Monday, July 11, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on the day of one's death)

From I:19. That we should not be deemed happy till after our death.
Scilicet ultima semper
Expectanda dies homini est, dicique beatus
Ante obitum nemo, supremaque funera debet
[You must always await a man's last day: before his death and last funeral rites, no one should be called happy.]

Fortune sometimes seems precisely to lie in ambush for the last day of a man's life in order to display her power to topple in a moment what she had built up over the length of years, and to make us follow Laberius and exclaim: 'Nimirum hac die una plus vixi, mihi quam vivendum fuit.' [I have lived this day one day longer than I ought to have lived.]

The good counsel of Solon could be taken that way. But he was a philosopher: for such, the favours and ill graces of Fortune do not rank as happiness or unhappiness and for them great honours and powers are nonessential properties, counted virtually as things indifferent. So it seems likely to me that he was looking beyond that, intending to tell us that happiness in life (depending as it does on the tranquillity and contentment of a spirit well-born and on the resolution and assurance of an ordered soul) may never be attributed to any man until we have seen him act out the last scene in his play, which is indubitably the hardest. In all the rest he can wear an actor's mask: those fine philosophical arguments may be only a pose, or whatever else befalls us may not assay us to the quick, allowing us to keep our countenance serene. But in that last scene played between death and ourself there is no more feigning; we must speak straightforward French; we must show whatever is good and clean in the bottom of the pot:
Nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
Ejiciuntur, et reipitur persona, manet res
[Only then are true words uttered from deep in our breast. The mask is ripped off: reality remains.]

That is why all the other actions in our life must be tried on the touchstone of this final deed. It is the Master-day, the day which judges all the other; it is (says one of the Ancients) the day which must judge all my years now past. The assay of the fruits of my studies is postponed unto death. Then we shall see if my arguments come from my lips or my heart.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on experts)

From I:17. The doings of certain ambassadors

On my travels, in order to be ever learning something from my meetings with other people (which is one of the best of all schools), I observe the following practice: always to bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know best.
Basti al nocchiero ragionar de' venti,
Al bifolco dei tori, e le sue piaghe
Conti'l guerrier, conti'l pastor gli armenti.
[Let the sailor talk but of the winds, the farmer of oxen, the soldier of his own wounds and the herdsman of his cattle.]

For the reverse usually happens, everyone choosing to orate about another's job rather than his own, reckoning to increase his reputation by so doing; witness the reproof Archimadamus gave to Periander: that he was abandoning an excellent reputation as a good doctor to acquire the reputation of a bad poet. Just observe how Caesar spreads himself when he tells us about his ingenuity in building bridges and siege-machines: in comparison he is quite cramped when he talks of his professional soldiering, his valour or the way he conducts his wars. His exploits are sufficient proof that he was an outstanding general: he wants to be known as something rather different: a good engineer.

The other day a professional jurist was taken to see a library furnished with every sort of book including many kinds of legal ones. He had nothing to say about them. Yet he stopped to make blunt comments, like an expert, on a defence-work fixed to the head of a spiral staircase in that library; yet hundreds of officers and soldiers came across it every day without comment or displeasure.

The elder Dionysius, as befitted his fortune, was a great leader in battle but he strove to become mainly famed for his poetry - about which he knew nothing.
Optat ephippia bos piger, optat arare caballus.
[The lumbering ox years for the saddle: the nag yearns for the plough.]

Follow that way and nobody achieves anything worthwhile.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dreams of idleness

Samuel Johnson remarked, "If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation." Commenting on this C.S. Lewis said that he would "be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read [Italian epics] eight hours of each happy day."

Jerome K. Jerome contemplated something similar. As a young man he became ill and was prescribed rest:
I pictured to myself a glorious time--a four weeks' dolce far niente with a dash of illness in it. Not too much illness, but just illness enough--just sufficient to give it the flavor of suffering and make it poetical. I should get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing-gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the books should fall from my listless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds floating like white-sailed ships across its depths, and listening to the joyous song of the birds and the low rustling of the trees. Or, on becoming too weak to go out of doors, I should sit propped up with pillows at the open window of the ground-floor front, and look wasted and interesting, so that all the pretty girls would sigh as they passed by.
Much as I love reading I can't say I'd submit to illness - even small illness - in exchange for leisure time. At this point I'd be happy if I could work in the same town in which I live. (I'm working on it.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (channeling the Stoics)

From I:14. The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion.

Neither good nor ill is done to us by Fortune: she merely offers us the matter and the seeds: our soul, more powerful than she is, can mould it or sow them as she pleases, being the only cause and mistress of our happy state or our unhappiness. Whatever comes to us from outside takes its savour and its coulour from our internal attributes, just as our garments warm us not with their heat but ours, which they serve to preserve and sustain. Shelter a cold body under them and it will draw similar services from them for its coldness: that is how we conserve snow and ice. Study to the lazy, like abstinence from wine to the drunkard, is torture; frugal living to the seeker after pleasure, like exercise to the languid idle man, is torment: so too for everything else. Things are not all that painful nor harsh in themselves: it is our weakness, our slackness, which makes them so. To judge great and lofty things we need a mind which is like them: otherwise we attribute to them the viciousness which belongs to ourselves. A straight oar seems bent in water. It is not only seeing which counts: how we see counts too.

Come on then. There are so many arguments persuading men in a variety of ways to despise death and to endure pain: why do we never find a single one which applies to ourselves? Thoughts of so many different kinds have persuaded others: why cannot we each find the one that suits our own disposition? If a man cannot stomach a strong purgative and root out his malady, why cannot he at least take lenitive and relieve it? 'Opinio est quaedam effeminata ac levis, nec in dolore magis, quam eadem in voluptate: qua, cum liquescimus fluimusque mollitia, apis aculeum sine clamore ferre non possumus. Totum in eo est, ut tibi imperes.' [As much in pain as in pleasure, our opinions are trivial and womanish: we have been melted and dissolved by wantonness; we cannot even endure the sting of a bee without making a fuss. Above all we must gain mastery over ourselves.] We cannot evade Philosophy by immoderately pleading our human frailty and the sharpness of pain: Philosophy is merely constrained to have recourse to her unanswerable counterplea: 'Living in necessity is bad: but at least there is no necessity that you should go on doing so.' No one suffers long, save by his own fault. If a man has no heart fro either living or dying; if he has not will either to resist or to run away: what are we to do with him?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on money)

From I:14. The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion.

I make my income and my expenditure run along in tandem: sometimes one pulls ahead, sometimes the other, but only drawing slightly apart. I live from day to day, pleased to be able to satisfy my present, ordinary needs: extraordinary ones could never be met by all the provision in the world.

And it is madness to expect that Fortune will ever supply us with enough weapons to use against herself. We have to fight with our own weapons: fortuitous ones will let us down at the crucial moment. If I do save up now, it is only because I hope to use the money soon - not to purchase lands that I have no use for but to purchase pleasure. 'Non esse cupidum pecunia est, non esse emacem vectigal est.' [Not to want means money: not to spend means income.] I have no fear, really, that I shall lack anything: nor have I any wish for more. 'Divitiarum fructus est in copia, copiam declarat satietas.' [The fruit of riches consists in abundance: abundance is shown by having enough.] I particularly congratulate myself that this amendment of life should have come to me at an age which is naturally inclined to avarice, so ridding me of a vice - the most ridiculous of all human madness - which is so common among the old.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Agnosticism versus fallibilism

Eric Reitan has a helpful post distinguishing between agnosticism and fallibilism. First, definitions:
In roughest terms, to be an agnostic is to withhold belief on a matter, whereas to be a fallibilist is to have a belief but recognize that you could be mistaken, that those who disagree with you could have some or all of the truth, and that it is important to comport yourself accordingly.
Then he sets up two epistemic circumstances to illustrate the difference:
Epistemic Circumstance 1 (EC1): You confront a body of presumptive evidence that "reasonable people" (however that is to be understood) generally accept, but you recognize that there are different ways of fitting that evidence into a coherent whole—different "stories" we can tell that fit just as well with the given evidence. In other words, we have certain mutually exclusive holistic ways of seeing the evidence, each of which maps onto the evidence just as well. For simplicity, let us assume there are only two such ways of seeing that fit as well onto the evidence, which we will call Worldviews A and B.

Epistemic Circumstance 2 (EC2): You confront a body of presumptive evidence that reasonable people generally accept, as well as certain further "apparent truths," that is, things you experience as clearly true/self-evident/obvious/hard to deny/intuitively correct. But some of the people you regard as rational don’t find these apparent truths nearly as apparent as you do, and may instead find other things evident which are hardly evident to you. So, within the total body of "evidence" with which you are confronted, some of it is "shared evidence" whereas some of it is "personal evidence." Now suppose that, as before, Worldviews A and B both map onto the shared evidence (and are the only worldviews you have so far encountered that do this). But now let us suppose, furthermore, that Worldview A maps well onto the conjunction of the shared evidence and your personal evidence, while B doesn’t (accepting B would force you to abandon things that seem clearly right to you). At the same time, Worldview B maps well onto the conjunction of the shared evidence and what is apparently the personal evidence of reasonable people other than you.
While there is no reason, on the evidence, to prefer A or B in EC1, there may be personal reasons. "You might find A more hopeful. Or you might like who you are better when you live as if A is true. Or perhaps you’ve grown up with a community that embraces A, and you continue to have a sense of solidarity with that community. Or perhaps you’ve tried to see the world through the lens of B and it just doesn’t sit right with you because of what you identify as mere quirks of personality. Or perhaps it is a combination of these factor." You make your choice while recognizing that your reasons are idiosyncratic and not required based on the evidence.

In EC2, on the other hand, you do have certain personal evidence that moves you to accept worldview A rather than B. But note that this decision is based on your personal evidence - evidence which is not accepted by other "reasonable" people. This leads you to hold your personal evidence with less confidence, though it certainly does not mean your personal evidence is wrong.
In EC1, your reasons for favoring A over B are ones that do not appear to you as evidence for the truth of A, and in this sense are seen by you as nothing but pragmatic reasons to operate as if A is true. But in EC2, your reasons for favoring A over B have the "look and feel" of evidence, that is, they seem to be truths that speak in favor of the truth of A. And this makes your epistemic situation clearly different. It means, among other things, that when you endorse A, it is because A seems right to you in a way that B does not. You favor A over B on the basis of considerations that present themselves to you as evidence for the truth of A and against the truth of B.
In EC1 you are agnostic on the theoretical level because you have no reason based on the evidence to hold one over the other, though you may have pragmatic or personal reasons. In EC2 you are not agnostic on the theoretical level because you do have evidence - albeit personal and not universally held - for holding A over B. These features require you to hold an attitude of fallibilism in EC2:
While A just seems right to you in a way that B does not, you also know that you are fallible, and you know that some of the evidence you are using in arriving at A is not regarded as veridical by other people who otherwise seem eminently reasonable. This fact alone does not make the evidence seem less veridical to you, but it does motivate an attitude of due caution, a willingness to investigate, to hear opposing arguments and be open to be moved by them if they do amount to "defeaters" of your presumptive evidence. And it also makes you resistent to condemning those who endorse B.
I'll leave the application of these distinctions as an exercise for the readers. I only wanted to note them here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on discovering himself accidentally)

From I:10. On a ready or hesitant delivery

I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments. Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do. The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself. And that is why the spoken word is worth more than the written - if a choice can be made between things of no value.

This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement. Suppose something subtle springs up as I write - I mean, of course, something which would be blunt in others but is acute in me. (Enough of these courtesies! When we say such things we all mean them to be taken in proportion to our abilities.) Later, I miss the point so completely that I do not know what I meant to say (some outsider has often rediscovered the meaning before I do). If every time that happened I were to start scraping out words with my eraser I would efface the whole of my Essays. Yet, subsequently, chance may make what I wrote clearer than the noon-day sun: it will be my former hesitations which then astonish me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trollope and Eliot on preachers

No offense to any preacher who may read this. I don't agree with everything they say. I am posting it here because I was struck by how similar their thoughts were - even in sequence. (And you have to admit: Trollope, at least, is pretty funny.)

George Eliot, "Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming": Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.


Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers: Here was a sermon to be preached before Mr. Archdeacon Grantly, Mr. Precentor Harding, and the rest of them! Before a whole dean and chapter assembled in their own cathedral! Before men who had grown old in the exercise of their peculiar services, with a full conviction of their excellence for all intended purposes! This too from such a man, a clerical parvenu, a man without a cure, a mere chaplain, an intruder among them; a fellow raked up, so said Dr. Grantly, from the gutters of Marylebone! They had to sit through it! None of them, not even Dr. Grantly, could close his ears, nor leave the house of God during the hours of service. They were under an obligation of listening, and that too without any immediate power of reply.


Eliot: Let him shun practical extremes and be ultra only in what is purely theoretic; let him be stringent on predestination, but latitudinarian on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the Eternity of punishment, but diffident of curtailing the substantial comforts of Time; ardent and imaginative on the pro-millennial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious toward every other infringement of the status quo. Let him fish for souls not with the bait of inconvenient singularity, but with the drag-net of comfortable conformity. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on the genteel Christianity of the nineteenth century, let him use his spiritualizing alembic and disperse it into impalpable ether. Let him preach less of Christ than of Antichrist; let him be less definite in showing what sin is than in showing who is the Man of Sin, less expansive on the blessedness of faith than on the accursedness of infidelity. Above all, let him set up as an interpreter of prophecy, and rival Moore's Almanack in the prediction of political events, tickling the interest of hearers who are but moderately spiritual by showing how the Holy Spirit has dictated problems and charades for their benefit, and how, if they are ingenious enough to solve these, they may have their Christian graces nourished by learning precisely to whom they may point as the "horn that had eyes," "the lying prophet," and the "unclean spirits." In this way he will draw men to him by the strong cords of their passions, made reason-proof by being baptized with the name of piety. In this way he may gain a metropolitan pulpit; the avenues to his church will be as crowded as the passages to the opera; he has but to print his prophetic sermons and bind them in lilac and gold, and they will adorn the drawing-room table of all evangelical ladies, who will regard as a sort of pious "light reading" the demonstration that the prophecy of the locusts whose sting is in their tail, is fulfilled in the fact of the Turkish commander's having taken a horse's tail for his standard, and that the French are the very frogs predicted in the Revelations.


Trollope: There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips.


Eliot: Pleasant to the clerical flesh under such circumstances is the arrival of Sunday! Somewhat at a disadvantage during the week, in the presence of working-day interests and lay splendors, on Sunday the preacher becomes the cynosure of a thousand eyes, and predominates at once over the Amphitryon with whom he dines, and the most captious member of his church or vestry. He has an immense advantage over all other public speakers. The platform orator is subject to the criticism of hisses and groans. Counsel for the plaintiff expects the retort of counsel for the defendant. The honorable gentleman on one side of the House is liable to have his facts and figures shown up by his honorable friend on the opposite side. Even the scientific or literary lecturer, if he is dull or incompetent, may see the best part of his audience quietly slip out one by one. But the preacher is completely master of the situation: no one may hiss, no one may depart.


Trollope: Let a professor of law or physics find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to perforce by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship, but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape which is the common consequence of common sermons.


Eliot: Like the writer of imaginary conversations, he may put what imbecilities he pleases into the mouths of his antagonists, and swell with triumph when he has refuted them. He may riot in gratuitous assertions, confident that no man will contradict him; he may exercise perfect free-will in logic, and invent illustrative experience; he may give an evangelical edition of history with the inconvenient facts omitted:--all this he may do with impunity, certain that those of his hearers who are not sympathizing are not listening. For the Press has no band of critics who go the round of the churches and chapels, and are on the watch for a slip or defect in the preacher, to make a "feature" in their article: the clergy are, practically, the most irresponsible of all talkers. For this reason, at least, it is well that they do not always allow their discourses to be merely fugitive, but are often induced to fix them in that black and white in which they are open to the criticism of any man who has the courage and patience to treat them with thorough freedom of speech and pen.


Trollope: With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us! Yes, my too self-confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation. The Bible is good, the prayer-book is good, nay, you yourself would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time-honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted—if one could only avoid it.

Alan Jacobs on making the Great Books your steady intellectual diet

Read what gives you delight - at least most of the time - and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don't make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant restaurant every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote, "When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit" - for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

It's noteworthy that what someone like the young Richard Rodriguez thought of as true and high seriousness - reading masterpieces and masterpieces only - Auden sees as "frivolous." This is not so paradoxical as it seems. What's frivolous is not the masterpiece itself, but the idea that at any given time I the reader am prepared to meet its standards, to rise to its challenges. Those challenges wear heavily upon the unprepared reader (at age ten or twenty or sixty) and as a result the reading, which in anticipation promised such riches of meaning, proves in fact to be that dread appointment with the elliptical trainers I mentioned earlier. And who needs that?
Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 23

Thursday, June 9, 2011

We make our contribution and depart

"I need to read this guy's books," I thought, as I was listening to an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. "Maybe I'll pick one up after I finish reading David Copperfield. But I'm also wanting to read some China Mieville and that book on Montaigne..."

I love discovering new authors and collecting book recommendations. Ever since I began reading for pleasure I've maintained book lists with the assiduity of a fantasy football fanatic. The web has given me vast resources for indulging this habit, from Arts and Letters Daily to Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" to Bookforum - which I had to quit following because I became so overwhelmed.

And overwhelmed is what I felt as I listened to that interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. There are so many fascinating books out there - how can I ever read everything that interests me? Consider these facts from Linda Holmes' article "The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything":
Let's say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That's quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let's say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you're 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you're 80. That's 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.

Let's do you another favor: Let's further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature, of course, but we'll assume you're willing to write off thousands of years of writing in an effort to be reasonably well-read.

Of course, by the time you're 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you're dealing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You'll have to break down your 20 books each year between fiction and nonfiction – you have to cover history, philosophy, essays, diaries, science, religion, science fiction, westerns, political theory ... I hope you weren't planning to go out very much.

You can hit the highlights, and you can specialize enough to become knowledgeable in some things, but most of what's out there, you'll have to ignore.
We have two options, she says. We must cull or surrender. Culling is deciding what is worth your time. Surrender "is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time." Holmes says culling is easy because it dismisses whole swaths of culture in an act of self-defense. "It's an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we're missing less painful."
Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That's the moment you realize you're separated from so much. That's your moment of understanding that you'll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there's something being performed somewhere in the world that you're not seeing that you would love.
What makes this a fact not only sad but beautiful is the realization that humanity has produced such a vast treasure of culture that a single lifetime cannot possibly comprehend it.

So we're bound to miss almost everything. But books, music, films, etc., are one of the primary ways we encounter ideas. If we're bound to miss almost everything then we are also bound to miss some of the greatest ideas of humanity. Moreover, we're bound to miss some of the greatest counterarguments to the ideas we already hold. Only by intensive specialization can we hope to hold certain opinions with great confidence. But we can't specialize in everything. In fact, most non-academics have little time to specialize at all.

As individuals we can only access parts of humanity's vast fund of knowledge over our lifetime. In the words of Edmund Burke, the individual is foolish but the species is wise. We are limited in every way.

(By quoting Edmund Burke I am showing the conservative pedigree of this bit of wisdom. Yet it is not the exclusive property of conservatives. It has been often remarked (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) that those modern conservatives who have become cheerleaders for capitalism aren't interested in conserving much of anything. No one in today's politics talks more about limits than the eco-left. What clearer example do we have of the dangerous consequences of arrogantly remaking the world than agribusinesses seeking to maximize profit? And haven't we learned anything in the past ten years about messianic foreign policy delusions? While many conservatives have not abandoned it, the recognition of limits has increasingly become, over the past few years, a feature of the left. Nevertheless, all sides have much to learn here.)

Socrates became the gadfly of Athens by insisting to those who had a reputation for wisdom that only those who recognized their own foolishness are, in fact, wise. This is the wisdom of limits and a guard against hubris. But it is important to note that Socrates' test for wisdom was not a discovery arising wholly from his own mind. It was a response to the Oracle of Delphi, which said that Socrates was the world's wisest man. Socrates couldn't believe this, so he began searching for a wiser man. Only after finding none did he came to understand the nature of his own wisdom.

Socrates received the gift of the oracle, examined it, modified it, and passed it on to those who were willing to receive it. This is our pattern. We receive some piece from humanity's fund of knowledge, examine it, modify it, and pass it on. Our contribution may be as small as passing that piece of knowledge on to someone else (as in raising children) - but that act contributes to the expansion of the fund of knowledge.

We do not build from the ground up out of our own private resources. Very few of us are either willing or capable of building a intellectual system. Even those who do are dependent on those who came before them. I am not responsible for answering every question or acquainting myself with every fact. I take what I have been given and, in the context of my life and interests, I make my contribution. To have done this without hubris, in recognition of my limits, and in gratitude for what I have received, is to have lived well.

In A Theology of Reading, Alan Jacobs passes on this arresting image from Kenneth Burke which encapsulates what I have attempted to say here:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on lying)

From I:9. On liars.

Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and weight of lying we would see that it is more worthy of the stake than other crimes. I find that people normally waste time quite inappropriately punishing children for innocent misdemeanors, tormenting them for thoughtless actions which lead nowhere and leave no trace. It seems to me that the only faults which we should vigorously attack as soon as they arise and start to develop are lying and, a little below that, stubbornness. Those faults grow up with the children. Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up. That is why some otherwise decent men are abject slaves to it. One of my tailors is a good enough fellow, but I have never heard him once speak a truth, not even when it would help him if he did so.

If a lie, like truth, had only one face we could be on better terms, for certainty would be the reverse of what the liar said. But the reverse side of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits. The Pythagoreans make good to be definite and finite; evil they make indefinite and infinite. Only one flight leads to the bull's-eye: a thousand can miss it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on discharging emotions against false objects)

From I:4. How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects

What causes do we not discover for the ills which befall us! What will we not attack, rightly or wrongly, rather than go without something to skirmish against? It is not those blond maiden tresses which you are tearing, nor the whiteness of that bosom which you are beating so cruelly in your distress, which killed your beloved brother with an unlucky musket-ball. When the Roman army in Spain lost those two great commanders who were brothers, Pliny says "flere omnes repente et offensare capita". [at once, they all start weeping and beating their heads.] A common practice. And was it not amusing of Bion the philosopher to ask of that king who was tearing out his hair in grief: "Does he think that alopecia gives relief from sorrow?" And how has not seen a man sink his teeth into playing-cards and swallow the lot or else stuff a set of dice down his throat so as to have something to avenge himself on for the loss of his money! Xerxes flogged the waters of the Hellespont, put them in shackles and heaped insults upon them and wrote out a challenge defying Mount Athos; Cyrus kept an entire army occupied for several days in taking revenge on the river Gyndus for the fright it gave him when he was crossing it; and Caligula demolished a very beautiful house on account of the pleasure his mother had taken in it.


Yet as that old poet says in Plutarch:
Point ne se faut courroucer aux affaires:
Il ne leur chaut de toutes nos choleres
[There is no point in getting angry against events: they are indifferent to our wrath.]

But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jesus died of being human: McCabe and Forde on atonement

In his chapter on Good Friday in God Matters, Herbert McCabe OP gives his explanation for the death of Jesus.

First, he says, it's important to remember that, as demonstrated by his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not want to die. Neither did the Father want him to die. If God is Father in any way like humans, then God wanted Jesus to live a fully human life. In fact, this was Jesus' mission:
Not Adam, but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love - for this is what human beings are for.
Unfortunately, "we have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering."

Human beings have not come to terms with the change that came to us when we developed language. (Note: Some of what McCabe says here may be thrown into doubt by later scientific discoveries and a less anthropocentric theology. Or maybe not. I honestly don't know.) We went from being an animal within nature to one who can, in some ways, stand over against nature. We became the first animals capable of love. In fact, our social organization demanded love, since it was no longer based on the dictates of genes and was capable of great destructive power. This conflict between love and both our genetic inheritance and our destructive capabilities leads to the contradictions of human life.
For this reason we are afraid and settle for being less than human. We recognize that our very nature calls us to something new and frightening; it calls us to communication, which means self-giving, self-abandonment, being at the disposal of others. We recognize, however dimly, that we are the kind of being that finds its fulfillment, its happiness and flourishing only in giving itself up, in getting beyond itself. We need to lose our selves in love; this is what we fear.
We do not want to take this risk - and the failure to do so is what we call sin. Love has a "destructive creative power" which we fear; so "when we meet love we kill it." We do not always kill love, of course. Our relationships need love, however imperfect, in order to flourish. But when it came to us fully revealed as it did in Jesus, we killed it.

Jesus' "whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human. ... As he grew up his increasing self-awareness must have been his increasing awareness of being loved - it is this, surely, that shaped his notion of the Father. You might say that the whole of his teaching was summed up in this: that the Father loved him and that his followers, those who believed in him, were invited into their love."

The love expressed in Jesus not only threatens us, it threatened the powers of the world in which he lived. All human societies are built on structures of dominance and violence. Jesus was a threat to the stability of the powers' order and so he had to be eliminated.
Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress; the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist.

Gerhard Forde says something very similar in "Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ" in A More Radical Gospel. After pointing out the weaknesses of the objective (Anselm), subjective (Abelard), and Christus Victor (Aulen) theories, he suggests that we should begin with the actual events of Christ's life; we should look at it "from below" before trying to understand it "from above". He says that God could and did forgive sins before the death of Christ. God does not need payment in order to forgive; forgiveness is about mercy, after all. Forde explains the problem to be solved by the atonement:
It is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God's honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be "satisfied" before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matt 23:37). We are caught in the act. We have first to come to grips with the fact that we did it. The victory motif also errs in this regard when it allows us more or less to drop out of the "drama" in favor the demonic forces. Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys. As it was put in a Pogo comic strip, "We have met the enemy and they is us!" We did it.
At this point Forde gives exactly the same reason as McCabe for why we killed Jesus: We were threatened by him.

God's problem is how to get through to us. This leads to two considerations. First, we remain under God's wrath because God is not satisfied. God is not satisfied because we will not allow God to be who God wants to be: the one who unconditionally forgives our sins.

Second, God can do nothing about this situation in the abstract. As we have seen, the abstract idea of forgiveness threatens us and the world we have built. We want a conditional God who offers forgiveness only after certain requirements are met. So the only way God can get through to us is to come and actually do what God wants to do.
Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is "the end" of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, "gets out of the way" for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, "that the scriptures might be fulfilled" - that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As "God of wrath" he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word.

The Trinity, says McCabe, makes sense of this for us because only in the Son does God find an equal to love. It is by our identification with Christ in baptism that we are taken up into the love of the Trinity and given a share in divinity by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Love is what caused the incarnation. That same love took the form of the cross in our world, a world that cannot accept the risk of love. But even on the cross God approaches us in love and "begins in us the difficult and painful process of transforming us into saints."

It is precisely as a human - a true, perfect human - that Jesus saves us. He obeys the Father until the end. "It is this loving obedience displayed finally on the cross that merits for Jesus his resurrection and the salvation of his followers. We are not saved by the intervention of a god but by the great sanctity of one of ourselves, a sanctity great enough for his prayer for us to be heard."

The cross is the prayer of Jesus; this prayer was answered in the resurrection.


The resurrection, says Forde, is "the vindication of Jesus' life and proclamation of forgiveness, God's insistence that unconditional forgiveness be actually given "in Jesus' name." To accept such forgiveness is to die to the old and be made new in him. His death is, therefore, our death."

We are caught in the act of murdering love. That love then catches us up into the life of the Trinity:
When faith is created, when we actually believe God's unconditional forgiveness; then God can say, "Now I am satisfied!" God's wrath ends actually when we believe him, not abstractly because of a payment to God "once upon a time." Christ's work, therefore, "satisfies" the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer "under" wrath. Christ actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete and thereby "placates" God. When, that is, we are caught in the act so that we are caught by the act, God reaches his goal.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

More on replacing the government safety net with private charity

In April I wrote a post arguing that the belief held by some conservatives that private charity could replace government safety net programs was simply wrong. A recent Ethics Daily post by Robert Parham says much the same thing (via Fred Clark). He quotes Franklin Graham, who said:
A hundred years ago, the safety net, the social safety net, in the country, was provided by the church. If you didn't have a job, you'd go to your local church and ask the pastor if he knew somebody that could hire him. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, 'I can't feed my family.' And the church would help you. That's not being done. The government took that. And took it away from the church.
In arguing against this, Parham uses WIC as an example:
WIC is a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children that feeds almost 9 million people each month. House Republicans proposed cuts of $747.2 million for the current fiscal year. It is simply dishonest to suggest that American charity can replace such a cut.
He ends the post by citing Wayne Flint:
When Flynt started making speeches about a just tax system in Alabama, he was accused of wanting government to solve all the problems.

"When people insisted that I was a socialist, that I wanted government to solve all the problems, I would offer this alternative," said Flynt. "OK, I accept your argument. There are 10,000 communities of faith – Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Baha'i, Buddhist, Shintoist – in Alabama... Let's divide 10,000 communities of faith into the 740,000 [poor] people."

He asked, "How many does your church get?"

The retired Auburn history professor pointed out that most of those faith communities had about 100 members. That meant that each faith community would get between 50 and 100 poor people to look after.

"Your private charity is going to be responsible for them. Do it. We won't have to have Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, taxes of any kind... We can abolish taxes. We can abolish the IRS," said Flynt.

"And all you have to do is for your congregation to adopt 50 to 100 poor people, and mentor them, and love them, and educate them and nurture them," he said.

"And I'll guarantee you that if you do that, it will be closer to what Christ intended than Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. And they will never do it," said Flynt. "They will never do it...[T]he churches will not do it."

He's right.

It's time for some honesty in the pulpit and public square about the dishonest national discourse that churches and charities can take care of the poor, those in ill health and the ones suffering from natural disasters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anselm on paying the debt of obedience

In I:11 Anselm states that obedience is the debt we all owe to God:
Every wish of a rational creature should be subject to the will of God. ... This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.
He goes on to say that this debt must not only be paid, but the guilty party must (as we might say now) pay punitive damages.

In I:12 and I:13 Anselm denies that it would be proper for God "to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him." If sin is remitted without punishment then:
  • There would be no difference between the guilty and the innocent and "this is unbecoming to God"
  • Sin becomes subject to no law and is therefore more free than justice
  • God's dignity and honor is violated
Then he argues (I:14) that in punishing the sinner God is actually exacting payment for the debt of obedience:
It is impossible for God to lose his honor; for either the sinner pays his debt of his own accord, or, if he refuse, God takes it from him. For either man renders due submission to God of his own will, by avoiding sin or making payment, or else God subjects him to himself by torments, even against man's will, and thus shows that he is the Lord of man, though man refuses to acknowledge it of his own accord. And here we must observe that as man in sinning takes away what belongs to God, so God in punishing gets in return what pertains to man. For not only does that belong to a man which he has in present possession, but also that which it is in his power to have. Therefore, since man was so made as to be able to attain happiness by avoiding sin; if, on account of his sin, he is deprived of happiness and every good, he repays from his own inheritance what he has stolen, though he repay it against his will. For although God does not apply what he takes away to any object of his own, as man transfer the money which he has taken from another to his own use; yet what he takes away serves the purpose of his own honor, for this very reason, that it is taken away. For by this act he shows that the sinner and all that pertains to him are under his subjection.
Perhaps he may go on to reinforce this argument (I haven't yet read much beyond this point) but, as it stands, I don't see it. The debt is obedience - but God, according to Anselm, is forcibly subjecting the sinner. I do not see how forcible subjection is the same thing as obedience. The big kid on the playground may beat up the smaller kid, but that does not mean the weaker is in any way made obedient to the will of the stronger. Anselm is (rightly) concerned with God's dignity and honor. I suppose it's possible to see a certain honor in God "showing 'em who's boss". It's not a very honorable honor, though.

Far more satisfying is the idea of universal reconciliation, where sinners are indeed brought to a state of loving obedience. Universal reconciliation sees punishment as having a redemptive, reforming effect, e.g., not merely vindictive. But universalism isn't the focus of this post. I'm only interested in pointing out the difficulties in Anselm's argument at this point.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Anselm on the devil's rights and the punishment of sin

I'm not familiar enough with Christus Victor to say for sure, but Anselm's criticism in Cur Deus Homo I:7 sounds like it is aimed at a version of that theory:
Moreover, I do not see the force of that argument, which we are wont to make use of, that God, in order to save men, was bound, as it were, to try a contest with the devil in justice, before he did in strength, so that, when the devil should put to death that being in whom there was nothing worthy of death [i.e., Jesus], and who was God, he should justly lose his power over sinners; and that, if it were not so, God would have used undue force against the devil, since the devil had a rightful ownership of man, for the devil had not seized man with violence, but man had freely surrendered to him. It is true that this might well enough be said, if the devil or man belonged to any other being than God, or were in the power of any but God. But since neither the devil nor man belong to any but God, and neither can exist without the exertion of Divine power, what cause ought God to try with his own creature (de suo, in suo), or what should he do but punish his servant, who had seduced his fellow-servant to desert their common Lord and come over to himself; who, a traitor, had taken to himself a fugitive; a thief, who had taken to himself a fellow-thief, with what he had stolen from his Lord. For when one was stolen from his Lord by the persuasions of the other, both were thieves.
Anselm describes an argument that states that humanity belonged to the devil because humanity voluntarily placed itself in the devil's service. The devil, therefore, owned humanity. God could not violate this right, so God sent Jesus into the world to trick the devil into having him killed unjustly (since Jesus was free from sin and divine). By this act, the devil would lose his right to humanity.

The obvious objection to this is that God owns both humanity and the devil, since they exist only at God's pleasure. The devil is only a fellow-servant with humanity. It would not, therefore, be unjust of God to "snatch" humanity from the hands of the devil.

Then he makes an even more interesting argument:
For man merited punishment, and there was no more suitable way for him to be punished than by that being to whom he had given his consent to sin. But the infliction of punishment was nothing meritorious in the devil; on the other hand, he was even more unrighteous in this, because he had not led to it by a love of justice, but urged on by a malicious impulse. For he did not do this at the command of God, but God's inconceivable wisdom, which happily controls even wickedness, permitted it.
Anselm assumes that humanity's sin is punished by the devil (in this life? in hell? both?); whether that is true I leave to the side. The punishment, however, is justly deserved by humanity. Nevertheless that does not mean the devil is doing a praiseworthy thing. He does not torment humanity out of a desire to obey God, but out of his own malice. God is leaving the fellow-servants to themselves - and that is punishment enough.

As I read this I was reminded of Saruman and Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Wormtongue voluntarily placed himself in the service of Saruman, to aid in the destruction of Theoden. After his restoration Theoden offers a way of redemption to Wormtongue: ride to battle with him and prove his loyalty. Wormtongue refuses and flees to Saruman. After the battle at Helm's Deep Gandalf confronts Saruman and Wormtongue at Isengard, where they are both offered a path to redemption. They both refuse. Gandalf says, "Small comfort will those two have in their companionship: they will gnaw one another with words. But the punishment is just. If Wormtongue ever comes out of Orthanc alive, it will be more than he deserves." Wormtongue deserves his punishment but that does not mean Saruman is a force for good in administering it. They will be a misery to each other.

This is further illustrated by the saying of Jesus in Matthew 18:7: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" Some evils may be necessary or just but that does not make the instrument of evil blessed, e.g., Judas Iscariot.

In several biblical texts we are warned that sin is its own punishment. Paul says in Romans 1 that God punishes some by leaving them to their own sin, allowing it to work itself out in their lives. Again, an evil does not become a good simply because it is used as the means to a good.

We can't know whether any one occurrence is actually the judgment of God upon any particular sin. Evil things happen to both "good" and "bad" people. But even if we could we do not need to celebrate that occurrence or pretend that it isn't an evil. Our reaction to all evils should conform to the words of Jesus in Luke 13:
Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on delaying duties beyond death)

From I:7. That our deeds are judged by the intention

I have seen many men in my time smitten in conscience for having withheld other men's goods who arrange in their testaments to put things right after they are dead. But it is valueless to fix a date for so urgent a matter or to wish to right wrongs without feeling or cost. They must pay with something which is truly theirs: the more burdensome and onerous their payment the more just and meritorious their atonement. Repentance begs for burdens.

Worse still are they who reserve for their last will and testament some hate-ridden provision affecting a near one, having concealed it during their lifetime. By stirring up against their memory the one they have offended they show scant regard for their reputations; and they show even less for their consciences since they cannot, even out of respect for death, make their animosities die, prolonging the life of them beyond their own. They are iniquitous judges, postponing judgement until they can no longer take cognizance of the case.

If I can, I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on why he began writing the essays)

From I:8. On idleness

Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.

But I find -
Variam semper dant otia mentis
[Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind]

- that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

New weekly feature: Excerpts from Montaigne's essays

Steve Douglas has a weekly feature called "Mondays with MacDonald" in which he posts excerpts from the writings of George MacDonald. I'm going to steal that idea and start posting excerpts from Montaigne's essays every Monday ("Mondays with Montaigne", geddit?). I'll be drawing from the Penguin Classics edition of the complete essays translated by M.A. Screech.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I never thought I'd find an argument for monarchy compelling ...

... but this one from @johnthelutheran, also expressed by @zugzwanged, makes a lot of sense: constitutional monarchy depoliticises head of state and says we are not /defined/ ultimately by politics. We Americans invest a lot of symbolic power in the presidency (note: I have not read the linked book) and it might be useful to redirect that towards someone who fulfills a more explicitly symbolic function, i.e., has no actual power. Also, the things that unite Americans tend to be abstract ideas. It's always easier to unite around an actual person.

John also argues that monarchy is a good reminder that life isn't fair. [UPDATE: I misrepresented John's point here. See comments.] I see his point, but - believe me - I have plenty of opportunities to be reminded of that fact in our present political configuration.

Not that I expect (or even want) a constitutional monarchy in America. It's just an interesting thought experiment.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ben Myers' six types of reading

Based on Ben's typology, the majority of my reading is binge reading, though sometimes I binge on topics rather than authors. If it wasn't obvious already I've been reading about the Christian response to poverty lately.

I dearly hope he continues making these videos.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Jesus accepts his failure and abandons himself to the Father

On the cross Jesus finally abandons himself to the Father. His life work has ended in failure. It looked very optimistic at first: the crowds gathering to hear all those attractive things they needed to hear and received with such enthusiasm, but now all that has collapsed. His followers have deserted him, the foremost of them has disowned him, he has been arrested and condemned, the crowds who once listened to him are now howling "Crucify him, crucify him". The whole attempt to form a little community of friends based on himself and, through him, the Father's love, one in which people could relate to each other in love and mutual forgiveness instead of domination of submission, has been a complete failure. Nevertheless, his mission was not to be a world leader but just to be human and accept the consequences of being human, which culminate in defeat. He accepts his failure and refuses to compromise his mission by using the weapons of the world against the world. It is his Father's mission and it is for the Father to bring his own purposes out of Jesus's failure. Jesus knows he is not going to live to establish the Kingdom. He did not transform the world; the colonial society went on as before; the same kinds of bitterness and meanness and hatreds went on as before. In death on the cross he handed over all the meaning of his human life to the Father; this is his prayer. The Father has not accomplished his will through any success of Jesus; Jesus is left with nothing but his love and his obedience, and this is the prayer to the Father to work through his failure.

Herbert McCabe, "Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross", God Matters, pp. 99-100.

Go to Dark Gethsemane

At our Maundy Thursday service we sang "Go to Dark Gethsemane", one of my favorite hymns. The recording below includes the final, Easter verse, which we didn't sing of course. (So stop after verse three unless you want to be a liturgically incorrect cheater.) The phrase "turn not from his griefs away" has been with me all day. This is the value of moving slowly through Holy Week rather than rushing straight into Easter. We watch the process unfold. He suffers before our eyes. And, as the hymn says, the events not only show us our sin and God's love, but they form the contemplation of our own lives.

Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away; learn of Jesus Christ to pray.

See Him at the judgment hall, beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall! O the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; learn of Christ to bear the cross.

Calvary’s mournful mountain climb; there, adoring at His feet,
Mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.
“It is finished!” hear Him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die.

Early hasten to the tomb where they laid His breathless clay;
All is solitude and gloom. Who has taken Him away?
Christ is risen! He meets our eyes; Savior, teach us so to rise.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembering the poor on Maundy Thursday

Much of what follows is a riff on Gustavo Gutierrez's chapter "Memory and Prophecy" in The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology. My contribution is a rather poor attempt to connect it to Cavanaugh's thought, the Offertory, and the meaning of Maundy Thursday.

The memory of God - and our inclusion in it - is a major biblical theme. God repeatedly tells Israel that the covenant will not be forgotten. In one of the most memorable passages of the Bible, God says through Isaiah
Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
Not only are we included in the memory of God, we are called to remember as well. But this memory is more than a simple recollections of events; it is the basis of action. Thus we have the prologue to the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The remembrance of the saving acts of God is the foundation of our religious lives and the model for how the redeemed community should behave toward strangers, the poor, etc. (cf Deut 5:15, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18).

We see the same thing in the New Testament. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). And at the heart of the Eucharist, the central act of the Church's life, are the words, "Do this in remembrance of me".

Christians are, like Israel, commanded to remember the poor and outcast - for we were once one of them. This is not limited, however, to the spiritually poor. In Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of the meeting in Jerusalem where he presented himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter, and John - the pillars - accepted Paul's mission with the instruction that he should remember the poor, which he did by taking collections.

Ideally, we do the same today by using a portion of our offerings for the aid of the poor and disadvantaged. It is significant that the offertory is a part of the Eucharistic liturgy. We bring our money to the altar as part of the same liturgical movement in which we bring the bread and wine to the altar for consecration. It is also significant that in the early church (or so I've been told) a portion of the bread and wine brought by the worshipers was put aside for the poor. The remembrance of the poor is thus included in the Eucharistic liturgy.

But not only there. Today is Maundy Thursday. There is some debate about the meaning of the word "maundy". Is it derived from mandatum, meaning command, the first word of Jesus' "new commandment" to love one another? Or is it derived from the "maundsor" baskets in which was collected alms for beggars? Either meaning points to the remembrance of the poor - the first as described above and the second more directly. In fact there survives to this day a "Royal Maundy" service in the CoE, in which the monarch distributes "Maundy money". Originally the monarch not only gave money to beggars but washed their feet. Unfortunately, the coins now distributed are collector's items and no monarch has actually washed anyone's feet since the 17th century.

The remembrance of the poor is also a part of Eucharistic theology. William Cavanaugh has shown us that in the Eucharist the divisions between you and me, between what is mine and what is yours, are broken down. We become food for others. "Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation."

On this Maundy Thursday we remember the Eucharist as the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. As Luther said, "We are all beggars." But let us also remember the materially poor, whom we find included at the heart of our worship.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Howard Thurman on the rise of hatred

According to Howard Thurman (in Jesus and the Disinherited), our hatred is normally taboo. But occasionally (as in a war or national crisis) it "provides for us a form of validation or prestige". Thurman, for example, "noticed a definite rise in rudeness and overt expressions of color prejudice" after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These times also serve to illustrate the way in which hatred arises.

"In the first place, hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness." It has often been observed that hatred of a certain person or group dissolves once the hater comes to genuinely know the hated.

"In the second place, contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic. There is understanding of a kind, but it is without the healing and reinforcement of personality." Not all understanding is sympathetic. There is a kind of understanding "that one gives to the enemy, or that is derived from an accurate knowledge of another's power to injure". Understanding without fellow-feeling may contain pity but never sympathy. "I can sympathize only when I see myself in another's place."

"In the third place, an unsympathetic understanding tends to express itself in the active functioning of ill will."

"In the fourth place, ill will, when dramatized in a human being, becomes hatred walking on the earth."

A current example of this process is Islamophobia. Those who are most clearly guilty of this are people who have no real fellowship with actual Muslims, or if they do it is not a relationship of sympathetic understanding. Some of them do have enough knowledge to quote bits of the Quran (often with no apparent awareness that the Bible contains troublesome passages as well). And some of them merely say, "All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11". This is fertile ground for hatred.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Rich get richer! Poor get poorer!

It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.
"Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" by Joseph Stiglitz

The average income of the four hundred richest Americans (measured by AGI) has increased while their average tax rate has decreased:

More tax charts from Mother Jones magazine and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As life gets better and better for the rich, the poor continue to suffer.

The World Bank has warned that rising food prices have put the world's poor "one shock away from a full-blown crisis."

Tax preparers are targeting the poor with their usurious refund anticipation loans.

Debt collectors using harrassing and threatening tactics have decided that the risk of violating federal law is just the price of doing business.

The Indiana Senate has voted to defund Planned Parenthood as part of a larger abortion bill - even though abortions are only 3% of their business and are funded by private giving. If this is signed into law we can expect more unplanned pregnancies.
Without Planned Parenthood, [Gayla Winston of the Indiana Family Health Council] said, there would be no clinic south of Monroe County and east of Dubois County where a woman could get free birth control pills.

A 2008 study by the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health policy nationwide, found that 31 percent of Indiana women who need contraceptives have those needs met. That's 10 percentage points lower than the national average.
I am a pro-life Christian, but defunding Planned Parenthood is a blockheaded thing to do. Many poor women use PP as a primary provider.

Dan Horan, OFM, on being willfully ignorant concerning the conditions of the poor:
"I just don’t want to know" is not a legitimate or justifiable excuse. It is a reflection of the sin of willful ignorance, because, although what you don’t know may not hurt you, it most certainly hurts others. We have an obligation, a responsibility as members of the human family and the Body of Christ to learn about both the “joys and hopes” as well as the “sorrows and anxieties” of the people of the world. And we should then, aware of suffering in the world, work to bring about justice and alleviate suffering in whatever way we can.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"The hungry cannot wait; the heavenly feast is now."

William Cavanaugh contrasts the market and the Eucharist in the closing pages of Being Consumed (pp 97-98):
Adam Smith's economy underwrites a separation between contractual exchanges and gifts. Benevolence is a free suspension of self-interested exchange. As such, benevolence cannot be expected or even encouraged on the public level, because the market functions for the good of all on the basis of self-interested consumption and production. Benevolent giving freely transfer property from one to another; nevertheless, it respects the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours. In the eucharistic economy, by contrast, the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours be relativizing the boundary between me and you. We are no longer two individuals encountering each other by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient. Without losing our identities as unique person - Paul's analogy of the body extols the diversity of eyes and hands, heads and feet - we cease to be merely "the other" to each other by being incorporated into the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient. We are neither merely active nor passive, but we participate in the divine life so that we are fed and simultaneously become food for others.

Our temptation is to spiritualize all this talk of union, to make our connection to the hungry a mystical act of imaginative sympathy. We can thus imagine that we are already in communion with those who lack food, whether or not we meet their needs. Matthew [in chapter 25] is having none of this: he places the obligation to feed the hungry in the context of eschatological judgment. Paul, too, places neglect of the hungry in the context of judgment. At the eucharistic celebration in Corinth, which included a common meal, those who eat while others go hungry "show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing" (1 Cor 11:22). Those who thus - in an "unworthy manner" - partake of the body and blood of Christ "eat and drink judgment against themselves" (11:27, 29). Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation.

The Eucharist places judgment in the eschatological context of God's in-breaking kingdom. There is no gradual, immanent progress toward abundance that the market, driven by our consumption, is always about to - but never actually does - bring about. The Eucharist announces the coming of the kingdom of God now, already in the present, by the grace of God. Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist in these terms: "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims. ..." In the Eucharist, God breaks in and disrupts the tragic despair of human history with a message of hope and a demand for justice. The hungry cannot wait; the heavenly feast is now. The endless consumption of superficial novelty is broken by the promise of an end, the kingdom toward which history is moving and which is already breaking in to history. The kingdom is not driven by our desires, but by God's desire, which we receive as the gift of the Eucharist.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Consuming and being consumed by the Eucharist

In Being Consumed William Cavanaugh argues that consumerism is more about shopping than owning. Contented ownership is antithetical to the pursuit of novelty essential to consumerism. Like religion, consumerism preaches a sort of transcendence and promotes a sort of community - but a transcendence and community without a shared telos, or end.

The Eucharist turns consumerism upside down. We do consume in the Eucharist, of course, but we are also being consumed. "St. Augustine hears God say, 'I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.'" We are "absorbed into a larger body."

We also become food for others. Cavanaugh cites Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whenever we serve another, we serve him.
What is truly radical about this passage is not that God rewards those who help the poor; what is truly radical is that Jesus identifies himself with the poor. The pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ, and it is thus also that the pain of anyone who is a member of the body of Christ. If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all, then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ. We are not to consider ourselves as absolute owners of our stuff, who then occasionally graciously bestow charity on the less fortunate. In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available to be communicated to you in your need, as Aquinas says. In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely "the other" to each other. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others.

The Augustinian Amanda Palmer. Also, metal keeps you sane.

According to William Cavanaugh, Augustine believed our desires were socially formed, not simply internally generated, and are often unclear to us. Not only "I don't know what I want", but also "I don't know why I want what I want".

Amanda Palmer probably wouldn't thank me for describing her as Augustinian, but her "In My Mind" does in some way describe this understanding of desire. (In fact, I'm struck by the song's echoes of Paul in Romans 7.) Palmer resolves the tension by self-acceptance, i.e., the person she is is the person she wants to be. That's not a particularly Augustinian resolution, but there's truth in it.


Lee links to a great Atlantic article by James Parker ("How Heavy Metal is keeping us sane") which begins - of course - with Black Sabbath:
Black Sabbath created heavy metal. We can say that with a satisfying kick-drum thump of certainty. Cream was heavy; Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were heavier still; in Japan, the Flower Travellin’ Band was shockingly heavy; but Black Sabbath, from Birmingham, England, was heavy metal. No joy here, nor any wisp of psychedelic whimsy. From the first note, this band sounded ancient, oppressed, as if shambling forward under supernatural burdens.
Parker uses "Lord of this World" to illustrate this. But if you want my opinion, there is no more terrifying song than "Black Sabbath". Ozzy's screams are chilling:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Schillebeeckx wrap-up

I've finished reading Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God but I'll be thinking about it for some time to come. It's full of such rich theology. You need to find a copy and take your time with it.
"You have shown yourself to me, Christ, face to face," says St. Ambrose: "It is in your sacraments that I meet you." it is by the sacraments that we journey toward our final goal - the sacramental way is our hidden road to Emmaus, on which we are accompanied by our Lord. And even though we are not yet able to see him, we are conscious of his concealed presence near us, for when he addresses us through his sacraments, our hearts, intent upon his word, burn with longing and we turn at once to Christian action - in the words of the Evangelist, "Was not our heart burning within us whilst we spoke in the way?"
Image: Edward Schillebeeckx by David Levine

Private charity could never replace government anti-poverty programs

Now and then a conservative will say that if only the government would give us back our tax money we could care for the poor more efficiently than it could. Christians, specifically, point out that biblical commands to care for the poor are given to individuals, not governments. (I believe that statement is wrong in several ways, but that's not my concern in this post.) I think this idea can be soundly dismissed by looking at what we actually do with our charitable donations.

A Center on Philanthropy study determined that 30% ($77.3 billion of the total $252.6 billion) of our charitable donations go to meet the needs of the poor. Here is how it breaks out by charity type:

The study broke out all giving into the categories you see in the chart. Then it determined what portion of each category was directed toward the poor. All giving in the "helps meet basic needs" category was focused on the poor. The researchers were unable to determine what percentage of giving to the arts was focused on the poor. The rest of the categories ranged from 18% to 25%.

So when we have money to give to charity we give it for the benefit of the poor 30% of the time. How do we direct most of our charitable giving? If you make $200,000 or less per year, which is 97.8% of the population, it is overwhelmingly to religious operations. If you make over $200,000, it is split more evenly between arts, education, health, and religious operations.

Some more facts. Medicaid spending in 2009 amounted to $373.9 billion. Spending on various safety net programs (EIC tax credit, cash payments like SSI and unemployment insurance, in-kind assistance like food stamps and housing, child-care, and energy assistance, etc.) totaled $482 billion in 2010. This gives us a total of $855.9 billion, or 6.5% of GDP. Charitable contributions have averaged 2% of GDP since the 1990s (figure from the CoP study). This means that in order to cover the costs of Medicaid and the various safety net programs charitable giving would have to increase fourfold to 8.5% of GDP, assuming we redirect 100% of our tax savings into private organizations that perform equivalent services.

Do you think that is likely - especially given that we only direct 30% of our charitable giving to the poor? This also does not take into account the losses through administrative costs that would result from moving from government programs with strong buying and organizational power into multiple private organizations. There's just no way. Claiming that it would work is utopian in the extreme, which is odd since conservatives are supposed to be the anti-utopians.

If the argument based on human nature doesn't convince you then how about one from history? In 2006 Obama proposed some changes to the allowable deductions for charitable giving. In response, the Center on Philanthropy released a study examining the effect the change in tax policy could have on giving. They determined that changes in the overall economy and/or in personal income had a greater effect on levels of charitable giving than did changes in tax rates (which, presumably, would be what would change if the federal government dropped Medicaid and the safety net programs).

When you give people money back through tax cuts they will spend it in any number of ways. The best that could be hoped for is that government could devise some incentive (though income tax deductions, perhaps) that would redirect the money to benefit the poor. I'm certain, though, that most of it would be spent in some other way. But even if some incentive structure could be devised, why bother? Spending it through the present system of taxation is at least as efficient as devising some complex incentive program to make sure the money is still being spent to help the disadvantaged.

As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, The Lead posted a link to a study (pdf) showing that faith-based initiatives do not actually increase faith-based groups' involvement in social ministries. (Faith-based initiatives, you recall, were attempts to prove that faith-based institutions could serve as alternatives to government run safety net programs.) This seems to show that private organizations are limited in their effectiveness as providers of safety net services.

I have no doubt that most conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, who want to dismantle the welfare state and replace it with networks of private institutions do indeed want to effectively help the poor and disadvantaged. Nevertheless, the evidence against this idea is overwhelming.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Republicans' budget would harm the poor, sick, and elderly

The following is a letter I submitted to the local newspaper. Ezra Klein's blog and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have been particularly helpful here.

The Republicans' proposed 2012 budget would harm the poor, sick, and elderly - but benefit the rich [also see this post].

Medicaid would be converted into block grants. Currently, Medicaid costs are shared by the federal and state governments. As costs increase or decrease, funding increases or decreases. Converting it into block grants would mean that the federal government would give a chunk of money to the states at the beginning of the year. If costs increase due to a flu epidemic, for example, or if more people need Medicaid due to recession, there would be no increase to the grant. The grant would be indexed to inflation, but health care costs increase at a much higher rate than inflation.

In short, if claims increase, if we go into recession, or if health care costs rise faster than inflation, then the state would have to pick up the increased costs - which means they'll either come up with the money or cut benefits. Benefit cuts would disproportionately harm the disabled and the elderly because, while children and adults constitute 74% of the enrollees, it is the elderly and the disabled that account for 67% of actual Medicaid expenditures.

The budget proposes the same for SNAP, aka food stamps.

It also proposes the privatization of Medicare for the next generation of retirees. Because of Medicare's buying power it is much cheaper than comparable private insurance options. Under the Republican budget, there would only be a selection of private options, meaning the elderly would either have to pay higher premiums or receive lower benefits.

But there's good news if you're rich or a corporation: The Republican budget would lower the top individual and corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%.

How's that for a "path to prosperity"?

See also:

"Chairman Ryan Gets Roughly Two-Thirds of His Huge Budget Cuts From Programs for Lower-Income Americans"

"Medicaid Block Grant Would Shift Financial Risks and Costs to States"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My (and the Reformer's?) confusion about ex opere operato

Schillebeeckx's discussion of ex opere operato has me confused. He says the Reformers opposed ex opere operato because it was too much like magic, that it laid an obligation on God, and that it endangered appreciation of the free mercy of God. This, he says, is a misunderstanding of the doctrine, though there were some popular notions afoot that make it an understandable mistake. But I thought the Reformers' problem with it was that it denied the necessity of faith.

His definition of the doctrine sounds acceptably Lutheran to me (the not-even-amateur theologian):
Put negatively, the significance of the sacramental efficacy ex opere operato is that the bestowal of grace is not dependent upon the sanctity of the minister, nor does the faith of the recipient put any obligation on grace; Christ remains free, sovereign, and independent with regard to any human merit whatsoever. Put positively, ex opere operato efficacy means that this act is Christ's act. ... In the Church's ritual symbolic act, not only are Christ's prayer and worship really present in visible and sacramental form, but really present also is the infallible response to this prayer, the effective bestowal of grace.
Obviously if you haven't read the book you can't comment specifically on it. But to any readers who are familiar with the doctrine: Is Schillebeeckx definition adequate? If so, were the Reformer's objections to ex opere operato the result of a misunderstanding?

UPDATE: The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to say the same thing:

1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

1128 This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: "by the very fact of the action's being performed"), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. "Sacramental grace" is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.
I suppose it all depends on what you load into the opening words, "celebrated worthily in faith".

UPDATE 2: Schillebeeckx later distinguishes between fruitful and unfruitful sacraments:
The sacraments are signs of Christ's redemptive act in its actual grasp of a particular individual. For this reason, even when on account of the recipient's interior dispositions a sacrament remains (probably only for the time being) fruitless, every valid sacrament achieves a certain fruitful effect. It cannot be an empty sign, for even in such a case it is still a sacramental prayer of Christ and his Church for the person receiving it. And precisely on those grounds a sacrament can, as it is said, "revive." If, however, the personal power of supplication of the recipient is joined with the power of the ritual supplication of Christ and his Church, so that the outward sign which the recipient makes is not a fiction with regard to his inward dispositions, then the outward sign by that very fact becomes an effective bestowal of grace, and in consequence its full significance is also realized.
So personal faith is not nothing - but it does not affect the power of the sacrament. Even a sacrament received without personal faith "achieves a certain fruitful effect" and can "revive". Still not sure what to make of this but this distinction clarifies it somewhat.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.

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