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May 2006

Sunday Night Journal — May 28, 2006

Speed Bumps and the End of Civilization

There’s a lot one could say about the publication by National Review of a list of what they consider to be the top fifty conservative pop songs. I find this in general to be an odd thing to do, but one thing that struck me as significant was the inclusion of the Sammy Hagar song “I Can’t Drive 55” (lyrics here). I’ve only heard it once or twice but it struck me as not much more than an anthem for louts in cars. I can’t see anything conservative about it at all. If any ideological significance can be extracted from it, surely it’s a fairly pure libertarianism: I see no hint whatsoever in the lyrics that the driver of a car recognizes any obligation to other people, although maybe it’s a concession to civil order on Hagar’s part that he’s willing to surrender his license rather than head for the hills to prepare an armed resistance.

I consider a more conservative view on driving practices to have been captured in a cartoon I saw some time ago—two men are sitting in hell, and one says to the other something like (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Pulling up behind people and flashing my headlights at them. What about you?”

My local paper regularly publishes letters and phone calls from people who are outraged that speed bumps (or breakers, or lumps, or tables, or traffic circles, as the various obstructions are called) have appeared on a street where they had not previously been. My sympathy is all with the residents of the street, not the drivers. I assume that anyone outraged enough by a speed breaker to complain about it at length to the paper is one of those who caused the obstacle to be needed in the first place. Usually the street involved is a residential one that has gotten adopted as a short cut which avoids bigger and more congested ones. This would be only annoying if the short-cutters were well behaved, but inevitably a number of them believe themselves entitled to drive forty or fifty miles an hour where the posted limit is twenty-five or thirty, and are not shy about showing their impatience and disregard for anything that might slow them down.

So the people who live on the street find their lives and those of their children and pets at risk from the reckless drivers, and they ask the city to put in speed breakers. I figure they have to be pretty concerned and unhappy to ask for something which is, after all, going to be a big inconvenience for them, too.

I suppose it’s possible that the behavior of the drivers hasn’t really changed much in recent years, and it’s just that the residents are pushing back more vigorously. I wonder the same thing about the phenomenon of people running red lights. Every day upon leaving work I have to pull out into a major street from a small side street. There’s a light there, but I know better than to assume that green means, unqualifiedly, “go.” At least once a week someone runs the light, and I don’t mean that the car just slips by as the yellow turns to red, but that it accelerates from a block away at the first sight of yellow and flies through the intersection well after the light has turned green for me. Have people always done this so regularly and with such abandon? I have no statistics upon which to decide the question, but I certainly seem to see it more often.

If they really are increasing, these bad habits are small signs of a bigger decay, of increasing indifference to the rights of others, the common good, and for that matter simple courtesy. So goes the devolution of liberty, as intolerable behavior requires the imposition of more and pettier rules upon matters which used to be managed acceptably by a general presumption of self-restraint.

Sunday Night Journal — May 21, 2006

The Da Vinci Code and the Concept of Fact

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code and don’t plan to see the movie, because by all accounts the book is dumb and the movie no better. Yet I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of its influence. If what I read about it is accurate, it’s another in a long line of attempts to replace orthodox incarnational Christianity with a form of gnosticism. That’s nothing new, and we’re used to making the arguments against it. A popularizing academic like Elaine Pagels writes a book for people who will probably never go near the primary sources, claiming that orthodox Christianity is just another conqueror writing history in his own favor and that the heresies of old have just as much claim to be considered “true” as any other beliefs, and anyway are much more fun. She reaches a moderately large number of people, and Christians respond, but most people never hear the argument at all.

The Da Vinci Code has changed that. Suddenly the Gnostic-Christian argument is everywhere. (People like Pagels like to speak only of competing “Christianities,” but I have no intention of giving up that ground.) And people who seem very poorly equipped for thinking have a lot of opinions about it.

What’s most interesting, and disturbing, about the phenomenon is that both the author and his defenders seem to want to have it both ways: the book is fiction, they say, and so no one should be upset about the fact that it portrays the Catholic Church (and indeed most of Christianity, insofar as it maintains core Christian doctrines) as a monstrous and murderous conspiracy. But on the other hand they insist that its version of history is in the main true, and that the reason Christians get upset about it is that they’re so blinded, rendered so mindless, by their oppressive doctrines that they can’t cope with the truth.

I didn’t fully appreciate this serene incoherence, or experience the bang-head-on-desk frustration it can induce, until a couple of weeks ago when the religion editor of our local paper published a selection of comments on the book from her readers. Over and over again the writer would sneer “It’s only FICTION!!!” and in the next sentence talk about how much the book had taught him or her about the real origins of Christianity, the real story behind the Catholic Church, and so on. (There are many similar examples in the reader reviews of the book at Amazon.)

Most bizarre of all, some of the respondents identified themselves as Christian, yet said that even if the conspiracy alleged by the book were true it would not affect their faith. Faith? What faith? Or faith in what? Can they simultaneously worship Jesus as the incarnate God and yet “be comfortable with” (as the silly phrase has it) the idea that the Incarnation was an invention forced upon the world by Constantine? Is “faith” just a synonym for “warm feeling”?

Some of the respondents were clearly pretty anti-Catholic, from both the Protestant and the atheistic sides. One woman identified herself as a member of the Assembly of God and remarked that the Catholic Church had done so many evils that no one should be surprised at or skeptical of this one. Others, clearly (although probably unconsciously) siding with the “Jesus of history/Christ of faith” dichotomous view, said that the historical facts were irrelevant, and the only thing important was what one believes and, presumably—that warm feeling again—the way it makes one feel.

Is something new happening here? There have always been obstacles in the way of knowing the difference between fact and fiction, and without doubt many of the human race have had a lot of trouble figuring it out. But this is something different. This is an inability to grasp the difference between the concepts of fact and fiction.

Perhaps this is not a new thing. But if it is, I can think of two possible causes. One is the constant disregard for truth evidenced in the advertising and marketing that surround us. Whether the product is toothpaste or a politician, everybody knows that the object of any communication about it is to avoid any definite truth and produce a favoring emotion. Is it possible that many people, inundated with this stuff more or less all the time, begin to slip into a fog where the truth no longer matters?

The other possible cause is an idea which has for several decades now been seeping down from nihilistic intellectuals into the mass mind, the idea that it’s impossible to know the truth and therefore all “truths” are equal. There is my truth, and your truth, and even though they may contradict each other mine is still true for me, and yours for you. Few people will defend this idea if it’s stated as plainly as I just did, but many seem willing to float along on it, half asleep.

This leaves Christians in a position that would be amusing if it weren’t so frustrating. Accustomed to the accusation that we are irrational and obscurantist, we find ourselves in this controversy the only party insisting desperately—and, I’m afraid, not very successfully—on the necessity of looking at simple facts in the cold light of day.

Sunday Night Journal — May 14, 2006

On Mother’s Day

Among the many little things that have, over the years, impressed upon me the fact that men and women really are different psychologically was a moment twenty or so years ago when one of our daughters was a baby. My wife was changing the baby’s diapers or giving her a bath, talking idly, partly to me and partly to our daughter, about what a beautiful baby she was, enumerating her delightful qualities, counting the toes and fingers, and so forth, adding at the end “And she has a tiny little mole here, here, here, here, and here,” putting her finger on the spot with each “here,” which involved turning her over for the last two or three.

I remember being more than a little surprised that she had memorized the precise location of every variance in the baby’s skin—there was no hesitation or searching involved as she jumped from one to the next—and I’m sure she had done so without any conscious effort. It was just a natural result of the amount of attention she gave the baby, the same mechanism which had once enabled me to sing effortlessly from memory every verse of Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute “Desolation Row.”

I don’t really think I loved our daughter any less, but I certainly didn’t have such details at my command, and I imagine this pattern holds for most mothers and fathers. There’s a humorous list of male-female differences floating around the Internet, one of those emails that circulate for years on end and thus presumably say something that hits home to a lot of people. On the topic of children, the anonymous writer notes a mother’s very thorough knowledge of her children in every physical and mental respect, then says that “A man is vaguely aware that there are some short people living in the house.” That’s pretty harsh, but most couples will recognize the truth it exaggerates.

Concomitant with that level of attention is something more subtle. Some part of a mother somehow goes out into the members of her family, especially her children. I can imagine that if one had the right parapsychological gift one would be able to see a psychic strand connecting them, through which some sort of unconscious communication takes place, an operation which requires that a part of the mother’s soul go out into these strands. She is never altogether compact in herself; some part of her is always with those she loves and for whom she feels responsible. No doubt this can be true of women in other relationships, and is probably true of some men, but by and large it’s a feminine thing, and most strongly a mother-child thing.

I think it explains part of the reason why most women are so enchanted by the prospect of spending a day at a spa or something of that sort: it’s a circumstance where in addition to physical rest she can get psychic rest. No one expects anything from her, no one needs anything from her. All those psychic connections can be rolled up into herself for a while and the part of her that operates them can be rested and restored.

Although our children are mostly grown now, I still see this attention and responsibility in operation, even at a distance, on the part of my wife. And along with her care for our children she devotes a lot of attention to her chronically ill brother. Her mother passed away four years ago, having spent a large part of her life worrying about and providing for her son. And my wife seems to have inherited that responsibility; I mean not just the fact of it but the consciousness of it.

She’s not much for spas and that sort of thing, but I’ve been trying to get her to let go of things for at least a little while. I wanted her to take a glass of wine and the Jane Austen novel she’s been reading and go to bed. She wouldn’t take the wine, saying it would only put her right to sleep. But she’s back there with the book, and the door is shut. That’s good.

Sunday Night Journal — May 7, 2006

What We Shall Be

Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. – Isaiah 6:5
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. –I John 3:2

Today’s Gospel always makes me think of the belief—manifested, if memory serves, in more than one Biblical passage like the one from Isaiah quoted above—that to see God is death. Although the details are never specified, the older passages suggest that the ordinary human frame would be destroyed by whatever unimaginable forces would constitute the direct experience of God. The passage from St. John seems to be the other side of this coin, implying that one must in some way (also unspecified) become like God in order to survive his presence, and that this change is in store for the redeemed. (It also suggests, interestingly, if the English grammar is reflective of the original intent, that it works the other way—to see Him is also a cause of the change.)

Much has of course been written about the nature of that vision, and its position as the summit of all imaginable happiness. But I sometimes wonder, thinking of the accounts of the risen Jesus: what else might this change allow us to do?

One of the taunts of the materialist to the believer is that the universe is so vast, so inhospitable and indifferent to human life, that the latter cannot really mean very much. If the numbers involved in counting the objects in the universe and measuring the distances between them are so great that we can only express them as mathematical concepts so far out of scale with anything we are capable of experiencing that we can’t really claim to grasp them, how is it possible that our existence is anything other than an insignificant by-product of the forces that have produced those numbers and distances?

That’s hardly a syllogism, of course—as many have pointed out, it’s a mere subjective impression, and not a very convincing line of attack for someone wanting to prove that others are operating on subjective impressions. The numbers and proportions prove nothing, they only amaze. And the imputation of purposelessness is an unsupported materialistic preconception that has nothing to do with science. We assume that because we do not see what purpose distant galaxies have, they must have none. And we assume that because we are very much smaller than, and very distant from, them, we must be insignificant to them, and they to us. So might a cell in the far reaches of my little left toe assume that nothing as far away as the heart could possibly have anything to do with it.

It’s odd that we inhabitants of technological civilization should make this sort of assumption, since we know there is more to the world—our immediate world—than meets the eye: electromagnetic radiation, for instance, of which our ancestors of even two hundred years ago knew nothing, and of which we make very ingenious use. Isn’t it likely that there is also more to the cosmos? When we look up into the night sky we see tiny lights which we are assured are terribly vast and distant balls of something which is like fire but far, very far, more intense, and which is produced by an altogether different physical process. There is no reason whatsoever to think that this is the last word on stars. In fact, there is very good reason, based simply on extrapolation from past progress in knowledge, to assume that there is a great deal more to learn, and I don’t mean simply the filling in of details in the picture we have.

Who knows what the phenomena available to our senses really are? One supposes that the resurrection of the body, as mysterious as it is, means that we will have some relationship to the physical world. What will the stars and planets look like to the resurrected person? What will they be? Is it possible we could live among them? Having deduced the conditions on or in them, we feel certain that they have no inhabitants anything like us, but could they have as inhabitants, or somehow be material manifestations of, living entities whose nature we don’t even have the means to conceive?

Before you laugh too much at that, think of what Alexander the Great might say if someone traveled back in time and showed him a radio. No matter how much he and his sages studied it, they would never be able to guess what it was for, and if you told them, they’d either call you a liar or think you were describing magic—which might make them a bit more open-minded than the average modern, who believes he knows what is and isn’t possible.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people complain that they don’t understand the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The astronaut who is the only human character in the latter part of the story is seen, in a series of vignettes, to go through the process of aging, and in the end to be on what appears to be his death bed. And then a human embryo is seen floating in space above the earth: The End. Maybe it’s because I had already encountered the basic idea in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier novels, but I thought what had happened was obvious: the hero had been taken away to a world ruled by super-beings of some kind who had conveyed him into a new mode of existence and sent him back to earth for some mysterious purpose, probably having to do with the enlightenment of his fellow humans.

Clarke was not a Christian (I think he was a sort of atheist with Buddhist trappings), and he was only daydreaming, as science-fiction writers often do, about a god-like race of aliens who would rescue us from our earthly misery. But perhaps he was closer to the truth than he suspected. Perhaps “Mother Earth” is more than just a figure of speech. Perhaps the moist, warm atmosphere of our planet is a sort of amnion in which we are only passing through the first stage of our growth, and death will be the doorway to a mode of life in which we are hardy enough to live outside it, much as a baby, when its time comes, is ready to live outside the womb.

This is only a flight of fancy; I’m not proposing anything for belief. I’m only trying to find ways of saying that we should take seriously all those Biblical passages that tell us we have, and for the time being are capable of having, only a faint hint of how very much more than we have imagined may be true. It doth not yet appear what we shall be.