Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Immanentizing Evil to Religion and Creating a Secondary Ideology Against the Venom

One thing I keep thinking about is the kind of constellation of thought that keeps cropping up out there that suggests that religion is the root of all evil and that people need to be proactive and ruthless in rooting it out of the human psyche. On the one hand I see this lining up with the description of self-deception T.S. Eliot aptly and wryly gave. How convenient, he muses in one passage, to find all evil embodied in another group. There is nothing like it to put a spring in your step. But it is self-deceptive and Christians should not partake of it. But when faced with others bigotry, when they begin to regard what you stand for as the embodiment of evil, there is a temptation to counter with the same. And who knows what group started the cycle. Against the blind venom of ideological rigidity, one is tempted to form a “secondary ideology”, a defensive and despising militancy. But this is the great test of the Christian faith. Will we love our enemies as Christ loved us when we were His enemies (and as He does when we act like His enemies)? (Some seem to think the test is whether we hate ourselves for the sake of our enemies until well, Christ gets the shaft, and we rage with the nations against the Son of God).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cardinal Newman Resists the Fracture of the University

It is interesting to me to learn that John Henry Cardinal Newman during his first years as a fellow at Oriel in Oxford was initially greatly influenced by the friendly guidance of two Seniors, one of whom would later become archly opposed to him for his stance that teachers ought, at the then ostensibly Christian Oxford university, to not merely teach but also watch over the religious life of their pupils.

“It was the powerful minds of two friendly seniors that really shaped him, in these first Oriel years, Richard Whately and Edward Hawkins. And the Oriel ‘spirit of moderation and comprehension’, wrought very powerfully, in these years to lessen that morbid sensibility and irritability of mind’, in religious matters, against which, as a characteristic weakness of his early manhood, his father had once gravely warned him.”

Several years later, in 1828, Hawkins would become Provost of Oriel in 1828 and Newman and he would come into head on collision.

“The subject of the dispute was the contention of Newman and his fellow tutors that their duties were not merely to teach but to watch over the religious life of their pupils.”

As Provost, Hawkins responded to Newman’s disagreement by ceasing to assign him any more students after 1830. Newman reflected later that had he not been deprived of his tutorship, the Tract movement (the Oxford theological movement which among other things would influence the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous) would never, humanly speaking, have occurred. The hardship was the necessary precursor to a fruitful movement.

What I find especially interesting is the point of dispute between Hawkins and Newman, a point of dispute that one might say is also between the modern university and Newman’s idea of the university. The neat, arbitrary, paralyzing and neutering divisions of modernity which cut the cords between knowledge, morality and beauty were eschewed by Newman who insisted on the synthesis even to the point of being censured and persecuted.

It may be necessary to mention that Newman at this time had been from 1822-1833 Vice-principal of a small college, the acting pastor of St. Clement’s parish in Oxford, one of the four Public Tutors in his college, and as a dean, he had “played a prominent part in taming a rowdy, hard-drinking set of undergraduates and in restoring long-relaxed college discipline.” There is more, but the point I drew from it is that he was a preacher and a spiritual man who could not and would not divorce the spiritual from the intellectual. Indeed, as he points out in his book The Idea of the University, the original idea of the university was to be versed in multiple fields of knowledge that were all ultimately unified. Modern man on the other hand lives with fracture and tends to hallow it as normal, inured to even a longing for the unified whole, and impaired in his thinking by his complacent divisions.

Last there is this note about this formative time in Newman’s life: And of all the varied forces that worked on him in the ten years since he went to Oriel, none had effected him so powerfully, by 1833, as the systematic study of these early Christian writers, Greek and Latin, whom we call the Fathers. ‘In the long Vacation of 1828 I set about to read them chronologically.”

* Quotes taken from an introduction to the Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Philip Hughes in an Image Book copy (1956), pgs. 16-18.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Golgotha Undiscerned: Philosophy's Fatality

"In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight- three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, 'It's disgusting the way the mob enjoys such things. Why can't the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?' Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the true, the good and the beautiful." -W.H. Auden, 'Meditation on Good Friday' in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (Faber, 1971), qtd. in Richard Harries' Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding, (Continuum, 1993).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sertillanges on Virtuous Intellect

“The Virtues of a Catholic Intellectual”, Chp. 2 of Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life

As I listened to chapter 2 of Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, I experienced a mixture of reactions. At times he roused, at times, my conscience smarted under his well aimed exhortations; at times he seemed quaint or naïve, and, when I perceived the overall unity and integrity of his vision that emerged in the chapter as a whole, I was at times moved to pause in admiration. His understanding of the interconnectedness of things impresses me as an exalted and deep grasp or reality and essential to his ability to rouse and challenge. The central and unifying vision to this chapter and to the book as a whole is the contextualization of “the intellectual life” within a whole life devoted to God. Tolstoy once wrote to the effect: “Before I am a writer, I am a man”. There must be this sense of the whole, this attentiveness to each aspect of our lives in their interconnected-ness, so that the parts can be mutually fortifying, rather than devalued and detracted from by disorder in any area. “Life is a unity”, Sertillanges insists. He discusses the connection of the virtues to the intellect, but he also discusses its connection of the body (and the body of course is connected to the virtues as well). He also counsels the Golden Mean: the right behavior and soundest course is often between two extremes. And he urges, in harmony with Scripture, that we test ourselves in order to work from a sound estimation of our capacities, neither too great, nor too low. As the Apostle Paul writes:

“If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load” (Galatians 6:3-5).

Many times my response to these exhortations by Sertillanges is perhaps an especially American response: “How?”- also characteristically accompanied by an impatience to “get ‘er done.” But the answer called for is a response that includes infinite dimensions. It is a call to eternal worship.

“The true springs up in the same soil as the good: their roots communicate” (p. 19). Sertillanges’ sense of the unity of truth, goodness and beauty has him captive, but he seems to overstate his argument on page 18 to the point of seeming quaint and naïve:

“Would there not be something repellent in seeing a great discovery being made by an unprincipled rascal? The unspoiled instinct of a simple man would be grievously hurt by it.”

Haven’t many great discoveries and many great works been made by singularly unprincipled rascals? In a book disturbing for its project as well as its content, the historian Paul Johnson enumerates very unprincipled sins of many leading intellectuals in the Western tradition, providing a few examples from world history of memorable intellects possessed by very badly behave men and women. But Sertillanges mitigates his statement, though not entirely, it seems, on page 19, by remarking that truth visits those who love her, and that the man of genius at work is already virtuous but that it would “suffice for his holiness if he were more completely his true self.” There remains something noble, something lovely to be reflected on in the work of a genius, even if much of their life is sinful. I can agree with Sertillanges on this and also agree with him in believing that wholeness and abundant life is not in an opposition of the intellect’s life, however, brilliant, to the virtues and the care of the body, or a negation of these, but that there is an essential unity God designed us for and God is redeeming us to, and that we should rise to with all our might, knowing Christ.
Sertillanges makes his point about the unity of the intellect and the virtues eloquently on page 22:

“But stupidity apart, what enemies do you fear? What about sloth, the grave of the best gifts? What of sensuality, which makes the body weak and lethargic, befogs memory? Of pride, which sometimes dazzles and sometimes darkens, which so drives us in the direction of our own opinion that the universal sense may escape us? Of envy, which obstinately refuses to acknowledge some light other than our own? Of irritation, which repels criticism and comes to grief on the rock of error?”

Remove the vice, he says, and the gift can reach its full measure. I think he is right. Profligate geniuses are not as sound as saintly geniuses. I prefer Newman to Lucretius, but can profit from both.
Coupled with the theme of the unity of our lives before God is the counseling of the Golden Mean: “To the virtue of studiousness, two vices are opposed: negligence on the one hand, vain curiosity on the other” (p. 25). I prize this aspect of Sertillanges’ counsel, which recurs throughout the book, and think it gives distinctive depth to his treatment of the books’ subject. An essential part of pursuing study as a spiritual discipline and as part of a life of devotion to God is not studying when you have another duty that you should be doing. To be errant in your duties as a man or woman in order to study is to cheapen your study and turn it into dilettantism.
Finally, he counsels a “sound body in a sound mind”. (Incidentally, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda also counseled this: “Salim bal fi salim jism”, but that only shows that sound advice can sometimes appear in extremely distorted lives). “Exercise every day.” Neglect of the body and its health detracts from the whole.
As a parting note, in pondering the unity of the intellectual life, the virtues, and the body, and of learning to in some manner live life as a whole with some sense of the whole, I am posed with a challenging question: how do we live our lives as a whole? And especially in a culture where more and more it seems our fragmentation is codified in our in the shape of our lives. Some of Picasso’s paintings of distorted faces of people comes to mind as illustrations of peculiarly modern form of this distortion. I also think of a debate in neuroscience about our nature and of Aristotle’s point that it makes more sense to say “I do this”, or “I do that” than to say “My soul does this”. There is a place for this (I think of the Magnificat). But from being useful, this can become codified and a numbness to a sense of the whole can set in. In neuroscience, culminating a trend throughout the medical profession and in our society in general, materialists urge that saying our brain did something is the same as saying that we did it. This expresses itself in a turn to mood altering drugs as a cure for every aspect of behavior on massively irresponsible levels in the medical profession. And this understanding, or rather failure of understanding of ourselves as a whole is also where sources of self-discipline are being eroded. But it is not easy to identify the solution. Still it occurs to me that the way to all embracing wholeness is exactly as Jesus said and made possible: we lose ourselves in a life of worship of God, the Truth.

David Alexander

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pyrrhonism, of Which Civilization Can Die

Pyrrhonism: 1. the doctrine taught by Pyrrho (c. 360-c. 270 B.C.), a Greek Skeptic, that all knowledge, including the testimony of the senses, is uncertain 2. Extreme skepticism.

“But one of the features of development, whether we are taking the religious or the cultural point of view, is the appearance of skepticism- by which, of course, I do not mean infidelity or destructiveness (still less the unbelief which is due to mental sloth) but the habit of examining evidence and of the capacity for delayed decision. Scepticism is a highly civilized trait, though, when it declines into pyrrhonism, it is one of which civilization can die. Where skepticism is strength, pyrrhonism is weakness: for we need not only the strength to defer a decision, but the strength to make one.” –T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, (1940), p. 102.

[Something I wrote previously reflecting on a book by Sertillanges appies here. When Eliot talks about Pyrrhonism he seems to me to be alluding to a defining weakness of Postmodernity, the failure of judgment.]

Sertillanges has deep insight into the act of judgment. A passage I found particularly resonant is toward the end of the preface where he describes the proper approach to knowing a thing aright. In the whole of his description I can see lesser halves, distorted approaches to knowledge, which his wholeness on the subject avoids. “To be long multiple is the condition of being richly one,“ he writes. “Unity at the starting point is a mere void.” That is a saying I plan to remember. It seems to me that much of the ideologies of modernity are unities that are “mere voids” but that postmodernism seems definable by a weakness of being only multiple, and not aiming and finally believing in the richly one. Postmodernism, as successor, justifies its excesses against the excesses of the preceding ideologies. “It is a great secret to know how to give radiance to an idea by means of its twilight background. It is a further secret to preserve its power of convergence in spite of this radiating quality.” The strength of postmodernism lies in its attunement to the first secret, perhaps, but it becomes a weakness, a sickness unto death, if it does not learn the second secret.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Neither Liberalism Nor Conservatism, O Christians!

“But the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of permanent things.”

–T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, (1940), p. 76 .
(from a reprint of a broadcast talk, delivered in February 1937 in a series on ‘Church, Community and State’).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Moral Duty to Think About the Lovely, Etc.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”Philippians 4:4-9

It occurs to me as I read this again that this is not a suggestion, but an exhortation. It is a moral duty. The notion I used to hear growing up that a thing was “just entertainment”, as far as it at times seems to have meant an amoral sphere, a place to suspend our critical faculties, seems anathema to what is said here. Even entertainment that does not try to stimulate our baser “instincts” but that is simply not lovely, noble or good takes up our day and absorbs from our limited span of energy, postponing a closer communion with truth, keeping God in the waiting room of our lives.

Matthew Arnold, a poet and literary critic, a deep and brilliant man, advanced an idea of culture in his book Culture and Anarchy that is, it seems to me, idolatrous. However, I think in the following quote the sentiment expressed is very compatible with Philippians 4. Culture, he wrote, is ‘the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought or said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” –Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, p. 6.

The concept he means by perfection, if I understand him right, is that of developing a thing to the fullness of its kind, its given nature, in accordance and harmony with what God has wrought. I think of a plant. Beneath my dubious care a plant has grown up scraggly and ugly. The same breed of plant under my friend Br. Dunstan’s consummate care has flourished until its similarity to the other plant in kind is hardly recognizable. Br. Dunstan’s stewardship of the plant has brought it to a kind of perfection. What Arnold means by perfection here, with a special focus on the mind, is bringing the mind to fullness of fruition by humble attentiveness and application to that which harmonizes with what God has made.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Preface to A.G. Sertillanges' The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Method

Reflections on the Preface to A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life

A.G. Sertillanges opens The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Method, his masterful book on study and the Christian intellectual life-the best on its subject that I am aware of- with an elegant and challenging preface. At the heart of the book there is a challenge, an exhortation to love the truth, and many subsidiary challenges beside to support this one life charge. The preface is marked liked the rest by this bracing atmosphere of serious and vibrant summons to greater, life-encompassing depth. In many places I hear the echo of the words and spirit of Christ. The words of Scripture come to mind in thinking about the concept of truth pressed in this book.

“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will be condemned who have not believed the truth, but have delighted in wickedness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, set in the context of a reference to the “man of lawlessness” and his followers.)

The love of and belief in truth is set against delight in wickedness and being delivered over to delusion. At the heart of this book is the strong and compelling call to ardent love of the truth, set within the context of a focus on vocational calling. (“Vocation,” Buechner wrote, “is where your deep joy meets the world’s deep need.”) It is exquisitely formed so as to grip those with an inclination to this work and charge them with wholehearted love, through their vocation, for the truth.

Sertillanges’ beginning advice in the preface is:
“Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.” –A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Method, Conditions, p. viii.

Airy praise is fine but he has a meaty purpose. He is exhorting the reader to establish in their way of life, not rigidly but as a whole man or woman, a necessary condition for intellectual work, one however that is attainable to all, that can and should be sought by all, and not just those that feel in some measure a call to engage in this type of work. It is a necessary condition for both.

The view of the intellectual life presented, embodied and urged here is one of attunement and responsiveness to the given and the Giver. He makes the point that the intellectual is not self-begotten but it “the son of the Idea, of the Truth, of the Creative Word, the Life-giver immanent in His creation” (viii). We are not here as in darkness. Godliness in intellectual work is not to conjure on a whim. We are to unfold the teleological and providential precedent. God has left us notes. We are to pick them up and unfold them with the growing ardor that their content elicits.

Sertillanges points out a path to intellectual readiness for the truth in moments of insight, readiness in such moments to attend, to welcome, to follow out its courses, to love the truth. He describes not just a moment’s effort, a straightening of the tie over a wrinkled shirt when royalty is about to walk by, but a way of life punctuated by moments of receptive self-giving to the truth: “The Spirit passes and returns not. Happy the man who holds himself ready not to miss”(ix). It is like the parable of the ten virgins. Perhaps we were called for such a time as this. “Make the most of every opportunity for the days are evil.”

On page ix-x, he describes two different types of memory, one that actually closes the ways of thought in favor of words and fixed formulas, something Matthew Arnold also denounced as “mechanical thinking”, “stock notions and habits” for which he thought culture was the cure. The opposite of this rigidity is a memory that is “receptive in every direction, and in a state of perpetual discovery”, like a child or a poet. “It functions in contact with the springs of inspiration.” In the experience where we draw near to this, the stage is set for us to yield our deepest self to the truth. Sertillanges is describing worship. When I most feel love, freedom and openness and peace toward my fellow man is in moments of this embrace of truth.

In the preface and throughout the book there is an essential focus on spirit. He describes the many specific and practical decisions that must be made in pursuing the discipline of study in a godly and loving way, and he makes the powerful point that such specificities can only be judged of in “the moment of ecstasy when we are close to the eternally true, far from the covetous and passionate self” (p. xi). I think this point profound. The moment when spirit touches Spirit is the moment when we are best able to judge and order.

Sertillanges has deep insight into the act of judgment. A passage I found particularly resonant is toward the end of the preface where he describes the proper approach to knowing a thing aright. In the whole of his description I can see lesser halves, distorted approaches to knowledge, which his wholeness on the subject avoids. “To be long multiple is the condition of being richly one,“ he writes. “Unity at the starting point is a mere void.” That is a saying I plan to remember. It seems to me that much of the ideologies of modernity are unities that are “mere voids” but that postmodernism seems definable by a weakness of being only multiple, and not aiming and finally believing in the richly one. Postmodernism, as successor, justifies its excesses against the excesses of the preceding ideologies. “It is a great secret to know how to give radiance to an idea by means of its twilight background. It is a further secret to preserve its power of convergence in spite of this radiating quality.” The strength of postmodernism lies in its attunement to the first secret, perhaps, but it becomes a weakness, a sickness unto death, if it does not learn the second secret.

I have more I would like to say about the “contacts with men of genius” he describes, enjoins, assumes you will do (p.xi; xii) but I think this will have to do.

David Alexander, 10 September 2008

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Some Thoughts on Luther, Lutheranism, Anti-Semitism and Nazi Germany

Luther was undeniably anti-Semitic in his writings in his later years about the Jews. Luther and others in the Reformation threw a lot into question, even turning a doubtful eye on certain of the Scriptures, such as the book of James. He also in his Table Talks when asked what should be done to a huge mentally retarded man who ate like a horse and was a burden on his poor family, said that he should be killed, and this was quoted in a court case over eugenics in pre-Nazi Germany as a justification for eugenics. In Germany, it was Protestant Liberalism, specifically radical Lutheranism, that later undermined the authority of the Scripture. The school of Tubingen and the German school of Higher Criticism did this by applying naturalistic exclusionary principles to their interpretation of the Bible. The vein of this influence is observable in references made by Nietzsche and by Hitler to the Bible. I am thinking of their antagonistic interpretation of the apostle Paul's writings, which seems to draw on the work of Bauer and others, who dreamed up massive rifts in the early church. The hands of those who held the Bible, having stripped the Bible of a normative authority even intellectually, were free to deal with it disingenuously, to distort its teaching according to their agendas. From my perspective, which I doubt you can understand, not sharing my presuppositions, it is to be expected that a Satanic hatred of the Jews, as a covenant people of God whom God watches over in a special way for the sake of His promises to the patriarchs, will express itself again and again over the centuries, sometimes from surprising quarters.However, in the midst of the Third Reich's rise to power, there was a powerful theological movement called the Confessing Church which deeply influenced much of Protestantism and the Catholic church afterwards, led by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller, Helmut Thielicke and others which was characterized by a resounding emphasis on the Word of God and a resounding "Nein!" to naturalistic shepherding of the churches. A natural outcome of this was the anathematizing of race theory as heresy in the famous Barmen Declaration. They stood against the Nazi "science" even at the cost of life, the cost of discipleship to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer was executed. Martin Niemoller was declared the personal prisoner of Hitler by Hitler in a rage when he heard that Niemoller was going to be let out of prison. Thielicke was stripped of his profesorship, etc. So even just in the history of the Lutherans, a return to the Scripture made the uncommon difference in an uncommonly horrid situation.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"Cheap Grace" Versus Ezra's Example

Here is a note from the commentary I am reading this morning: "Drawing upon the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thronveit remarks that Ezra's prayer/speech 'speaks against the attitude of cheap grace that has counted on God's continual provision but has failed to heed the warnings of scripture or history". -Matthew Levering, Ezra & Nehemiah, Brazos Theological Commentary, p. 102.

As I am reading Ezra and being aided in my reflections by this commentary, it is brought out to me how clearly Ezra looked to scripture and to God's working in history. He understood Israel's exile in terms of God's judgment as the book of 1 & 2 Kings does, and he understood the return of the remnant as a fulfillment of Jeremiah's prohecy of return after 70 years of captivity. He also saw God's providential working in the leniency of the Persian kings who allowed the Israelites to return and facilitated their rebuilding of the temple, and he was afraid that the Israelites intermarriage with idolatrous peoples around them would bring about the same judgment on Israel as that recounted in 1 & 2 Kings in which both Judah and the Northern Kingdom, after hundreds of years of flagrant idolatry, finally are discarded. But this time, Ezra fears, the judgment may be more final. He rips his hair and beard, and rends his clothing. He sees God in history, and leads all Israel into communal confession of sins.

It is interesting to think of cheap grace in reference to our understanding of God working in history and in our relationship to the Scriptures. If the Scriptures cannot demand anything of us, except when morphed into human principles, then it is cheap grace. Similarly, if we do not see God at work in history and in our times, in our lives and in the broader world, then it is cheap grace.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Notes on The Stranger by Camus

Notes on The Stranger by Camus:

-The Stranger as the depiction of the Un-man, one of the "men without chests," lacking in natural affections, a malaise peculiar to modernities specific defromities.

-The Stranger as the depiction of the psychopathology of modernity.

-The psychopathologing of modernity, as depicted in characters like Raskolnikov and Meursault, is integrally related to modernity's methodical imbalance.

-Doestovesky, Camus, etc. as modernity being authentic, revealing the disease beneath Enlightenment rhetoric, the wounds it has not cured.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Thomas Merton on Sanity, Insanity and Love

“One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing.

If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, ‘well-balanced,’ unperturbed official conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well.

He was not bothered much by guilt. I have not heard that he developed any psychosomatic illnesses. Apparently he slept well. He had a good appetite, or so it seems. ..

It is the sane ones, the well adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying the sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then it will be no mistake.

We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his ‘right mind’. The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by his disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted’. God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself.

And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? Evidently this is not necessary for ‘sanity’ at all. It is a religious notion, a spiritual notion, a Christian notion. What business have we to equate ‘sanity’ with ‘Christianity’? None at all, obviously.” –Thomas Merton, “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” Raids on the Unspeakable, (New Directions: 1964), pgs. 45, 46-47.

Some Thoughts On the Suppression of Agency by Displacement

Always, it now seems to me safe to say, in trying to explain agency away, materialists merely displace agency onto inanimate objects. A suppressive, barely conscious, occulted mental disposition.

Criminals are fully aware of advantages to the therapeutic and sociological bent of modernity. It pervades their own accounts of their behavior. Eichmann, for example, argued that he was just following orders. It was the system that was broken. He was not responsible.

One has to ask to what extent such “non-responsible” explanations of human behavior undermine behaving responsibly, by moving the onus off the competent agent onto objects now mystically endowed with the agents’ power. This has been a recurrent theme for materialists of various brands: the Marxist historical-sociological determinism being an example and the tendency to anthropomorphize genes and “memes” as determining agents being another. Those taught by these doctrines are encouraged to think of human behavior as something caused purely by outside forces. Concepts necessary for self-discipline are subsequently eroded, while any deleterious effect is loudly denied.

One example of the inculcation of passive, sheep-like self identity is the use of the term ‘consumer’, or, in other words, ‘blind mouths’. A critic of Christianity might point out its stress on obedience and the identity of being “the people of his pasture”, but there is a difference between being obedient and easily led by a God who is understood as being above every man, and thinking in terms of societal organizations which are ultimately in the hands of individuals. If an individuals ultimate dut, a duty which trumps every other duty, is to God, then his obedience to other men and women must always be mitigated by this higher fealty. Not so in social contracts, etc. By exalting a system to the level of primary cause, do we subtly exalt the systematizers?

“Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.” -Proverbs 25:28

“ People know life as a series of choices. Sometimes a choice has no clear outcome; in such cases, people make their best guess. Yet, even when guessing, people make the choice themselves. By robbing people of the desire to think and act differently, or robbing them of the ability to see the consequences of their actions, Artificial Happiness makes the choices for them. Whether it pushes them toward inaction, freezing them in their present circumstances no matter how noxious those circumstances might be, or conceals from them the outcome of different choices, Artificial Happiness disrupts the natural decision-making process by which people navigate life. Doctors abet this paralysis of mind by pushing drugs, alternative medicine, and obsessive exercise. They also contribute to the phenomenon by getting people to see unhappiness as something separate from life. This mind-set prepares people to seek or receive Artificial Happiness. A case told to me by a prison psychiatrist illustrates how far people have taken this attitude. In jail for robbery and second-degree murder, one of the psychiatrist’s patients complained of low self-esteem. The psychiatrist responded, “You have low self-esteem? Of course you have low self-esteem. You’re a murderer and a thief!” The psychiatrist complained that too many of his patients these days saw self-esteem as something disconnected from life and to be given out in the form of a pill. To the extent that people today uncouple happiness from life, they are merely following the doctors’ lead, while the doctors themselves fall into the clutches of this logic after several decades of faulty reasoning.
Doctors once saw unhappiness as something embedded in life. In the late 1960s, during the medical profession’s first crisis, doctors began to reflect on the mechanics of unhappiness. During the course of their reflections, their attention shifted, first from life to the brain, then from the brain to neurons, then from neurons to synapses, and finally from synapses to neurotransmitters. They concluded that the whole unhappiness problem lay in the neurotransmitters, which caused their entire understanding of life and happiness to be thrown out of gear. In a twisted way, they were right; their error led them to detach unhappiness from life and treat it separately. The public took the doctors’ message to heart; eventually the whole country’s deliberations on unhappiness lost their way. Because of this train of errors, Artificial Happiness is now the country’s favored solution to unhappiness, concealing from people a proper understanding of the relationship between happiness and life.” – Ronald W. Dworkin, Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, p. 252-253.

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Your land shall be called Married"

"You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My delight is in her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be called married." -Isaiah 62:4

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Excerpts From a Scathing Article on AIDS and the Churches Myths

“Responses to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic are often driven not by evidence but by ideology, stereotypes, and false assumptions. Referring to the hyperepidemics of Africa, an article in The Lancet this fall named “ten myths” that impede prevention efforts—including “Poverty and discrimination are the problem,” “Condoms are the answer,” and “Sexual behavior will not change.” Yet such myths are held as self-evident truths by many in the AIDS establishment. And they result in efforts that are at best ineffective and at worst harmful, while the AIDS epidemic continues to spread and exact a devastating toll in human lives.
Consider this fact: In every African country in which HIV infections have declined, this decline has been associated with a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sex partner over the course of a year—which is exactly what fidelity programs promote. The same association with HIV decline cannot be said for condom use, coverage of HIV testing, treatment for curable sexually transmitted infections, provision of antiretroviral drugs, or any other intervention or behavior. The other behavior that has often been associated with a decline in HIV prevalence is a decrease in premarital sex among young people. …

… Katherine Marshall and Lucy Keough, lead authors of the report, are clearly uncomfortable with approaches to HIV prevention that emphasize sexual responsibility, behavior change, and morally based messages. They praise the work and compassion of faith communities in treating and caring for people ­living with AIDS and their families, yet harshly ­criticize the messages of faith communities for increasing the stigma of AIDS. Their discomfort with attempts to change sexual behavior is evident early in the report, when, for example, they muse: “Should the focus be on changing the behaviors that contribute to HIV/AIDS? (Is that possible? Desirable? How? With what assurance?)”
If Marshall and Keough are undecided as to whether changing sexual behavior is even desirable in the context of an epidemic driven by people who have more than one sex partner, they then need to become educated in the basic epidemiology of HIV transmission. One must ask whether they are more concerned with upholding a Western notion of sexual freedom or with saving lives. Their concern over any prevention approach that might be “moralistic” causes them to miss entirely the evidence for the remarkable success of sexual-behavior change in reducing HIV infections. They miss, as well, the crucial contribution of faith communities to HIV prevention, even while they are producing a report on the role of faith communities in the HIV crisis.
The Georgetown report tells us: “While the ‘mainstream’ HIV/AIDS program and global communities accept that widespread availability of condoms and promotion of condom use are major elements in successful HIV/AIDS prevention strategies, a focus on condoms is contentious for some religious communities because it contradicts the core recommended strategy of abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage.”
In fact, the mainstream HIV/AIDS community has continued to champion condom use as critical in all types of HIV epidemics, in spite of the evidence. While high rates of condom use have contributed to fewer infections in some high-risk populations (prostitutes in concentrated epidemics, for instance), the situation among Africa’s general populations remains much different. It has been clearly established that few people outside a handful of high-risk groups use condoms consistently, no matter how vigorously condoms are promoted. Inconsistent condom usage is ineffective—and actually associated with higher HIV infection rates due to “risk compensation,” the tendency to take more sexual risks out of a false sense of personal safety that comes with using condoms some of the time. A UNAIDS-commissioned 2004 review of evidence for condom use concluded, “There are no definite examples yet of generalized epidemics that have been turned back by prevention programs based primarily on ­condom promotion.” A 2000 article in The Lancet similarly stated, “Massive increases in condom use world-wide have not translated into demonstrably improved HIV control in the great majority of countries where they have occurred.”

Dawkins and Cosmopolitan Sex Geniuses

Two things that struck me as ironic today:

In Richard Dawkins' "dangerous idea" article in The Edge, he suggested that we ought to grow up and stop thinking in terms of responsibility. I have noticed the irony or absurdity of this before. But in discussing this matter on discussion board, a defender of Dawkins tried to show that he was only elaborating from things like the insanity plea. The problem with that argument is that Dawkins was arguing that the concept of responsibility itself ought to be suspended, not just in some cases, but in all cases. The irony of this occurred to me in conjunction with his well known pejorative that anyone who didn't believe in evolution was either "ignorant, insane or wicked." It occurred to me that by applying the insanity plea across the board, he in effect called himself and everyone insane.

The second irony was seeing in a grocery store line the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine with a young woman's picture and a caption next to it reading "Sex Genius". It occurred to me that what was being labeled as a sex genius was probably rather the opposite. What passes for wisdom in the world often turns out to be the greatest folly imagineable.

Perhaps there is a connection between this and an editor of Cosmopolitan having called Dawkins sexy?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"The eternal wound of existence" : Perceptions of Nietzsche's Pain

“It is an eternal phenomenon: the insatiate will can always, by means of an illusion spread over things, detain its creatures in life and compel them to live on. One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the delusion of being able thereby to heal the eternal wound of existence; another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; still another by the metaphysical comfort that beneath the flux of phenomena eternal life flows on indestructibly: to say nothing of the more ordinary and almost more powerful illusions that the will has always at hand”…
- Friedrich Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy Translated by Clifton P. Fadiman, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, p. 64.

[Here it seems to me I heard something of Nietzsche’s pain. The is truth in his criticism of Socrates and the Enlightenment for the notion that if people knew the good they would do it. As for his denial of eternal life there is only the assertion of his will, which was not that great after all. When I hear “the eternal wound of existence” I confess I thought of Nietzsche’s father, an evangelical Christian who after an accident, lived a agonized space before dying. It seems this must have been a decisive turning point for him, why the little boy called “the little pastor” ultimately became one of the world’s most famous atheists. I say I confess because I have a sense of discomfort in psychoanalyzing the man but to an extent it is a necessity of human fellowship. I do not find a lot in common with Nietzsche but I do relate to a fellow human being’s suffering. Nietzsche pejoratively, or insultingly, revaluated Christianity and Judaism, much like the ancient Gnostics. In his interpretation, Christianity and Judaism were slave religions and founded on resentment by inferiors of superiors. Rene Girard and no doubt others have remarked on the irony of Nietzsche’s characterization, ironic because it seems that so much of what characterized Nietzsche’s life as whole was resentment, resentment above all against God. ]

“Our art reveals this universal trouble: in vain does one depend imitatively on all the great product periods and natures; in vain does one accumulate the entire “World-literature” around modern man for his comfort; in vain does one place one’s self in the midst of the art-styles and artists of all ages, so that one may give names to them as Adam did to the beasts: one still continues eternally hungry, the ‘critic’ without joy and energy, the Alexandrian man, who is at bottom a librarian and corrector of proofs, and who, pitiable wretch, goes blind from the dusty books and printers’ errors.”
-Ibid., p. 67.

[One of the things I think that is good about Nietzsche is the pitch to which he brings the error of modernity. But he also looks beyond modernity’s faith in Reason, though he looks down. He is pivotal, at the doorway of postmodernity. That is why there is some value in judiciously reading him, as I see it (though he is indeed sadly blameworthy for ennobling crime, lies and blasphemy, like the Gnostics.) In the quote above there is something of an echo of Solomon in Ecclesiastes crying “Vanity of vanities!” He is intent on root realities. At least he is looking at these. Most people are eroding their lives in triviality upon triviality, “distracted from distraction by distraction” (as Eliot put it). Well, he is intent but at root he is turning away from root realities. Like the Gnostics he reality is a cheap phenomenon, a grossness, and the spirit must turn away from the real, from the true to a self-creation beyond the world.

It seemed to me here too that I sensed Nietzsche’s pain, the acerbic acquaintance with the hard, hard aspects of life, in some ways, out of which he spun a spider web of bad choices. ]

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Charles Taylor on Conflating Violence with Religion

“The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable. And this is the more damaging in that it affects the culture of the media and of educated public opinion in general. I take a striking case, a statement, not admittedly by a social scientist, but by a Nobel Laureate cosmologist, Steven Weinberg. I take it, because I find that it is often repeated in the media and in informal argument. Weinberg said (I quote from memory): “there are good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

On one level, it is astonishing that anyone who lived through a good part of the 20th Century could say something like this. What are we to make of those noble, well-intentioned Bolsheviks, Marxist materialist atheists to a man (and occasional woman), who ended up building one of the most oppressive and murderous brace of regimes in human history? When people quote this phrase to me, or some equivalent, and I enter this objection, they often reply, “but Communism was a religion,” a reply which shifts the goal-posts and upsets the argument.

But it’s worth pondering for a minute what lies behind this move. The “Weinberg principle,” if I might use this term, is being made tautologically true, because any set of beliefs which can induce decent people, who would never kill for personal gain, to murder for the cause, is being defined as “religion.” “Religion” is being defined as the murderously irrational.

Pretty sloppy thinking. But it is also crippling. What the speaker is really expressing is something like this: the terrible violence of the 20th Century has nothing to do with right-thinking, rational, enlightened people like me. The argument is then joined on the other side by certain believers who point out that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., were all enemies of religion, and feel that good Christians like me have no part in such horrors. This conveniently forgets the Crusades, the Inquisition, and much else.

Both sides need to be wrenched out of their complacent dream, and see that no-one, just in virtue of having the right beliefs, is immune from being recruited to group violence: from the temptation to target another group which is made responsible for all our ills, from the illusion of our own purity which comes from our readiness to combat this evil force with all our might. We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project…”

–Charles Taylor in “Statement At The Templeton Prize News Conference”,

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Science as Disdain for the Material (With Criticism of ID and the New Atheists)

Steve Talbott wrote a very fine essay underscoring the irony of a trend of thinking which finds expression even in the pages of Nature in an article influenced by Daniel Dennett which emphasized evolutionary algorithmic computer "simulations" in such a way as to forcefully downplay the importance of attention to the actual, to the material, to presence. Talbott writes beautifully and insightfully and I find the thoughts in the essay cogent, instructive, and timely. Here is a sample, a section which touches on Intelligent Design and its materialist counterparts:

From: “Ghosts in the Evolutionary Machinery”
By Steve Talbott

"Machines, Design, and the World
There is one distinction I have thus far glossed over. While the mathematically rigorous laws of physics can contribute in a real and profound way to our understanding of the physical world, the logical syntax of a computer does not in the same way contribute to our understanding of the physical machine. The law of gravity is a native law of copper, glass, and silicon in a way that the computer’s program logic is not. Rather, the program logic relates primarily to the way we have articulated the physical parts one with another so as to create a humanly useful mechanism. The computer’s logic is a function of design activity external to the materials themselves—an activity imposed from without—whereas the law of gravity arises from what matter and space are. Remove the program from the computer, or disassemble the physical machine, and there is no loss to the nature of copper, glass, and silicon; but you cannot remove gravitation without losing the materials themselves—their very substance is in part a “gravitational way of being.”
In other words, we cannot think of the logic or mathematics of gravity in relation to the physical world the way we think of program syntax in relation to a computer. The importance of this can hardly be overestimated at a time when the lawfulness of the universe is increasingly conceived as a kind of software governing a world-machine.

Here, incidentally, we can recognize the common ground shared by the advocates of Intelligent Design and their conventional opponents: both view the universe as a grand machine. This groundless assumption is the explicit foundation equally of the case for intelligent design (“the machine requires a Designer”) and the case for a materialistic, mindless universe (“a machine is merely a machine—and we learned long ago simply to ignore the question of a Designer or First Cause, or to conceal it behind the obscurity of the Big Bang”). The theists correctly understand that a machine requires an intelligent designer, whether we acknowledge this fact as such or attempt to smuggle the designer into our thinking by obscure bits and pieces. The materialists, in turn, see well enough that a machine-world is no suitable habitation for a human soul and spirit.

One way out of the ill-tempered and lightless debate between the two sides is to recognize that the intelligence we see in the world is not imposed from the outside upon pre-existing material, in the way we impose our design upon a machine. The intelligence in nature works always from within. In the world’s phenomena we see intelligence embodying itself in that visible, significant, aesthetically compelling speech we can’t help recognizing everywhere around us. The one thing we can be certain of is that whatever—or whoever—speaks through these phenomena is not doing so in the way we speak through the design of our machines. It is the height of hubris to think that we have become creators in that fundamental sense. Our design of machines does not bring material reality itself into existence as the embodiment of our own expressive powers. It is not both the lawfulness and the substance of things.” From The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Fall 2007. (

Elie Wiesel and Francois Mauriac

“In his interview, Elie Wiesel is unequivocal about his faith in God. Wiesel says this: ‘When I am thinking of my personal experience, there comes to mind, as a luminous example, Francois Mauriac. I, a Jew, owe to the fervent Catholic Mauriac, who declared himself in love with Christ, the fact of having become a writer…Once Mauriac dedicated a book to me and he wrote: ‘To Elie Wiesel, a Jewish child who was crucified.’ At first I took it badly, but then I understood that it was his way of letting me feel his love.’” –Qtd. by Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, April 2008, No. 182, p. 70.

[Mauriac was a profound French novelist, not often spoken of at present. His short novel The Viper’s Tangle (sometimes translated A Knot of Vipers) is a tremendous book which takes a profound look at sin and redemption. ]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Nietzche and Ancient Gnosticism's Pejorative Revaluations

“…The legend of Prometheus is indigenous to the entire community of Aryan races and attests to their prevailing talent for profound and tragic vision. In fact, it is not improbable that this myth has the same characteristic importance for the Aryan mind as the myth of the Fall has for the Semitic, and that the two myths are related as brother and sister. The presupposition of the Prometheus myth is primitive man's belief in the supreme value of fire as the true palladium of every rising civilization. But for man to dispose of fire freely, and not receive it as a gift from heaven in the kindling thunderbolt and the warming sunlight, seemed a crime to thoughtful primitive man, a despoiling of divine nature. Thus this original philosophical problem poses at once an insoluble conflict between men and the gods, which lies like a huge boulder at the gateway to every culture…” –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Part 9, pg. 32.

[A great weak point of Nietzsche’s philosophical argument seems to me to recur in his accounts of origins. We are to believe that man’s discovery of his abilities in relation to the order around him poses an inevitable opposition between the gods and man for the thinking man. But this doesn't follow at all. One of the qualities of A Beautiful World is the illumination to some extent of how the universe seems to have been made for man’s development and discovery. Man's ability in the universe can easily, more easily, it seems to me, be accounted for in terms of a harmonious order, an order that evokes gratitude. Another place where Nietzsche's account of religions seems to me a weak point is in The Genealogy of Morals when he seeks to explain the formation of society in terms of transaction... Commerce establishing society. The more primal, more fundamental reality is that of a mother and child. It is that out of which society springs- love, not will to power. Love will ultimately survive secular impotency.

There is in Nietzsche what seems to me a Gnostic turn, a course of assumptions, a stance, but it is far from being the inevitable outcome of astute reflection.

Hans Jonas in his landmark work of scholarship on ancient gnosticism, The Gnostic Religion, describes an aspect of gnosticism which parallels the nihilism Nietzche enjoins, in this, his first book:
“The cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and the world, and correspondingly that of man and world. The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness. The world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they rule. The genesis of these lower powers, the Archons (rulers), and in general that of all the orders of being outside God, including the world itself, is a main theme of Gnostic speculation….The spheres are the seats of the Archons, especially the “Seven,” that is, of the planetary gods borrowed from the Babylonian pantheon. It is significant that these are now often called by Old Testament names for God (Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai), which from being synonyms for the one and supreme God are by this transposition turned into proper names of inferior demonic beings- an example of the pejorative revaluation to which Gnosticism subjected ancient traditions in general and Jewish tradition in particular. The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit. In its physical aspect this rule is the law of nature; in its psychical aspect, which includes for instance the institution and enforcement of the Mosaic Law, it aims at the enslavement of man. ..”
[A little familiarity with Nietzsche would seem to be enough to see a parallel between this notion of Mosaic Law, etc. as enslaving, as slave religion. Certainly there is a pejorative revaluation. There seems to be a widespread tendency not to get this aggressive note. It seems gnosticism is now popularly imagined as a victim, and nihilism too is thought of largely as a passive permissiveness or indifference to transgression. ]

“The law of ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Thou shalt not’ promulgated by the Creator is just one more form of ‘cosmic’ tyranny. The sanctions attaching to its transgression can affect only the body and the psyche. As the pneumatic is free from the heimarmene [fate], so he is free from the yoke of the moral law. To him all things are permitted, since the pneuma is ‘saved in its nature’ and can be neither sullied by actions nor frightened by the threat of archonic retribution. The pneumatic freedom, however, is a matter of more than mere indifferent permission: through intentional violation of the demiurgical norms the pneumatic thwarts the design of the Archons and paradoxically contributes to the work of salvation. This antinomian libertinism exhibits more forcefully than the ascetic version the nihilistic element contained in Gnostic acomism.” –Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.46.

This brings me to the second part of Nietzsche’s quote:

“Man's highest good must be bought with a crime and paid for by the flood of grief and suffering which the offended divinities visit upon the human race in its noble ambition. An austere notion, this, which by the dignity it confers on crime presents a strange contrast to the Semitic myth of the Fall--a myth that exhibits curiosity, deception, suggestibility, concupiscence, in short a whole series of principally feminine frailties, as the root of all evil. What distinguishes the Aryan conception is an exalted notion of active sin as the properly Promethean virtue; this notion provides us with the ethical substratum of pessimistic tragedy, which comes to be seen as a justification of human ills, that is to say of human guilt as well as the suffering purchased by that guilt. The tragedy at the heart of things, which the thoughtful Aryan is not disposed to quibble away, the contrariety at the center of the universe, is seen by him as an interpenetration of several worlds, as for instance a divine and a human, each individually in the right but each, as it encroaches upon the other, having to suffer for its individuality. The individual, in the course of his heroic striving towards universality, de-individuation, comes up against that primordial contradiction and learns both to sin and to suffer. The Aryan nations assign to crime the male, the Semites to sin the female gender; and it is quite consistent with these notions that the original act of hubris should be attributed to a man, original sin to a woman.”

Like the ancient Gnostic, Nietzsche not only permits but actively enjoins the commission of a crime as a kind of perverse self-development. Nietzsche obviously favors the “Aryan” view against the Semitic and Christian belief in the Fall. He enjoins the conferral of a dignity on crime. He deems the feminine the weaker and associates it with the Semitic; he deems the Aryan, Promethean view as the masculine and superior.

Nietzsche like Freud attacks the Fall. Freud, in suffering a terrible cancer of the mouth, nevertheless, chain-smoking, commits suicide on the Jewish Day of Atonement, after having written, as his final book, an attack on Judaism, Moses and Monotheism.
Men like Jonas have long been aware of these things but it is something of a revelation for me to see them brought out. (Note: Jonas is a lucid writer. He clearly exposits the foreign terms before he utilizes them and a quote has out of context can be overwhelming but I would hope not to daunting.)

Learning About Versus Learning From Scripture

“Whether or not one is convinced by this or that conclusion of modern biblical scholarship, as a tradition of reading it cannot be incorporated into living religious communities. There is a spiritual parting of ways, [Kugel] suggests, that separates ancient from modern traditions of interpretation. The old ways of reading involve ‘learning from the Bible,’ while the modern critical approaches end up ‘learning about it.’ Ancient interpretation teaches us to live inside Scripture; modern reading keeps its distance…One feels that Kugel overdraws the contrast with ancient interpretations…Yet Kugel sees a real problem, or at least he sees it in outline. The great chasm of difference is a matter of exegetical atmosphere rather than historical techniques or even interpretive conclusions. Modern scholars want to master the Bible. We can see this in their often smug conclusions. ‘Well,’ we are told, ‘this or that biblical story is really about sustaining the ideology of the Jerusalem cult.’ In contrast, religious readers want to be mastered… This spiritual difference is becoming more and more obvious today. It has nothing to do with whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or whether Isaiah is a compilation of diverse prophetic material from different eras. It has to do with what we let the Bible say to us. On this point, Kugel is surely right. The old influence of liberal Protestantism on elite graduate programs in biblical studies has come to an end. We now see an aggressive indifference to the religious interests of biblical readers or postmodern theoretical gestures posing as theology. These days it is plain to see that a modern tradition of interpretation does not train readers to hear the Word of God in the Bible, even in its darkest corners. One reads purely and proudly as an outsider. This sensibility, this interpretive stance, is irreconcilable with the path charted by ancient readers. They read with the assumption that the Bible has the power to make us insiders. It is the path that faithful Jews and Christians continue striving to walk down.”
-R.R. Reno, “The Bible Inside and Out”, First Things, April 2008, pgs. 14, 15.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Whose the Fount of Your Religion?

“Nothing could be more foreign to the tone of scripture than the language of those who describe a saint as a ‘moral genius’ or a ‘spiritual genius.’ Thus insinuating that this virtue or spirituality is ‘creative’ or ‘original.’ If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for ‘creativeness’ even in a modified or metaphorical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction,… in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours.” –C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature”, in Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pg. 6.

[This point attacks a modern concept I want in my tiredness to faintly articulate. One reaction may be, how backward. “Everything must change”. (Man I am belligerent. I keep having to erase what I write.) But I think Lewis hits in the final sentence on why it is not, on the essential point, the difference between humility and will to power, the difference between “you have said you were gods” and real worship of a real God. From one angle, which seems essentially the fleshly angle, the idea of orthodoxy as the bane of creative genius is deadening, deathlike, of graves. But that is an angle from the self as sovereign, not from the self as crucified with Christ. What is remote and lost on the lost is a reality that Dostoevsky referred to when he wrote in his journals for the composition of his great novel Crime and Punishment, “In Christ Jesus, there are infinite resources for life.” I recall an eccentric woman recounting to me in my college days a dream she had had in which she saw cherubim flying around the throne of God with wings over their eyes, as depicted in Revelation. She asked one of them why they covered their eyes and they said, “Because every time we look at the Lord we see a new facet of His greatness that is wonderful beyond description” (paraphrasing). Whatever the nature of her dream, the content struck me then and still does as true of God. God is indeed great beyond all describing and the fount of life and blessing. We were dead in our sins; now we are alive in Christ. The source of our life is to be rooted in Him. ]

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Theory, Innate to Man, Turned the Ending of Man

“Modern theory is about objects lower than man: even stars, being common things, are lower than man… (Even in human sciences, whose object is man,) their object too is ‘lower than man…’ For a scientific theory of him to be possible, man, including his habits of valuation, has to be taken as determined by causal laws, as an instance and part of nature. The scientist does take him so- but not himself while he assumes and exercises his freedom of inquiry and his openness to reason, evidence and truth. Thus man-the-knower apprehends man-qua-lower-than-himself and in doing so achieves knowledge of man-qua-lower-than-man, since all scientific theory is of things lower than man-the-knower. It is on this condition that they can be subject to ‘theory,’ hence to control, hence to use. Then man-lower-than-man explained by the human sciences- man reified- can by the instructions of these sciences be controlled (even ‘engineered’) and thus used…And as the use of what is lower-than-man can only be for what is lower and not for what is higher in the user himself, the knower and user becomes in such use, if made all-inclusive, himself lower than man…Inevitably the manipulator comes to see himself in the same light as those his theory has made manipulable; and in the self-inclusive solidarity with the general human lowliness amidst the splendor of human power his charity is but self-compassion and that tolerance that springs from self-contempt; we are all poor puppets and cannot help being what we are….”

-Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 195-196.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche

“Yet, although Dostoevsky is in more than one respect the forerunner of Nietzsche, and although Nietzsche said: ‘He is the only person who has taught me anything about psychology,’ it cannot really be said that the one profoundly influenced the other. Nietzsche’s enthusiasm soon waned. Without disowning his first feeling, he had time for second thoughts. In a note in Der Wille zur Macht [The Will to Power] dated 1888 he still spoke of the ‘release’ that came from reading Dostoevsky. But on 20 November of the same year, when Georg Brandes was warning him against Dostoevsky as ‘wholly Christian in sentiment’ and an adherent of ‘slave morality’, he replied: ‘I have vowed a queer kind of gratitude for him, although he goes against my deepest instincts.’ ‘It is much the same as with Pascal,’ he added. And in Ecce Homo, enumerating the writers who had been his spiritual sustenance, he did not mention Dostoevsky. The initial attraction was coupled with an equally violent repulsion.”-Henri De Lubac, The Drama of Atheist of Humanism, (1950), p. 168.

[Perhaps the author of the essay “Macbeth and the Moral Universe”, Harry V. Jaffa (, is in something like Nietzsche’s initial reaction to Dostoevsky.]

“Nietzsche, in cursing our age, sees in it the heritage of the Gospel, while Dostoevsky, cursing it just as vigorously, sees in it the result of a denial of the Gospel.” -Henri De Lubac, The Drama of Atheist of Humanism, (1950), p. 172.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Religious 'Indoctrination' of Children and Atheism

By now Richard Dawkin’s assertion that religious indoctrination of children constitutes a form of child abuse has reached broad circulation, and has found a receptive audience among some. That well may be one of those arguments that rides on the ability of audacity to quell and confuse the obvious. But often the obvious can quite disappear under societal trends conditioning general approaches. In reading the following extended quote from Peter Berger, published in the 1969, it struck me how much the reverse question was raised rather cogently regarding the nature of the implied teaching of atheism, agnosticism, or more to the point, just sheer silence, to a child, and whether not assuring a child would form a kind of child abuse. As Berger argues, cogently in my view, a child’s being reassured of order, ubiquitously administered by parents worldwide, is a kind of priestly role, one called into question by the atheist. Further, this scene of reassurance might be plausibly taken as an epitome of the human, a site replete with what we think of as most essentially human.

I am conscious that in raising this point, it might be taken as a counterblast against atheists which attacks them in general as being inhuman, or an attack on Dawkins as being inhuman, but these are not at all my intent. It is hard to avoid the sharpness of the pitch of rhetoric that the public contention has been brought to, but rather than believing ill of Dawkins, I quite suspect that Dawkins did act the part of a priest with his daughter, assuring her of order, and that the fault lies rather in the poorness of his philosophical argument and the virtue lies in his lack of consistency in living it out.

Berger mentions in this quote atheists who, based on their “stoic realism”, refused to rear children rather than to lie to them or give them the cold truth, as they saw it. This raises the question whether this is the nobler position for an atheist to take. Apparently Dawkins did not think so, having raised a child.

I suspect that my point here will be attacked by those who support Dawkins’ accusation of “child-abuse” against religious “indoctrination” on at least two fronts. For one, it will be argued that assuring a child that all is in order and that it is OK is not the same as assuring them that there is a transcendent hope. But what exactly is it if it is not? What in the merely natural world makes you think that everything is alright? And why do we choose the terms we generally do in assuring a child? Another objection that might be raised is that whether or not it is a cold thing, it is the truth, but it may not be a truth that the child is ready to comprehend, and thus the necessity for vague and unjustified assurances until they are old enough to understand. This may be the tactic Dawkins has followed, as evinced by his open letter to his daughter. Yet it seems to me that the reassurance of order was first necessary before the argument against order could commence, and this is an essential point in correctly characterizing the nature of the kind of argument Dawkins makes. Dawkins had to be raised to a degree of psychological stability based on such an “illusion” of meaning and order before he could begin to attack it. And furthermore, Dawkins professes to base his argument for atheism on science, yet in what sense can science be divorced from the presumption of order and meaning? The advance of science is and always has been by the presumption of an orderly universe. Isn’t the logical end of the road to the un-reflected stoicism of the atheist the ultimate dismissal of order and meaning, the end of science, and the rejection of what your mother told you when you cried in the darkness of the night? Here is the quote:

“Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is “in order,” “all right,” “as it should be.” Needless to say, there is no empirical method by which this faith can be tested. To assert it is itself an act of faith. But it is possible to proceed from the faith that is rooted in experience to the act of faith that transcends the empirical sphere, a procedure that could be called the argument from ordering……Consider the most ordinary, and probably most fundamental, of all- the ordering gesture by which a mother reassures her anxious child. A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream, and finds himself surrounded by darkness, alone, beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible, and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, at this moment, the mother is being invoked as a high priestess of protective order. It is she (and, in many cases, she alone) who has the power to banish the chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. And, of course, any good mother will do just that. She will take the child and cradle him in the timeless gesture of the Magna Mater who became our Madonna. She will turn on a lamp, perhaps, which will encircle the scene with a warm glow of reassuring light. She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same- ‘Don’t be afraid-everything is in order, everything is alright.’ If all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality recovered, and in this trust he will return to sleep. All this, of course, belongs to the most routine experiences of life and does not depend upon any religious preconceptions. Yet this common scene raises a far from ordinary question, which immediately introduces a religious dimension: Is the mother lying to the child? The answer, in the most profound sense, can be ‘no’ only if there is some truth in the religious interpretation of experience. Conversely, if the ‘natural’ is the only reality there is, the mother is lying to the child- lying out of love, to be sure, and obviously not lying to the extent that her reassurance is grounded in the fact of this love- but, in the final analysis, lying all the same. Why? Because the reassurance, transcending the immediately present two individuals and their situation, implies a statement about reality as such.To become a parent is to take on the role of a world-builder and world-protector. This is so, of course, in the obvious sense that parents provide the environment in which a child’s socialization takes place and serve as mediators to the child of the entire world of the particular society in question. But it is also so in a less obvious, more profound sense, which is brought out in the scene just described. The role that a parent takes on represents not only the order of this or that society, but order as such, the underlying order of the universe that it makes sense to trust. It is this role that may be called the role of high priestess. It is a role that the mother in this scene plays willy-nilly, regardless of her awareness or (more likely) lack of awareness of just what it is she is representing. ‘Everything is in order, everything is all right’ – this is the basic formula of parental reassurance. Not just this particular anxiety, not just this particular pain- but everything is all right. The formula can, without in any way violating it, be translated into a statement of cosmic scope- ‘Have trust in being.’ This is precisely what the formula intrinsically implies. And if we are to believe the child psychologists (which we have good reason to do in this instance), this is an experience that it absolutely essential to the process of becoming a human person. Put differently, at the very center of the process of becoming fully human, at the core of humanitas, we find an experience of trust in the order of reality. Is this experience an illusion? Is the individual who represents it a liar? If reality is coextensive with the ‘natural’ reality that our empirical reason can grasp, then the experience is an illusion and the role that embodies it is a lie. For then it is perfectly obvious that everything is not in order, is not all right. The world that the child is being told to trust is the same world in which he will eventually die. If there is no other world, then the ultimate truth about this one is that it will eventually kill the child as it will kill his mother. This would not, to be sure, detract from the real presence of love and its very real comforts; it would even give this love a quality of tragic heroism. Nevertheless, the final truth would be not love but terror, not light but darkness. The nightmare of chaos, not the transitory safety of order, would be the final reality of the human situation. For, I the end, we must all find ourselves in darkness, alone with the night that will swallow us up. The face of reassuring love, bending over our terror, will then be nothing but a merciful illusion. In that case the last word about religion is Freud’s. Religion is the childish fantasy that our parents run the universe for our benefit, a fantasy from which the mature individual must free himself in order to attain whatever measure of stoic resignation he is capable of. It goes without saying that the preceding argument is not a moral one. It does not condemn the mother for this charade of world-building, if it be a charade. It does not dispute the right of atheists to be parents (though it is not without interest that there have been atheists who have rejected parenthood for exactly these reasons). The argument from ordering is metaphysical rather than ethical. To restate it: In the observable human propensity to order reality there is an intrinsic impulse to give cosmic scope to this order, an impulse that implies not only that human order in some way corresponds to an order that transcends it, but that this transcendent order is of such a character that man can trust himself and his destiny to it. There is a variety of human roles that represent this conception of order, but the most fundamental is the parental role. Every parent (or, at any rate, every parent who loves his child) takes upon himself the representation of a universe that is ultimately in order and ultimately trustworthy. This representation can be justified only within a religious (strictly speaking a supernatural) frame of reference. In this frame of reference the natural world in which we are born, love, and die is not the only world, but only the foreground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death, and in which, therefore, the trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified. Thus man’s ordering propensity implies a transcendent order, and each ordering gesture is a signal of this transcendence. The parental role is not based ona loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality. In that case, it is perfectly possible… to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love. What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality. Religion, then, is not only (from the point of view of empirical reason) a projection of human order, but (from the point of view of what might be called inductive faith) the ultimately true vindication of human order. “ –Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural , (1969), pgs. 54, 55, 56, 57.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Lent Reflection: "A Secure Passage"

When you were a child, you cried out in the night at the nameless threats in the darkness, and human hands held you and assured you, “It is alright.” Is it?

Jesus, unlike the first Adam, was tempted in a desert, in the “wasteland”, in the fallen world. In no sense was he naive of, or removed from, the sufferings and pain of the creation. He might, as many do, have taken the cursed earth and the sufferings of its denizens as proof against a loving and all-powerful God. It could have been part of his arsenal in a league with the original argument opened in the garden against the goodness, truthfulness and beauty of God’s will. Neither was his response to politic with the devil and draw out debate on God’s righteousness. Instead, he responded with the superbly spare and to the point, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:1-11) (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:17). Adam, in a garden, in luxuriance and vitality, fell to the tempter. Jesus, in barrenness and extremity of physical weakness and discomfort, kept perfect faith with the Father, in complete love and fidelity. “I and the Father are one,” He could tell his disciples.

Christ, taking the form of a servant, that is, a man, didn’t fall, though all have fallen, and he didn’t impugn God, though he was the most fully aware of the suffering on the earth, and the most fully compassionate, with an eye not in the least compromised by sin and a heart not in the least dulled to the sufferings of others. To appropriate the words from my prayer book this morning, in him no languor oppressed, no iniquities chilled, no mists of unbelief dimmed the eye and no zeal ever tired. Those who did not believe must have missed the heaven in his eyes.

He chose to walk the road of being desolated to the bitter end, which all flesh, including his, loathed, rather than to speak against God or to break faith with His Father.

This we have not done. We have not been Jesus. Whatever we have been, we have not been perfect. We have fallen. We fall. And the Father vanishes from the picture. Confronted with these two points of references, ourselves and Christ, a mistake is to think of Christ only in terms of an example and an embodiment of the Law. I might easily think of Christ’s victory in the desert over temptations merely in terms of a feat of ascetic discipline, an act of spiritual heroism. “If I am faithful in the little things then I will be faithful in the big things.” If I “think positively”, I will “think and grow rich”. “Whatever you conceive, if you believe, you will receive.” “If I have true grit, I will break these chains that bind me, like a gravitating kung fu hero with a ‘spiritual’ sticker.” That is missing the point. It is nearly missing the boat. It is density in the face of enormous grace and generosity. “Do not be like the horse or mule which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32).

The point is not merely to redouble your efforts in the “wasteland”, in the midst of pain and suffering, given such a shining example and wise guru. “For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Exiled from Eden, cursed and cursing, suffering and sinning, we are not able to storm the gates of Eden. Even if we agree to “be good” now, and we exert rare and amazing will power, which humans sometimes surely can do, the hour is late, the situation is more desperate, and darkness falls. But it is into this that Christ has come, not to mock and revile, but to hold and to heal. He has been revealed to our wounded hearts as the Way, the Truth, and the Light. He is the “new and living way”. The angels with the flaming swords tasked to bar return to the garden, until now stern, terrible and unsurpassable, will part to Jesus and you, and will look on you with joyous love.

Suffering and pain have, through Christ, become not merely the take home message at the end of a realistic movie that gives you the bite of authentic reality, that makes you feel more desolate but more real. They have become a secured passage. What we could not accomplish in Him is given (Romans 5:12-19). It is not a secular stoicism He has braced us for; it is a beating heart of warmth He has bound us to, the warmth of God’s love, cutting decisively, as one with authority, through the blurr and the blister of it all, and justifying the fragile assurance a mother gives to her child when he cries in the night. The desire of nations has come. Humanity’s hope is not a vice and a delusion but a forerunner of Christ and a signal of the transcendent. It is alright, in an astonishing reversal of the atheist’s stoic realism. It is a greater realism into which the children of man are brought through Christ and through which they are adopted, redeemed, and led home to God.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Toasts Ideologue

Some Christian Criticism of ID

“In The Blind Watchmaker, [Dawkins] provided a sustained and effective critique of the arguments of the nineteenth- century writer William Paley for the existence of God on biological grounds. It is Dawkins’s home territory, and he knows what he is talking about. ^This book remains the finest critique of this argument in print. The only criticism I would direct against this aspect of The Blind Watchmaker is that Paley’s ideas were typical of his age, not of Christianity as a whole, and that many Christian writers of the age were alarmed at his approach, seeing it as a surefire recipe for the triumph of atheism. There is no doubt in my mind that Paley saw himself as in some way ‘proving’ the existence of God, and Dawkin’s extended critique of Paley in that book is fair, gracious and accurate.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins turns his attention to such other ‘arguments’ based on the philosophy of religion. I am not sure that this was entirely wise. He is clearly out of his depth, and achieve little by his brief and superficial engagement with these great perennial debates, which often simply cannot be resolved empirically. His attitude seems to be ‘here’s how a scientist would sort out this philosophical nonsense.’ [Examples follow in the book.]…

In The God Delusion Dawkins criticizes ‘the worship of the gaps.’ This is a reference to an approach to Christian apologetics that came to prominence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries- the so-called God of the gaps approach. In its simplest form it asserted that there were necessarily ‘gaps’ in a naturalistic or scientific understanding of reality. At certain points, William Paley’s famous Natural Theology (1801) uses arguments along these lines. It was argued that God needs to be proposed in order to deal with these gaps in scientific understanding.

It was a foolish move and was increasingly abandoned in the twentieth century. Oxford’s firs professor of theoretical chemistry, the noted Methodist lay preacher Charles A. Coulson, damned it with the telling phrase ‘the God of the gaps.’ In its place he urged a comprehensive account of reality, which stressed the explanatory capacity of the Christian faith as a whole rather than a retreat into ever-diminishing gaps. Dawkins’s criticism of those who ‘worship the gaps,’ despite its overstatements, is clearly appropriate and valid…Unfortunately, having made such a good point, Dawkins then weakens his argument by suggesting that all religious people try to stop scientists from exploring those gaps…[Despite my desire to further quote criticism of Dawkins I will stay on topic here. It is interesting to me to note here how the 'God of the gaps' is a term coined by a Christian preacher in the porcess of criticizing a specific apologetic strategy, a preacher who was by no means alone in his rejection of this new development in modern times in some Christians' thought.]

It is hardly surprising that the ‘all too limited’ human mind should encounter severe difficulties when dealing with anything beyond the world of everyday experience. The idea of ‘mystery’ arises constantly as the human mind struggles to grasp some ideas. That’s certainly true of science; it’s also true of religion.

The real problem here, however, is the forced relocation of God by doubtless well-intentioned Christian apologists into the hidden recesses of the universe, beyond evaluation or investigation. Now that’s a real concern. For this strategy is still used by the intelligent design movement- a movement, based primarily in North America, that argues for the ‘intelligent Designer’ based on gaps in scientific explanation, such as ‘irreducible complexity’ of the world. It is not an approach which I accept, either on scientific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approach make Christianity deeply- and needlessly- vulnerable to scientific progress.

But the ‘God of the gaps’ approach is only one of many Christian approaches to the question of how the God hypothesis makes sense of things. In my view it was misguided; it was a failed apologetic strategy from an earlier period in history that has now been rendered obsolete. This point has been taken on board by Christian theologians and philosophers of religion throughout the twentieth century who have now reverted to older, more appropriate ways of dealing with this question. For instance, the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne is one of many writers to argue that the capacity of science to explain itself requires explanation- and that the most economical and reliable account of this explanatory capacity lies in the notion of a Creator God.

Swinburne argues that the intelligibility of the universe itself needs explanation. It is therefore not the gaps in our understanding of the world which point to God but rather the very comprehensibility of scientific and other forms of understanding that requires an explanation.” –Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? : Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (2007), p. 24-25, 29-31.

“When philosophy textbooks gather under the same heading a range of texts from the Middle Ages to today, from Anselm and Aquinas through Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Kant to contemporary writers, as if all these folks were doing the same thing- offering ‘proofs for the existence of God’- they mislead the students who read them. In fact the medieval texts so cited were usually doing something like the opposite- giving an account of God that would render anything like a ‘proof’ altogether inappropriate. Those who seek to reduce Christian faith to the arena of rational proof- whether liberal Deists trying to eliminate Christianity’s ‘irrational’ elements or conservative advocates of ‘intelligent design’ trying to make religion fir their own version of the ‘scientific’- are not preserving traditional Christianity but engaging in a particular and characteristically modern project that has diverged from the Christian tradition. “ –William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, (2007), p. 10.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

God's Story: As For The Story the Tyrants Try to Write

“Throughout the centuries, the blood of the righteous has been spilled on the earth: the blood of Abel and the blood of countless innocents who died during the violent times before the flood; the blood of nameless infants of Israel slaughtered by Pharoah and the blood of the innocents shed during the reign of Manasseh; the blood of the prophets sent to Ahab and Jezebel and the blood of the infants surrounding Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod; the blood of Stephen and James and Peter and Paul; the blood of Thecla and Polycarp and Lawrence and Ignatius and Agnes and Hippolytus. They have been crucified, skinned, torn in pieces, and fed to lions.

From all appearances these martyrs are forgotten forever. There are no warcrimes tribunals; there are few monuments, few memorials, few memories. Hundreds and thousands remain forgotten, nameless, faceless. By one estimate, seventy million martyrs have been killed in the history of the church, as many as forty-five in the past century. They have been killed in Russia and in Nazi Germany, in Turkey and in Algeria, in Nigeria and Sudan and Pakistan…Who even knows? Their blood is soaked into the ground and is silent forever.

That is what Ahab and Jezebel think, and that is what all the cruel powers who prey on the innocent have always thought- and hoped. As [Rene] Girard argues in book after book, all religions and cultures outside of Christianity are premised on this perverse hope, that blood is only blood, the hope that innocent blood can be silenced. When imitative desires fracture a society into war of all against all, harmony is restored by uniting all energies and hostilities against a scapegoat. The scapegoat does not cause the descent into social anarchy, but suffers as if she or he had and restores the social order…In all these systems, the gods underwrite the powers, the scapegoating majority, instead of defending the scapegoat. Girard argues that the Bible is unique in proclaiming the innocence of scapegoats and in revealing a God who hears the cry of innocent blood.

The innocent scapegoat is not some peripheral issue in Scripture but its central message: the gospel is the story of a man whose enemies conspire against him, a man falsely accused of blasphemy, a man taken outside the city to endure an unjust execution (Heb. 13:10-13). Naboth’s body [See 1 Kings 21 for the story of how Ahab and Jezebel murdered Naboth in order to take possession of his vineyard] like the flesh of a purification offering, is taken outside the camp to be destroyed (Lev. 4:11-12, 20-21), foreshadowing the greater purification offered by Jesus. In one sense the blood spilled from the cross speaks a word of mercy for the world, a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24). Yet the Lord remains an avenger of blood, even after the cross (Rev. 17-19), and the blood of martyrs cries out for vengeance against the persecutors of Christ, his bride, his gospel. That cry will be heard; that blood will be avenged.” –Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary, (2006), p. 156-57.

“Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea and said: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again… “ The following verses describe how the music and the commerce and the social events will be silenced forever. The reason: “By your magic spell all the nations were led astray. In her was found the blood of the prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth” (Revelation 18:21, 23-24).

The movie Cry Freedom (with Denzel Washington) recounts the story of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid leader in South Africa who was savagely tortured and murdered by the South African police for his outspokenness. I know little about Biko beyond this movie. I do not even know if he was a Christian, a “saint”, let alone a prophet-saint. But he was murdered for standing up for justice and God hears the cry of innocent blood. He is in solidarity with the poor, whether they call on Jesus name or not. The judgment of Babylon referred to in the passage quoted from Revelation is not merely for the blood of Christian martyrs.

Stephen Biko


Though Biko’s murder gathered media attention and helped to break the back of apartheid, many died unjustly and only a few knew, and official slanders and absurdities became their capstones. In Russia, many who profited during Soviet communism from the slander and torture and murder of the innocent still enjoy the loot of their corruption and the country suffers for not having had a public reckoning, which makes the demoralization more intense. Many believe in the existence of wickedness but as for goodess... But there is a new and living way and a vantage point has been opened to us: The wicked may prosper for a season, but let us sing with Rich Mullins, “Jesus, write me into your story!” We are a people who believe in the resurrection and a people who believe the story is ultimately one of justice for the innocent, The grave does not end the story. The case is not like Epicurus thought- that we should not sin, unless we can get away with it. The blood is remembered and there is a reckoning. Tyrants, big and small, observe the wind over the naturalistically silent graves of their victims and dream and hope and therapeutically remind themselves that after we die there is only annihilation. Though Lady Macbeth may wring her hands sleepwalking, with the apparition of the blood of her victims on them, when she wakes it is to a mundane, sealed existence safe from seeming unreality of guilt's claims on her. "Guilt" is only the threat of being caught in this lifetime. But God hears the blood, even if it is only Him alone who knows, and this ultimately will determine the end of the story.