Democracy and the Feminine

This was originally written in March 2019 . . .

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Any observer of our political and media cycles knows that we have a problem. Unfortunately, for as much as we talk about various problems, we seem no closer to solving them. We do not understand the roots of the problem, or what the problem even is. We have no common platform on which to stand to start to discuss it meaningfully. Here I do not wish to discuss red-state/blue-state divides, inequality, immigration, or any such thing. They all have importance. But we must go deeper into basic symbolic language to see what these issues mean in our context. Without this, we will continue to spin our wheels

Many who care not for President Trump seem mystified that he can violate a variety of established presidential norms and have more or less the same approval rating. The recent revelations of the Mueller report aside (and the partial indictment on the media that comes with it), one could point to many missteps and oddities. Those with other political perspectives felt similarly about President Obama. To their great frustration, neither a terrible Iran deal, or the labryinth of the financially unsustainable health care bill–his two main initiatives–had any effect on his supporters. Neither president inspires(d) middle-ground opinions, and I believe that we can explain this only by understanding that neither one of them functions(ed) as traditional politicians, but rather as heavily symbolic figures. People identify with them primarily not through their policies or even their personal actions, but by what they represent.

If true, this may forebode difficult times ahead, for it shows that we disagree on fundamental things, and that whatever we say about the marginal tax-rate may only serve as a smokescreen for what we really mean beneath our words. We will fight hard for our narratives. This should impel us not just to understand the symbolic nature of our politicians, but also the “location” of democracy within traditional symbolic archetypes.* I will primarily reference biblical models and explanations, but I readily acknowledge that other civilizations use many of the same understandings.

Much confusion exists as to the meaning of masculinity today. We can start correcting this by understanding that all of us, men and women, are “feminine” in relation to God. That is, the masculine is the originator, the beginning and the end, the initiator. The “masculine” is steady, solid, not in flux. We might expect the feminine to have a merely passive role, and true, we see the feminine as “becoming,” rather than “being.” It is God who seeks us out, hunts us down (think of Francis Thompson’s great “The Hound of Heaven”). But, the feminine plays a strong supporting role.

We can see this even in the modern penchant for guys to call cars and boats “she.” The feminine gives the masculine a context for action, a space to develop. Cars and boats both create a womb of sorts, and (most) every mythological hero needs a ship. Indeed, we are all born from water, just as God drew creation itself out of water in Genesis 1. And because it involves flux, so too the feminine can give flexibility to the straight and “narrow” nature of the masculine. Again, God is the “Masculine,” but both men and women are made in the image of God, and both have equal worth and dignity in His sight.

I confess that I find it rather silly that some feminists find the modern west toxically patriarchal. If we understand male and female archetypes, one immediately sees that modern democracy may be the most Feminine form of government in human history. We embrace change, possibility, and the new. We allow for individual expression and variation. While the west’s history with immigration has been somewhat erratic, overall we have welcomed far more foreign people’s than other cultures. We should expect this in democracies, for women are usually the best and most gracious hosts. They are generally better at managing social dynamics than men.

In human history, myth, and folklore the masculine tyrannizes much more often than the feminine. St. Francis’ marvelous Canticle of the Sun praises “Brother Fire” for being bright and strong, but fire so easily gets out of hand, flaring up at any time and place. Heat burns, but we quickly can remove ourselves from it (hopefully). So too, St. Francis honors “Sister Water” as being humble, clear, and pure. But Scripture, myth, and folklore all attest that, when feminine tyrants do happen to arise–though they are rare–they are the most dangerous.

One might see this in Medusa, Medea, and Jezebel. In Babylonian myth, the goddess of the sea, Apsu oversteps her bounds and inspires the other gods to rebel against her, with Marduk gaining the victory. Not surprisingly, the feminine aspects of Babylonian thought lingered on in their culture ever after, with the goddesss Ishtar reigning over most aspects of everyday life.** True to their feminine nature, Babylon was probably the most cosmopolitan and open city in the ancient world, but so open, however, that Scripture refers to the city in the book of Revelation as the archetypal harlot to the world.

In his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville says much in praise of what he observed. But he devotes some time to discussing “What Sort of Tyranny Democracies Have to Fear.” Though he does not use Male/Female categories of thought explicitly, one can see them when he contrasts two types of abuse of power. “Masculine” forms of government such as monarchy or aristocracy go wrong in obvious ways. They rage, they lash out. But such tyrants usually care nothing for what you think. They are too direct for such subtlety. Tocqueville points out that the more masculine forms of tyranny may imprison the body, but they leave the mind free.

In contrast, democratic/feminine tyranny may be more rare, but will have greater power over individuals indirectly. They care not so much for the body but the soul. They don’t want you to empty the dishwasher, so much as they want you to want to empty the dishwasher. They want love, not obedience.^ They come for your soul and care little for the body, weakening one from the inside out. They work

Still, those that lament the feminization or infantilization of our culture have to acknowledge that, as already stated, democracy itself borrows much more heavily from feminine archetypes. It has no hierarchy for us to consult.^^ But, even if one wanted to establish a more “masculine” form of government like monarchy to counteract this, such an endeavor would be foolish and impossible. It seems, then, that we have an impasse between masculine and feminine visions.

I suggest, however, that the Church gives us a path forward, showing us how the feminine plays a crucial role in establishing, or reestablishing, a new sense of order. I will take just a few examples, but many more exist.

Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida talk of the need for “radical hospitality,” a radical openness to the “other,” a dramatic extension of the feminine archetype. Such openness obviously invites chaos and self-obliteration. But, look again . . . perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Joshua sends spies to the Promised Land it is a woman (Rahab), and a prostitute who practices “radical hospitality,” that shelters them (my thanks, once again, to Jonathan Pageau for this example). So too Mary Magdalene, another loose woman, devotes herself completely to Christ before His disciples. Rahab’s openness to the new allows her to see that her civilization must be destroyed–by men of war. She becomes a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:31). But we must not also forget that she joins with Israel, and has her head shaved as a sign of her submission to the new order, and her devotion to God the Father.

Mary, the Mother of God, gives us an even more constructive example. Tradition tells us that she–in defiance of all expectation and tradition–was raised in the Temple, the very center of life for the people of God. Germanos of Constantinople marveled in the 8th century that

Do [we] not see a girl born as a result of a promise, and she at the age of three, being taken within the inner veil as an umblemished gift to live there without interruption, also being carried in procession by the wealthy among the people? . . . What then will this child become (Lk. 1:66). But as for us, the peculiar people of God . . . let us approach the Theotokos and approach the divine mysteries! . . . Let us see how the prophet admits her by his own hand and brings her into inaccessible places, having been in no way displeased, and without having said to her parents, “I am not undertaking this most novel practice and leading a girl into the holy of holies to dwell there without interruption, where I have been instructed to enter only once a year.” The prophet uttered no such thing; instead he knew in advance what would come to pass, since he was a prophet.

Mary Cunningham, translator for the above text, notes that

The high priest was only allowed to enter the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the building, shielded by a veil, representing the boundary of the created order and the realm of divinity. The preacher emphasizes here the extraordinary exception that was made in admitting the Virgin Mary to this sacred space and allowing her to live there throughout her childhood.

We might say that Rahab serves as a precursor to Mary–both women expressed an openness to God that made salvation–entering the Promised Land–possible. We might say that it is convenient that God could only become Man through a woman, but it makes “sense” mythically and archetypally just as it does biologically. And in her Magnificat, Mary alludes that this “openness” will not destroy order but in fact reaffirm it. Her “radical hospitality” becomes not a tyranny of chaos, but instead, wondrous devotion to the new kingdom ruled by her Son.

When “I AM” is both Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6) the hierarchy can be inverted and reaffirmed at the same time. This forms the solution to our current political and social difficulty. On the one hand, the “Masculine” must acknowledge that the possibilities inherent in the “Feminine” might bring about our “salvation” (using that term in an earthly and limited sense). But even in a democracy, the “Feminine” must acknowledge that the openness they bring best serves the reaffirmation of order, and not its destruction.

Dave

*All of what comes after this point assumes the following:

  • That gender/sex differences are real, rooted in creation, and not mere social constructs (though some degree of variation may occur over time and space as to how these differences manifest themselves).
  • That certain mythological constructs/ideas are also not mere human constructs–however universal they may be–but go deeper, and express “real reality.”

**True to the potential of excessive openness in the feminine, Ishtar reigned over love, marriage, war, and . . . prostitution.

^We see this in some of the worst democratic tyrannies, such as the French Revolution. In a near parody of the impossible female, one could get imprisoned in Paris ca. 1793-94 for either being too excessive in one’s love of liberty, or conversely, not excited enough about liberty. So too in Stalinist Russia (for communism is a western form of government), you could be shot for not keeping up with the intricacies of party dogma.

Today the idea of safe spaces, of the regulation of language so no one gets feelings hurt, etc., conjures up the image of a smothering mother–in contrast to the typical bad dad who is absent or physically abusive.

^^Perhaps not surprisingly, the first great western democracy had Athena, goddess of wisdom, for their patron deity. Scripture also calls Wisdom “she,” for wisdom is subtle and contextual.


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Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election.  In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts.  I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and where it will take us, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.

Without further comment, the original post . . .

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Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.

Dave

*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.

Blessings,

Dave

“I See Satan Fall like Lightning”

This was originally published in 2014, then again in 2015 after Girard’s death.  I post it again in light of some discussions this past week in government class.

And now, the post . . .

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I’ve said before that for the most part, I can’t stand the modern British historian, or at least, a certain kind of British historian. This is the type that Toynbee rebelled against and patiently denounced for years.  This model calls for exacting discipline to attempt to focus only on the “what” and never the “why.”  They see their jobs as using a microscope to discover the most amount of facts possible, but never think to lift up their heads. Leave that to the metaphysicians.  Historians should tell you what happened and keep their noses clean of any other venture.

This approach has flaws from top to bottom.  First of all, it’s dreadfully boring, and second, it’s a lie. We simply can’t avoid metaphysics — we will always worship and point to something, though they seek to drive ourselves and others away from such a fate.

The Abbot Suger of the Abbey St. Denis once declared, “The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French, and not contrariwise.”  Leave it to the French to say crazy things!  And with historians anyway, I agree.  French historians to the rescue!   They have their share of great ones, from Einhard to Tocqueville, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch,  Regine Pernoud, and so on.  Historians should not forget that they too are made in the image of God, and that history has no meaning or purpose without us seeking to “sub-create” and give meaning and purpose to the world around us.*

Rene Girard fits into this mold with his great I See Satan Fall like Lightning, a brief, but dense and thought provoking book that challenges how we read the gospels, mythology, and all of human history.  A magnificent premise, and he delivers (mostly) — all in 200 pages.

To understand Girard’s argument, we first need to understand two main lines of thought regarding civilization.  The first and overwhelmingly dominant view sees civilization as a great blessing in human affairs. Civilization allows for creativity and cooperation.  It fosters a rule of law that prevents a cycle of violence from overwhelming all.  Civilizations give the stability that, paradoxically, gives us space and time to challenge existing ideas and move forward.

The distinct minority believes that civilization can do no better than aspire to a lesser evil than barbarism.  It at times descends below barbarism because it enacts great cruelties under the comforting cloak of “civilization.” At least the abject barbarian harbors no such illusions.  The very organizing principle of civilization concentrates the worst human impulses to impose their will on others and count themselves innocent in the process.  Before we dismiss this uncomfortable thought, we should note that in Genesis 4 the “arts of civilization” are attributed to Cain and his lineage, with violence as the hallmark of their work.  God confuses language at the Tower of Babel because collectivized human potential is simply too dangerous.  In his The City of God Augustine seems at least sympathetic to this view, as his memorable anecdote regarding Alexander the Great makes clear:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

I used to associate this negative view of civilization exclusively with French post-modernists like Foucoult (not that I’ve actually read them 🙂 and therefore dismissed it.  But, there it is, in Genesis 4, in St. Augustine, and likely other places I’m not aware of.  So, when Girard asks us to accept this view, he does so with connection to the Biblical tradition and some aspects of historical theology (Girard accepts the necessity of government and order of some kind but never fleshes out just how he wants it to function).

With this groundwork we can proceed to his argument.

Scripture tells us that Satan is “the Prince of this world,” but in what sense is this case, and how does he maintain his power?  Where he wields influence, he sows discord internally in the hearts and minds of individuals and in society in general.  Hence, the more influence he has, the more dissension, and thus, two things might happen:

  • He risks losing control of his kingdom, as no kingdom can withstand such division for very long.
  • The chaos might incline people to seek something beyond this world for comfort, which might mean that people meet God.

How to maintain control in such a situation?  Girard believes that mythology and Scripture both point to the same answer: Satan rules via a ritual murder rooted in what he calls “mimetic desire.”  The war of “all against all” fostered by Satanic selfishness must be stopped or he risks losing all.  Mimetic desire heightens and gets transformed into the war of “all against one.”  The people’s twin desires for violence and harmony merge in an unjust sacrifice.  This restores order because we have find the enemy collectively, and find that the enemy is not us — it’s he, or she, or possibly they — but never “us.”  Satan’s triumph consists of

  • His control restored
  • His control rooted in violence
  • A moral blindness on our parts
  • A reaffirmation of our faith in the ruling authorities to bring about order

“Mimetic desire” has a simple meaning: we seek to imitate the desires of others, and by doing so take them into ourselves, into the community.  Girard speaks at some length about the 10th commandment which prohibits coveting. While this prohibition is not unique to the Old Testament, it places greater emphasis on the problem of desire than other cultures. Desire in itself is good, but Satan, the “ape of God” gives us his desires, desires for power, for more.  Once these desires spread they turn into a contagion, or a plague that infects people everywhere (Girard believes that many ancient stories that talk of a “plague” may not refer to something strictly biological).  Once begun, resistance is nearly futile.

To understand this we might think of two armies opposing one another.  Neither wants to fight, but both fear that the other might want to fight, so both show up armed.  Once the first shot is fired, be it accidental or otherwise, all “must” participate. All will fire their weapons, and you would not necessarily blame a soldier for doing so.  It just “happened,” and with no one to blame, there can be no justice — another victory for Satan.

He references Peter’s denial of Jesus just before his trial.  Often our interpretations focus on the psychological aspects of Peter’s personality — his impulsiveness, and so on.  Girard won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Such psychological interpretations distance ourselves too comfortably.  In reality, Peter fell prey to the desires of the crowd in ways that ensnare most everyone.  Peter is everyman, in this case, and perhaps its more telling that he extracts himself from that situation.

Pilate too succumbs, in a way typical of politicians everywhere.  Pilate needs order — his cannot afford that Justice be his primary concern.  To maintain order he has no other choice but to give in.  Girard would argue, I think, that this is nothing less than the bargain all rulers must make from time to time.  Politics, then, get revealed as more than a “dirty business,” but one with indelible roots in the City of Man.

Many ancient stories show forth the nature of mimetic violence, but the Cross itself stands as the example par excellence. The people in general have no hostility to Jesus, but once they become aware that the religious authorities are divided, and the Romans start to weigh in, the plague of mimetic desire settles in.  They turn on Jesus, and believe that His death will solve their problems.  It looks like a repeat of other events and another victory for Satan.  But this victim not only possessed legal innocence, He actually had true and complete innocence.  Now Satan’s methodology gets fully exposed, for “truly this was the Son of God.”  His resurrection and ascension vindicate Jesus and establishes His lordship and His reign over a kingdom of innocent victims.**  This “exposure” has its hints in the Old Testament at least in the Book of Job.  His troubles must be deserved in some way, so say Job’s friends.  If he follows his wife’s advice to “curse God and die,” he will bring peace to the community by vindicating their perception of the world.  He resists, and God vindicates him in the end.

Girard argues that Jesus does not give commands so much as introduce a new principle, that of imitation.  He counters our mimetic desires not by squashing them, but by redirection.  Jesus asks that we imitate Him, as He imitates the Father.  The epistles carry this forward.  Paul tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, who imitates the Father.  Well, Jesus did give commands, but his commands about love in John, at least, invoke this pattern of imitation.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  What makes this commandment new is not the injunction to love each other, but perhaps the principle on which it is based.

So far I buy Girard entirely.  His link of mimetic desire with the crucifixion, and his analysis of the nature and extent of Satan’s influence I find profound.  He started to lose me a bit when talking about how so many myths follow this pattern of mass confusion, scapegoat, death, and then, deification of the victim — or barring deification of the person killed, then of the process itself.  I.e., because it restored order, it must be from God/the gods.  I could think of a few myths, but I’m not sure how many follow this pattern (though I have a weak knowledge of mythology and could easily simply be ignorant).

When speaking of the founding of certain civilizations, however, he seems once again right on target.  In Egypt and Babylon the violence occurs between the gods.  Girard suggests that some stories may have actually occurred, and then the victims like Osiris and Tiamat became gods.  But in Rome at least, the violence takes place between the twins Romulus and Remus, an instructive case study for Girard’s thesis.  The twins set out to found a kingdom but cannot agree on which spot the gods blessed.  But the brothers cannot co-exist peacefully.  Their rivalry heightens until Romulus kills Remus and assumes kingship of Rome.  Livy, at least, passes no judgment on any party.  This is the way it “had to be.” No state could have two heads at the helm–one had to be sacrificed for order to commence. The Aeneid also has a similar perspective on the founding of Aeneas’ line. Violence just “happened.”  Such was the founding of Rome, and in later stories Romulus is deified as a personification of the Roman people.  Not that everything about Rome would be evil, but the foundational principle of “sacred violence” to establish civic order has no business with the gospel.

This story is instructive for Girard, but not entirely.  The deification of the aggressor fits squarely within Girard’s framework. But what of those that deify or exalt the victim?  Many myths fall into this category, Persephone, Psyche, Hercules, and so on.  These myths seem to prepare the way for Christ, who fulfills the stories in the flesh made real before our eyes.  Girard sees mythology in general rooted entirely in “City of Man,” but I cannot share this view.

At the end of it all, however, we have a great and thought-provoking book.  We should have more like them even if it means more French influence in our lives.  Below is a brief interview excerpt with him.

Dave

POPE BENDICT IS RIGHT: CHRISTIANITY IS SUPERIOR

Rene Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book “Violence and the Sacred,” is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” and “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.” This interview was conducted by Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels earlier this year. It is particularly relevant in shining some light on the controversial comments by Pope Benedict on violence and Islam in Germany last week.

By Rene Girard

Global Viewpoint: When Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said a few years ago that Christianity was a superior religion, he caused controversy. In 1990, in the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio,” Pope John Paul II said the same thing.

It should not be surprising that believers would affirm their faith as the true one. Perhaps it is a mark of the very relativist dominance Pope Benedict condemns that this is somehow controversial?

Girard: Why would you be a Christian if you didn’t believe in Christ? Paradoxically, we have become so ethnocentric in our relativism that we feel it is only OK for others — not us — to think their religion is superior! We are the only ones with no centrism.

GV: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology, in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.

*Ok, I overstated the case.  The British have many great historians, Henry of Huntington, Toynbee, and recently Niall Ferguson (British Isles), and countless others who all attempt to have the humility stick out their neck, say something intelligible, and make people think.

**In an intriguing aside, Girard points out that Christianity helped establish concern for victims for the first time in history, a great victory for Justice and the human heart.  But Satan has learned to pervert this as well.  Now our “victimization” culture has left off concern for justice, and instead has become a quest for power over others.  I.e., “because ‘x’ happened to me, now you must do ‘y.'”  We see this happen in the ancient world also, perhaps most notably with Julius Caesar’s murder and its relationship to the founding of the Roman Empire with Octavian/Augustus.  Girard writes,

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance Christianity promised but failed to deliver.  Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victomology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games without the victims, etc.

The Definitive Absence

I have always thought, along with C.V. Wedgwood and others, that Charles I got a raw deal in the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-49). Leaving aside the matter of his personal guilt, I can see no good legal argument for Parliament having the authority to put him to death after their victory. But as many have remarked, as sympathetic a figure as Charles cuts at his trial and the end of his life, one finds it hard to embrace him as king.

In discussing this, many pay attention to the combination of poor decisions, occasional overreaching, ideological and religious foment, and bad luck during his reign. Some perhaps mention that in addition to the above factors, Charles simply lacked the ability to “look the part” of King of England, and this I think gets more to the root of the issue.

But why would this be? Charles had a personal piety and beliefs in tune with the vast majority of his countrymen. His real leadership flaws should not have risen to level of revolution and the loss of his head. After all, he had certain strengths as a leader as well. Something else must have been going on within England, perhaps even on a subconscious level.

A hint lies in the coronation celebrations, or lack thereof, in the reigns of Elizabeth I and the unfortunate Charles. Several accounts exist of Elizabeth’s coronation procession into London, the first from an Italian ambassador:

The houses on the way were all decorated; there being on both sides of the street wooden barricades, on which the merchants and artisans of every trade campe in long black gowns lined with hodds of red and black cloth . . . with all the emblems and banners–it made a very fine show.  Owing to the rain there was much mud, but the people had made preparations, by placing sand and gravel in front of their houses.

[He estimates perhaps 1000 horses in the procession], behind which came the queen, in an open litter, trimmed to the ground in gold brocade.  She herself dressed in royal robe rich in golden color, and over her head a coif of gold. Her crown was plain, with no gold lace, but studded with precious gems.

Another commented,

Onlookers noted, “For in all her passage she did not only shew her most gracious love toward the people in general, but also privately if the baser personages had either offered her any flowers or the like as a sign of their goodwill, she most gently staid her chariot and her their requests.

Thomas Mulcaster [Ass’t to the Lord Mayor of London?] added, “London was showed a most wonderful spectacle of a noble-hearted princess toward her most loving people, and the people’s exceeding comfort in so worthy a sovereign.

Holinshed’s Chronicles notes [I have updated the spelling]

For in all her passage she did not only shew her most gracious love toward all the people in general, but also privately if the baser personages had either offered her grace any flowers or any other sign of their good will, she most gently, to the common rejoicing of all onlookers, staid her chariot and heard their requests.

David Bergeron comments that,

The whole report creates the unmistakable impression that this queen in the golden litter forms very much a part of the action, one of the actors in the pageant, part of the theatrical experience.

English Civic Pageantry, 1558-1642, p. 20

Accounts exist of Elizabeth’s own words:

I thank my Lord Mayor, his brethren, and you all.  And whereas your request is that I should continue your good lady and queen, be ye ensured that I will be as good unto you as ever any queen unto her people.  No will in me can lack, neither do I trust that I lack any power. And persuade yourselves, that for the safety and quietness of you all, I will not spare, if need be, to spend my blood, God thank you all. 

As for Charles’ coronation, we have the following from the Earl of Pembroke, 25 of May, 1626:

My Lord,
Whereas your lordship and the rest of that Court now formerly directed by letters from the right honourable Earl Marshall, to prepare and erect in several places within the city various and sundry pageants for the fuller and more significant expression of your joys upon his Majesty, and his royal consorts intended entrance through your fair city: His Majesty having now allowed his said purpose, and given me Command to signify such to you, it may please your Lordship to take notice therof by these, as also remove the said Pageants, which besides the particular charge they accrue, do choke and hinder the passage of such as in coaches or carriages that have occasion to go up and down.  

Charles’ desire to save money actually was mostly moot, as many of the preparations had already been made for his procession. Workers would still need paid. Perhaps Charles had no knowledge of this, but I think not. Rather, Charles, unlike Elizabeth, could not force himself to go through with the public spectacle of coronation. Perhaps this was his introverted and private personality. Or perhaps his sense of royal dignity was so acute as to be intensely personal, and thus misguided.

Either way . . . Elizabeth clearly understood how to embody what it meant to be queen, and she communicated that understanding in a publicly meaningful way. By meaningful, I mean liturgical. One sees this throughout her reign. She mastered the art of the “royal progress.” Theatrical and symbolic encounters, such as when a child might present her a book and a flower, or a peasant giving her a trowel, or whatever, she made look completely natural and appropriate. This I am convinced is the key difference between Charles and Elizabeth. Charles modeled himself on Elizabeth in certain respects and even in certain laws (i.e., the Ship’s Tax). But it all fell flat. Charles could not embody and transmit the meaning of his kingship effectively to enough of his people.

We see this difference in portraits of the two monarchs. Elizabeth revels in overtly outward display.

To many today she no doubt appears ridiculous. Indeed, it seems that Elizabeth Tudor hardly appears at all. But “Elizabeth I” is in full view, and the English responded to her.

Scouring Google, I think Charles seems to be holding something back in every image I saw.

And . . .

Perhaps those like me feel sympathy for Charles even if we might not like him very much because his portraits reveal something of the man that was Charles Stuart. But where is Charles I?

As for his son Charles II, say what you will, but he certainly knew how to project, both as a young man, and later in life.

The first image might let Charles Stuart Jr. bleed through a little bit, but it is at least a more likeable person than Charles I that we see. As he got older, he learned to be more fully Charles II. Alas for Charles I–during his reign much less religious persecution existed than under Elizabeth, and he certainly had far superior morals than his son, all to no avail. His morally reprobate son was far more popular and effective as king.

I think many miss a central lesson we can draw from Elizabeth and the Stuart kings: if one can’t communicate outwardly the meaning of leadership through symbol and liturgy, then people will be driven inward in the fraught and dangerous realm of ideas and ideology.

In his Myth and Reality Marcel Eliade made an observation about modern art that struck me with great force. He notes the decline of a common symbolic language and forms in the wake of the Reformation, and perhaps especially after the Enlightenment. The lack of a common outward symbolic language–the Enlightenment called such things “superstitions”–leads then to a destruction of a common visual language in the arts. Eliade writes,

Beginning with painting, this destruction of language has spread to the novel, and just recently [writing in 1963] to the theater. In some cases there is a real annihilation of the established artistic universe. Looking at some recent canvases, we get the impression that the artist wished to make a ‘tabula rasa’ of the entire history of painting. There is more than destruction, there is a reversion to chaos . . . *

I found Eliade’s book in turns deeply illuminating and frustrating. But one only needs to think of cubism, dadaism, Jackson Pollack’s work, and some of Picasso as well, to see the force of his statement. Perhaps his greatest insight came with his assertion that the rise of psychotherapy directly accompanied the destruction of forms in the art world. With outward and visible avenues of meaning eliminated, we retreated inward for answers. But Eliade points out rightly that we are still following the mythological tropes. We still seek the lost paradise, (the Romantic movement) we still seek to deal with original sin (for the SJW’s this is ‘prejudicial conduct’), and we still seek the end of history (communists and other utopians). Without the common language, however, our fights will grow only deeper. Without something transcendent outside the system for us to reference, we will have to put all of our eggs into our earthly baskets.

Both Presidents Trump and Obama understand/stood very well, consciously or no, how to embody certain symbolic types. No one much cared how much money Elizabeth spent if she fit the part so well. So too, Mitt Romney could never equal Obama’s symbolic value. If Democrats want to beat Trump, they will need someone who can equal Trump’s archetypal value to the culture, even if it is a different archetype. Presidents Clinton and Reagan also excelled at politically embodying the “meaning of America” for their eras. Whitewater/Lewinsky and Iran-Contra might have sunk other leaders with less symbolic/liturgical footing with the culture at large.

Recently a government sponsored arts festival in Germany ran for a week, with its basic message being that, “European democracy is, and always has been, racist construct based on power and prestige,” later declaring that, “wretchedness is the basis of all art.” Such sentiments have a lot in common with the conspiracy theories of those like Alex Jones. Conservatives like myself who lament such things have to take Eliade’s insight seriously. The German ‘festival’ (which sounds like something from “Sprockets”), Jones, and others testify to the loss of a common narrative, a common language made manifest in the culture we can all adhere to. I am wondering if an Elizabeth I or even a Charles II** might emerge, if not in America, then hopefully somewhere else.

Dave

**Eliade could have mentioned movies as well. Think of all of the grand epic films of the 1950’s, with their oversized sets and out-sized acting. Charlton Heston has something in common with Elizabeth I. In The Magnificent Seven, the inner life of the heroes is not important and not explored. Charles Bronson’s character–rugged individualist that he is–knows he is not the hero. Fast forward a few years to the Guns of Navarone, where David Niven’s character is played with a sense of restraint and knowing detachment (though Peck’s character rebukes him for this). The common forms still hold, but we see possible cracks in the foundation. Just about 10 years after Bronson’s turn in The Magnificent Seven, his (and Donald Sutherland’s) knowing smirks in The Dirty Dozen testify to the imminent collapse of the common forms. Of course in Europe this shift probably happened decades earlier.

Here I do not seek to romanticize the 1950’s or any other previous era. Every time and place has its problems. I just seek to point out the differences.

**For the record, I have no great love for either monarch. Elizabeth persecuted many Catholics, and Charles II would have been hard for me to respect, though I acknowledge he was popular for a reason. What we need is someone like them whom we can rally around not in terms of his policies but as a symbol. Many of the best monarchs understood this intuitively, as thinking “symbolically” was part and parcel of their culture.

The Social Justice Warrior and the Meaning of Creation

Before I write anything I should say that anyone familiar with the ideas of Dr. Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pagaeu will note their presence all over what follows.  My debt to them is deep in this post.  My thanks to them both.

Some time ago I had fun debating with a colleague about Russia’s move to restrict the freedom’s of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  No western commentator approved the move.  Everyone thought that this added to the examples of how Russia is lurching away from the West, is authoritarian, is evil, and so on.  Even Trump lodged a protest.  Now, while I happen to agree with Russia’s move (or mostly agree), I acknowledge that my position is far from a slam-dunk.

It seems impossible for us to imagine society working without more or less complete freedom of religion.  But, every society up until quite recently, from ancient Egypt down through the Scientific Revolution, limited freedom of religion.  Somehow their societies functioned just fine.  Even here and now we restrict the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some ways, along with other religions.  Would we give “freedom of religion” to satanists who sacrificed chickens next door?

Anyway, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow for blood transfusions.  When one of their children comes to the hospital needing a transfusion, the state assumes temporary guardianship if the parents refuse to allow for proper treatment.  The child receives a transfusion and lives.  We have no problem with restricting the religious liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this respect.  Russia just takes our approach a bit further. The difference between us is one of degree and not kind.  In fact Russia stated that the blood-transfusion issue particularly bothered them.  Russia may not even have the guardianship laws we do in the U.S., making the possibility of children dying in their hospitals potentially a genuine reality.

The point being, every society has to draw a line somewhere.  Every society must distinguish between order, chaos and the acceptable margin.  Civilization could not exist otherwise.  Maybe Russia has erred in judgment.  But all must acknowledge that freedom has limits, and maybe those limits should have different boundaries in different places depending on the culture and context.  As Peter Augustine Lawler noted, many of those who champion a homogenous amorality concerning religion get quite judgmental regarding “obesity, smoking, alcohol, and seatbelts.”

Every society has a doctrine of creation that flows from their creation story, and this story informs every society in how they will deal with the boundary between order and chaos. Genesis deals with this quite directly and more clearly than any other I have read.  In one chapter we see the following:

  • The existence of a formless void far too vast for us to begin to understand.  We are finite, and cannot comprehend the infinite (some brilliant mathematicians have gone insane trying to do this).  If the vast scope of the created order defies imagination and numbs the mind, how can we begin to understand God Himself?
  • God creating differentiation, separating light from dark, the sea from dry land, plants from animals, and so on.
  • God creating mankind in His own image–differentiating them as male and female–inviting them to participate in this process of dominion and creating differentiation themselves  In chapter 2, for example, we see Adam naming the animals.
  • It is this very order, then, that allows for us to understand our place in the world and begin to know God.

The Mosaic law extends this in a variety of ways.  God called the Israelites to differentiate in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and of course, in the God they worshipped.  And yet, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament God gives reminders that the laws He gave and the differentiation he required were not absolute.  One thinks of the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel, for example.  Often we see God and/or the psalmists tell us that He does not desire sacrifice, but then of course tells us to sacrifice all the same.  David understands this tension perfectly in Psalm 51, one of the most important psalms for the Church.

The Incarnation destroyed some of the old paradigms and created new ones.  Jesus breaks down the differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  He destroys the dominion of sin and death.  He creates, or perhaps re-creates, a new kind of humanity.  The “chaos” outside of our categories invaded and transformed the world.  But . . . He still left us with “categories.”  We still have the Apostles as the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20), the canon, the liturgy, the bishops, and so on.

In his recent writing and in his numerous interviews, Jonathan Pageau discusses the relationship between the core of society, its margins, and the chaos beyond (the linked article is a fascinating discussion of the role of zombies in our culture, and a look at how the Church has dealt with the core and margin in its iconography).  Every society has a core of values and behaviors that shape culture, social interaction, politics, and so on.  So too each society has people and behavior on the margins, and the realm of nonsense and chaos beyond.  Total devotion to complete order would suffocate us.  If we let anything go at any time you have (to use Pageau’s phrase) “the flood”–a complete absence of differentiation that would destroy us in short order.

Each element has its place.  Generally speaking, the chaos exists as a warning.*  We can’t go there and live.  No one can see the face of God. The margins serve the dual purpose of challenging the core and thereby strengthen it at the same time.  Sometimes the margins penetrate the core and find ways to enlarge it and reshape in a healthy way.  The margin reminds us as well that the order we created is not absolute.  Societies need their margins and need to respond to them.

Not to stereotype too dramatically, but usually the artistic, creative groups in society occupy the margins.  To say this is “where they belong” is no insult.  That is where they are most effective.  We need only think of how certain musicians, comedians, and actors helped with the Civil Rights movement, for example.  But, would we want Picasso or Miles Davis as our congressmen?  What would happen to our arts and music?  Unfortunately at the moment, the margins of society, especially those in favor of radically different understandings of sexuality and gender, seek to become the core via judicial or executive fiat (and not the legislative process), and to enforce the ethics of the margin upon the mainstream.

This flipping of roles will work out badly for everyone.  The margins have no idea how to maintain a stable core–their whole business involves continually exploring new possibilities.  The core, ousted from their traditional role, will serve us very poorly as the prodding margin.  Just imagine a Sousa march as radical, avant-garde culture.  The end result will either result in another flood or a swing toward stifling authoritarianism, just as in France ca. 1791, or Germany in 1933, or perhaps even in Athens in 404 B.C.**

We have lived with democracy too long to see the nose on our face.  We cannot comprehend why others, including Russia, might feel apprehensive about adopting our system and our values wholesale. Democracy has a time-tested ability to plow through core traditions with extreme rapidity.  One need only look at how quickly our sexual ethics have gone from thinking about homosexual rights in the late 1990’s to state mandated speech regarding gender in about 20 years.  Perhaps we might think of democracy akin to an Italian sports car.  A sight to behold, powerful, able to move quickly in any direction.  At the same time, such cars are temperamental, break easily, and shouldn’t be driven by just anyone.

This remarkable adaptivity, however, may save us in the end.  Maybe the margin and the core can trade places rather quickly.  We have gone through transitions in the past and at least mostly righted the ship.  Hopefully soon we’ll have Aristophanes making us laugh again, and we’ll get Brad Lauhaus off the perimeter and back to grabbing rebounds on the low block.  All would be right with the world.

Dave

*I believe it is in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis mentions that many atheists or agnostics have no clue what it means to say, “If God would only show Himself plainly to all, then I would believe,” or something to that effect.  Lewis rightly points out that when the playwright steps on stage, the play is over.  God’s full revelation of Himself would overwhelm everything.  There would be no time for “belief.”

**Examples of this abound everywhere, especially on campuses around the country.  Just recently Brandeis University pulled the plug on a play by one of their own students about Lenny Bruce . . . for being too controversial.  Or read what happened to Prof. Bret Weinstein (an acknowledged supporter of Bernie Sanders, and far from a conservative) at Evergreen State University.

Finally, some might say that I contradict myself.  I favor (sort of) Russia putting limits on Jehovah’s Witnesses, while I am critical of those on the left imposing their own limits.  To clarify, I see a difference.

  • The actions of Russia are taken to reinforce their core.  Russia has a tremendously long history, and a religious history very different from our own.  We have a hard time understanding this in America, as we build off an abstract concept of rights divorced from culture, whereas Russia builds first from culture.
  • The actions of the progressive left seek to radically alter the core with ethics and practices from the margin.

Russia’s action may go too far, but fundamentally it changes very little about who they are as a people. Our recent changes are an attempt to radically shift what our core is, and introduces uncertainty about what we should be, which is dangerous to a society.

10th Grade: Looking back from the Reformation

Greetings to all,

This will be the first of what should be weekly updates about what we are doing in class.  My goal is to have these updates to you no later than Sunday afternoon, so if you do not receive one by Monday, do let me know.  My purpose is to let you have a glimpse of the classroom so you can keep abreast of what we are learning and discussing.  I hope you will join in the conversation with us as we move through the year.

We spent part of the first week reviewing and setting the context for the Reformation.  For the new students, this meant entering a story somewhere in the middle, which can always be difficult.  For some of the returning students, summer has understandably flushed some of their brains.  Any student who feels shaky on the medieval and Renaissance period may want to look here and here, or perhaps other places in the “9th Grade” category in the archives here at astickinthemud.

As I mentioned at orientation, this class primarily involves understanding what it means to transition from the pre-modern to the modern world.  We tend to use “modern” as a synonym for “good,” and indeed, students may feel that the changes from 1500-1850 represent a substantial improvement for mankind.  However, others may just as legitimately feel that we lost a great deal of our Christian heritage as a result of this transition.  Understanding both sides of this debate is one of the key goals of this class, regardless of where students stand on this transition.

The transition can be best understood I think in the following ways:

  • The pre-modern world believed that time and space had a meaning of its own apart from our own actions, whereas the modern world, in the words of scholar Charles Taylor, believes in the homogeneity of time and space.

For example, some churches today have spaces that they use for basketball on one day, picnics on another day, and worship on Sundays.  The meaning of the space depends on the meaning the people give it.  The space has no “meaning” in itself.

The pre-modern world believed in sacred time (Lent, Paschaltide, Advent, etc.) and sacred space.  No one would every think of playing basketball inside Chartes Cathedral.  The space has a meaning apart from us, inherent in the nature of the space itself.

  • The modern world puts a lot more emphasis on the individual than the pre-modern world, which had a more communal and historically oriented approach to meaning.

For example, many in the modern world feel comfortable with the idea than anyone can interpret the scriptures, which empowers the laity to read for themselves.  On the flip side, however, the modern world has a harder time deciding which interpretation is correct.  The pre-modern world had little concept of the individual and derived meaning and understanding from the past more so than the present.

No Church historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, believes that things in the Church in 1500 A.D. were fine.  Many wanted reform in the Church and believed it was desperately needed.   Among scholars and contemporaries, disagreements come in the following areas:

1. When did the problems in the Church begin?  Some say that it began with the popes of the 15th century.  Some say it began with the Great Schism of 1378.  Some argue that it can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, or to the papal decree ‘Unam Sanctum.’  Some go as far back as the Investiture Controversy of 1077.  Some reformers would want to go back further still, and argued that the problems began with Constantine in the 4th century A.D. How people answered this question influenced what they believe was the root problem the church faced.

2. What  indeed was the root problem the Church faced?  Was it a question of the ethics of the Church hierarchy? Was the issue mainly theological?  Or was it the Church’s long involvement with politics?  Or perhaps, all three?  Each choice represented a new fork in the road, one that would involve different choices and divergent paths.  For example, if you believed the Church’s problems to be recent, you likely would focus on the Church’s moral lapses.  The further back one found the so-called “root” of the problem, the more theological and institutional the criticisms, the more radical the operation required to correct the abuses.

Another issue was not only how far reform should go, but, cut free from Church hierarchy, what criteria should they use to make theological decisions?  What authority should tradition be granted?  Is it just “What the Bible means to me?”  If it is more than that, what is it?  Reformers at the time did not always agree on this question, and the results of their disagreement would do much to shape events throughout Europe.

Despite its fairly innocuous beginning when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Reformation would snowball into a revolution.  Martin Luther had all of the necessary qualities that revolutionaries need.  He possessed great courage and great belief in his convictions.  He had charisma and keen intelligence.  The same qualities that make for good revolutionaries, however, do not make for good diplomats.  This type needs patience, flexibility, and the ability to see many points of view.  Historically speaking, very, very few have been good at both.*  This too will have a significant impact on Protestantism in particular, and the history of Europe in general.  Below I include some quotes from Martin Luther (and others) that illustrate Luther’s keen insights, sense of humor, temper, and stubbornness.

Next week we will see how the Reformation spreads throughout northern Europe, and the different guises reform takes.  If we believe that religion forms the heart of any civilization, the religious upheaval in Europe in 16th century will have significant ripple effects into all areas of life.  We shall examine some of these things next week.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The only two I can think of are Nelson Mandela and George Washington.  Can anyone else think of others?

Reformation Quotes:

I think his [95 Theses] will please all, except a few regarding Purgatory who make their money thereby.  I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest is the plague of Christendom, yet I hardly know if it is expedient to touch this open sore. — Erasmus in 1518

Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. . . .I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you.  — Martin Luther to Pope Leo, 1518

Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keeness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me.  Christ gave you his spirit, for His glory and the world’s good. [My advice] is that quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation.  Keep cool.  Do not get angry. — Erasmus 1519, in a letter to Luther

Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language.  No one would believe the influence he now has on men. — Erasmus, 1521

Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me. — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521

If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and this sink of Roman Sodom . . . and wash our hands in their blood? —  Martin Luther, 1520

It would be better if every bishop were murdered, every foundation of every cloister rooted out, then one soul destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost due to their trumpery and idolatry. – Martin Luther, 1521

Begone, unclean swine!  Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands!  The cup is full.  See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring?  – John Hutten, German priest speaking to the Roman bishops

The common man is learning to think, and contempt of princes is gathering among the multitude.  Men will not suffer your tyranny much longer. — Luther to the German princes

You lords, let down your stubborness and oppression, and give the poor air to breathe.  The peasants, for their part, should let themselves be instructed, and [withdraw some of their demands]. – Luther to German Nobility

Forward!  Forward while the fire is hot!  Let your swords be ever warm with blood. . . . The godless have no right to live except as they are permitted to do so by the elect.  – Thomas Munster, to his peasant army, 1524

In my former book, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and instructed, [but they did not listen].  Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God, so that the first who can slay him does right and well.  Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab.  There is nothing more devilish than a rebel. – Luther, ‘Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde Of Peasants.’ – 1525

He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must hear the headsman when he comes with his axe. . . . Of mercy I will give no heed but to God’s will in His word.  If He will have wrath and not mercy, what are you to do with mercy?  Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Malek? — Luther, ‘An Open Letter concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants.

Why should we pity men more than God does? – Philip Melancthon on the destruction of the Anabaptists

Anyone who is aware of [Anabaptist] teaching and preaching must give names to the magistrate, in order that the offender may be taken and punished.  Those aware of such breeches of this order and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property. – Edict of Saxony, 1528

Quotes from Luther on Various Topics:

All the articles of our Christian faith are in the presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false.  Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.  She is the Devil’s greatest whore.

The Bible teaches us to feel, hope, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can.

The human will is a beast of burden.  If God mounts it, it goes where He wills, and if Satan, it goes where he wills.  Nor can it choose the rider.

Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that though you sin, you have no sin.  It is enough to know that the Lamb bears the sins of the world, whether we commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders.

Man is as unfree as a block of wood, a lump of clay, a pillar of salt.

I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone.  He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.

Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play talk bawdy, amuse yourself.  One must sometimes commit a great sin out of hate for the Devil, so as not to give you the chance to feel scrupulous over mere nothings.

Sin powerfully.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner.

I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German.  Thanks be to God.

I seek and accept joy where I can find it.  We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.

Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.

Dances are instituted that courtesy may contracted between young men and girls.  I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.

I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great.  Next to theology, there is no art that can be compared to music, for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy of heart.

Christians need not altogether shun plays because there is sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.

If God can forgive me for having crucified Him . . . He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.

My enemies examine all that I do.  If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.

Punish if you must, but let the sugar plum go with the rod.

Take women from their housewifery and they are good for nothing.  But there she can do more with the children with one finger than a man with two fists.

My Lord Katie (his pet name for his wife Katharine).

I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my infirm love.  Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault. . . . now, thank God I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women and care not how gallant I am.  God bless you.

I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.

Luther the Anti-Semite?

 I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder.  Since belief and unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience . . . the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs and constrain no one by force.

Since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, those donkeys have dealt poorly with the Jews.  Indeed, had I been a Jew and seen such idiots, I would rather be a hog than a Christian.  I would advise everybody to deal kindly with the Jews.

And let whosoever can throw brimstone and pitch upon [the Jews]; if one could hurl hellfire so much the better. . . .And this must be done, so that our Lord will see that we are indeed Christians.  Let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.

Opinions of Luther

Luther is the ‘Morning Star’ of Wittenberg. – Mutantius, contemporary of Luther

Luther has all the fury of a maniac. – Mutantius, spoken about a year after the previous comment

If we judge greatness by influence – which is the least subjective test we can use – we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. – Will Durant