I feel like I ought to preface any remarks about the election with the statement that I did not support Trump, and thought he was entirely unfit for the presidency. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that, but here it is again for anyone who didn't know it.
But I admit that I was a little relieved when he won. It was a "too bad they can't both lose" situation, but I ended up wanting Hillary to lose more than I wanted Trump to lose. If I thought he was unfit, why? Obviously I thought Hillary would be worse, even though she was in a narrow sense more "fit" to be president, in the sense that she has a lot more experience and knowledge applicable to the job. So in what respect was she worse?
Well, I think the Christians who voted against her (whether or not they saw themselves as actively supporting Trump) know the answer to that: the experiences of the past ten or fifteen years have made it clear that Hillary's party (meaning not just the Democrats but most people on the left-liberal side of our political gauge) wishes to see those with conservative social views expelled from polite society and tolerated only to the extent that they refrain from public expression of certain views and abide by laws that force them to act against their consciences. This piece by Megan McArdle, "The Left's Doomed Effort to Coerce the Right" sums up the situation pretty clearly:
I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals who, despite their reservations about the man, ended up voting for Donald Trump because they fear that the left is out to build a world where it will not be possible to hold any prominent job while holding onto their church’s beliefs about sexuality. Discussions I’ve had in recent days with nice, well-meaning progressives suggest that this is not a paranoid fantasy. [my emphasis] An online publisher's witch hunt against two television personalities -- because of the church they attend -- validates the fears of these Christians.
When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of “convert or die,” you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.
Yep. Some Christians are being hysterical about all this and abusing the word "persecution," but that doesn't mean the problem isn't real.
Consider what I look like when viewed in terms of the attributes of greatest interest to the left: White. Male. Heterosexual. Christian. Conservative. And to top it all off, Southern. I might as well change my name to Beelzebub. Or Hitler. The only thing I could possibly to do to dispel the aura of evil produced by those words would be to change my politics, preferably my religion also, and start loudly advocating for leftist causes and denouncing my own cultural background.
I'm not going to do that, of course. In theory I could be persuaded to embrace leftist politics, but I certainly can't be insulted into it. When I look at the face of the left what my eyes actually show me is not the tolerance, understanding, and openness which they insist I should see, but hate, fear, and the explicit hope that my kind will soon disappear from history.
Why in the world would I vote for that party? Why would I not see almost any opposition as preferable?
I think the left made a serious miscalculation. The victories of the Obama administration made it over-confident. They thought that all they had to do was get control at the federal level and pass laws, and meaningful opposition would wither away. Well, perhaps that will happen in time, but clearly there was a lot more life left in the beast than they thought. Hillary had the lowest share of the evangelical Christian vote--16%--of the last five presidential elections. I can imagine that continuing to sink until it gets down to the blacks-for-Republicans level. Trump even carried a majority of Catholic votes--52%, 60% for white Catholics.
It need not have been this way, and need not be this way in the future, though the signs are that it will be. The Obama administration did not have to take the extra steps it did to alarm Christians. It did not have to sue the Little Sisters of the Poor. It did not have to bathe the White House in rainbow lights after the Obergefell decision. It did not have to try to force every school in the country to comply with the latest demands from the sexual revolutionaries in regard to toilets and locker rooms. The state of Oregon did not have to try to destroy a harmless little bakery. Mozilla did not have to force out Brendan Eich. The state of California does not have to try to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. And so on.
The headline of Megan McArdle's column refers to a "doomed" effort at coercion. I don't know whether it's doomed or not in the long run, but I don't see any indication that it's going to stop. That means we are doomed to keep fighting the culture wars, which are at bottom religious wars, until one side completely subjugates the other. The left thought this victory had been achieved under the Obama administration, but the declaration of victory was premature. And war sometimes produces alliances that would not and even should not exist under normal conditions.
I've had this book on my shelf for a couple of years or so but only recently got around to reading it. That was partly in response to replies to the question I posed a couple of months (?) ago asking for recommendations for excellent contemporary prose stylists. Hart's name was mentioned, and I'd been wanting to read this book for a while, so I dug in.
It's excellent. And it is indeed very well written. It's in part an attempt to counter the shallow arguments of the so-called "New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins et.al.) on what they call "religion," and their mistaken notion of the nature of God as understood in classical monotheism. They think that Christians (their main target) believe in a God who is a discrete and specific being within the universe, not in that respect different from the tooth fairy, whose existence could in principle be demonstrated by empirical methods, and who, since no such demonstrations are available, "almost certainly" (to quote Dawkins) does not exist. This results in some very muddy controversial waters indeed. The fact that some Christians do apparently have this inadequate conception of God is okay--we aren't saved by the precision of our theology--but it does muddy the waters further, especially if they engage in public argument. (And especially especially if they argue from scripture.)
The atheists don't seem to realize that they've vanquished a straw man (at most). It's as if an attacking army has mistaken an outlying village for the enemy's capitol city, conquered the village, and declared victory, while life goes on as usual in the capitol. Hart's rejoinders are sharp and often amusing, but quite serious.
That's not all the book is about, though. I think any believer who is not already immersed in the ideas Hart advances would find his understanding stretched and strengthened. It's not concerned with specifically Christian ideas about God, but with the conception of one absolute God which is common not only to the Abrahamic religions but, Hart argues, present behind the pantheon of Hinduism. It does require some familiarity with basic philosophical and theological terminology, but I think it's within reach of those who, like me, have only a little.
The title seems just a bit misleading to me. I would expect it to refer to personal mystical experiences, but I think rather it's meant to suggest that the foundation of our conception of God lies in the direct experiences of reality and of our own consciousness, as implied in this sentence from the introduction:
God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatever.
And with that I'm going to turn the floor over to Craig Burrell, who has a lengthy and excellent discussion of the book at All Manner of Thing.
If I were to pick one artist among the singer-songwriters of the 1960s whom I would bet would still be listened to a hundred years from now, it would be Leonard Cohen. I think there will be others, but like I said, if I were to pick only one....
This song, from 1969's Songs From A Room, strikes me now as a profound commentary on sex and the sexual revolution. Well, it did at the time, actually.
As it happens, I have recently been getting re-acquainted with this album and this song, in connection with the book I'm writing. And in doing so I ran across this story about the real Nancy. It's as sad as the song suggests. Say a prayer for him, and for her.
When people my age were young--in our late teens and early twenties--and very conscious of being part of a youth culture that was very different from our parents', we sometimes joked about how funny it would be if our children grew up to be middle-class conservatives, perhaps even churchgoers. We envisioned middle-aged hippies pleading with their children to let their hair grow and stop listening to Lawrence Welk. We especially joked about music: we assumed that whatever music our children listened to would be as different from ours as ours was from our parents, and that they would regard Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Airplane, the Dead, and all the others as being as laughably old-fashioned as Glenn Miller was to us.
The business about the music certainly didn't happen. Young people in general have throughout the last forty years or so retained a great liking for the music made by pop musicians of my age and older; I mean not only people who are young at the moment but those who are now well into middle age. And the music made by all those young people has been very much in the same general style. There was never any rebellion against rock-and-roll.
Nor did that first amusing scenario play out very often. It happens occasionally, sure. There are some notable instances of children of atheists converting to Christianity. But in general young people have not rebelled against the various rebellions of the '60s, but rather have embraced them. Most treat sex casually, many if not most smoke pot, a great many do harder drugs, most seem to have a vaguely leftist political bent, and at least a large minority seems to have rejected "organized religion."
Great numbers who are raised as Christians slough off the faith, apparently pretty easily, as if it were an unbuttoned shirt. I doubt it's an exaggeration to say that there are millions of Christian parents who have watched, heartbroken and helpless, as this happens. But it's really not so surprising. What once was a rebellion is now the mainstream. Even if a child grows up in a strongly Christian community of some kind, and finds leaving it difficult and painful, he or she knows that the mainstream is but a short swim away, and that once there he will no longer have to deal with the isolation of being out of it. Plus he'll get to have all that fun that everybody else is having. The world will make him comfortable and call him brave and independent, while in the other direction lies a stigmatizing association with one of the few groups which can be stereotyped, mocked, and slandered with little disapprobation, in fact with the hearty approval of powerful and prestigious elements of society.
Nothing is easier than going with the flow. This dynamic was already forming when I was a teenager, and is now normal. I do wish the media and the entertainment industry would adjust their categories of "conventional" and "unconventional" to reflect reality.
This was a long time ago.
I saw that remark on Facebook not long ago, and it struck me as true. The reference is to John Courtney Murray, S.J. I have not read Murray, but my understanding is that he articulated the idea that American institutions, particularly religious freedom, and Catholicism are fundamentally compatible. He is said to have been influential in Vatican II's declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. He seems to have been a big influence on First Things magazine and the whole attempt of politically conservative Catholics to influence American politics. The basic idea, as I understand it, was that a common foundation on "truths [held] to be self-evident," amounting to what Catholic theology understands as natural law, was sufficient to allow church and state to co-exist in reasonable harmony.
Well, it's not working out. It seemed to be for a while, but it's collapsing before our eyes. Whether it's intellectually and historically justifiable or not, the grounding of the American constitution in something like natural law--the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" so admired by the Founders--has been discarded by the authorities whose understanding of the Constitution is law. The situation we have now is not of religion and the secular authority coexisting in mutual respect, but of a conflict between two incompatible religions--a loose collection of various forms of Christianity, on the one hand, and materialist progressivism on the other. The latter is also the faith of the secular authority, which is seeking to impose it in every situation where the two come into conflict in the realm of practice.
Set aside the theoretical arguments for a moment, it is, I'm afraid, simply a practical effect of human nature that societies require some sort of commonly-held metaphysic. The rationalism of the 18th century, implicitly including some Christian axioms, left something of a vacuum there, a gentleman's agreement not to press the issue too far, and its more vigorous and militant descendant, having cast off the remaining Christian elements, is now filling the vacuum.
I've never been able to get enthusiastic about the idea of a Catholic (or any sort of Christian) confessional state, the main reason being that the inevitable corruption that goes along with political power ends up discrediting the Gospel itself. But I'm wondering now if that's the only alternative to a political order in which Christianity is at best marginalized and at worst persecuted. Maybe the modern conception of more or less unlimited religious freedom within a single polity was never realistic. At any rate it seems workable only within certain limits, limits which the Murray project perhaps thought reliable, but which have proved not to be.
Perhaps Archbishop Lefebvre was right all along about Dignitatis Humanae.
I saw a movie by that name last night. It's a series of interviews with a number of Catholic converts describing the process by which they arrived at the faith. You'll probably recognize some of the names--Mark Shea, for instance. (I was pleased to see that his segment was quite engaging, as I had given up reading his blog some time ago because it had gotten so bombastic.) Some came from a background of complete non-belief, some were Protestant. Of course every conversion story has a lot in common with others, and one might say "If you've heard one you've heard 'em all." But every one is distinctive, too, as distinctive as the individual involved. The movie is well done and I imagine most Catholics can think of people they wish would see it.
You can see the trailer here. I tried embedding it but it's too wide for this column. And here's a link to the film's web site. It was produced by someone named Don Johnson, of whom I had not previously heard.
Winter Light is one of my favorite films from my favorite director, Ingmar Bergman. Here’s what I said about it in a blog post back in 2007:
I was startled to learn that the Swedish title is The Communicants, which is probably better, although “winter light” certainly has its applicability and resonance. I saw this back in the ‘70s without really understanding it. I just finished watching our Netflix copy for the second time, and it’s magnificent. From the Christian point of view there is obviously a great deal to be said about this portrait of a Lutheran clergyman admitting to himself that he has lost his faith—far, far too much for me to try to go into here. So I’ll just say that almost every image and every line of dialog is pregnant with meaning. And that while Bergman was not a believer he understands what faith is about, what the implications of having or not having it are. The film seems to me very ambivalent on the subject, and certainly gives no comfort to atheists.
But then it doesn’t give much comfort to Christians, either, or to anybody else. It is decidedly not a comforting film. Before Craig submitted his beautiful account of Tree of Life, I had been thinking that I might say something along the lines of “greatest film about Christian faith.” But I’d better amend that, and claim instead that it’s the greatest film about faith and doubt. I can’t actually be sure of that, of course, as there are probably many films treating those questions that I’ve never seen. I’ll be surprised if I ever discover a better one, though.
What I said in that earlier post about there being more to say about Winter Light than I can go into here still applies. To say everything I’d like to say about it would take a longer essay than is really suitable for a blog post (and perhaps I’ll try writing it, and see if some magazine would be interested in it), so I’ll just hit a few major points.
The story, which apart from one major incident is pretty slight and inconclusive, takes place entirely on a Sunday afternoon in winter, between roughly noon and 3 p.m. It opens with a Lutheran communion service performed by the pastor, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand). The scene begins with the consecration and ends with the dismissal, and it comprises something over twelve minutes of this 81-minute film. The congregation is very small, only eight or ten people. Among them are Tomas’s dowdy lover Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a fisherman named Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), and Persson’s wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom).
Tomas and crucifix. That crucifix plays a significant role, as does the altarpiece, of which I was unable to find a good photo.
After the service, Tomas is approached by the Perssons. Jonas is terribly anxious and depressed, obsessed by fear of nuclear war. Karin wants the pastor to help him. They agree that Jonas will return later for a longer talk.
The pastor is responsible for two small churches, and is due at the second one at 3 p.m. In the interval, he waits in the first church for Jonas to return, and reads a letter from Märta, a task which he seems to be reluctant to take up. The reading of this letter is a marvelous scene: it begins with Tomas reading, then switches into a full-screen shot of Märta’s face as she speaks the words of the letter to him. He doesn’t love her, and she knows it. She is an atheist, but she desperately wants her life to have a purpose, and she wants Tomas to allow her to make him her purpose, to be for her what God is for him. Or rather what God ought to be: it is apparent that she recognizes the hollowness of his professed belief.
This monologue seems to me to be the heart of the film. I find it very moving, and it has rich theological implications beyond what I’ve already suggested, and that I will leave you to discover on your own, if you haven’t already.
Jonas returns. Tomas attempts to give him words of comfort, or at least starts out that way, but does the opposite, confessing his own loss of faith. Jonas leaves, entirely uncomforted, indeed much worse off than when he arrived. After Jonas leaves, there is a mostly silent moment in which the English title of the film becomes deeply significant. Märta appears, seeming to have heard at least part of the conversation with Jonas. “Now I am free,” Tomas says. He weeps, and Märta comforts him.
Tomas and Jonas
For the benefit of those who haven't seen the film, I think I’ll end my synopsis here. What is so striking about Tomas’s loss of faith is that it does neither him nor anyone around him any good whatever, except in the sense that if you believe he’s right you might congratulate him on accepting the brutal truth. That, I think, was what struck me so forcefully when I saw the movie in 2007, and is one of the things I have in mind in saying that it gives no comfort to atheists. This is no triumphant emergence from superstition of the sort lesser artists have given us way too many of.
There are two souls in this story who have a kind of purity. Their roles are small but significant. There is the organist, whose name, if it’s mentioned, I can’t remember, and a man named Algot (Allan Edwall), who seems to be something like a sacristan, or perhaps sexton. The organist is a guiltless cynic who shows no interest in all this heavy religious stuff. He just shows up to do his job and then hurries off to enjoy himself. Algot, on the other hand, is a sincere and humble Christian, the only one in the group as far as we know. His back is misshapen as a result of an accident, and this seems to have given him, or enhanced, a deep sympathy for suffering. His one short speech is an important one, and its effect is partly due to the way it seems suffused with that sympathy.
And there are two souls who are tormented by the collision of faith and doubt: Tomas and Märta (Jonas is more tormented, but not precisely in that way). I think of something C.S. Lewis says about the direction in which a soul is moving being more important than where it is at the moment. Tomas, the clergyman, is moving away from belief. Märta, the atheist, seems to me to be moving toward it, not necessarily intellectually but in her heart. There is no facile conversion, but there is a difference between the easy dismissal of faith with which she begins her letter to Tomas and the cry which eventually emerges from her heart. I can’t think of many other filmic characters of whom I would more like to know what the future beyond the film has in store for them. She might or might not become a Christian, but if she does she'll be a good one, perhaps a saint.
Accept no substitutes.
—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.