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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.
Three observations have been tumbling with the wind and rain in my mind, today.
The first involves some of the commentary related to the protest at the Rhode Island State House, yesterday, calling for the governor to reopen our economy. Specifically, I’m thinking of the comments of a political writer for Rhode Island Public Radio (now, The Public’s Radio), Scott MacKay, and podcaster Bill Bartholomew on the latter’s Facebook page.
MacKay — whose professional role presumably implies representing the public as a journalist — sneers at the protesters as “Covidiots.” Bartholomew concurs that they are “groupthinkers without a plan.” The post to which these comments are appended briefly expresses Bartholomew’s opinion as follows:
Pathetic display outside RI State House today. A miscellaneous rally, steeped in raw anger, attended by less than 100.
The exchange brings to mind a time I was invited to appear on RI Public Radio’s Political Roundtable show (which isn’t something that happens in the current reality). With the tape rolling, I mentioned that the station’s waiting area had the latest issue of The Nation (a liberal magazine), but National Review (a conservative magazine) was nowhere to be found. That is to say, “groupthink.” In an almost too-perfect response, the producers edited that comment out of the show that aired. And MacKay is the station’s greatest representative of the doctrinaire progressive unionist position.
As for Bartholomew, on one of the earlier episodes of his podcast, Bartholomewtown, the guest asked Bill if there was anybody he wouldn’t interview. The host didn’t seem to have considered the question before, but through his improvised answer, he seemed to want to insist that he’d talk to anybody while acknowledging that there was a line somewhere that he wouldn’t cross. I think the guest at that time was WPRO radio talk host Matt Allen, and to my knowledge he was the only conservative ever to appear on the show. (I can’t say for sure, because I stopped listening to the podcast when the episodes fell into the groove of progressive “amens.”)
My intention isn’t to say that either of these men is doing anything wrong (although the “Public’s Radio” displays an in-your-face pretension and even contempt when it doesn’t offset an employee like MacKay with somebody comparable on the other political side ). But when I read or listen to MacKay and Bartholomew, I hear groupthink. Often their commentary comes across to me as “raw anger,” based on “miscellaneous” ideological imperatives.
They’d surely disagree (at least Bill would), but this is my perception. We’re in different worlds.
A related observation, this week, came via another social medium, Twitter. A resident of Tiverton who isn’t fond of me went after the RI Tea Party tweeter, assuming it was me. This is a bit of a go-to assumption for him. He thinks he’s proven I tweet as the Gaspee Project, too, but I don’t.
These exchanges create something of a psychological experiment as, in his world, this guy thinks he’s interacting with me, when he’s really interacting with complete strangers.
The jarring part isn’t just the mistaken identity and the inappropriate response to a stranger. In like fashion, the same guy and his local political allies have built up an image of me in their own minds based on rumors and lies that they’ve told each other. They spread talk that is not only a difference of impression, but actually factually incorrect… the opposite of the truth. Thus, while their reactions might be justified, or at least excusable, in response to the person they think they’re addressing, that person doesn’t actually exist.
Again, we’re in different worlds.
A final observation of different worlds is, of course, fear of COVID-19. The disease appears to be pretty harmless to most people who catch it, and precautions can limit the likelihood of infection, even while out and about, yet the public response has put the worst possibility front and center. We hear that ten times as many people who catch it will die, versus the flu, yet that still means that a very small percentage of the people who catch it will die. Nonetheless, many are behaving as they would were they risking imminent death.
I don’t intend, here, to express an opinion on the hot debate of the day (to loosen or not to loosen), but only to note the different perspectives. A stroll in the woods feels very differently when you know those little black bugs aren’t just a hassle to pick off, but might give you Lyme disease.
And so, we live in different worlds, again. For some, the world is defined by dread of a disease. For others, the dread is of a collapsed economy and lost freedom. Some will experience an involuntary escalation of their anxiety when they hear about the possibility that the lockdown might soon end. Others have similar anxiety when the state’s governor promotes a poster with a socialist motif that puts chains around Rhode Island’s “hope.”
We live in different worlds. Literally. In a quantum physics kind of a way that ties with how we observe the world and understand it.
In early March, I encountered an article (that pointed to several podcasts) suggesting that brain activity just doesn’t seem capable of explaining abstract thinking. The writer, Mark Tapscott, thinks this is evidence of God’s reality, and I agree, but it takes a few (abstract) steps to get there, and as He always does, God leaves people an off-ramp to choose incorrectly, which is to say to choose to disbelieve in Him.
My belief about the brain is that it mainly processes and stores direct information observed in the world. Layer on to this direct information the chemical processes behind our emotions, which shouldn’t be understood separately from our “minds.” Emotions store and convey another layer of information, namely how we ought to interact with the world we’re observing.
A week or two after the panic had spread through our society in earnest, I saw an older couple at the grocery store, and their story was immediately clear. They had only one N95 mask between them and, for some reason, the man was wearing it. The woman was doing her best to keep a scarf over her face, but her emotions were easy to read. She was deeply agitated and her anxiety swelled whenever there was a delay in their progress. She wanted to get going and get out of there. The information her brain had collected was telling her that a deadly virus was floating around public places, and the same sources were, at that time, saying that only N95 masks could provide protection. Her emotions were supplying the information about how to react in such situations.
The next layer is abstract thought, which, I would suggest, has to do with our feel for the rules of reality. In a sense (perhaps in fact), we store this information in the world around us, probably as an intuitive calculation of the possibility of a particular future. The world in which I live is one in which this might happen. A world in which that is more likely than this is indeed a different world.
A deer that dashes from the sight of a human being is in a real sense living in a world in which that person is hunting. Another animal sees the white flash of the deer’s tail and understands the emotion and that the world is one in which to be scared and to run.
Even at higher levels of development, abstraction is to some degree only application of what we’ve seen before to what we are seeing right now, or what we can envision. We have seen birds fly, so we can imagine flight because the rules of reality do not foreclose flight. We have counted things, and so we can abstract the idea of numbers.
This brings us back to the idea that we really can live in different worlds. If your abstract ideas have to do with the rules of the universe, which you understand through what you have observed and how your body tells you to feel about it, then we can understand those rules differently. One whose observations have included a lesson in lift and drag would find it entirely plausible that we could fly, given the proper equipment.
Learning the mechanics of flight is, in fact, learning to live in a different universe. Learning to control an emotional response — whether to COVID-19 or to public speaking or to the smell of alcohol, for an alcoholic — is the same. Similarly, the most sure way to pass a lie-detector test (other than telling the truth, of course) is to believe the falsehood.
On first pass, this is not an encouraging thought for one who wishes to reduce the amount of human hostility in the world. People who have built professional identities around their opinions, like MacKay and Bartholomew (and me!), have emotional reason not to change their universe. Such people as my local antagonists have engaged in behavior that would be revealed as deplorable if they were to change their minds. Those on one side or the other of the coronavirus lockdown debate would have to take some ownership of the severe consequences of the reactions for which they advocated, usually based on limited information and too much emotion.
Yet, beneath the chains of our human nature, there is hope. If we live in a world where redemption is real, where human beings can transcend — can ascend — then people can be drawn toward a better universe. Those who long for that good reality must lead the way in making it seem possible.
For years, I’ve been meaning to ramp up a new blog for philosophical and religious essays that aren’t really a fit for the Ocean State Current, and it’s been at least a year since I determined that reviving Dust in the Light was the way to go. This year, I resolved to get the redesign done during Lent, but it was a pretty strange 40 days. As it turned out, the reason for my delay (or the excuse) is actually auspicious, because living through the Year of the Virus has been clarifying many ideas with experience that were previously abstract.
In theological terms, interacting with the world via live streaming video has a feel almost of transubstantiation. A couple Sundays ago, my family was setting up to watch our parish’s Mass via Facebook Live or YouTube on our living room television, and technical glitches had me running back and forth between the computer and the TV trying to get the right address for the video. Somehow, the TV wound up a few minutes behind the computer in the ceremony.
In that delay — which isn’t unfamiliar in our recorded, digitized world — was the whole world. When something is happening at that moment, it’s a shared experience, even if the visual has to be transmitted across vast space. When something is recorded, it’s more like a representation. At that moment, the priest is on to other things. At that moment, the person on the video is a representation of what was, not an image of what is.
Here, we have a pretty good illustration of the difference between Christ being present in the Eucharist and His merely being represented symbolically by bread and wine. For Catholics, communion isn’t merely “do this in memory of me,” like a 2,000-year-old recording of the Last Supper. The Person is really there in the video, at that moment.
Another way in which our COVID experience fleshes out abstract thought is in the fear, itself. Almost 16 years ago, in this space, I wrote about efforts to end the process of aging and, therefore, natural death. Advocates for life extensions were doing what advocates always do and proposing that their preferred outcome would have only positives. “Life will be much more valued when it’s so much more under our control,” insisted Aubrey de Grey.
In response, I suggested that people would become more protective of their own lives, but thereby they would become as slaves to those who didn’t value others’ lives. Sure enough, we see evidence for this in our current predicament. As we gain power over more and more illnesses that threaten our lives, one for which we have no treatment is only that much more terrifying — so much so that we will quickly give up our most sacred freedoms to combat it.
If we conquer death in its mundane manifestations, how terrible will be the power of one who threatens to kill us anyway? For good reason did I quote the book of Revelation those 16 years ago concerning humanity’s ability to conquer Satan because “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
A third lesson of experience that we’re gaining during these weeks in societal quarantine is the sense of deprivation. As I contemplated spending Easter with no way to receive the Eucharist (or, for that matter, to deliver it to others as a Eucharistic minister), I thought of Martin Scorsese’s movie, Silence. In that film, two Catholic priests infiltrate Japan looking for their mentor, and they find villagers having clandestine services and desperate for religious implements and the blessings of priests. When word spreads that men of the cloth are around, Christians travel from other villages in search of the sacraments. How far might I travel, I wondered, if I had word of some clandestine Mass being celebrated despite the governor’s directives?
We’re soft, these days, and hide from our shadows, but as this crisis, which is centrally a crisis of confidence, drags on and on, we’ll be faced with the need to test our beliefs.
Did I say, “need”? Rather, let me say, “opportunity.”