Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


Beauty and Desecration 1  —  Roger Scruton

July 21, 2014
The West's great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

The West’s great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.


At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality — however achieved and at whatever moral cost — that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch — something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.

In a seminal essay — “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939 — critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. 

We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars — for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France — from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society — as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty — as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. 

But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze — shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha — who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature — such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. 

Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.”

But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies.

I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry — these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. 

Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.


John Paul II and What Samuel Huntington Knew – Derek Jeter

May 7, 2014
Samuel Phillips Huntington (April 18, 1927 – December 24, 2008) was an influential conservative political scientist from the United States of America whose works covered multiple sub-fields of political science. He gained wider prominence through his Clash of Civilizations thesis of a post-Cold War new world order.

Samuel Phillips Huntington (April 18, 1927 – December 24, 2008) was an influential conservative political scientist from the United States of America whose works covered multiple sub-fields of political science. He gained wider prominence through his Clash of Civilizations thesis of a post-Cold War new world order.

Samuel Huntington was a highly controversial conservative political commentator who died in 2008. He wrote many thought provoking, outrageous-but-true observations, here is a bullet collection of some of the prescient observations that he wrote:

  • It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
  • The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do — The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 51.
  • Hypocrisy, double standards, and “but nots” are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle — The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 184.
  • In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous . . . Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism — The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 310.
  • In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations, from the bulge of Africa to central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders
  • Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power — Huntington’s 1998 text The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.
  • Cultural America is under siege. And as the Soviet experience illustrates, ideology is a weak glue to hold together people otherwise lacking racial, ethnic, and cultural sources of community — Who Are We? America’s Great Debate, p. 12.
  • The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups. — Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission
  • A government which lacks authority will have little ability short of cataclysmic crisis to impose on its people the sacrifices which may be necessary… We have come to recognize that there are potential desirable limits to economic growth. There are also potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.
  • Such a transformation would not only revolutionize the United States, but it would also have serious consequences for Hispanics, who will be in the United States but not of it. Sosa ends his book, The Americano Dream, with encouragement for aspiring Hispanic entrepreneurs. “The Americano dream?” he asks. “It exists, it is realistic, and it is there for all of us to share.” Sosa is wrong. There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English. — “The Hispanic Challenge” from Foreign Policy, p. 45.
  • A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world. — “Why International Primacy Matters,” International Security (Spring 1993):83.
  • The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate. — American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, p. 75.
  • In Western Europe, anti-Semitism directed against Arabs has largely replaced Anti-Semitism against Jews, p. 200.


The following is a reader’s juxtaposition of two WSJ articles, the first a remembrance of the late Pope John Paul II by his biographer George Weigel and the second a recollection in an article by Brett Stephens of a brilliant Harvard political scientist who posed one of those “unthinkable thoughts” on the eve of the West’s greatest triumphs, the end of the Cold War in 1991. I close with some thoughts by Peggy Noonan.

The unthinkable thought on the eve of the triumph of the Reagan/Bush ending the Cold War was: “What would happen, if the American model no longer embodied strength and success, no longer seemed to be the winning model?” The question, posed by Samuel Huntington, was farfetched then, but now 23 years later in the shadow of Barack Obama’s weakness as a leader and an economy that after five years continues to stagger under the weight of two entitlements which at their current rates of existence we can no longer afford or manage: Social Security and MediCare. ObamaCare has complicated the latter and not solved anything.

“The Cold War was won, the Soviet Union was about to vanish. History was at an end. All over the world, people seemed to want the same things in the same way: democracy, capitalism, free trade, free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom for women. “The day of the dictator is over,” George H.W. Bush had said in his 1989 inaugural address. “We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right.”

But Huntington warned: “Sustained inability to provide welfare, prosperity, equity, justice, domestic order, or external security could over time undermine the legitimacy of even democratic governments. … As the memories of authoritarian failures fade, irritation with democratic failures is likely to increase.” The passage quoted there comes from “The Third Wave,” the book Huntington wrote just before his famous essay on the clash of civilizations:

“The “wave” was a reference to the 30 or so authoritarian states that, between 1974 and 1990, adopted democratic institutions. The two previous waves referred to the rise of mass-suffrage democracy in the 1830s and the post-Wilsonian wave of the 1920s. In each previous case, revolution succumbed to reaction; Weimar gave way to Hitler.

Huntington knew that the third wave, too, would crest, crash and recede. It’s happening now. The real question is how hard it will crash, on whom, for how long.

A West that prefers debt-subsidized welfarism over economic growth will not offer much in the way of an attractive model for countries in a hurry to modernize. A West that consistently sacrifices efficiency on the altars of regulation, litigation and political consensus will lose the dynamism that makes the risks inherent in free societies seem worthwhile. A West that shrinks from maintaining global order because doing so is difficult or discomfiting will invite challenges from nimble adversaries willing to take geopolitical gambles.”
Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations

At some point, Stephens reminds us, the momentum will shift back: “That, too, is inevitable. The dictators will err; their corruption will become excessive; their cynicism will become transparent to their own rank-and-file. A new democratic wave will begin to build. Whether that takes five years or 50 depends on what the West does now. Five years is a blip. Fifty is the tragedy of a lifetime.”

Not so much on what the West does, but the visions of its leaders and here is the juxtaposition I found so jarring. It is the 9th anniversary of John Paul II’s death and he will be canonized this April 27. John Paul was a leader who discerned possibilities when others saw only barriers:

“John Paul II embodied the human drama of the second half of the 20th century in a singular way, and whose witness to the truth of humanity’s noblest aspirations bent the curve of history toward freedom, can only be understood from inside out. Or, if you prefer, soul first. His was a many-textured soul. Some of its multiple facets help explain his extraordinary accomplishments in the Catholic Church and on the world stage.”
George Weigel

Contrast the familiar bio of the community organizer who seized the moment and 18 months from his time as an Illinois state senator was chosen to run for the Senate and then began his campaign for the presidency. Granted it’s an amazing story but the product that has emerged is a man totally unsuited for office if not overwhelmed by the office itself, something that never happened with John Paul II. Who was John Paul II? Why was he not overwhelmed by his office?

“He had a Polish soul, formed by a distinctive experience of history. Vivisected in the Third Polish Partition of 1795, his country was not restored to the map of Europe until 1918. But during those 123 years of political humiliation, the Polish nation survived the demise of the Polish state through its language, its literature and its faith, with the Catholic Church acting as the safe-deposit box of national identity.

Learning about that hard experience as a boy, Karol Wojtyla was permanently inoculated against the twin heresies that had beset the West for centuries: the Jacobin heresy that the political quest for power runs history, and the Marxist heresy that history is simply the exhaust fumes of economic processes.

Knowing in his Polish soul that culture, not politics or economics, drives history over the long haul, John Paul II could ignite a revolution of conscience during his first papal visit to Poland in 1979. He summoned his people to live the truth about themselves, to reject the communist culture of the lie, and to find in that restored national identity irresistible tools of resistance to oppression.

This son of Poland was, at the same time, a man of global vision with a deeply humanistic soul, forged by what he regarded as the crisis of modernity: a crisis in the very idea of the human person. That crisis, he believed, was not confined to communism’s materialist reduction of the human condition, which he tenaciously fought as a university chaplain, a professor of ethics, a charismatic priest and a dynamic bishop. The crisis could also be found in those Western systems that were tempted to measure men and women by their commercial utility rather than by the innate and inalienable dignity that was their birthright.”
George Weigel

And what of Barack’s philosophy of life that he brought with him to office? His foul acceptance of abortion at any cost? His progressive view of the world where we are all just folks: “Everyone is just like me,” he seems to say — what Charles Krauthammer called a “plural solecism.” How’s that working out for the “folks” in Eastern Ukraine or in Syria one wonders).

And how does that contrast with the recently canonized Saint of the son of Poland? What did he fight for? Why was his fight the fight for the human person above all others?

John Paul II’s conviction, biblically rooted and philosophically refined, was that every human life is of infinite value, at every stage and in every condition. This was the basis of his priestly ministry for almost six decades it was the conviction that forged his unique moral analysis of world politics; and it was the ground from which he could inspire men and women from a staggering variety of cultures.

He could also touch those lives because of his dramatic soul. As a young man, he confessed in a memoir later in life, he was “obsessed” with the theater. And while he took some useful skills from those experiences on stage — John Gielgud once commented on John Paul II’s “perfect” sense of timing, as Alec Guinness marveled at the resonance of his voice — he also developed a dramatic view of the human condition. We all live, he believed, in a quotidian, yet deeply consequential, moral drama. Every day of our lives is lived in the dramatic tension between who we are and who we should be.

John Paul II intuited this on stage; he refined that intuition as a philosopher. And it was deepened by his Christian conviction that the drama of every human life is playing within a cosmic drama in which the God of the Bible is producer, director, scriptwriter and protagonist. That Christian conviction, in turn, was what allowed him to say, a year after he was shot in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.”

A man whose soul is formed by the conviction that “coincidence” is merely a facet of providence that he has not yet grasped is a man impervious to the tyranny of the possible. And here, too, the soul of John Paul II helps explain his accomplishment.

When he was elected pope in 1978, some observers, fixated on what they imagined to be possible, saw in the Catholic Church only contention and possible ruin. He saw seeds of reform and renewal, leading to what he would call a “New Evangelization,” a new missionary dynamic in Catholicism that would offer the divine mercy to a broken and wounded humanity. Others, fixated on what seemed settled in world affairs, believed that the Yalta division of Europe after World War II was permanent. But after June 1979 and the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, he saw possibilities for dramatic cultural, social and eventually political change in Eastern Europe — and then helped effect them.

We may have failed in his new evangelization, we may not have followed through on his promises. But we sit on a cusp now, one that will lead us either to a fifty year trough of broken lives for a generation or a five year dip that will keep us primed for the next rise in our Catholic faithful’s march toward a new evangelization and fulfilling our promises to our Lord in another springtime of the human spirit; a refusal to fall to the tyranny of the secular state’s diminished expectations, both personal and political that embodies the leadership of a Barack Obama. May the Lord bless us and keep us.

Great leaders are clear, honest, suffer for their stands and are brave. They conduct a constant dialogue. At the end, when they are gone, the crowd declares what they heard. When John Paul died, they issued their judgment: He was a saint.

Popes aren’t presidents, and presidents aren’t saints. Both operate within wildly different realities and have wholly different obligations, so to compare the two isn’t quite just. And yet I couldn’t help think the past week of President Obama, whom I started to think of as poor Obama — whose failings as a leader are now so apparent, and seem so irremediable, partly because they spring from not only his nature and personality but his misunderstanding of what leaders do.

Does he stand for something? I suppose he stands for many things, but you can’t quite narrow it down and sum it up. A problem with his leadership is that there’s always the sense that he’s not quite telling you his core and motivating beliefs. There are a lot of rounded banalities. There are sentiments and impulses. But he isn’t stark, doesn’t vividly cut through. There’s a sense he’s telling people as much as he feels he can within the parameters of political safety, and no more.

As for speaking truthfully, well, he speaks, in many venues and sometimes at great length. But rather than persuade the other side, he knocks down a lot of straw men and deploys no affection or regard for those who disagree with him. He says the great signature program of his presidency will do one thing and it turns out to do another. He is evasive about Benghazi and the other scandals. He winds up with polls showing Americans do not see him as a truth teller. That’s treacherous for a leader. People give politicians a lot of leeway because they think so little of them. But they don’t like it when they’re being played.
Peggy Noonan, Apathy in the Executive


Philip Roth on Crows and the Natural Order of Things

April 28, 2014


Crows reach sexual maturity around the age of 3 years for females and 5 years for males. Some crows may live to the age of 20, and the oldest known American crow in the wild was almost 30 years old. The oldest captive crow documented died at age 59. The American crow is highly susceptible to the recently introduced North American strain of West Nile virus. American crows typically die within one week of acquiring the disease and very few survive exposure.

Crows reach sexual maturity around the age of 3 years for females and 5 years for males. Some crows may live to the age of 20, and the oldest known American crow in the wild was almost 30 years old. The oldest captive crow documented died at age 59. The American crow is highly susceptible to the recently introduced North American strain of West Nile virus. American crows typically die within one week of acquiring the disease and very few survive exposure.

A few pages from The Human Stain.


Maybe she is even if, alone now on the grass while the boys are smoking and cleaning up from lunch, she thinks she is thinking about crows. She thinks about crows a lot of the time. They’re everywhere. They roost in the woods not far from the bed where she sleeps, they’re in the pasture when she’s out there moving the fence for the cows, and today they are cawing all over the campus, and so instead of thinking of what she is thinking the way Coleman thinks she is thinking it, she is thinking about the crow that used to hang around the store in Seeley Falls when, after the fire and before moving to the farm, she took the furnished room up there to try to hide from Farley, the crow that hung around the parking lot between the post office and the store, the crow that somebody had made into a pet because it was abandoned or because its mother was killed — she never knew what orphaned it.

And now it had been abandoned for a second time and had taken to hanging out in that parking lot, where most everybody came and went during the course of the day. This crow created many problems in Seeley Falls because it started dive-bombing people coming into the post office, going after the barrettes in the little girls’ hair and so on — as crows will because it is their nature to collect shiny things, bits of glass and stuff like that — and so the postmistress, in consultation with a few interested townsfolk, decided to take it to the Audubon Society, where it was caged and only sometimes let out to fly; it couldn’t be set free because in the wild a bird that likes to hang around a parking lot simply will not fit in.

That crow’s voice. She remembers it at all hours, day or night, awake, sleeping, or insomniac. Had a strange voice. Not like the voice of other crows probably because it hadn’t been raised with other crows. Right after the fire, I used to go and visit that crow at the Audubon Society, and whenever the visit was over and I would turn to leave, it would call me back with this voice. Yes, in a cage, but being what it was, it was better off that way. There were other birds in cages that people had brought in because they couldn’t live in the wild anymore.

There were a couple of little owls. Speckled things that looked like toys. I used to visit the owls too. And a pigeon hawk with a piercing cry. Nice birds. And then moved down here and, alone as I was, am, I have gotten to know crows like never before. And them me. Their sense of humor. Is that what it is? Maybe it’s not a sense of humor. But to me it looks like it is. The way they walk around. The way they tuck their heads. The way they scream at me if I don’t have bread for them. Faunia, go get the bread. They strut. They boss the other birds around.

On Saturday, after having the conversation with the redtail hawk down by Cumberland, I came home and I heard these two crows back in the orchards. I knew something was up. This alarming crow-calling. Sure enough, saw three birds — two crows crowing and cawing off this hawk. Maybe the very one I’d been talking to a few minutes before. Chasing it. Obviously the redtail was up to no good. But taking on a hawk? Is that a good idea? It wins them points with the other crows, but I don’t know if I would do that. Can even two of them take on a hawk? Aggressive bastards. Mostly hostile. Good for them. Saw a photo once — a crow going right up to an eagle and barking at it. The eagle doesn’t give a shit. Doesn’t even see him.

But the crow is something. The way it flies. They’re not as pretty as ravens when ravens fly and do those wonderful, beautiful acrobatics. They’ve got a big fuselage to get off the ground and yet they don’t need a running start necessarily. A few steps will do it. I’ve watched that. It’s more just a huge effort. They make this huge effort and they’re up. When I used to take the kids to eat at Friendly’s. Four years ago. There were millions of them. The Friendly’s on East Main Street in Blackwell. In the late afternoon. Before dark. Millions of them in the parking lot. The crow convention at Friendly’s. What is it with crows and parking lots? What is that all about?

We’ll never know what that’s about or anything else. Other birds are kind of dull next to crows. Yes, bluejays have that terrific bounce. The trampoline walk. That’s good. But crows can do the bounce and the chesty thrust. Most impressive. Turning their heads from left to right, casing the joint. Oh, they’re hot shit. They’re the coolest. Thecaw. The noisy caw. Listen. Just listen. Oh, I love it. Staying in touch like that. The frantic call that means danger. I love that. Rush outside then. It can be 5 A.M., I don’t care. The frantic call, rush outside, and you can expect the show to begin any minute. The other calls, I can’t say I know what they mean. Maybe nothing. Sometimes it’s a quick call. Sometimes it’s throaty. Don’t want to confuse it with the raven’s call.

Crows mate with crows and ravens with ravens. It’s wonderful that they never get confused. Not to my knowledge anyway. Everybody who says they’re ugly scavenger birds — and most everybody does — is nuts. I think they’re beautiful. Oh, yes. Very beautiful. Their sleekness. Their shades. It’s so so black in there you can see purple in there. Their heads. At the start of the beak that sprout of hairs, that mustache thing, those hairs coming forward from the feathers. Probably has a name. But the name doesn’t matter. Never does.

All that matters is that it’s there. And nobody knows why. It’s like everything else — just there. All their eyes are black. Everybody gets black eyes. Black claws. What is it like flying? Ravens will do the soaring, crows just seem to go where they’re going. They don’t just fly around as far as I can tell. Let the ravens soar. Let the ravens do the soaring. Let the ravens pile up the miles and break the records and get the prizes.

The crows have to get from one place to another. They hear that I have bread, so they’re here. They hear somebody down the road two miles has bread, so they’re there. When I throw their bread out to them, there’ll always be one who is the guard and another you can hear off in the distance, and they’re signaling back and forth just to let everybody know what’s going on. It’s hard to believe in everybody’s looking out for everybody else, but that’s what it looks like.

There’s a wonderful story I never forgot that a friend of mine told me when I was a kid that her mother told her. There were these crows who were so smart that they had figured out how to take these nuts they had that they couldn’t break open out to the highway, and they would watch the lights, the traffic lights, and they would know when the cars would take off — they were that intelligent that they knew what was going on with the lights — and they would place the nuts right in front of the tires so they’d be cracked open and as soon as the light would change they’d move down.

I believed that back then. Believed everything back then. And now that I know them and nobody else, I believe it again. Me and the crows. That’s the ticket. Stick to the crows and you’ve got it made. I hear they preen each other’s feathers. Never seen that. Seen them close together and wonder what they’re doing. But never seen them actually doing it. Don’t even see them preen their own. But then, I’m next door to the roost, not in it.

Wish I were. Would have preferred to be one. Oh, yes, absolutely. No two ways about that. Much prefer to be a crow. They don’t have to worry about moving to get away from anybody or anything. They just move. They don’t have to pack anything. They just go. When they get smashed by something, that’s it, it’s over. Tear a wing, it’s over. Break a foot, it’s over. A much better way than this. Maybe I’ll come back as one. What was I before that I came back as this? I was a crow! Yes! I was one!

And I said, “God, I wish I was that big-titted girl down there,” and I got my wish, and now, Christ, do I want to go back to my crow status. My status crow. Good name for a crow. Status. Good name for anything black and big. Goes with the strut. Status. I noticed everything as a kid. I loved birds. Always stuck on crows and hawks and owls. Still see the owls at night, driving home from Coleman’s place. I can’t help it if I get out of the car to talk to them. Shouldn’t. Should drive straight on home before that bastard kills me.

What do crows think when they hear the other birds singing? They think it’s stupid. It is. Cawing. That’s the only thing. It doesn’t look good for a bird that struts to sing a sweet little song. No, caw your head off. That’s the fucking ticket — cawing your head off and frightened of nothing and in there eating everything that’s dead.

Gotta get a lot of road kill in a day if you want to fly like that. Don’t bother to drag it off but eat it right on the road. Wait until the last minute when a car is coming, and then they get up and go but not so far that they can’t hop right back and dig back in soon as it’s passed. Eating in the middle of the road.

Wonder what happens when the meat goes bad. Maybe it doesn’t for them. Maybe that’s what it means to be a scavenger. Them and the turkey vultures — that’s their job. They take care of all of those things out in the woods and out in the road that we don’t want anything to do with. No crow goes hungry in all this world. Never without a meal. If it rots, you don’t see the crow run away. If there’s death, they’re there. Something’s dead, they come by and get it. I like that. I like that a lot. Eat that raccoon no matter what. Wait for the truck to come crack open the spine and then go back in there and suck up all the good stuff it takes to lift that beautiful black carcass off the ground.

Sure, they have their strange behavior. Like anything else. I’ve seen them up in those trees, gathered all together, talking all together, and something’s going on. But what it is I’ll never know. There’s some powerful arrangement there. But I haven’t the faintest idea whether they know what it is themselves. It could be as meaningless as everything else. I’ll bet it isn’t, though, and that it makes a million fucking times more sense than any fucking thing down here. Or doesn’t it? Is it just a lot of stuff that looks like something else but isn’t? Maybe it’s all just a genetic tic. Or tock.

Imagine if the crows were in charge. Would it be the same shit all over again? The thing about them is that they’re all practicality. In their flight. In their talk. Even in their color. All that blackness. Nothing but blackness. Maybe I was one and maybe I wasn’t. I think I sometimes believe that I already am one. Yes, been believing that on and off for months now.

Why not? There are men who are locked up in women’s bodies and women who are locked up in men’s bodies, so why can’t I be a crow locked up in this body? Yeah, and where is the doctor who is going to do what they do to let me out? Where do I go to get the surgery that will let me be what I am? Who do I talk to? Where do I go and what do I do and how the fuck do I get out?

I am a crow. I know it. I know it!


A Clash of Pentecosts — Robert Joustra

October 29, 2013
Rembrandt, Two Old Men Debating 1628. The Incident at Antioch was an Apostolic Age dispute between the apostles Paul and Peter which occurred in the city of Antioch around the middle of the first century.

Rembrandt, Two Old Men Debating 1628. The Incident at Antioch was an Apostolic Age dispute between the apostles Paul and Peter which occurred in the city of Antioch around the middle of the first century.


French Catholicism and the secular state. Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editor, with Jonathan Chaplin, of God and Global Order (Baylor Univ. Press).


Every Pentecost is loud. In that first, in dusty provincial Rome long ago, storming winds and tongues of flame made manifest the promise of a curtain torn, of a tomb split open. It was a new communion, one in which barriers of language, race, and gender were remade in the person of Jesus Christ. The curse of Babel undone, humankind found wholeness.

The French Revolution sparked its own Pentecost, with the acrid smell of powder and flint and the scream of metal and steel striking mortal blows to the Ancien Régime, the old order which divided a sovereign people by the hubris of divine right and the paternalism of the clergy. The Revolution brought the masses into the political arena. It was a political Pentecost, a civic epiphany that sparked an explosion of activism.

The story of Emile Perreau-Saussine’s Catholicism and Democracy is a clash of Pentecosts, a clash of sovereignties — one too many for most Catholics, who were just as happy with the one they already had. It is a remarkably powerful story, told by a political theorist of extraordinary talent and depth, a story with its own sad ending, if marked only by his tragic death at such a young age from a heart attack.

The book was published posthumously, and over it hangs that lament which Alasdair MacIntyre puts so poignantly in the foreword: “I shall resist the temptation to note here the occasional doubts that I would have wanted to express to the author or the questions that I would have been anxious to put to him. But I do so with unusual sadness, since I shall never learn what he would have said.”

Yet what Perreau-Saussine bequeathed to us in Catholicism and Democracy is an inheritance worthy of his brief genius. The questions he brings into focus are twofold:

  1. First, why and how did Catholic France, and Catholicism generally, accommodate the spirit of revolutionary democracy, of the sovereignty of the people, which seemed so contrary to the theology and practice of the Catholic Church?
  2. And second, far more subtly, why was it so easy for Protestantism

Of this last question he says very little explicitly, but the consistent suggestion is that Protestantism, and what he calls liberal Protestantism especially, is essentially ideological modernity with theological dressing, tending toward pantheism. Conservative Protestantism comes off rather better, but you might be forgiven for reading the book as concluding that there is no real political or theological vitality in Protestantism — which is, I hope, an overstatement.

Few things seem less palatable to the American religious and political imagination than French Catholicism, and yet there are remarkable parallels between Protestant America and Catholic France, a tether across space and time that Catholicism and Democracy teases at, but never stretches out and sermonizes. Perreau-Saussine’s enviable restraint yields a striking counter-narrative of religious freedom, statehood, and the Catholic faith. Americans, Laotians, Bolivians — everyone — should take note: how we tell that story, how we understand the practice and power of religion and politics in the nation-state’s European past, will profoundly inform our present and our future.

Catholicism and Democracy is the story of Catholic political ideas in an age of democracy, told to complete or at least explain the connection between the origins and applications of Vatican I and Vatican II. It is Perreau-Saussine’s argument that the seemingly radical transition which took place between the two was not so radical at all, but that in fact the resources that yielded these conciliar engagements with modernity, especially in the Gallican and ultramontanist traditions [vocab: the traditions/policies that the absolute authority of the church should be vested in the pope], existed in a productive tension which gave rise to one, consistent theological and political strain.

Consistency of tradition is important in a way to Catholics in which it is, of course, not to Protestants, so the value of that argument might be lost on some readers. But even if the argument is a stretch, and I think it may be, it is not made disingenuously and neither without some solid evidence. Perreau-Saussine traces in the work of Maistre, Lemennais, Tocqueville, Comte, Littré, and Péguy an existential struggle: how can a person who professes to be the slave of Jesus profess in that same breath the ultimate sovereignty of the people? In these thinkers the rushing, horizontal immanence of a Pentecost of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” meets head on the hierarchical pillars of a faith which recognizes no God but the Lord, no sovereign but Jesus Christ.

This is precisely where the book offers such richness for those who are neither French nor Catholic. The crisis of revolutionary France was how to combine a system of sovereign, equal, political peoples with a system of faith, stewarded and safeguarded by a historic hierarchy, deeply entrenched and in many cases internally divided about what paths of justice to follow. The answers were far from obvious. The question of how to live as people owing oaths of loyalty to both Caesar and God is not new, even if the specific institutions and history of late-modern Catholic Europe are, and the answers — and failures — are instructive for more than that time and place.

Leave aside the spat with Protestantism for the moment and consider Islam, a religion which some scholars and pundits have suggested is simply incapable of reforming around the idea of representative democracy. Can there be hope for Islamic states to forge a theological consensus around the rights and duties of democratic liberalism?

The Catholic tradition suggests there might be, provided the internal resources of Islam can fund these commitments and, perhaps most challengingly, if a certain kind of ultramontanist theology can take root — an emergent loyalty to a supranational spiritual rather than spiritual-political office. It is the irony of medieval Catholicism that the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican and the papacy proved a secularizing rather than radicalizing force, as states relinquished their hold on clerical offices and popes relinquished theirs on political ones.

There is, I think, one significant oversight in Perreau-Saussine’s story. It is misleading to starkly state that the deconfessionalization of the nation secured a secular society. Disestablishment is not the same as deconfessionalization, and in this sense Maistre, and in the later tradition Schmitt, might be right, contra Perreau-Saussine, in talking about “political theology” and religion as “the constitutive principle of every society.”

If, as contemporary theologians like William T. Cavanaugh have argued, religion itself is a normative rather than descriptive term — if what we have come to define as religion is in fact an invention of the modern period — then the very categories of our analysis and belief have been predefined by a kind of secularism. This is certainly Charles Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age, where secularity is not neutral and nonreligious but rather, as in Cavanaugh, depends upon its own kind of thin theological consensus about the very definitions of sovereignty, politics, and religion. Where we draw those boundaries — indeed, whether such boundaries exist at all — is as much a matter of theology as of politics. Religion and its boundaries had to be invented before a secular society could claim to secure its freedoms.

This helps render Catholic (and Islamic) squeamishness at the prospect of secular society in a better context: what Catholics were being asked to do was not simply refashion their political loyalties, but fundamentally change their religion, by definition.

And if this secularism, this thin consensus at the basis of the Westphalian state, is indeed an act of theology as much as of politics, if it is religare in that binding original sense, then what we must admit, contra Perreau-Saussine, is that it is no accident of apostasy that Protestantism came to this first. Perhaps — and here I intentionally push back on his unqualified celebration of Catholicism — it was because Protestantism stands a better chance of Reformation, of making new consensus, on the basis of understanding old ones to have been wrong. It may be impolite to say it, but from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy by the Constituent Assembly on July 12, 1790, to the 1965 Declaration of Religious Freedom is an awfully long stretch. There was much profound political philosophy in the Catholic Church during this period, but that glacial growth is itself something of a concern to Protestants and secularists alike.

For Cavanaugh, the nation-state is an apostasy, and he would find a strong history in Perreau-Saussine’s account to draw on for that case. For Taylor, the thin consensus around which secularism persists in the Western state may well depart from orthodox Catholicism, but that is as politics is. A good compromise leaves everyone miserable, politicians will remind us, and to say that a serviceable lie persists at the basis of the nation-state might just be another way of saying we have found something thin enough, if unsatisfying, to largely agree upon, for the time being.

Perreau-Saussine, taking after his great mentor Alasdair MacIntyre, offers only the most tantalizing hors d’oeuvres in conclusion, leaving to us the feast of applying his argument and working out its contemporary applications. Clearly he believes in a kind of secularism — a positive idea of laicity — which understands the secular state to be funded by virtues laws cannot make, and values markets cannot sell. Liberal democracy, for all its freedoms and its rights, now finds itself with an ironic deficit only the Church can fund. As philosophy turns in upon itself, with the idea of autonomy of the will, of indefinite perfectibility, of profane manipulations, Perreau-Saussine wonders whether liberal democracy has not in fact already succumbed to its own totalitarian excesses. And here he concludes with a moving appeal to the papacy, to “the Vatican’s man in white” who is a sovereign with no crown, a witness to a reality which transcends the general will:

[H]e manifests the Christian refusal to be entirely swallowed up in the democratic order. That is the church’s service to society: to resist the docile conformism to which egalitarianism can lead. In a democratic world that works ceaselessly to eliminate otherness, even (perhaps especially) when it proclaims its commitment to pluralism, believers have an eye to something beyond the society of the here and now, and thus have an escape route from conformism. They form a breakwater against the tide of conformity. They are, par excellence, a sign of contradiction.

If it were to be the Catholic Church that so wrestled to come to terms with the measures of liberal democracy, which proved a salve and a savior for that same democracy, the power of that irony must surely wash whatever smug secularism still clings to our Western politics. I suppose Emile Perreau-Saussine now knows that answer, but I for one am very grateful to him for writing out its introduction in this important book.


Anthony Robbins

September 11, 2013

I would normally shy from self-help as a learning genre and seek answers in exploring the spiritual or in my connection with Jesus Christ through prayer. But I do have to acknowledge that Tony Robbins is an engaging speaker and will tell you things that will help you. “The defining factor [for success] is never resources; it’s resourcefulness.”

“Explore your web — the needs, the beliefs, the emotions that are controlling you … so there’s more of you to give … and so you can appreciate what’s driving other people. It’s the only way our world’s going to change.”


Sir Ken Robinson

May 11, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson is a a writer, researcher, adviser, teacher and speaker. Here is one of his recent TED talks. We are all in some way connected to the schools in our community. We need to alert each other about the problems in schools that affect us all.


No Longer Needed – Derek Jeter

April 29, 2013
While in active service, O'Callahan reported aboard the USS Franklin on March 2, 1945, just 17 days before she was severely damaged at dawn by two bombs from a lone Japanese aircraft. The hangar deck immediately became an inferno of exploding gas tanks and ammunition. Although wounded by one of the explosions after the attack, Chaplain O'Callahan moved about the exposed and slanting flight deck, administering the last rites to the dying, comforting the wounded, and leading officers and crewmen into the flames to carry hot bombs and shells to the edge of the deck for jettisoning. He personally recruited a damage control party and led it into one of the main ammunition magazines to wet it down and prevent its exploding. For this action he received the Medal of Honor in February 1946. He was from Boston. The godless secular elite in Boston no longer feel men of this caliber are needed. May God have mercy on the rest of us.

While in active service, O’Callahan reported aboard the USS Franklin on March 2, 1945, just 17 days before she was severely damaged at dawn by two bombs from a lone Japanese aircraft. The hangar deck immediately became an inferno of exploding gas tanks and ammunition. Although wounded by one of the explosions after the attack, Chaplain O’Callahan moved about the exposed and slanting flight deck, administering the last rites to the dying, comforting the wounded, and leading officers and crewmen into the flames to carry hot bombs and shells to the edge of the deck for jettisoning. He personally recruited a damage control party and led it into one of the main ammunition magazines to wet it down and prevent its exploding. For this action he received the Medal of Honor in February 1946. He was from Boston. The godless secular elite in Boston no longer feel men of this caliber are needed. May God have mercy on the rest of us.

In the Houses of Worship column in last week’s WSJ there was a jarring piece on how priests were barred from the chaotic bombing scene after the Boston Marathon:

The heart-wrenching photographs taken in the moments after the Boston Marathon bombings show the blue-and-yellow jackets of volunteers, police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians, even a three-foot-high blue M&M. Conspicuously absent are any clerical collars or images of pastoral care.

This was not for lack of proximity. Close to the bombing site are Trinity Episcopal Church, Old South Church and St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine, all on Boylston Street. When the priests at St. Clement’s, three blocks away, heard the explosions, they gathered sacramental oils and hurried to the scene in hopes of anointing the injured and, if necessary, administering last rites, the final of seven Catholic sacraments. But the priests, who belong to the order Oblates of the Virgin Mary, weren’t allowed at the scene.

The Rev. John Wykes, director of the St. Francis Chapel at Boston’s soaring Prudential Center, and the Rev. Tom Carzon, rector of Our Lady of Grace Seminary, were among the priests who were turned away right after the bombings.
Jennifer Graham, Faith at the Finish Line

While the author of the piece pointed to security concerns as a rationale for the policy that barred priests and religious from the scene, clearly much more was going on in my beloved secular paradise of Boston. Jennifer Graham (the author) referred to “a poignant irony that Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year. As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites — a sacrament that, to Catholics, bears enormous significance.”

Ms. Graham is a “religion” editor from the Boston Globe, a newspaper that has savaged the Catholic Church with such glee in recent decades that the idea it would appoint any kind of religious whatever is utterly laughable. The Globe hates, nay detests, religion and I have witnessed Catholics forbidding even their death notices to be published in it. Yes, it’s that bad. Ms. Graham’s title carries the weight and authority of a Senior Editor from the Daily Show among the faithful here in Boston: a complete and utter joke.

The mind-set of the Globe and of its sister liberal publications is aggressively arrogant and secular. A good example of it long ago in the movie, “Mash:” a priest is pushed away from a badly wounded patient by the doctor, as being of no consequence. In general the man is portrayed as a fool. That mindset of the ‘60s – -not just anti-clericalism but an ascendant and sick atheism — is now dominant in both the Globe and the medical profession, for that matter. It explains in no small way why the Philadelphia abortionist, the gentlemanly Dr. Kermit Gosnell, was aided and abetted by his medical colleagues and the liberal press in his city for so long.

Seemingly unrelated but read this review of the blasphemous “Testament of Mary” now on Broadway:

If you’re a lapsed Catholic, preferably Irish, who now believes that Christianity is the principal source of evil in the modern world, then I encourage you to see “The Testament of Mary,” a modern-dress solo stage version of the 2012 novella by Colm Tóibín in which Jesus’ mother (played by Fiona Shaw) proclaims to all and sundry that her son was (A) crazy and (B) not the Messiah. It’s your kind of play, and then some. If, on the other hand, you’re a Christian of the old-fashioned sort, you’ll likely go home praying for fire, or at least a plague of locusts, to descend upon the Walter Kerr Theatre and its blasphemous occupants.

…The members of the audience, whose unswerving secularity is comfortably taken for granted by Mr. Tóibín and his collaborators, are invited to snigger along with Mary at her son and his disciples, and snigger they do, over and over again. Rarely have I heard laughter so smug as that which greeted this line: “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye, men who were seen smiling to themselves.” Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
Terry Teachout, WSJ drama critic

So why not ban priests from disaster scenes with their silly sacraments claiming more than psychological comfort to their recipients? Science knows that “Extreme unction” is a cultural conceit. What the hell is that anyway? Well, Catholics believe it has the power to help body as well as soul; it gives grace for the state into which people enter through sickness and approach death. Through the sacrament a gift of the Holy Spirit is given, that renews confidence and faith in God and strengthens against temptations to discouragement, despair and anguish at the thought of death and the struggle of death; it prevents the believer from losing Christian hope in God’s justice, truth and salvation. But screw all that mumbo-jumbo say our totalitarian secular guardians. Go back to raping your children.

Thankfully not all cities are like Boston:

It was jarring for Father Wykes, who, as a hospital chaplain in Illinois a decade ago, was never denied access to crime or accident scenes.

“I was allowed to go anywhere. In Boston, I don’t have that access,” he says.

But Father Wykes says he has noticed a shift in the societal role of clergy over the past few decades: “In the Bing Crosby era — in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s — a priest with a collar could get in anywhere. That’s changed. Priests are no longer considered to be emergency responders.”

The Rev. Mychal Judge is a memorable exception. The New York City priest died on 9/11, when the South Tower collapsed and its debris flew into the North Tower lobby, where Father Judge was praying after giving last rites to victims lying outside. The image of the priest’s body being carried from the rubble was one of the most vivid images to emerge from 9/11.
Jennifer Graham, Faith at the Finish Line

Pray that your City doesn’t become the outrage we constantly suffer here in Boston. The local Imams have a better chance of comforting the suffering before a Catholic priest does here. It is nothing short of ironic that the godless culture of death and licentiousness these secular nitwits have spawned is one of the chief reasons it has come under attack by Muslim jihadists. It was here, after all, that homosexual priests became the center of a worldwide scandal and distortion in the Church and caused a split between the faithful and the Church that exists today.

This is the triumph of the secular over the Church here in Boston: go back to raping your children why don’t you? This appears to justify Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, not receiving his last rites: a sad, sad day in many ways. “Boston Strong” chant the Fenway Park secular faithful. Hell no, sez I. This is a city so weakened and so corrupt, it can invite only your prayers. Pray for anyone wearing a “Boston Strong” T-shirt.


Faith of the Fatherless – Meredith Rice

April 10, 2013
In a fallen world, every father fails in some degree to reflect and interpret the fatherhood of God, and yet many children implicitly or explicitly reconcile that gap with trust in the providence and faithfulness of God. Yet for many others the likely effect of the loss of the father is a distance from and doubt of God, which leads in many cases to profound atheism.

In a fallen world, every father fails in some degree to reflect and interpret the fatherhood of God, and yet many children implicitly or explicitly reconcile that gap with trust in the providence and faithfulness of God. Yet for many others the likely effect of the loss of the father is a distance from and doubt of God, which leads in many cases to profound atheism.

A review of Paul Vitz’ Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, a reblogging of a article in HumanumMs Rice holds a B.A. and an M.A. in theology from the University of Dallas and The Catholic University of America, respectively.


With the prevalence of divorce and the ever-rising rate of out-of-wedlock births in the US, sociologists have begun to study the effects of growing up without a father in the home. In seemingly every measurable category, the lack of a sustained, committed father-child relationship puts the child at a disadvantage: lower IQ, lower academic achievement, higher anxiety, higher rates of disruptive behavior, lower self-esteem, higher rates of drug use and violence, and an increased chance of child abuse have all been linked with the absence of fathers from their children.

In his 1999 book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist Paul Vitz proposes another likely effect of the loss of the father on children: a distance from and doubt of God, which leads in many cases to profound atheism. Vitz develops his proposal as an inverse to Freud’s projection theory of belief in God, which proposes “wish-fulfillment derived from childish needs for protection and security” as the major psychological factor leading to religious belief in God (p. 6).

Without giving credence to Freud’s conclusion that psychological factors in belief render the belief itself suspect or false, Vitz notes that the projection theory in fact offers just as plausible an explanation for unbelief as for belief. Taking up the insight that a child’s “psychological representation of his father is intimately connected to his understanding of God,” Vitz proposes to test a “defective father” hypothesis, in which an “atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God” (p. 16). His method is a historical survey of the biographies of prominent atheists and theists, particularly major figures in the development of modern atheism and their interlocutors on the side of faith.

In the column of founders and major proponents of modern atheism, Vitz addresses nineteen cases, from Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume, to Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Stalin, and Sigmund Freud himself. In each case, the “defective father” hypothesis holds to some degree. Each of these men experienced a rift in his relationship with his father: whether the early death of his father, or abuse, neglect or abandonment at his hands, or an unattractive weakness or overbearing character in his father, which led to a personal break and rejection of the father’s values.

In a few cases, these men themselves draw a parallel between the absence of their fathers and the absence of God. Explaining his mother’s inability to impart her waning faith to him in the face of her husband’s careless neglect of the family, H.G. Wells relates: “My father was away at cricket, and I think she realized more and more as the years dragged on without material alleviation, that Our Father and Our Lord, on whom to begin with she had perhaps counted unduly, were also away – playing perhaps at their own sort of cricket in some remote quarter of the starry universe” (p. 51). The lack of stability from a father’s care appears to leave a void that a discredited God cannot fill, and that instead requires the search for a new principle of order and flourishing, e.g., mathematics (Russell), existential philosophy (Sartre), totalitarian political order (Stalin), and so on.

In his selection of a “control group” of theists, Vitz focuses on prominent intellectual defenders of faith against the atheism or skepticism of their times and reveals a more varied set of circumstances. Blaise Pascal’s father retired from the law on the death of his wife to devote himself to the education of his children, while Edmund Burke was separated from his father at a young age because of health, but was instead raised with the help of three maternal uncles who impressed him with their integrity, benevolence, and faith (p. 65).

G.K. Chesterton spent his childhood at his father’s side, imbibing his love of literature and beauty, while Martin Buber lost his mother and was separated from his father at an early age but was raised by grandparents who were attentive and loving. Albert Schweitzer was able to describe his father as “my dearest friend” (p. 86), while Abraham Heschel lost his father at the age of ten but felt himself from an early age to be following in the spiritual footsteps of several Hasidic rabbis whose example guided his growth.

In the examples of theists Vitz cites, the lives of those whose loss or estrangement from their fathers that would seem to locate them in the “defective fathers” category also included the secondary influence of some kind of substitute father figure. And although many of the theists were sons of devout, and even ordained, men (Paley, Schleiermacher, Schweitzer, and Barth were all ministers’ sons), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was raised by a devoted father who was himself agnostic and in a household whose Christian practice was mostly nominal. The commonality appears to be that a father or father-figure in each of these cases was able to provide a stability, affection, and attention that at the very least did not impede the development of faith in God.

The initial conclusion to be drawn from Vitz’s survey is that the historical evidence appears to support his hypothesis that the childhood experience of a “defective father” is a contributing psychological factor to the rejection of God in adulthood. Further, Vitz is able to contextualize this formative experience of the prominent atheists he identified with several further shared personal characteristics that appear to contribute to their skepticism regarding belief: high intelligence, overweening ambition, and the free choice to reject the strictures that belief in God might place on the realization of personal development.

Indeed, many of his examples would seem to share the understanding of God’s role in their lives that Sartre attributed to fatherhood in general: “‘Had my own father lived, he would have lain on me full length and crushed me’” (p. 30). In this way, the modern “romance of the autonomous self,” free from all restraint, plays directly into a rejection of belief in God (p. 136).

In substantiating his hypothesis of a projection theory of atheism based on the experience of a “defective” father, Vitz shows that the Freudian dismissal of religious belief based on psychological projection is illegitimate: the ultimate truth (or falsity) of religious belief cannot be determined by psychological factors (p. 145). However, for the general reader, Vitz might have strengthened his presentation by stepping outside this Freudian frame.

His discussion of the relationship between family dynamics and belief in God is interesting not primarily for polemical reasons, but insofar as it resonates with the experience and truth of the human person as such. In a fallen world, every father fails in some degree to reflect and interpret the fatherhood of God, and yet many children implicitly or explicitly reconcile that gap with trust in the providence and faithfulness of God. A discussion of this universal human experience would have added a greater depth and credibility to the selective historical survey of exceptional figures that forms the bulk of Vitz’s observations and argument.


Beyond Politics 3 – Christopher Dawson

February 13, 2013
Society, says Burke, is not an artificial legal construction, it is a spiritual community, "a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born."

Society, says Burke, is not an artificial legal construction, it is a spiritual community, “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.”

Moral rearmament to serve the cause of the nation is not the Church’s primary and essential task. Religion serves a higher creed than man can comprehend. Again and again we see the prophets, and One greater than the prophets, announcing the doom of their people, when on the short view they should have been devoting their energies to restoring the national morale. Certainly no modern government, whether totalitarian or democratic, would tolerate the behaviour of Jeremiah the prophet at the time of his nation’s need: in fact in most countries today his treatment would be condemned as unduly mild, and he would be executed out of hand as an agent of enemy propaganda.

Yet on the long view Jeremiah is justified even on national grounds, since, thanks to him and his like, his people still survive while the successful powers to which they bowed their neck have one after another gone down to the dust. Better for Israel, some may say, if they had shared the lot of other peoples and not continued to drag their weary way down twenty-five centuries of suffering. But that is where history, like religion, transcends the order of culture and enters the penumbra of divine mystery.

And the Church, no less than the ancient prophets, is the servant of this higher order. She is the hierophant of the divine mysteries, not the teacher of human science nor the organizer of human culture. But if it is not the Church’s business to organize culture, neither is it that of the State. It is an intermediate region which belongs to neither the one nor the other, but which has its own laws of life and its own right to self-determination and self-direction.

To restore order in this sphere is the greatest need of our civilization, but it can only be achieved by a power of its own order, that is to say by the power of ideas and the organization of thought. But it is not possible to do this by any kind of philosophic or scientific dictatorship, as was the dream of the idealists from Plato to the present day, for the intellectual world is as divided as the religious world, and philosophy has lost its ancient prestige and its hegemony over the other sciences.

Nor is it possible to restore spiritual order by a return to the old humanist discipline of letters, for that is inseparable from the aristocratic ideal of a privileged caste of scholars. A democratic society must find a correspondingly democratic organization of culture, which should be distinct from political democracy, but parallel to it in another field of activity. At the present day, when everyone is educated a little, and when no one can master the whole realm of knowledge, it would be invidious to distinguish the scholars from the unlearned, especially since under modern conditions a man may attain vast scientific knowledge without any corresponding breadth of culture.

In these circumstances it seems to me that the form of organization appropriate to our society in the field of culture as well as in that of politics is the party — that is to say a voluntary organization for common ends based on a common “ideology”.

But is an organization of this kind conceivable in our divided and disordered civilization? That is the vital question on which the future of democracy depends.

The totalitarian parties, as I have pointed out, owe their success to their achievement in this field — the organization of national life and culture outside the political sphere. But since this function is not really consistent with the political basis of their activity, they transcend politics in both directions — by aiming at a super-political end and by using sub-political methods of violence and lawlessness in order to attain it. They become persecuting sects, like the Jacobins before them, rather than free organs of public opinion.

Now it is the fundamental principle of the old English school of political thought that the national society and national culture transcend politics. It is common both to the Left and the Right, and was insisted on by Tom Paine as strongly as by Edmund Burke. Government, says the former, is no sacred mystery, it is simply a national association for carrying on the public business — res publica — and the greater part of the order that reigns among mankind is not the creation of governments, but is due to the free activity of the civilized community.

Society, says Burke, is not an artificial legal construction, it is a spiritual community, “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.”

But while English thinkers, whether Liberal or Conservative, recognized that society transcends the State, they did not realize the need for any deliberate organization of the nonpolitical social functions. They believed that these things could be safely left to nature and to the free activity of individuals or, alternatively, to nature and social tradition. They did not see that some form of social control is necessary in the economic world in order to protect the individual and society itself from exploitation, and that some social discipline is no less necessary in the world of culture to save the national tradition from disintegration and destruction.

Today the liberal individualism and the conservative traditionalism of the nineteenth century have alike disappeared, and the policy of laissez faire, which has already been abandoned in economics, is rightly being abandoned in culture also. Nevertheless, this need not involve the abandonment of the traditional English principle of the limitation of the State to its own political sphere. It is still possible to create an organization of national culture which would not be directly dependent on the State or on any political party; and I believe that a society so organized would be not only more free but in the last resort also stronger than a totalitarian State which is obliged to narrow and even impoverish its culture in order to keep it completely dependent on political control.

But in order to do this it is necessary to have a clear consciousness of our aim, and to pursue it with as much determination and perseverance as the servants of the State have shown in their domain. Hitherto the children of this world have shown themselves not only wiser but also more capable of self-discipline and devotion than the children of light. The Machiavellian virtue of the statesman, low as it may be, has been a real thing, whereas the higher ideals of the humanist and the philosopher have been bloodless phantoms which were not strong enough to arouse passionate devotion or effectual action.

Yet few would deny that it is possible to serve the community in other fields than politics, or would hold that such a vocation is intrinsically less capable of arousing devotion and enthusiasm. What has been lacking hitherto is any satisfactory basis for common action, and for lack of this there has been an appalling waste and misdirection of the highest spiritual resources of the community which have been left to run wild or to expend themselves in an unworthy servitude to economic interests.

What is necessary is some organization which is neither political nor economic, and which will devote itself to the service of national life and the organization of national culture. At the present time in democratic countries the realm of culture has become a no-man’s-land which is given up to anarchic individualism and at the same time invaded from different directions by the organized powers of the State, and financial capitalism.

Thus the press, the cinema, and the theatre, which exert such an enormous influence on public opinion and popular culture, are as yet almost free in democratic countries from any direct interference by the State: yet their freedom is limited and their cultural value diminished in every direction by the financial motives and the capitalist organization that determine their character. The field of education, on the other hand, is relatively free from this slavery to economic forces. But here the State has already acquired almost complete control, and it would seem as though the power which the State has thus obtained over the mind of the community must inevitably bring about the triumph of a totalitarian order.

Nevertheless, there remains a free element, a survival of the humanist tradition, which gives even our bureaucratic educational machine a leaven of freedom and liberal ideals. It is easy to condemn the snobbery and Philistinism of the English public-school system. Yet one must admit, I think, that it does stand, however incompletely, for this principle of the service of the national culture, apart from any political or economic motive; so that one is conscious of the presence of something which comes neither from State organization nor the power of money, but which is the fruit of the unbroken corporate tradition of centuries of national life.

It is inevitable that under existing social conditions some of them should have acquired a definitely aristocratic character as the preserve of a wealthy and privileged class, but this is by no means always the case. The school which I know best, and which is in a sense the archetype of the whole system, has never had any marked aristocratic or plutocratic character. It has always maintained its original function of training scholars who would be good servants of the community. In this it has been faithful to the spirit of its founder, the good chancellor, who was the trusty servant alike of King and Pope, of State and Church, of England and Christendom.

And thus it has preserved its place through all the social and political changes of five centuries as an independent spiritual organ of the community, a living example of an organized cultural institution which is neither the creature of the State nor the servant of the financial powers that dominate democratic society.

Now if it is possible for a school to have an independent cultural tradition and, as it were, a soul of its own, why should not the same principle of free organization be applied to other fields of culture which at present lie derelict and which otherwise will become the drill fields and machine yards of a totalitarian State?

The main cause is the absence of any spiritual power to take the work in hand and the lack of any clear sense of national aims and social responsibility in matters of culture. But the time has come when we can no longer afford to neglect the non-political and non-economic sides of national life or to leave them to the unorganized activity of individuals.

The new totalitarian parties and regimes have discovered that nations do not live by bread alone and they have attempted to capture the soul of a nation by violence and to use the total psychological force of the community in their relentless drive towards world power. Thus what is at stake is not the literary culture of a privileged minority, but the spiritual life of the people. It is only by the free organization of national life, according to the spirit of our institutions and traditions, but in new forms adapted to twentieth-century conditions, that we can save, not only our national being, but also the ways of life, the forms of thought and the spiritual values which are the principles of Western Civilization.


Beyond Politics 2 – Christopher Dawson

February 12, 2013
George Frederick Watts, "The Minotaur," 1885, oil, Tate Gallery, Britain. Watts' painting is a mythopoetic commentary upon W.T. Stead's exposée regarding the Victorian traffic in child prostitution, "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," Pall Mall Gazette 6 July 1885. In tandem, in painting and in text, Watts and Stead excoriate human viciousness, "the greed and lust associated with modern civilizations." (Hare) Stead's social commentary pulls no punches and addresses the problem most aggressively. Watts' painting is perhaps more restrained: the man-beast holds crushed beneath its left hand a little bird (symbolic for a little girl), as he stares longingly at the arriving ship, the arrival of the annual Athenian tribute.

George Frederick Watts, “The Minotaur,” 1885, oil, Tate Gallery, Britain. Watts’ painting is a mythopoetic commentary upon W.T. Stead’s exposée regarding the Victorian traffic in child prostitution, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” Pall Mall Gazette 6 July 1885. In tandem, in painting and in text, Watts and Stead excoriate human viciousness, “the greed and lust associated with modern civilizations.” (Hare) Stead’s social commentary pulls no punches and addresses the problem most aggressively. Watts’ painting is perhaps more restrained: the man-beast holds crushed beneath its left hand a little bird (symbolic for a little girl), as he stares longingly at the arriving ship, the arrival of the annual Athenian tribute.

We have behind us a long tradition of freedom; not, it is true, of democracy in the modern sense, but of individual liberty and corporate self-government. Our parliamentary institutions are not the artificial creation of liberal idealism, as in so many countries; they are an organic part of the life of the nation, and they have grown up century by century by the vital urge of social realities. We are too old to change this tradition for some imported ideology. If parliamentary institutions are irreconcilable with a totalitarian party regime (and I believe they are) then the new system is not for us. We must find some other method of reorganizing and strengthening the nation.

The British parliamentary system is of its very nature non-totalitarian, and its success through the ages has been largely due to the limited character of its aims and its powers. It has been the monarchy rather than parliament that has been the symbol and guarantee of national unity, and the monarchy, even more than parliament, depends for its very existence on its limited character. But what has always given the English system its unique strength and social solidity has been the existence of a social unity behind the monarchy and behind parliament, a unity of which they are the political organs, but which itself transcends politics. It is this unity which makes it possible for our party system to function on a basis of common understanding without dividing the nation into two hostile camps with mutually exclusive ideologies.

In the past this unity was taken for granted: it was an unconscious social fact arising out of the natural structure of society, from the life of the people and the national tradition of culture. But to-day not only is this structure changing, it is also becoming self-conscious owing to the advance in psychological knowledge and the organization of sociological and economic research. And it is on this ground, rather than in the field of politics in the strict sense, that it is necessary to plan and organize, if any fundamental reform is to be made in the life of the nation.

It is true that the totalitarian States have attempted this fundamental work of social reconstruction by direct political action. But by so doing they have, as we have seen, made the party into a super-political organization which has some of the characteristics of a religious society, and at the same time they have destroyed personal freedom and narrowed the national tradition of culture by subordinating the higher super-political activities of the community to the intolerant and rigid tyranny of political partisanship.

In the past Western society was made up of a number of interpenetrating orders, political, economic, cultural and religious, each of which was either autonomous or possessed a considerable degree of de facto independence. The political order was only a part, and in theory at least not the most important part, of the social structure, and within the political order itself the party held a relatively humble and unhonoured place. The idea that the spiritual life of society should be ruled and guided by a political party would have appeared to our ancestors a monstrous absurdity. The spiritual order possessed its own organization, that of the Church, which was held to transcend all the rest in importance and which exercised a profound influence on human life from the cradle to the grave.

But the time has long passed since the Church held undisputed sway over the mind and conscience of western culture, and the loss of Christian unity has brought with it a loss of spiritual order and of the sense of spiritual values in society at large. First, with the Renaissance, secular culture emancipated itself from the tutelage of the Church and created an independent order of humanism and science. Then with the industrial revolution economic life emancipated itself from the control of the State and created the vast system of financial, commercial and industrial relations which we know as the capitalist order.

Thus there have arisen outside the traditional historic organizations of Church and State these two independent orders to which western civilization owes a vast increase in its material and spiritual resources, but which on account of this lack of organization and social direction, have become centrifugal and disintegrating forces. This first became plainly evident in regard to economics, and it was here that the first conscious attempt was made to restore unity of direction and bring the economic order under the control of the community. This was the origin of Socialism and, in a sense, of all the totalitarian movements, for the attempt to unify the political and the economic orders led almost inevitably to the confusion of social categories and the attempt to extend State control to every sphere of social life.

Even in England, I believe that the decline of our political system dates from the day when the Trade Unions renounced their non-political ideal of being masters in their own house and aspired to be masters also in the House of Commons. For this led inevitably to the supersession of the Liberal Party, which was a vital organ of English political life, and the intrusion of a new principle which if logically carried out would involve a totalitarian order. For if all the workers are embodied in the unions, and if the T.U.C. decides the policy of its parliamentary candidates, it is obvious that the English party system could no longer exist, and the whole political order would be subordinated to an organization based on industry and governed by purely economic considerations.

Actually, of course, these possibilities have failed to materialize and the Labour Party, instead of absorbing the political in the economic order, has helped to bring some measure of social responsibility and control into the capitalist system. Nevertheless, the creation of a party that has a non-political economic basis and introduction of the principle of class war into the party system have undoubtedly weaker and narrowed the basis of agreement on which that system rests, and there can be little doubt that an attempt to realize the full socialist programme by constitutional means would strain the parliamentary system to break point.

But if it is dangerous to attempt the fundamental reorganization of economic life purely political means, it is far more danger to bring politics into the order of culture, for this means the invasion of the human by the hand of power. This is the original sin of every totalitarian system, and this is why the English mind revolts instinctively at the idea of the forcible imposition by the State of any kind of ideology.

When Humanism emancipated secular culture from ecclesiastical control, it applied the traditional mediaeval ideal of the freedom of spiritual power to the realm of science and art. It sought not the destruction of the spiritual power, but the creation of an independent spiritual power in the natural order; and since then the freedom of scholarship and science and art has been the keystone of western culture.

But the republic of letters was never a lawless one. Citizenship could only be obtained by a long and toilsome discipline which made the scholars no less a closed and privileged order than the clerics of the mediaeval Church.

But modern civilization, while retaining the ideal of freedom of thought, and even extending it to regions which were formerly outside its domain, has at the same time destroyed the framework of social and intellectual discipline on which this freedom rested. With the growth of popular education at one end of the scale, and the development of scientific specialization at the other, the intellectual order dissolved into a vast and formless chaos controlled only by the power of the state over education and the power of capital over the press. Where these powers do not operate, the strange shadow world of the intelligentsia remains the last refuge of cultural independence like the last spot of dry land on which man and beast crowd together in uneasy fellowship before the rising floods.

Unless some order can be brought back into this chaos, nothing can save it from the ideological police of a totalitarian State, and there is already no lack of evidence of what that involves in the loss of spiritual freedom and the lowering of cultural standards. Better perhaps that the State should organize our culture than that it should be left to the mercenary leadership of the popular press and the financial exploitation of its intellectual and moral weakness. But it is a choice of evils, either of which is equally hostile to the freedom and humanity of western culture.

But what of the other spiritual power which still survives and still maintains its ancient claim to be the guide and teacher of mankind — I mean the Church? There is no doubt that the Church is by its nature and tradition better fitted to deal with problems of the spiritual order than the State can ever be. “Let us not forget,” wrote Nietzsche, “in the end what a Church is and especially in contrast to every `State’, a Church is above all an authoritative organization which secures to the most spiritual men the highest rank, and believes in the power of spirituality so far as to forbid all grosser appliances of authority. Through this alone the Church is under all circumstances a nobler institution than the State.”

Nevertheless it is today impossible to return to the undifferentiated unity of medieval culture. The rise of humanism and the modern sciences has created an autonomous sphere of culture which lies entirely outside the ecclesiastical domain and in which any direct intervention on the part of the Church would be resented as an intrusion. Moreover, the Church is herself weakened by religious division and invaded on her own territory by the forces of anti-clericalism and paganism, and by the unlimited claims of the totalitarian State. The greatest service the Church can render to western civilization at the present time is to keep her own inheritance intact and not to allow her witness to be obscured by letting herself be used as the instrument of secular powers and politics.

It is true that the present crisis is producing constant appeals to the Church to use her influence in the cause of “moral rearmament”. There is a tendency, especially among the English-speaking Protestant peoples, to treat religion as a kind of social tonic that can be used in times of national emergency in order to extract a further degree of moral effort from the people. But apart from the Pelagian conception of religion that this view implies, it is not wholly sound from the psychological point of view, since it merely heightens the amount of moral tension without increasing the sources of spiritual vitality or resolving the psychological conflicts from which the society suffers.


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