Archive for the ‘Jousting’ Category


Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 3 – Ralph C. Wood

January 25, 2013
The church's living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

The church’s living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

The most malignant of Hitchens’ charges is that Chesterton’s theology is at once unoriginal and triumphalist. It is true that Ker places Chesterton in a theological trajectory that begins with John Henry Newman. Yet Hitchens misses — as does Ker himself at times — the significance of this link to the great Victorian convert to Catholicism. For it makes Chesterton more of a Catholic modernist than a reactionary.

Newman revived modern Catholicism in a variety of ways, not least of all in his conviction that Christian doctrine is constantly and coherently developing. In the historical realities of Christ and his church, the utterly unknowable God definitively reveals himself. Far from being desiccated intellectual propositions, the church’s dogmas are the very source of its life.

So was Chesterton also convinced that the church’s living tradition insures that its doctrines do not become fixed and static. For Chesterton as for Newman, Christian doctrine stays the same by changing. It remains true to itself precisely by way of its organic growth. The acorn of Christian revelation continues perpetually to ramify into the great oak tree of dogma.

What is originally embryonic undergoes constant maturation, as the mind is freed, not fixed, by exploring the unfathomable depths of dogma. The church does at large, therefore, what every person does in small — it thinks dogmatically, as Chesterton declared in one of his earliest books, Heretics (1905)

Man may be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating them all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backward into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

Chesterton’s high estimate of dogma gives him a low regard for tolerance. Lest this seem to make him a troglodyte, it must be noted that he anticipates what Michael Walzer, Stephen Carter, and many others have identified as the hidden agenda underlying the chief Enlightenment ideal. Tolerance keeps an allegedly neutral peace when it is in fact an exercise of force: “The language of tolerance,” declared Carter in 1994, “is the language of power.” The tolerator grants liberty to the tolerated only when the latter behaves tolerantly, i.e., in accord with the tolerator’s notion of what is safe and appropriate and acceptable.

Virtually from the outset of his writing career in the first decade of the 20th century, Chesterton scorned this kind of tolerance, for it usually means that the tolerated is never taken seriously. Hence his tart aphorism against emptying the public square of both thought and belief. Ker curiously cites none of these, and Hitchens would surely have gagged on all of them: “Modem toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent’s faith is to say I must not discuss it.” Tolerance is thus “the virtue of a man without convictions.” It ignores the most basic truth of all ingestion, whether in thinking or masticating: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

“To `choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience,” Hitchens replied, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”

As a lover of knight errantry, Chesterton sought entrance to what the late James Wm. McClendon called “the tournament of narratives” — i.e., an open arena where no traditions are automatically excluded but all are seriously engaged. Our story-borne convictions must persuasively confront each other, even to the point of conversion.

The Ball and the Cross, though Ker gives it short shrift, is far and away Chesterton’s finest fictional embodiment of such lively engagement, as well as a hugely amusing send-up of the tolerance that would become even more oppressive during the intervening century.

The novel features James Turnbull, an atheist journalist (Hitchens avant la lettre!), who is set in quite deadly opposition to Evan McIan, a devout Christian. For Turnbull the physicalist, the causal laws of nature can refute all miracles. For McIan the believer, by contrast, miracles are built into the very fabric of the cosmos. To demonstrate that their disagreement has huge moral no less than religious consequence, they vow to fight until someone finally wins, if only in a fatal sword-duel.

Yet the police and the press and the judiciary of hyper-tolerant England are appalled by the prospect of such a barbaric contest, and are thus bent on stopping it. Hence the riotous irony of two intellectual pugilists having to befriend each other as they flee the thought-police while seeking to have their decent debate. In the course of their contretemps, they discover the truth of Chesterton’s crisp dictum: “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” Having learned how dreadfully they might have gone wrong, MacIan and Trumbul at last abandon their rivalistic desire to win, whether by sword or by argument. To avoid plot spoiling, let it be said that in the end these dread enemies learn not to tolerate each other but to become the most hospitable of friends.


Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 2 – Ralph C. Wood

January 24, 2013
Many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that this so-called Great War constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Both Chesterton and Hitchens unabashedly supported wars in their time (Chesterton WWI, Hitchens The Iraq War)

Many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that the so-called “Great War” constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Both Chesterton and Hitchens unabashedly supported wars in their time (Chesterton WWI, Hitchens The Iraq War)

Chesterton’s Politics
The allegation that Chesterton’s politics is sinister is far more worrisome. Hitchens labels Chesterton as a “reactionary” for proposing a political program called Distributism — a name he derived from Catholic teaching on distributive justice. This is ludicrous. Chesterton was in fact a radical in his economics.

Together with Hilaire Belloc and others, he worked during the 1920s to establish a drastic alternative to socialism and capitalism alike. They spurned privatistic and individualist capitalism as built on a profoundly anti-communal devotion to profit making at the neighbor’s expense. They also rejected wealth-sharing socialism as surrendering the most important personal and local endeavors — family, health, education — to the state. Hence their revolutionary idea of redistributing property — including joint ownership of factories and companies — rather than money.

Though in many respects unfeasible, Distributism is hardly a reactionary notion. On the contrary, it is being considered in contemporary China, where the government is seeking to aid illiterate and impoverished peasants, not by training them to do factory work in huge impersonal cities but urging them to remain on lands which they will now own, to use their agricultural earnings for developing better farming methods and for educating their children, and thus to lift the grinding burden of mindless work (the only virtue of which, as Marx famously declared, is to make one stoop-shouldered).

By far the most disturbing of Hitchens’ charges against Chesterton’s politics is that “his Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism.” Hitchens rightly seizes on Chesterton’s failure to question the concordat that the future Pope Pius XII signed with Hitler in 1933. He is also correct to denounce Chesterton’s attempt to trace the rise of Hitlerism to the Protestant Reformation, specifically to Bismarckian Prussia — when of course Hitler was a lapsed Austrian Catholic who sought to suborn Protestantism and Catholicism alike to his own nefarious purposes.

It is true as well that Chesterton momentarily flirted with the Fascism of Benito Mussolini. But about Hitler himself, Chesterton never had any doubt. To make his polemical point, Hitchers ignores Ker’s clear evidence that Chesterton had nothing but scorn for the Nazis and all their pomps: the proud paganism of Aryan race-religion, the petty tribalism of modern Teutonic myth-making, and the vicious nationalism of Germany Ober alles.

Chesterton’s Fight Against Eugenics
In his selective and tendentious reading of Chesterton’s politics, Hitchens never even mentions the moral test that Chesterton most nobly met. Long before he became a Catholic, Chesterton dealt with the ghoulish peril that still threatens late-modern life: eugenics and the elimination of unwanted life.

Already in 1913, Winston Churchill and others had proposed a Mental Deficiency Bill. Churchill had been “inspired” by the example of Indiana in forcibly sterilizing its “mentally unfit.” Though he too sought such compulsory sterilizations, Churchill finally had to settle for the legal confinement of those under twenty-one.

Even so, such “unworthy sorts” would be deterred from propagating their retrograde kind. Without such measures, Churchill added, their rapid increase results in “a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, [and thus] constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”

Eugenics was embraced by many progressive church officials, writers, and thinkers of Chesterton’s day. Among the British advocates of the idea that the human species can be improved by selective breeding, like race horses, were G. B. Shaw, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, not to mention William Inge, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. American enthusiasts included Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, and, most notoriously, Oliver Wendell Holmes with his infamous protest that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Though he died in 1936, Chesterton prophesied that Hitler would soon employ eugenics for his own race-cleansing regime. Once the state acquires the power to spay and geld those deemed as “inadequately” intelligent, then a holocaust can be generated for others regarded as equally “unproductive”: the congenitally defective, the incurably ill, the elderly infirm, as well as the innocent unborn, the socially recalcitrant, the gypsy vagabonds, the Jewish “parasites.”

Chesterton saw it all coming, and he named the canker at the core of our dread disease. It was not that civil rights were being violated. As Alasdair Maclntyre would make clear a half-century later, the notion of rights is an Enlightenment chimera built on a power-based contractual understanding of human relations — not on any transcendently ordered community grounded in mutual trust and obligation.

The real evil of eugenics springs, as Chesterton discerned, from our increasingly regnant belief that human life has no intrinsic worth, no inviolable divine dignity. When it is thus diminished to mere utility and function, it can also be made into the malleable clay of social experiment and human convenience. A purely physicalist pseudo-science thus becomes the religion of the omnicompetent state. Hence the immense currency of Chesterton’s prophecy from 1922, announced in Eugenics and Other Evils:

The creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not only by pilgrims but by policemen – that creed is the great and disputed system of thought which…has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.

This is hardly to say that Chesterton’s politics were beyond reproach. Both Hitchens and Ker fail to remark what is exceedingly troubling about his unrelenting defense of World War I as Britain’s finest hour. In recounting the details of Chesterton’s life during the years 1914-18, Ker attends mostly to minor concerns, without mentioning that many leading literary figures of the day, from Henry James to T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged that this so-called Great War constituted a tectonic cataclysm in Western moral and religious life. It inaugurated the Age of Ashes and the Culture of Death. Chesterton, by contrast, remained an unrepentant English nationalist, virtually purblind to the horrors of that most sanguinary of European-American wars: 10 million killed outright, 20 million seriously wounded, 5 million widowed, 9 million orphaned, 20 million left as refugees.

Having fought at Verdun and having nearly died of trench fever, J. R. R. Tolkien came to discern that der totale Krieg is the scourge of modem life. The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s epic repudiation of total war, whereas Chesterton remained content with his rather callous jest when asked why this 38-year old patriot wasn’t “out at the Front.” “If you’ll view me from the side,” he smartly replied, “you’ll see that I am indeed `out at the front.” Three years earlier he had published his rollicking celebration of the Catholic victory over the Ottoman Turks in The Battle of Lepanto. It was for him a holy war, a modern crusade that saved European Christendom from the Muslim menace.

The power of Chesterton’s poem cannot be denied. Only the most ardent pacifist can fail to be stirred by the four-beat palpitations of Chesterton’s couplets, with their alliterative anapests and thumping dactyls. Here the Holy League of the Catholic maritime states led by the Spanish knight of Austria sink the Turkish galleys and set free their enslaved Christian oarsmen:

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labor under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free.

Yet while Chesterton jubilantly celebrates the Catholic victory as resulting in large part from the intercession of the Virgin Mary, he at least does not have the Blessed Lady wield a weapon.

Eleven years later, in The Ballad of St. Barbara, Chesterton would celebrate the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne by praising the patron saint of artillerymen as she blasts holes in the German palisades: “St. Barbara of the Gunners, with her hand upon the gun.” One can only wonder why Hitchens doesn’t attack Chesterton’s war-mongering. Perhaps it was that Chesterton had been an early opponent of the British incursion into South Africa during the Boer War. Perhaps Hitchens was also embarrassed to call out Chesterton on war when he himself had so vehemently supported the U.S. incursion into Iraq.


Christopher Hitchens’ Dying Days With G. K. Chesterton 1 – Ralph C. Wood

January 23, 2013
To Hitchens' complaint that Chesterton's Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

To Hitchens’ complaint that Chesterton’s Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.

Hitchens’ Challenge
The enfant terrible of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, spent his dying days in a Houston hospital reading G. K. Chesterton — not only the 750 pages of Ian Ker’s massive recent biography, but also an equivalent amount of GKC’s own poetry and prose. The novelist Ian McEwan, who was at Hitchens’ bedside before his death in December 2011, reports that they spoke of various writers: Theodore Dreiser, Robert Browning, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Philip Larkin.

McEwan also reports that Hitchens died nobly and without complaint at age 62, though ravaged by esophageal cancer that deprived him of his most important gift: the spoken word. Yet there was no last-minute conversion. On the contrary, Hitchins seems never to have felt the sting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s aphorism that Chesterton often cited: “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Gratitude to his wife and many friends seem to have sufficed for Hitchens.

Even so, he was reading huge chunks of Chesterton at the end. I suspect that “Hitch,” as his friends called him, was not only fulfilling his promise to write a 3000 word review of Ker’s book for the Atlantic. (Titled “The Reactionary,” the review was posthumously published in the March 2012 issue.) He was also settling scores with his bete noire. Far from granting him the generous farewell of a dying man to a worthy opponent long dead, Hitchens bid Chesterton a bitter parting word.

His review is so acerbic and dismissive that one cannot but suspect that our most celebrated public atheist may have been overcompensating — as if he had a secret wish that Chesterton might have been right. “There are days,” he wrote in God Is Not Great, “when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.”

Any serious assessment of Ker’s huge book must come to terms with Hitchens’ damning conclusion that “when [Chesterton] was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous… ; when he was serious, he was really quite sinister… ; and when he was posing as a theologian, he was doing little more than ventriloquizing John Henry Newman at his most `dogmatic.

“The whole phenomenon of “Chestertonianism,” as Hitchens calls it, “came to represent a minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge.” Each of these challenges must be met if Chesterton is to be embraced as an authentic Christian apologist, and Ker’s book offers an opportunityfor doing so. More is at risk here than Chesterton’s reputation; it is his Christian faith – and, by extension, the faith of the church itself – that remains at stake

Chesterton’s Humor
Against Hitchens’ charge that Chesterton’s celebrated humor is silly and superficial, Ker offers a solid rebuttal. He constantly stresses the link between the comic and the serious in Chesterton. It was a virtual article in Chesterton’s creed that Christianity deals with the darkest and deepest matters byway of a certain gaiety and buoyancy, overcoming the heaviness of sin with the joyfulness of the Gospel.

Satan fell by the force of his gravity, Chesterton famously observed, while the unfallen angels still fly because they take themselves so lightly. Joking is a vital form of thinking, he added. It often bursts the bounds of pedestrian thought. A transcendent leap is required to “catch” the jest. “Smiles from reason flow,” Milton observed, echoing Aristotle. “A joke can be so big,” GKC more rumbustiously remarked, “that it can break the roof of the stars.”

Far from being self-centered, a proper kind of laughter puts a stop to all serpentine seriousness about ourselves. “Hilarity,” Chesterton wrote, “involves humility.” It allows us to comport ourselves in an undignified manner, whether in laughter or play. These, he said, are “the essence of real happiness.”

Like C. S. Lewis, Chesterton despised all political utopias, chiefly because of their unhappiness: their stern propriety and grim solemnity, no matter whether their cheerlessness issues from the left or the right. Religious faith, he countered, “is much nearer to riotous happiness than it is to the detached and temperate types of happiness in which gentlemen and philosophers find their peace.” Ker supplies us with endless strings of such fine apercus: “the more serious is the discussion the more grotesque should be its terms,” for if “a thing is universal it is full of comic things…. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” The deepest truths are the most outrageous, he insisted, and they require an artistic form befitting them – something akin to farce and mime and slapstick.

Precisely because she was so deeply Christian — indeed, Chesterton was led to the church by her devout practice of the faith — did he describe his wife Frances as having “the asceticism of cheerfulness, not the easier asceticism of melancholy.” When she accepted his proposal for marriage, he saw (as did Luther) the deep link between conjugal love and divine delight, as he wrote to tell her:

Happiness is not at all smug; it is not peaceful and contented…Happiness brings not peace but a sword: it shakes you like rattling dice: it breaks your speech and darkens your sight. Happiness is stronger than oneself and sets it palpable foot upon one’s neck.

What he meant, I suspect, is that the deepest happiness also puts one under the fiercest obligation — namely, to throw away one’s life into the bottomless abyss of gratitude, as Chesterton said of St. Francis. It also thrusts a stiletto into any bloated conviction that one deserves so great a joy. And surely it weights one with an inescapable care for those whose lives seem irreversibly unhappy.

The test case for Chesterton’s claims about joyfulness lies in the life of monastics, those who sacrifice everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Chesterton knew well that monks are not so foolhardy as to surrender felicity for misery. Their vows of celibacy and poverty and obedience bring, instead, a “terrible consolation and a lonely joy.” Chesterton cheekily suggests that monastics could be likened to a man who may go “ragged and homeless to drink brandy.”

In either case, the point about monks and nuns still holds: “They [give] up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy.” To Hitchens’ complaint that Chesterton’s Christian humor is shallow, one can only wonder whether he may have had a native incapacity for plumbing the depths, an invincible ignorance about ultimate things. Or perhaps Hitchens was properly scandalized, for the most joyful paradox is also the greatest offense: the crucified and risen God-Man lightens the heaviest load of sin, and his yoke eases the worst of atheist burdens.


Michael Novak and Christopher Hitchens

September 9, 2010

The Irrepressible Mr. Hitchens


The following is taken from “No One Sees God” and is a section of the book that deals with Michael Novak’s response to the criticisms of Christopher Hitchens.

Mr. Novak’s Introduction of Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, in some ways a national treasure for the United States, an unusually well-read, graceful, and delightful writer, often witty and even comedic, has opened his soul to an unusual degree. He predicts that his believer friends will be surprised by how harshly antireligious his true views actually are. Well, he has let fling poisonous invective against one of the most gentle, self-sacrificing, loving souls most of us have ever met, Mother Teresa. He has even called her a “whore.” That is about as gross as the jihadist expectation of seventy-two blue-eyed harlots in the martyr’s Paradise. And he now avows his hatred and enmity against “all that is called God.” I was sorry to see this. But it would be patronizing and unfair to Hitchens to take him at less than his word. Let us look into it more closely

Hitchens Four Objections To Religious Faith
The first irreducible objection he announces is that religious faith “wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos.” At the age of thirteen, Hitchens might well have thought that. But nowadays Hitchens excuses naïve scientific errors and missteps (the phlogiston theory) of great scientists such as Newton, Priestley, and Franklin by kindly covering their nakedness: “Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.” Is not religion also entitled to its childhood? Christians have also learned from earlier errors.

Hitchens is much too smart to mistake the book of Genesis for a contemporary account of string theory in an advanced text of physics. The largest of all Christian churches the Roman Catholic Church, leaves to science the task of figuring out description and theories of the material “origins of man and the cosmos.” In the Jewish tradition, Ray Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), among the most eminent Orthodox Talmudists of the twentieth century, taught that imitatio Dei requires believers to imitate God’s creativity particularly through intellectual inquiry and scientific practice. Ray Soloveitchik was among the key founders of Yeshiva University which has as its motto “Torah U’Madah,” in modern Hebrew “Torah and science.” The succinct story of the book of Genesis, and the theological affirmations that draw out its main lessons, emphasizes three points:

  1. All creation is suffused with intelligence, as a unified whole.
  2. All creation is, on the whole, good and worthy to be affirmed and loved.
  3. Its Creator is separate from creation, so that the latter is to be neither idolized nor perceived as under taboo; humans are intended to investigate it and come to understand it thoroughly, naming all things.

None of these three affirmations seems contrary to Hitchens’s own way of proceeding in regard to man and the cosmos. To refer to the natural world as “creation,” though, might cause him gastric pain.

His second irreducible objection to religious faith: “Because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism.” Really? The reader is likely to imagine that something important must be meant by “servility” and “solipsism.” But what have these to do with Dante, Shakespeare, Lord Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John E Kennedy Ronald Reagan, and the millions of other Christians who stand in their shadow and imitate from afir their boldness, capaciousness of character, wide range of vices and virtues, and zest for building a better world?

Hitchens’s third irreducible objection to religious faith: “That it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression.” I would have thought that the history of England gave witness to a great many. lusty Christians; the tales of Chaucer and the plays of Shakespeare ought to be enough on which to rest the case. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were not exactly prudes.

Personally, I am rather glad about the Jewish and Christian emphasis upon honoring the human body as sacred, a temple of the Creator. I am glad that this vision instructs Christians, in self-control, to channel their sexual acts within the bonds of marriage. These are, I would have thought, great civilizing and liberating injunctions. As Tocqueville shrewdly observes, where fidelity establishes trust in the bosom of the family, trust among citizens of the Republic is more natural.

“In Europe, almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth, not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men conceive their scorn for natural bonds and permitted pleasures, their taste for disorder, the restiveness of heart, their instability of desires. Agitated by the tumultuous passions that have often troubled his own dwelling, the European submits only with difficulty to the legislative power of the state. ‘When, on leaving the agitations of the political world, the American returns to the bosom of his family, he immediately meets the image of order and peace. There all his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys innocent and tranquil; and as he arrives at happiness through regularity of life, he becomes habituated to regulating his opinions as well as his tastes without difficulty.”

For tiny Jerusalem, too, neighboring kingdoms to the east and north and south — the Persians, the Babylonians, the Africans — did not have such channeling for sexual polymorphism, and in their own excess fell civilizationally behind Jewish and later, Christian cultures. Even science and enlightenment depend on a certain self-control, even asceticism.

I can see how atheists might wish to experiment further afield and live under fewer sexual restraints than those just stated. God knows, I have sometimes wished I could. Moreover, the many stories of love triangles invented by and for Christian civilization during the past twelve hundred years (since the troubadours) dramatize the tensions that monogamy sets up in the human heart. How could they not? These are the fantasies that arise from sexual self-control. I find it unlikely that Hitchens believes self-control to be morally equivalent to repression.

In the same vein, Sam Harris also makes a crack about how ignoble it is of the so-called God to care “about something people do while naked.” As for gorillas and chimpanzees in the zoo, which Hitchens brings up in his opening pages, it is plain that the Creator does not care when they openly rub their genitals, or whether out in the open they mount a female or are mounted. Of human beings, it appears, he expects a little more self-control, romance, restraint, and mutual respect. As a matter of human dignity.

Actually, come to think of it, surveys of sexual behavior regularly show that secularists enjoy sex rather less than devout Christians do. It may be like the difference between relieving a biological urge and knowing that marital love is in harmony with “the Love that moves the Sun and all the Stars?’ The feminist writer Naomi Wolf published a fascinating essay several years ago noting the bruises that casual sex with multiple partners leaves upon the psyche; and the absence of a sense that a faithful love can last forever. The inherent symbol of two bodies coupling is unity of heart and soul, in which two become one. A great many sexual acts, in that light, are lies.

The enormous weight that a secularist culture places on sexual fulfillment is insupportable for one simple reason. Sexual intercourse is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in. Among the young, the weakening of cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit. It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced  to the huddling of kittens in the darkness — not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of nothingness. Close your eyes and plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be.

Hitchens’s fourth irreducible objection: “That religion is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” Of course, it may be, but perhaps it is atheism that is based on wishful thinking. For some, atheism may be a defiant thrill and self-glorying attraction. With virtually no effort, one becomes a hero in one’s own eyes. And think of the burdens that slide off one’s shoulders just by becoming an atheist. It’s a helluva temptation.

There is one thing profoundly irritating about the atheist pose, however. Some atheists are among the most satirical, dismissive dogmatists one encounters anywhere in life, constantly ridiculing others, setting these others up for logical traps and hoots of laughter. And yet these dogmatists routinely boast, as Hitchens does:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers:

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

I am certain, having in admiration watched Hitchens in print for many years, that Hitchens does not really wish to be a dogmatist—he hates the breed—and does not think he is a dogmatist. Still, I would have thought that all men who in argument routinely ridicule their opponents extend the secret handshake of all dogmatists everywhere: Opponents are for mocking.

Dear, dear Mr. Hitchens. We have all experienced the dogmatism of those who claim to have none. And close-mindedness in regard to God does no honor to those who claim to live by free inquiry, open minds, constant questioning and ceaseless searching. In a word, Hitchen’s “four irreducible objections” don’t amount to much.

Hitchens Sees God the Watchmaker
Like many and religious polemicists, Hitchens suggests that believers in God imagine God as a Designer, whereas experience shows that this world is of inferior design. Indeed, he writes:

“Thomas Jefferson in old age was fond of the analogy of the timepiece in his own case, and would write to friends who inquired after his health that the odd spring was breaking and the occasional wheel wearing out. This of course raises the uncomfortable (for believers) idea of the built-in fault that no repairman can fix. Should this be counted as part of the “design” as well? (As usual, those who take the credit for the one will fall silent and start shuffling when it comes to the other side of the ledger.)”

Hitchens seems to hold that believers think of the Creator as a simple-minded Geometer, a Rationalist Extraordinaire, a two-times-two-equals-four kind of god, a flawless Watchmaker, a bit of a Goody-goody, a cosmic Boy Scout. If that is so—Hitchens leaps for the believer’s throat—then evidence is overwhelming that this Creator botched things up, like a rank amateur. In short, evidence all around us shows there is no such god.

Let’s be honest. The God who made this world is certainly no Rationalist, Utopian, or Perfectionist. We can see for ourselves that most acorns fall without generating a single oak tree. Some species die away — perhaps as many as 90 percent of all that have ever lived upon this earth have already perished. Infants are stillborn, others born deformed. Children are orphaned and little girls, terrified, sob at night in their beds. Human sex seems almost a cosmic trick played upon us, a joke, a game that angels laugh at. ‘Tis a most imperfect world that this Designer has designed.’

But suppose God is not like the Hitchens model. Suppose that God is not a Rationalist, a Logician, a straight-line Geometer-of the-skies. Suppose that the Creator God — like a great novelist, and long before man arrived on earth –created a world of probability schemes and redundancies, of waste and profusion, of heavy buffeting and hardship. Blossoms fell to earth, turned to dust. Stars for millions of light-years brilliant in the far firmament suddenly burn out. Suppose that this God loved untended forests as well as architectural design, statistical schemes of order as much as classical logic. Suppose that this God loved the idea of a slowly developing, incomplete, imperfect history, most good things emerging from suffering. Such a world might be stunningly beautiful. The cross might fit its door like a key.

Suppose He desired a world of indetermination, with all its crisscrossing confusion, so that within it freedom could spread out its wings, experiment, and find its own way:

Glory be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
—“Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gifts Of Judaism And Christianity
Judaism and Christianity considerably deepened their own resources with the moderating habits that they partly learned from pagan ethical systems — from Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics. In return, Judaism and Christianity infused into young and inexperienced Northern Europe a spark of the asceticism, self-denial, discipline, dedication to long years of study, and habits of honesty and limpid transparency that are necessary for sustained scientific work. Here was powerfully reinforced the conviction that everything in the universe, being the fruit of a single intelligence, is in principle understandable and worth all the arduous labor to try to grasp it. Here recent scholars such as Daniel Boorstin (The Creators) and David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations) have uncovered the Western conviction that it is the human vocation to be inventive and to help complete the evolving work of creation.

In this vein, Hitchens praises the efforts of two Princeton professors, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who for thirty years have traveled between campus and “the arduous conditions of the tiny island of Daphne Major” in the Galapagos Islands. “Their lives were harsh,” Hitchens notes, “but who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” With this quip, Hitchens dismisses a more central question. Who could wish that there had been no Jewish and Christian ascetics to inspire the Grants with two incandescent lessons? First, that there is intelligibility in all things, waiting to be discovered. That is, there is a fit between the universe created by God and the human mind created by God — they were made for each other. Second, the vocation of the inquiring mind requires patience, discipline, precise observation, honest reporting, and careful thinking that can withstand the objections of others and persuade even the dubious. The first of these lessons assures researchers in advance that their pain and suffering will be rewarded with new light into our world, and perhaps also into ourselves.

In our generation, Jurgen Habermas has called for a greater tolerance on the part of atheists toward religious believers, and a kind of mutual human respect, which will demand from atheists an attempt to state honestly all their debts to the religious civilization of the West. By contrast Hitchens is quite a bit over-the-top in his hatred of Judaism/Christianity

If all we had to depend on were science, empiricism and our own inquiring minds, we could still have discovered the existence of God (but not the God of Judaism and Christianity) — as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. Reason might well have shown us — did, in fact, show us — that there is living intelligence flashing out from everything on earth and in the skies above. All earthly things are alive with reasons, connections, and also with oddities yet to become better understood, puzzles yet to be solved. We learn by experiment that if we apply our minds to trying to understand how things truly are, how they work, how they are best used, there seems always to be some intelligible light within them that yields up precious satisfactions to the hungry mind. Everything, that is, seems understandable—in principle, if not just yet. This is the outer limit to his sense of the divine that Einstein confesses (as quoted by Hitchens):

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Hitchens may have been too quick in misinterpreting Einstein. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson uncovers Einstein’s objections to aggressive atheism:

“But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. “There are people who say there is no God:’ he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views?’ And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos;’ he explained. In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists;’ he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres?”

The Omnipotence And Omniscience Of God
One of the favorite objects of Hitchens’s mockery is the Jewish and Christian belief in the omnipotence and omniscience of God, proud fortresses that once protected the claim that God is good, against the maelstrom of evils that descend like rain upon the just and the unjust alike. Hitchens makes one think of the rather amusing quatrain debunking omnipotence and omniscience summoned up by Richard Dawkins:

Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?

A cute little quatrain. Yet it does have the defect of putting God in time as though He were just an ordinary Joe like the rest of us. In the classic formulation, “omniscience” and “omnipotence” characterize a being outside of time, unchanging, unchanged. Thus, God has no “future” mind, but only a present mind, in which all Time is present as if in simultaneity The god presented us by atheists, by contrast, is awfully anthropomorphic and fundamentalist. Unnecessarily so. The eternalness of the mind and will of God, in the Judeo-Christian view, does not forbid His creation from taking a wild, unpredictable, highly contingent adventure through history The Creator’s relation to His creation may not be at all what Dawkins and Hitchens project. It may be that of the Artist, or Novelist, who does not infringe upon the liberty of His living creations, even while testing them with difficulties, setbacks, and self-revealing choices.

For the atheist — for Hitchens — the problem of goodness, which his passionate conscience well exemplifies, may create an intellectual problem. If everything is by chance and merely relative, why is it natural for so many to be good — if not all the time, at least often enough to be quite striking? Why is conscience innate?

Put another way: Isn’t it unlikely that random chance alone has arranged the world so that many human qualities—the very ones that Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Jews and Christians find good on other grounds — should also work better for the survival of the human race? It would be at least mildly interesting that philosophy, revealed religion, and random natural selection lead to many of the same moral principles. Perhaps that explains why some atheists are so nobly good (the “secular saints” of Albert Camus), and why some insist on being credited with being good. Some do seem to hate it when believers suggest that in the absence of faith, moral relativism prevails. Christopher Hitchens plainly (and in his case, rightly) resents it.

Besides, atheists of conscience have often placed their trust in very human faiths, in very human causes and system~ and utopian visions. Hitchens testifies to how deeply he sympathizes with this kind of atheist, as in his splendid tribute to Doris Lessing on her receiving the 2007 Nobel Prize:

“For much of her life, the battle against apartheid and colonialism was the determining thing in Lessing’s life. She joined the Communist Party and married a German Communist exile (who was much later killed as the envoy of East Germany to Idi Amin’s hateful regime in Uganda), and if you ever want to read how it actually felt, and I mean truly felt, to believe in a Communist future with all your heart, her novels from that period will make it piercingly real for you.”

Communism was, of course, a “God that Failed.” Generation after generation such gods do arise — and disappear into the void. One should not overlook — should marvel all the more — at that lowly faith in the God who does not fail, but generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, is faithful to His people. Hitchens regards all that as “poison.” His choice.

Atheists Who Believe In An Intelligent Order
A book on American atheists some years back showed that well more than half of them, while calling themselves atheists, nonetheless believed in an intelligent order visible to them in the universe arid/or a life force running through every living thing from the blade of grass to the newborn child. Many thought the whole universe partook of some of the central attributes the ancients attributed to God, such as its mysterious pull toward goodness, justice, and beauty — qualities that are not found in their pure state on earth, but attract us onward by their own higher levels of perfection, like mountain peak rising above mountain peak as far as the eye can see.

The Two Great Commandments
Closer to the heart of the matter, does Hitchens feel bound by “the two Great Commandments that sum up the Law and the Prophets”? That is to say, does he “love God with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his mind”? The evidence of his book and all his interviews does not suggest that Hitchens loves God.

Further, does Hitchens love his neighbor as himself?

The evidence seems very strong that in a large range of cases, Hitchens does love his neighbor. His love may be shown by rather more statist and collectivist ways than many oi us have confidence in. Yet Hitchens shows that, by his own lights, solidarity with the weak and those who suffer is one of the rules by which he governs his life. On this score, Hitchens may well be more favorably judged on the Last Day than many of the baptized. This index is ranked especially high by Jews and Christians. The first epistle of Saint John insists that this is the only way by which a human can prove he loves God — if he has love for his neighbor.

Now I hate to ruin Hitchens’s remaining years on earth by bringing him the bad news — that he may well end up in heaven. He claims he would be bored. He imagines heaven to be a sentence to North Korea, under the worst combination of coerced adulation and a crushingly boring authoritarian leader, with no possibility of escape. Poor Hitchens, to suffer so from a truncated imagination.

There remains only one point on which I suspect (only suspect, not knowing nearly enough) that Hitchens does not measure up: in loving himself. In the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the most difficult part is often the “as yourself.” Self-love is common. Self-love dies, Saint Bernard told his monks, fifteen minutes after the self. But a good self-love, loving yourself as God loves you, loving yourself in honesty and full truthfulness, is very rare A great many human beings, I find, deeply underestimate how radiant with love God has created them, how good in His eyes they really are They are much too hard on themselves, insecure, and unsatisfied Usually, they cover this by  putting others down. In his interviews and published reflections after his book tour, Hitchens reveals a little more about the state of his own soul. He tends to imagine God in the most awful terms. He calls God many vile names, including “capricious dictator?’ He accuses God of meanly, arbitrarily, and spitefully throwing confused people down into everlasting punishment for breaking some silly taboo. (Like a child hopping down the sidewalk: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”) He says that the God who created sex, of which the reader takes it Hitchens approves, walled it around with prohibitions: No, no, no, no! To abortion, homosexuality adultery fornication, masturbation — you name it, Hitchens avers, there is a prohibition against it.

Without the tutoring of Hitchens, a normal person might be forgiven for thinking that God’s point has been to get humans thinking of some other things beyond sex. Sex is very good; one may be certain God enjoyed the humor of its creation, its zones of delight embedded in organs of waste removal, its whole execution rather clumsy, and its uneven outcomes as between males and females seemingly unfair Nonetheless, this lopsided, comical activity preoccupies human beings, makes some obsess about it, and maintains a steady horniness in many more sets of breeches than one might imagine Still, look at all the guidebooks on the subject, the “adult” movies, the “candid” photos on the Internet, the self-help manuals. Pleasure in sex must be a bit harder to find, or to maintain, than one might have thought So much trouble to put up with on its behalf a pretty huge business, sex. And actually, all the evidence is that serious Jews and Christians report more satisfaction from sex than do non-believers.

Besides, without sex, there isn’t any future for the human race. When sex is suffused with a lifetime’s love, and permeated with friendship and loyalty it is a wondrous part of human life. Indeed, of cosmic life One imagines even the angels dancing, or howling with laughter, and with maybe a touch of envy. Every day is Springtime.


Questions and Caricatures of Isolated Minds

December 18, 2009

the infamous jayd808

I participate in several forums on the net. One is at LibraryThing where my presence has become synonymous with the KKK. The sheer invective and vitriol seemed deserving of its own discussion forum which I recently launched there.  The initial post follows:

“Hey as long as many of the forums I contribute to dissolve into attacks on me, why not have a forum topic devoted just to why I am such an asshole and all the “half-assed shit” I produce on my website?

Questions and Caricatures of Isolated Minds

The Unquestioned Life:

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority.
If a person or group is going to make claims about empirical truth, then I’m going to ask for reliable evidence for those claims, especially if the claims are extraordinary or harmful in some way….

There appears to be an assumption at work here (or in the unquestioned life) that Christians are at work to undermine the freedoms of others or to cause harm. Perhaps even that they are a source of evil in the modern world (Dawkins). Yet Christians specifically associate their God with goodness. At least Catholics do, which is what I am. Somehow this has been transformed in the modern atheist mindset as a source of all modern evil.

Michael Novak has written:

“I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find atheists and skeptics giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art — in music, architecture, .painting, and poetry — in the human patrimony.

And why do they overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person” “community” “civitas,” “consent” “tyranny” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta?

Dawkins (for example) in the few pages on the founding and nourishing of his beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons is mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous universities of Europe (and the Americas)?

He writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor.

Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past — often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations — during long centuries in which there were no printing presses.

Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology.”

Alan Mittleman writes that “God plays a role in a way of speaking that is constitutive of a way of life, without which the world would be poorer and darker. The work it does is not to name a mysterious being who may or may not exist.

The word God does not make a claim about the furniture of the universe. Rather, to speak of God is to underwrite a form of life that allows us to respond with love and courage and hope to the mystery out of which we come and toward which we progress.” All that Novak recites above bears testament to the legacy of that Christian underwriting. THIS IS WHAT GOD MEANS to many faith communities and their believers.

Why aren’t atheists cognizant of their fundamental ungratefulness? They are like those who villify the military while using the very same rights to free speech that their soldier ancestors fought and died for.

Mittleman continues: “That some of our ancestors took the language of God in a mythological way, as a set of existence claims, is undeniable, although even here great ancestors, such as Maimonides, saw the problems that inhere in such naivete.

Wittgenstein taught us that language belongs to groups, not to isolated minds. Language reflects communal practices. Much of the reality that terms mark out is specific to the communities that use the terms.

As any learner of a foreign language knows, reading a newspaper in that language requires learning about social and political realities specific to another culture. The abstract question “Does God exist?” is the question of an isolated mind. It tears God out of the context of communities who pray, celebrate, and serve, and it reduces the term to a cipher.”

Yet atheist secularists put these communities under assault — threatening to close down such communities by eliminating tax shelters if gay marriages are not performed in sacraments. Or forcing Christian charities to close if orphans are not handed over to gay couples.

What holidays would we celebrate if we were an atheists? What kind of community could atheism sustain? What degree of continuity, if any, could a perfectly atheist Western civilization sustain with its own past?

This is not to suggest that religion is warranted only on account of the social, functional tasks that it performs. All sorts of false and pernicious things can enhance social solidarity and mobilization. Rather, it is to point toward a truth: As communal beings, we have constitutive ways of speaking that locate us in a meaningful universe and give moral contours to our shared form of life.

An adequate conversation between a person of faith and an atheist cannot afford to neglect the questions of what we can celebrate, what we can hope for, what we must remember, what stories we can tell our children, and why we should bring children into the world.”

Let me suggest that this is a conversation that will never begin on these forums as long as the snarky atheists who lurk in the LT grasses cling to these caricatures of Christian life.

I have no problem with any of you as atheists or skeptics. My “problem” (some see it as anger) is directed at your narrowness, your bigoted Homosexualism against my gay Catholic brothers and your glacially olympian know-it-all attitudes (never proven and rooted as they are in a crippling ignorance, I might add). I am not a homophobe or a racist, a member of the KKK or Christian fundamentalist. Yet many have accused me of being such.

So here is your chance. Feel free to chip in and tell me my problems. If you have evidence of my homophobia or fundamentalist mindset or other KKK material, please cite examples and let me have it.

your friend in Christ,



The Diabolists Among Us

September 15, 2009


G. K. Chesterton
When Plain Folk, such as you or I,
See the Sun sinking in the sky,
We think it is the Setting Sun,
But Mr. Gilbert Chesterton
Is not so easily misled.
He calmly stands upon his head,
And upside down obtains a new
And Chestertonian point of view,
Observing thus, how from his toes
The sun creeps nearer to his nose,
He cries with wonder and delight,
“How Grand the sunrise is to-night!”
by Oliver Herford
from Confessions of a Caricaturist

“What I have now to relate really happened; yet there was no element in it of practical politics or of personal danger. It was simply a quiet conversation which I had with another man. But that quiet conversation was by far the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me in my life….

The thing befell me in the days when I was at an art school. An art school is different from almost all other schools or colleges in this respect: that, being of new and crude creation and of lax discipline, it presents a specially strong contrast between the industrious and the idle. People at an art school either do an atrocious amount of work or do no work at all. I belonged, along with other charming people, to the latter class; and this threw me often into the society of men who were very different from myself, and who were idle for reasons very different from mine. I was idle because I was very much occupied; I was engaged about that time in discovering, to my own extreme and lasting astonishment, that I was not an atheist. But there were others also at loose ends who were engaged in discovering what Carlyle called (I think with needless delicacy) the fact that ginger is hot in the mouth….

Along the front of the big building of which our school was a part ran a huge slope of stone steps, higher, I think, than those that lead up to St. Paul’s Cathedral. On a black wintry evening he and I were wandering on these cold heights, which seemed as dreary as a pyramid under the stars. The one thing visible below us in the blackness was a burning and blowing fire; for some gardener (I suppose) was burning something in the grounds, and from time to time the red sparks went whirling past us like a swarm of scarlet insects in the dark. Above us also it was gloom; but if one stared long enough at that upper darkness, one saw vertical stripes of grey in the black and then became conscious of the colossal facade of the Doric building, phantasmal, yet filling the sky, as if Heaven were still filled with the gigantic ghost of Paganism.

The man asked me abruptly why I was becoming orthodox. Until he said it, I really had not known that I was; but the moment he had said it I knew it to be literally true. And the process had been so long and full that I answered him at once out of existing stores of explanation.

“I am becoming orthodox,” I said, “because I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes. An Imperialist is worse than a pirate. For an Imperialist keeps a school for pirates; he teaches piracy disinterestedly and without an adequate salary. A Free Lover is worse than a profligate. For a profligate is serious and reckless even in his shortest love; while a Free Lover is cautious and irresponsible even in his longest devotion. I hate modern doubt because it is dangerous.”

“You mean dangerous to morality,” he said in a voice of wonderful gentleness. “I expect you are right. But why do you care about morality?”

I glanced at his face quickly. He had thrust out his neck as he had a trick of doing; and so brought his face abruptly into the light of the bonfire from below, like a face in the footlights. His long chin and high cheek-bones were lit up infernally from underneath; so that he looked like a fiend staring down into the flaming pit. I had an unmeaning sense of being tempted in a wilderness; and even as I paused a burst of red sparks broke past.

“Aren’t those sparks splendid?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“That is all that I ask you to admit,” said I. “Give me those few red specks and I will deduce Christian morality. Once I thought like you, that one’s pleasure in a flying spark was a thing that could come and go with that spark. Once I thought that the delight was as free as the fire. Once I thought that red star we see was alone in space. But now I know that the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see. Only because your mother made you say ‘Thank you’ for a bun are you now able to thank Nature or chaos for those red stars of an instant or for the white stars of all time. Only because you were humble before fireworks on the fifth of November do you now enjoy any fireworks that you chance to see. You only like them being red because you were told about the blood of the martyrs; you only like them being bright because brightness is a glory. That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues. Seduce a woman, and that spark will be less bright. Shed blood, and that spark will be less red. Be really bad, and they will be to you like the spots on a wall-paper.”

He had a horrible fairness of the intellect that made me despair of his soul. A common, harmless atheist would have denied that religion produced humility or humility a simple joy: but he admitted both. He only said, “But shall I not find in evil a life of its own? Granted that for every woman I ruin one of those red sparks will go out: will not the expanding pleasure of ruin …”

“Do you see that fire ?” I asked. “If we had a real fighting democracy, some one would burn you in it; like the devil-worshipper that you are.”

“Perhaps,” he said, in his tired, fair way. “Only what you call evil I call good.”

He went down the great steps alone, and I felt as if I wanted the steps swept and cleaned. I followed later, and as I went to find my hat in the low, dark passage where it hung, I suddenly heard his voice again, but the words were inaudible. I stopped, startled: then I heard the voice of one of the vilest of his associates saying, “Nobody can possibly know.” And then I heard those two or three words which I remember in every syllable and cannot forget. I heard the Diabolist say, “I tell you I have done everything else. If I do that I shan’t know the difference between right and wrong.” I rushed out without daring to pause; and as I passed the fire I did not know whether it was hell or the furious love of God.”
Reading Selection The Diabolist by G.K. Chesterton

A Commentary by Garry Wills:
The line of argument shows what straits Chesterton was in. He had come to the shocking awareness of evil, and this had pushed his solipsism to its most terrible state. If the world was his own illusion, all evil had its source in him, along with all “reality.” That is why he identifies moral restrictions and the intellectual bounds of reality –virgins seduced and stars dissolve, The “pyramid” is really a swaying tower for him, and the slightest relaxation or “relativism” will topple it. Chesterton was creating “the star” with his arguments; the spark’s foundation is a huge pyramid of symbolism hung in empty air.

The art student shattered the entire fabric of Chesterton’s argument by admitting the indictment: he wanted to quench stars. Here was a desire not touched by the “justifying” arguments, the mutually supporting but mutually enclosed ideas of Chesterton’s discourse. It entered the scheme of things like a destructive blast from another world. “What you call evil, I call good.” The Diabolist said, inverting the entire cosmos in Chesterton’s mind. As the student went down the stairs to meet his friends, he left a stunned and defeated enemy behind him. But as Chesterton followed him down the stairs, he half heard whispered plans of some proposed innovation in evil, to which the Diabolist replied, in the words which Chesterton remembers with a compelled accuracy, “If I do that, I shan’t know the difference between right and wrong.”

I rushed out without daring to pause, and as I passed fire I didn’t know whether it was hell or the furious love of God.”

This is what happens when you enter into modern internet forums and choose to debate abortion, homosexuality (gay marriage) or atheism. You meet those who literally can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, the descendants of GKC’s diabolist. Historically their arguments were also encountered and rejected during the great nineteenth century debate over slavery in Lincoln/Douglas. Then as now the arguments are the same, rooted in a moral relativism. “I wouldn’t choose to have a (slave/abortion) but I wouldn’t want to restrict you’re right to choose.”

Recently I have been debating abortion with the usual suspects on an internet forum. After some jousting over who abortion really benefits (that it fundamentally is a sexist injustice against women and children), I followed up with a jibe against President Obama and his pro-abortion policies. “Pro-abortion” gets the juices running for it flies in the face of the greatest conceit of “pro-choice” advocates: that somehow they are advocating for some kind of freedom or expansion of a benefit. Read this rant and file under “Lies The Liberal Media Spreads: Nobody is Pro-abortion.” What leaps off the page is that the argument is advanced by Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing – who do this work every day: the health care providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes — in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.

This is an argument rooted in moral relativism and that uses religiously charged terms (“holy,” “blessing,” “Saints,” “God’s gift”) in a blasphemous disregard for the religious and their beliefs. That it comes from someone who is the Dean of a Divinity School simply illustrates further the sad decline of the Episcopal Church in America. I would offer that the baiting going on in that quote is directed toward Fundamentalists but serves to insult all religious. I don’t get the point of any of it, except for its self promotion. Want a pro-choice religious speaker at your next abortion clinic promotion? Contact Reverend Kathy at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Specially discounted summer rates now available.

Now many if not most pro-life advocates are traditional religious believers and see the gravely unjust or immoral acts of abortion to be sins. They understand sins precisely as offenses against God. That is their reason for opposing abortion; and thus it is God’s reason in their view, the unjust taking of innocent human life, which motivates them to oppose abortion and requires that human communities protect their unborn members against it. But there is a difference between Fundamentalists who might cite scripture (“in thy mother’s womb I formed thee” Jeremiah 1:5) as their chief or even sole reason to oppose abortion, and other pro-life advocates (my hero, Robert P. George, for example). The latter are unwilling to cede the scientific or philosophical to the pseudo intellectual sophists who populate the left, and apply human intelligence to the question. 

Before we assign a value to the sanctity or value of human life, we need to understand it, they say. When does human life begin, at birth, at the fetal stage, at some “ensoulment” of the human – perhaps a certain kind of brain wave that might indicate a unique type of human intelligence? Roll those PBS science tapes, Jerome.

Robert George explains the science behind his position on abortion: “A human being is conceived when a human sperm containing twenty-three chromosomes fuses with a human egg also containing twenty-three chromosomes (albeit of a different kind) producing a a single-cell human zygote containing , in the normal case, forty-six chromosomes that are massed differently from the forty-six chromosomes as found in the mother or father. Unlike the gametes (that is, the sperm and the egg), the zygote is genetically unique and distinct from its parents. Biologically, it is a separate organism. It produces, as the gametes do not, specifically human enzymes and proteins. It possesses, as they do not, the active capacity or potency to develop itself into a human embryo, fetus, infant, child, adolescent, and adult.

Assuming that it is not conceived in vitro, the zygote is, of course, in a state of dependence on its mother. But independence should not be confused with distinctness. From the beginning, the newly conceived human being, not its mother, directs its integral organic functioning. It takes in its nourishment and converts it to energy. Given a hospitable environment, it will, as Dianne Nutwell Irving says, “develop continuously without any biological interruptions, or gaps, throughout the embryonic, fetal, neo-natal, childhood and adulthood stages – until the death of the organism…

The significance of genetic completeness for the status of newly conceived human beings is that no outside genetic material is required to enable the zygote to mature into an embryo, the embryo into a fetus, the fetus into an infant, the infant into a child, the child into an adolescent, the adolescent into an adult. What the zygote needs to function as a distinct self-integrating human organism, a human being, it already possesses.”

Some have attacked this argument as the “gradualness of gestation,” but it is not the “gradualness” but the “continuous,” that is, the continuous development of a single lasting (fully human) being…. As the human zygote matures, in utero and ex utero, it does not “become” a human being, for it is a human being already, albeit an immature human being, just as a newborn infant is an immature human being who will undergo quite dramatic growth and development over time.” If no arbitrary line separates the hues of green and red, shall we conclude that green is red? This is what the left calls for that science simply refutes by the very nature of the human being.

The sophists of the left love to divert the argument into stages of human development or personhood or to get the Fundamentalists lost in debating when “ensoulment” occurs. The bald fact of the matter is that they do not believe that all human beings are persons, or have fundamental rights. They are not scandalized by the concept of a “human non-person” and “post-personal” human beings (as well as severely retarded human beings who never were and never will be “persons,” as they are pleased to define the term) to whom the promises of basic rights and equality under the law do not apply. The same arguments were applied to blacks under slavery. Recall that it was Lincoln who cut through the moral relativism of the slave owning class to mark the high ground in the argument. Slavery was simply wrong he argued, the way that abortion is wrong today.

How strange that the man who upheld his intrinsic worth, who fought for his right to be free returns the favor by co-opting his benefactor’s Family Bible during his Presidential inauguration, turning his back on his hero and fighting for the confederacy in the abortion wars. We live in interesting times. Obama is the Anti-Lincoln.

These are the same folks who wish to establish the grim doctrine that homosexuality is simply a matter of fate, and the dehumanizing idea that one’s core identity is determined by one’s sexual desires. We are more, immeasurably more, than our sexual desires. And morally disordered desires are hardly limited to homosexuality or to sexual desires of any kind. Those who succumb to homosexual desires are, like all sinners, to be loved and assured of the transforming power of God’s forgiveness. In law and social practice, they should not be subjected to unjust discrimination, but neither should the practices that define “the gay community” be put on a social or moral par with the union of man and woman in marriage. Yet speak to these truths on an online forum and you will be castigated as “homophobic.”

Peter Kreeft writes: “Beneath a moral difference you always find some moral argument. Otherwise it’s not a moral argument. Because all argument needs a common premise. You can’t even imagine a totally new morality any more than you can imagine a totally new universe, or set of numbers or colors….Try to imagine a society where honesty and justice and courage and self-control and faith and hope and charity are evil, and lying and cheating and stealing and cowardice and betrayal and addiction and despair and hate are all good.  You just can’t do it….You can create different acceptable rules for driving and speech and clothing and eating drinking…but we are not free to make murder or rape or slavery or treason right, or charity and justice wrong. We can create different mores but not different morals….We know from experience that we’re free to choose to hate, but we’re not free to experience a moral obligation to hate, only to love.”

Affirm the Gay conceit that homosexuality defines your humanity? Condemn the queer to living a life out of congruence with his faith? Turn your back on mothers and children who need something other than the violence of an abortion? Give a war induced quadriplegic a pamphlet with a contact for the hemlock society? Those who support such aberrations begin with common logic: So we can agree that there are relative scales of value, and that the value of a life can be understood as varying based on context, and can be compared to the values of other things. The difference between someone who is “anti-life” and someone who is “anti-choice”, then, isn’t in their belief in value — it’s in the way they measure and evaluate it, and the way they adjudicate the value of a life in a given context with the value of other things…

And the answer is No. No, we can’t agree. To the young, the early dead and their survivors, the baffled, the defeated, I don’t think we can be tender enough. These are the ones the left ideologues prey upon with their glib moral relativism. Only the Church defends against them.


From an Atheist Forum

March 31, 2009

Snippets from exchanges with various atheists on a forum recently:

 The Proximity of Truth (Can atheists know the truth?)
While the Scripture you speak of exists (“No one approaches the Father but through me.” (John 14:6) St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, quoting St. Ambrose, “All profound truth, no matter where it is found, has the Holy Spirit for its author.”

Again, St Justin stated: “God is the Word of whom the whole human race are partakers….” and (Meister) Eckhart spoke of an ancient sage in the following terms: “Our most ancient philosophers found the truth long, long before…ever there was a Christian faith at all as it is now.”

Thomas of Villenova taught…. “Our religion is from the beginning of the world….if you saw Abraham, and Moses, and David alongside Peter and Andrew and Augustine and Jerome, you would observe, in all essential things, a perfect identity.”

There’s a profound principle in these words of great Christians, one that can allow a level of proximity (instead of exclusivity, which you seem to be preaching here) between different faiths even if they hold doctrinal differences.

When Jesus says “No one approaches the Father but through me”, he refers to those whose hearts are on his path, whose beings have a resonant identity with his, whose spirits are congruent with his – they are the ones who approach God through Jesus, even if they have never seen or heard Jesus (They could even be atheists).

They cultivate an essential identity which connects and accords with the spirit and truth of his teachings though they may know little or nothing about Jesus himself. It is a person’s inner reality (and the actions which spring from it) that is the deciding factor.

 “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven…. And every one that heareth these sayings, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.” (Matthew 7:22-27)

The Scandal Of Neutrality (The Agnostic)
I think you may have a very puerile understanding of what “the Church” means, perhaps some sort of social organization or people sitting in the pews of a building. Catholics are “ecclesial” and think of “the Church” as the “mystical body of Christ.” In the words of a lovely hymn I sang yesterday:

 “We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts.
Living, now we remain with Jesus, the Christ.

1. Once we were people afraid,
lost in the night.
Then by your cross we were saved;
dead became living,
life from your giving.

2. Something which we have known,
something we’ve touched,
what we have seen with our eyes:
this we have heard;
life giving Word.

3. He chose to give of himself,
became our bread.
Broken, that we might live.
Love beyond love,
pain for our pain.

4. We are the presence of God;
this is our call.
Now to become bread and wine:
food for the hungry,
life for the weary,
for to live with the Lord,
we must die with the Lord.”

It is Church’s monumental answer (No!) to that piece of popular secular advice: “Get over it!”

We have “killed the author of life.” [Peter in Acts 3:15] And our lives need to be rededicated to Him. And anything worth doing is done in relationship with others, based on love. That is what the Church is and the whole purpose of our Catholic faith is to be a part of that.

My suspicion of you and others who “choose not to choose” is that you advocate the “square circle,” a neutrality that is not there. Your god is Neutrality and you refuse to commit much to anything. In certain intellectual regions your God travels under other names such as Autonomy and Rights. To recap a bit from an essay by J. Budziszewski, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas and a specialist  in ethical and political theory:

“We meet this jealous and negating god on the philosophic right, where conservatives like Michael Oakeshott tell us that the specific and limited activity of “governing” has “nothing to do” with natural law or morals. We encounter him on the philosophic left, where liberals like John Rawls and Marxists like Jurgen Habermas invent devices like the Veil of Ignorance and the Ideal Speech Situation to convince us that if we wish to understand truly the principles of justice, we must pretend to forget not only who we are, but also everything we ever thought we knew about good and evil.

We meet this god in law, where many jurists treat ethical distinctions such as “family” vs. “non-family” as “invidious classifications” that deny citizens the equal protection of the law. We meet him in education, where elementary school children are offered books like Daddy’s Roommate, Heather Has Two Mommies, and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride.

In fact, we meet this god everywhere: in the university, in the movie theatre, in many churches and synagogues, and, it goes without saying, on the even more ubiquitous altar of the television.

It might seem remarkable that people who insist that tolerance means moral neutrality should themselves be so earnest in ridiculing those who aren’t neutral. But of course, they themselves aren’t neutral either.

The scandal of Neutrality is that its worshipers cannot answer the question “Why be neutral?” without committing themselves to particular goods-social peace, self-expression, self-esteem, ethnic pride, or what have you-thereby violating their own desideratum of Neutrality. Yet even this is merely a symptom of a deeper problem, namely, there is no such thing as Neutrality. It isn’t merely unachievable, like a perfect circle; it is unthinkable and unapproachable, like a square circle. Whether we deem it better to take a stand or be silent, we’ve offended this god in the very act of deeming.”


An Atheist Visionary

March 20, 2009

Visionary wrote:

Carl Sagan: “I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience.”


Derek Jeter wrote:

 And there is much more wonder in the Roman Church than in pseudo-religions. Religion and science have all too often invaded each other’s spheres. But faith and reason, while enjoying, as the Pope says, a legitimate independence or autonomy from each other, are also profoundly interdependent. Together, as John Paul II declared in his soaring prose from Fides et Ratio:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Faith and reason, the Pope says, are two orders of knowledge. But they are linked, and, to some extent, overlapping, orders. Some truths are known only by revelation; others only by philosophical, scientific or historical inquiry.

Thus it is that on the “two wings” of faith and reason the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth. The overwhelming majority of scientists are people of faith and their faith is what helps them in their work. It is only in the distorted mind that we find this war of religion on science or vice versa.


Visionary says:

Jeter [Some truths are known only by revelation; others only by philosophical, scientific or historical inquiry.] Revelation produces no truth. It’s just comments by men to dupe other men. Gotta have proof to see truth. Same with philosophy – just mind games, not truth. Historical inquiry is very shaky and nothing to hang one’s hat on.

I can understand your retreat into religion after having mental problems; but that is no excuse after a few years. That should be enought time to get your head together and see the ‘Truth.’ We are tiny organisms on a tiny planet in a vast universe. When we die, we die dead. Face it.


Derek Jeter wrote:

“Visionary wrote: “Gotta have proof to see truth.”

 Ahh. Proof.  Michael Novak has written that there are two axioms that scientific materialists (visionaries with blindfolds) reject when they think about God and demand “proof”:

First, God is not to be found as a thing out in the world around us. Nothing that is, is quite like Him. Always one expects a little resemblance between creature and Creator, but the essential differences are vast. God is on a different wavelength entirely. These words of St. Augustine are like a burst of lightning: “I sought Thee everywhere, my God, never finding Thee, until I discovered Thee within: Not out among all the other furniture of the universe, but within.”  If God seeks us before we seek Him — I the sought and He the seeker — then He could not catch me until I looked within.

The second axiom is this: God cannot be found by any scientific method, since science is by definition limited to what can be known through evidence from matter. Anything that science discovers is, by definition, in part material.

That is not the wavelength on which God is to be found. To say that there is no scientific proof for the existence of God is obvious on its face.

There is a long tradition of philosophers, many of them secular philosophers, who have spent long hours trying to come very carefully and precisely to an idea of God that met what they experienced within, in the cool depths of their minds. Not by ecstasy, but by calm reflection. But all of this work becomes meaningless when “visionaries” like yourself cut these inquiries off at the knees by demanding “proof.”

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence.

And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.

So you are a religionist, Mr. Visionary. Join the crowd.

When you say “science” and that holier-than-thou “proof” canard that you dust off, all I see is Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: “Back off. I’m a scientist.” I spend my time in the company of Augustine, Pascal, Aquinas. I’ll leave Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins to Mr. Visionary.  


Visionary wrote

“Jeter, when you say “science” and that holier than thou “proof” canard that you dust off, all I see is Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: “Back off. I’m a scientist.” I spend my time in the company of Augustine, Pascal, Aquinas. I’ll leave Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins to Mr. Visionary.”

You have taken it all in, duped, since you have not concerned yourself with science (unable to understand solid geometry?). It all goes back to proving the bible is correct because it says so in the bible. I have spent my time with Augustine, Pascal, and Aquinas and it’s all nonsense. Ask any Jesuit. For some real fun go to Chardin. He may teach you a thing or two, if you can understand him. Don’t forget that the people conning you are making money at it.

Derek Jeter wrote

 “Visionary wrote: “Since you have not concerned yourself with science (unable to understand solid geometry?).”   

 Even the most science like of the sciences, geometry, uses metaphysical ideas like parallel lines extending into infinity.

Here is Alfred North Whitehead In Science and the Modern World (1925):

“My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology.

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience — from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lovely lily in the meadow — is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility; mutual connection, and multiple logics.

All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God.

In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling — the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam — the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain.”

Imago Dei, yes indeed. In a recent poll I read somewhere that 70% of modern scientists believe in God. The division you so desperately posit here, simply does not exist.


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