations for parishioners not to receive the Eucharist at all when it truly cannot be done have obvious justification.
Still, in the face of obstacles, there remains an aspiration to provide this most profound of services and to overcome the barriers, through heroic means, if necessary. In hostile times and places, the inability of the Church to reach believers with sacraments does not damage claims about what those sacraments portend. Indeed, throughout history, Christians have taken great risks to breach obstacles, and many of them are now saints. The human institution — however weak in a given time or place — was striving, and so it was rich with God’s Spirit and with “the mission that we have to transform this world,” as Cardinal O’Malley put it.
But how much of an obstacle is COVID-19, truly? About that, we have to decide.
I believe in the unique and divine commission of the Roman Catholic Church, but I tremble to admit that the reaction of its leaders to COVID-19 does not seem to match the claims that they make about the Eucharist. If we believe something, we must be conspicuous in acting as if our beliefs are true.
A special dispensation to miss Mass in times of personal difficulty or communal catastrophe is one thing, but how can it be that a virus that has moderate-to-no observable effect on most people and against which basic hygiene and courtesy are known preventatives, how can it be that this virus is taken as such a threat that the Church stops trying? If it is good enough for us to watch a priest partake of the Eucharist on Facebook for months on end, then what’s the point?
We are living through an anxious time of extreme spiritual danger, during which modern people are having to decide what we believe. How can “spiritual communion” at a distance be acceptable during such a time of doubt and challenge if we believe what we claim about the Eucharist? The tabernacle is right there. A believer could walk up and spend hours praying just on the other side of the wall, outside, with no fear for his or her safety. The only reason the praying penitent cannot receive the blessing of its contents is that the door of the church is locked.
To be sure, these days, many of our priests are older and therefore at high risk of death if they catch the virus. And true, many parishioners are vulnerable, themselves. These are reasons that priests should not be compelled to conduct services and that dispensations should be available for anybody who feels too anxious to participate. These are reasons to stress the importance of precautions.
The Church needn’t force a reckless show of faith on its people. But should it be standing in the way of believers who want, who yearn for, the focal point of our religion, or should it be developing protocols and asserting its civic authority in order to open a path for those who believe that the need outweighs the risk in our individual circumstances? Should it be standing in the way of saints, or should it be making their heroism possible?
Across Rhode Island’s border, in Massachusetts, it is the Year of the Eucharist, and yet the Eucharist is unavailable. Cardinal O’Malley’s aspiration to bolster the faith of believers has been transformed into a crisis of faith for anybody who can’t understand why it is not worthy of emergency consultations and extraordinary efforts to fulfill the promise of the year (the promise of our Church), somehow.
Yes, the particular attributes of the newest coronavirus are forcing us to decide what we believe and what we think is important, and in the months and years to come, we will face the consequences for our governments’ decisions. We will also face consequences because others have taken notice of the decisions that we have made. There is great danger and an air of sulfur in this fact, as if the germ had been cunningly crafted to attack us where we are most vulnerable.
We must overcome that vulnerability — especially those of us blessed not to have lost access to our Lord’s physical presence.
Last night, our family watched Overcomer, which is the latest leader in the genre of “inspirational” Christian movies. It was, indeed, both inspirational and Christian, and, all in all, a good family film.
It also had a feel common to many of these mainstream Christian movies that I couldn’t previously put my finger on. They certainly have an overt didacticism (which bristling unbelievers might call “preachy”), but I’m not sure that’s the cause of their tone so much as a consequence of something more fundamental. Overcomer overcame its genre for a brief moment that highlighted what is often missing in this sort of movie, because, for a second, it wasn’t.
At its core, religion is about the most cosmic events imaginable, and this trait is especially pronounced in Christianity compared with some other religions. Yet, the alternative to conversion and prayer in these movies never seems to be quite so profound. Conversion appears almost as a brand of therapy, because the failure to convert results in nothing much worse than a mundane life mired in ordinary human foibles. There is no evil in the films.
The moment of exception in Overcomer arrived through one character who harbors a fifteen-year-old resentment against another. For just a moment — a single well-delivered line in the script — the resentment seemed like something more than just human-animal frailty, something more like the work of an active force of evil in the universe. And then the moment was gone.
The title of the movie played a role in my revelation, too, because it raises the critical question: What must be overcome? Is it just the characters’ hangups, or is there something more?
Perhaps one reason this question often doesn’t come through in inspirational movies is that the Christians producing them are reluctant to create characters who don’t in every moment resonate with their fundamental human value. A production team full of people who have trained themselves to see their loving God in everybody they encounter may find it difficult to display characters in whom that deity is not visible.
This limits the range of the plots from start to finish. The audience enters the story presented with a cast good people, some of whom are just going through bad spells. By the end credits, the characters have gotten over their hangups, experienced a good turn, and are at peace. That doesn’t feel like much of a transition, because their lack of peace never seemed existential, but merely a little uncomfortable and implicitly temporary.
Character development requires that we start with something bad and get to something good, with something real and substantial at stake. For storytelling generally, the thing at stake doesn’t have to be your immortal soul, but in Christianity, that’s what is at stake. It is strange, then, that this is often not a palpable part of mainstream Christian movies.
This contrasts with a turn our lived world has taken, especially with the proliferation of social media. Regular social and political discourse seems increasingly to be conducted with an existential fierceness. Even local budget battles are handled as if the universe hangs in the balance, and the opposition is a force of evil to be destroyed — politically, personally, and professionally.
Perhaps both overly sunny Christian movies and social media zealots are missing the same concept: The person is not evil. At most, evil is using the person. In a Christian movie, a character can play the role of a villain as a vessel of evil without being intrinsically so. (J.R.R. Tolkien did this very well.) And in real life political disputes, people can come to very different positions because they have different assumptions, not because they are bad people. In both cases, the goal should always be to save the person while limiting the harm he or she might do.
However, if the latter objective leads us to rationalize destroying the person with whom we disagree in order to stop them, that is strong evidence that evil is acting within us, too. Now, there’s a chilling notion! Even an individual may find it difficult to separate him or herself from demons lurking within. Sometimes, when we face the prospect of positive change in ourselves, we can hear that voice: “You are not you without me.” It has become part of our identity.
Who am I without that darkness? A peculiar anxiety of the pre-conversion modern can be that conversion might turn him or her into a walking inspirational Christian movie. In the face of such a possibility, C.S. Lewis’s explanation that — Don’t worry! — tadpoles probably don’t much want to become frogs, either, isn’t much of an encouragement. One can see the development inherent in that amphibian transition, whereas one can sense that something of life’s richness is absent from movies that lack an awareness or, at least, an acknowledgment of evil.
Fortunately, the reality is quite different. Conversion is development. The questions become deeper and the challenges more profound. Character development is not elevation into a condition of boring consistency, but advancement to the next level of understanding. Movies tend to stop well before a conflict arises at the new, higher level only because their producers chose specific conflicts to address in their allotted couple of hours.
Movies that lack this element of existential risk can fit well on a quiet quarantine Saturday evening, but they will tend to limit their effect to affirmation for those who already believe. There’s a place for that, of course, especially in a world turning against traditional beliefs, but to win converts and reverse the cultural tide, we need more art that shows what’s truly at stake in a compelling, attractive way.
One especially pressing question, these days, is how we can find meaning in a shut-down world. Shut off from others. Constrained in the unique experiences we can have. Perhaps struggling to make ends meet or keep alive that which we have labored to create — a business, an organization, a relationship.
That last is most on-point. One way or another, questions of meaning seem to come back to a relationship with God. Even those who disbelieve in the usual notions of a deity must find meaning in their relationship with reality. And what is a relationship? It’s an ongoing communication.
However one defines Him (or Her), we communicate with God through our interaction with His creation. This introduces the obvious challenge: Communication in a relationship must be two-way. We feel meaning when, in essence, the universe communicates with us.
The universe is so fundamental to our being, though, that it’s difficult to know whether God is communicating with us or the material universe just is and those things that seem meaningful are only coincidences or the sparks from our human minds finding patterns and weaving narratives. Often potentially meaningful events are contradicted shortly after they happen, and we have to rethink the communication to the point that it seems like no communication at all, or gibberish.
Yesterday’s meaningful experience told you to point your life in one direction, but today’s seems to be insisting on another. Even accounting for the implausibility of communicating with a Being whom we cannot comprehend, we can’t sense communication or find meaning when the messages might as well be random.
Then, when the messages aren’t random, we face the danger of mistaking messages from other sources than God. This would include the demonic, but also the materialist. We certainly feel as if we are receiving positive messages when something positive happens to us, like a promotion at work or a lottery win, but if we believe that these material wins are the only (or the most important) way God communicates with us, then meaning becomes bound up with our own success and the things it brings.
A second risk — more significant by far — is that we can forget the two-way nature of communication. When we chance to be materially successful, the important part is what we do with it. How we communicate back.
Complicating matters further for Christians is our certainty that God has told us that often we’re on the right track when the universe seems to be pushing back on us. When we are suffering. We see this in the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of saints. My God, why have you abandoned me? He hasn’t. Just as a pleasurable experience cannot necessarily be interpreted as a sign that you’re improving your relationship with God, so too a painful one is not necessarily a signal that your relationship is deteriorating.
In one of those happy “God winks” that feel, at least, like a communication, just as these thoughts were settling into my subconscious, I knelt for my daily Rosary and turned to the Joyful Mysteries. As with each series of Christian mysteries, they can be applied to different subjects, but this one seems directly relevant to the idea of communication.
In the first Joyful Mystery, an angel communicates with Mary about her pregnancy. That is, a spiritual being with a direct connection to God brings her a message from Him. Note how very private and personal the communication is. Calling this the Annunciation makes it sound like some major event — which it was, of course — but it happens quietly, in private. Saint Luke’s account makes no mention of a shaking Earth or beams of light or celestial music.
The Annunciation is merely a conversation, and one can imagine Mary subsequently wondering whether it had actually transpired. Just so do we wonder if the still, small voice was really there in a moment of prayer. Maybe you imagined it. Maybe you were tired and dozing unawares.
Next, in the Visitation, Mary and Elizabeth communicate with God through their recognition of each other. More profoundly, the recognition begins with the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb, John, sensing the nearness of the unborn child in Mary’s, Jesus. Again, though, it’s a passing moment — a sensation while greeting each other.
And again, the third Joyful Mystery, the Nativity, is a quiet, humble affair. In the Christian understanding of history, here is one of its seminal events, and hardly anybody knows it’s happening. (The adjective is deliberately chosen, inasmuch as from an unseen seed grows an entire life and a lineage.) God draws in a few additional spectators through different communications — an annunciation to shepherds and a celestial sign to magi — but the profound moment is God’s communication by means of a gift given to Mary under Joseph’s care.
In due course, Mary and Joseph make their reply when, for the fourth Mystery, they present the baby Jesus to God at the temple. In the expanded view of the story, Simeon speaks directly to God upon seeing the baby, and Anna communicates God’s message to those awaiting the messiah.
An answer comes to my inquiry, however, when the Joyful Mysteries conclude with the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. In this moment, we see God communicating with the teachers as a teacher of them. Through Jesus, still a boy, God asks them questions, and they respond by thinking about His mysteries and trying to understand what He has created and, therefore, His nature.
Implicitly, when looking for patterns, we are are seeking communication from the pattern maker. How we respond to them is our reply. In having created, He has said, “You matter to me.” And in seeking, we are saying, “I want to understand you.”
Thus — with a deity who knows our intimate thoughts — it is merely our decision and our perspective that communicates and that draws out meaning. We make moments significant by conceiving of them as interactions. As when sitting with friends, we converse, to be sure, but even the silences can communicate. The crucial element is the bit of faith that it matters that we are in each other’s company, in a mutually meaningful way.