Many Christian organizations, as they think about their treatment of gays and lesbians, and their theology of sexuality more generally, are “evolving,” or “in process,” or "on the journey." And make no mistake, this is a journey on a one-way street: no Christian group is moving from greater to…
That music you hear in the distance? It’s St Augustine, St Teresa, Teilhard de Chardin, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Simone Weil all singing together, and what they are singing is that, as Christ commanded, we are supposed to love God with our minds, as well as with our hearts and our souls and our strength. It is an illusion to think that there is any necessary conflict between a Christian commitment and free, adventurous thinking. No-one ever does their thinking on a blank sheet of paper. Every intellectual of every kind is in a conversation with some set of ideas, doctrines, ways of seeing the world, and that’s what makes their own thinking serious. The Christian conversation with Christian ideas, and with every other kind of idea, need not be defensive or imprisoning. Why is there a stereotype that says you have to choose between faith and thought?
Is there something here we fear to face, except when clothed in safely sterilized professional speech? Have we grown reluctant in this age of power to admit mystery and beauty into our thoughts, or to learn where power ceases?
I referred a few moments ago to one of our own forebears on a gravel bar, thumbing a pebble. If, after the ages of building and destroying, if after the measuring of light years, and the powers probed at the atom’s heart, if after the last iron is rust-eaten and the last glass lies shattered in the streets, a man, some savage, some remnant of what once we were, pauses on his way to the tribal drinking place and feels rising from within his soul the inexplicable mist of terror and beauty that is evoked from old ruins — even the ruins of the greatest city in the world — then, I say, all will still be well with man.
And if that savage can pluck a stone from the gravel because it shone like crystal when the water rushed over it, and hold it against the sunset, he will be as we were in the beginning, whole — as we were when we were children, before we began to split the knowledge from the dream. All talk of the two cultures is an illusion; it is the pebble that tells man’s story. Upon it is written man’s two faces, the artistic and the practical. They are expressed upon one stone over which a hand once closed, no less firm because the mind behind it was submerged in light and shadow and deep wonder.
Today we hold a stone, the heavy stone of power. We must perceive beyond it, however, by the aid of the artistic imagination, those humane insights and understandings that alone can lighten our burden and enable us to shape ourselves, rather than the stone, into the forms that great art has anticipated.
Loren Eiseley, “The Illusion of the Two Cultures” (1964)
The acridness of Seinfeld was never hidden. It was certainly not something no one else realized, even as it was happening. “Meanness is celebrated,” wrote Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Examiner in the run-up to Seinfeld’s 1998 finale. “Nobody is living an examined life. Getting yours is the goal. Anger and bitterness supplant happiness. Emotionless sex wins out over love, and the mundane is king.” There were periodic complaints about the show throughout its existence, always for this approximate reason (it made fun of the disabled, it played the death of a minor character for laughs, it made casual racism hilarious, et al). I’m not breaking new ground here. But I’ve noticed something peculiar in the years that have passed since it went into syndication. I’ve noticed that the living memory of Seinfeld has changed. It’s now consumed like a conventional situation comedy; the emphasis has shifted toward the memorable catchphrases it spawned and the low-stakes comfort of its nonserialized storytelling. It’s become more akin to I Love Lucy or Night Court: an amusing distraction from a bygone age. But that perception underrates its significance. It feels weird to classify one of the most popular TV shows of all time as “underrated,” but the program’s raw popularity latently misdirected its more significant directive. Seinfeld mainstreamed day-to-day villainy. It made America a different place. A meaner, funnier place.
I Must Be a Burden to Her
“This does not mean that advance directives are entirely a bad idea. It does suggest, however, that a durable power of attorney for medical care—in which we simply name a proxy to make decisions in the event of our incompetence—is better than a living will in which we attempt to state the kinds of treatment we would or would not desire under a variety of medical circumstances. At this point in my life, for example, I would surely turn over to my wife my power of attorney. In doing so I simply announce to medical caregivers: “Here is the person with whom you must converse when the day comes that you cannot talk with me about my medical care.” I myself do not particularly like the recently fashionable attempts to combine the two forms of advance directives by naming a proxy and giving that proxy as much detail as possible about what we would want done. That move—though, again, it will be seen as an attempt to avoid burdening the loved one who must make such decisions—may not, in any case, accomplish our aim. What it commits us to is an endless, futile search to determine what a now-incompetent person would wish. Still more important, it is one last-ditch attempt to bypass the interdependence of human life, by which we simply do and should constitute a burden to those who love us.
I hope, therefore, that I will have the good sense to empower my wife, while she is able, to make such decisions for me—though I know full well that we do not always agree about what is the best care in end-of-life circumstances. That disagreement doesn’t bother me at all. As long as she avoids the futile question, “What would he have wanted?” and contents herself with the (difficult enough) question, “What is best for him now?” I will have no quarrel with her. Moreover, this approach is, I think, less likely to encourage her to make the moral mistake of asking, “Is his life a benefit to him (i.e., a life worth living)?” and more likely to encourage her to ask, “What can we do to benefit the life he still has?” No doubt this will be a burden to her. No doubt she will bear the burden better than I would. No doubt it will be only the last in a long history of burdens she has borne for me. But then, mystery and continuous miracle that it is, she loves me. And because she does, I must of course be a burden to her.”
[Gilbert Meilaender, “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones”]
Medieval architecture through engravings and photographs. The first set of pictures is by Thomas Hearne (1744 – 1817) and engraver William Byrne (1743–1805), from a series of historic monuments for The Antiquities of Great Britain. (You can see more on Medievalists).
- Lanercost Priory, Cumbria
- Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire
- Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear
An Intonation of Grace
“Beauty crosses boundaries. Among the transcendentals, beauty has always been the most restless upon its exalted perch; the idea of the beautiful — which somehow requires the sensual to fulfill its ‘ideal’ nature — can never really be separated from the beauty that lies bar at hand. … Beauty defies our distinctions, calls them into question, and manifests what shows itself despite them: God’s glory. For Christian thought, beauty’s indifference to the due order of far and near, great and small, absent and present, spiritual and material should indicate the continuity of divine and created glory, the way the glory of heaven and earth truly declares and belongs to the glory of the infinite God. As the particular diction of the grammar of glory that commends it to the delight of the creature, beauty shows nature to be an intonation of grace and creation to be full of divine splendor.
There is, moreover, a marvelous naïveté in the response most immediately provoked by the beautiful: neither in the Bible nor in patristic theology is God’s goodness, truth, or lordship distinguished from his glory, savor, or awesome holiness; that God is good may be seen and tasted; and this means that a theology of beauty should not scruple to express itself at times as an ontology, an epistemology, or an ethics. Concerning the last, theology should ponder how beauty can compel morally by its excess; it is in the delighted vision of what is other than oneself — difference, created by the God who differentiates, pleasing in the eyes of the God who takes pleasure — that one is moved to affirm that otherness, to cherish and respond to it; there is an initial aesthetic moment of wakefulness in the ethical, which Christian thought can grasp in light of what it says of God’s Trinity and his action in creation. Theology, finally, should be not only untroubled by beauty’s prodigality, it defiance of so many orderly demarcations, but heartened by it: the beautiful, uniquely, displays the dynamic involvement of the infinite and the finite, the unmasterable excess contained in the object of beauty, the infinite’s hospitality to the finite; and Christian thought, uniquely, must think the beautiful and the infinite together. Beauty crosses every boundary, traverses every series, and so manifests the God who transcends every division — including, again, that between the transcendent and the immanent.”
[David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 20–21]
Text printed on the best paper with no margins or unbalanced margins is vile. Or, if we’re being empathetic, sad. (For no book begins life aspiring to bad margins.) I know that sounds harsh. But a book with poorly set margins is as useful as a hammer with a one inch handle. Sure, you can pound nails, but it ain’t fun. A book with crass margins will never make a reader comfortable. Such a book feels cramped, claustrophobic. It doesn’t draw you in, certainly doesn’t make you want to spend time with the text.
On the other hand, cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.
But if you allow tragedy to guide you to look beyond the meeting of needs, beyond the temporary scarcities and lacks of life on earth, you see that the irresolution of tragedy imagines a looming surprise.
For the Christian frame, this surprise is salvation, an infinite life in which all needs are perfectly harmonized. Does it mean the tragedies of life are less tragic, less painful? Not at all. But it contextualizes them in such a way as to demonstrate that they shouldn’t be made primary in our ethics. They are not eternal like hope is, but rather incidental. Life has a gap in it: it just does. You can’t resolve it because it’s just the nature of life on earth, but the fact that we must qualify ‘life’ with ‘on earth’ in the context of tragedy means that there is life beyond this one, and it’s toward that end that we orient our ethics. This alone allows us to register our unhappiness and dissatisfaction while still sojourning on.
For some, the idea of imitating the knight of faith will seem too easy — after all, you can do it while living in a middle-class neighborhood in Copenhagen — but for the wiser it will seem too hard. Many monks and nuns say that they retreat to the monastic life because their faith is too weak to flourish in the saeculum. And if such a retreat, in any of its forms, is not as attractive to Christians as it once was, it may be because we have more protections than our ancestors did from an experience of utter exposure.
Some of our protections are material, some political, some psychological, but in any case the world has seen, over the past few centuries, a move from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” These are terms coined by the philosopher Charles Taylor. “The porous self is vulnerable,” he writes, “to spirits, demons, cosmic forces””and, I would add, to unpredictable natural forces and political authorities who know little or nothing of the rule of law. “And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.”
The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa — that can be illuminated by God — may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.
The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we’d rather remain within our buffers — if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies, from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads, may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Alan’s final paragraph is a prescient application of Taylor’s research (in A Secular Age) to our present, one that I had not considered. Now, how might we give our selves hope by creating an analogous “vocation” to Benedict’s, one that protects us from this particular strain of porousness? How might those who choose thusly be viewed/treated by the world at large? All important questions to ask and which might be best answered by fiction writing rather than primarily theological prose. (something akin to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, maybe)
What is at issue here is a species of vision that breaks down the rigid lineaments of a world that interprets itself principally according to the brilliant glamour and spectacle of power, the stable arrangement of all things in hierarchies of meaning and authority, or the rational measures of social order and civic prestige … The scale of the reversal cannot be exaggerated: when Jesus stands before Pilate for the last time, beaten, derided, robed in purple and crowned with thorns, he must seem, from the vantage of all the noble wisdom of the empire and the age (which wisdom Nietzsche sought to resuscitate), merely absurd, a ridiculous figure prating incomprehensibly of an otherworldly kingdom and some undefined truth, obviously mad, oblivious of the lowliness of his state and of the magnitude of the powers into whose hands he has been delivered. But in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of Christianity’s inverted order of vision, the mockery now redounds upon all kings and emperors, whose finery and symbols of status are revealed to be nothing more than rags and brambles beside the majesty of God’s Son, beside this servile shape in which God displays his infinite power to be where he will be; all the rulers of the earth cannot begin to surpass in grandeur this beauty of the God who ventures forth to make even the dust his glory. There is a special Christian humor here, a special kind of Christian irreverence: in Rome the emperor is now as nothing, a garment draped over the shoulders of a slave and then cast aside. Christianity is indeed a creed for slaves, but in neither the subtle Hegelian nor the crude Nietzschean sense: in contrast to Hegel and Nietzsche—to dialectic and diatribe alike—Christian faith speaks of the slave as God’s glory, the one who lies farthest out in the far country, to whom tidings of joy are sent from before the foundation of the world, and from whom the free and infinite God cannot be separated by any distance, certainly not that between the high and low, because he is the distance of all things. Indeed, the beauty of God reveals itself with its most incandescent intensity among those who suffer, who are as children, who are powerless, because—for all they lack—the ultimate privation of violence often has not entered into them, for the simple reason the they do not occupy the position of coercive force. Not that the weak are not sinners, or that spite and cruelty cannot make even of weakness a weapon, but nevertheless, the weakness of sinners is the strength of God, and when he dwells among the suffering, God is most truly known as the God he is.