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February 2012

God does not value what the poor have but what they do not have: self-sufficiency, a closed attitude, a presumption of being able to save themselves.

--Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.

Sunday Night Journal — February 26, 2012

Hitchens vs. Chesterton

The last essay by the late Christopher Hitchens appears in the March issue of The Atlantic, and I finally got around to reading it this morning. Craig Burrell has written about it here, and I'm pretty much of the same mind, though he is a little more generous to the piece than I am about to be. I leave myself open to criticism that I'm breaching the rule against speaking ill of the recent dead. But that's a rule of manners, not directly of morality, and I take it as forbidding malice and encouraging charity, with some extra sensitivity to the fact that the person cannot defend himself and is in any case beyond the reach of earthly criticism or correction. I don’t think, though, that there is anything to blame in discussing the very public views of a very public man, even if one will not be dealing out many compliments to him.

I’ll admit right off that I am not very widely acquainted with Hitchens’s work in general, having read mostly his literary essays in The Atlantic and the occasional polemic or interview. So any conclusions I draw are open to correction, if there are other published works that warrant it. 

And I may as well go ahead and make it clear that my opinion of him is lower now than when I wrote an obituary of him a couple of months ago. I had given him credit for being open to the truth and committed to it wherever it could be found, but have found too many instances of frivolous half-truths delivered with magisterial certainty, and important truths missed entirely precisely because they came from a source he hated and to which he was entirely closed. Moreover, there seems to be some real question as to whether he ever repudiated his Communism in principle, though he condemned its evils; he may (may—I don’t know) have been like those Christians who evade the evil done in the name of Christianity by saying that those weren’t real Christians.

And I have to note in fairness that his essay on Chesterton was written while he was literally on his deathbed. But there is nothing in it that doesn’t seem entirely characteristic of him, or that is less skillfully written than usual, so I don't think we need suppose that he might have done better or differently had he been healthy.

I can’t say that Hitchens speaks ignorantly of Chesterton, as he appears to have read quite a bit of him. I can say that he frequently speaks blindly and sometimes stupidly. By the time I was two-thirds or so of the way through this essay, I found myself picturing a dog or other small predator—I think Hitchens bears more resemblance to some sort of cat—chewing on an elephant’s leg, and imagining, when he draws blood, that he has inflicted a mortal wound.

It’s a commonplace that everyone has a religion and a god, something which he believes is the ultimate reality, and which constitutes the meaning of his life and gives it a purpose. For many that place is occupied by the ordinary material circumstances of life, and they don’t think much beyond improving those. For intellectuals it may be something more abstract, frequently art or politics. For Hitchens it seems to have been the sort of metaphysical politics of the Enlightenment, which sees history as the struggle for freedom in general, against rulers of all sorts and especially against religion, which he follows skeptics like Voltaire in regarding as irrational and repressive. And, not surprisingly, the Catholic Church generally seems for him a fount of evil, perhaps the fount of evil, though, unlike many leftists, he did in recent years recognize Islamic theocracy as a greater danger, in fact if not in principle, the Church being pretty much on the political sidelines in the West.

I ought to be used to it by now, but I’m still sometimes surprised by the way the secular, if not atheist, Englishman so often continues to be a Protestant when he has long ceased to be a Christian. It’s almost as if the lore of Bloody Mary and Guy Fawkes and sinister Jesuits is somehow in their very genes. That being impossible, one must suppose that it runs very deep in the culture.

And so Hitchens focuses almost entirely on Chesterton’s politics, and in particular spends far more time than I would have thought warranted on Chesterton's attempt to blame most of what is wrong with the modern world on the Reformation. I don't entirely disagree with Hitchens here; the Chesterbelloc view of history seems idiosyncratic to say the least. But it is far from the most important aspect of Chesterton's writing--unless of course your religion is politics, in the broad sense, and you see the struggle between good and evil as principally manifested there. In that case there is nothing more important than a writer's politics, and the question of whether he is on the right side or not, because whether he is on the right side is the same as whether he is worthy of much admiration.

Not surprisingly, Hitchens finds Chesterton to be on the wrong side, and therefore not in the end worth very much. He cannot be taken very seriously, except in his role as an enemy of the good, his virtues (his charm, as Hitchens calls it) being mostly irrelevant. It is not a completely ungenerous assessment; he closes by admitting that he enjoyed the encounter. But it is not an insightful one.

Hitchens has scathing things to say here, as he frequently does, about inquisitors and heresy-hunters. Yet I can’t escape the impression that he read GKC in much the same way that an inquisitor might, only passingly interested in anything that did not touch upon the effort to establish that he was a heretic. And I don’t see anyreason to think Hitchens began with an open mind on that question.

He misses entirely the essence of Chesterton’s spiritual vision, which is to say that he misses the essence of Chesterton, period. This is the vision articulated best, I think, in Orthodoxy, and is the thing I value most in him. I don't expect Hitchens to share or approve the vision, but you don't have to be a Christian to appreciate the sheer literary skill of its presentation, and to grasp the significance of the philosophical questions it raises. And while I know it’s common for people to think Chesterton wonderful in one genre and negligible in another, to spend a lot of time defending the Reformation against Chesterton’s attacks (which I agree are not always convincing) and yet never mention the great vision which informs everything he wrote, is evidence of at best a severely constricted perception.

I don't idolize Chesterton, and in fact I’m significantly less enthusiastic about him than many of my general beliefs and tastes. I find his prose tiresome at length, and have little taste for either his poetry or his fiction. His political and economic ideas, while sound in principle, are wrapped in romantic sentimentality which helps to make them unpersuasive to many. A touch , and more than a touch, of romance is not a bad thing at all in politics, but sentimentality is ruinous, and I can’t entirely blame those who dismiss Chesterton’s distributism and agrarianism as being only, as Fr. Richard Neuhaus put it in one of his weaker moments, “poetry and preachment.” (I call it a weak moment because Neuhaus was intelligent enough that he should have been able to see through the sentimentality to the core of truth.) So my quarrel with Hitchens is not that he refused to become a Chestertonian. A matter of taste? No, not entirely: we wouldn't think much of a critic who dismissed Dante as "a Christian creep," which I once heard someone do. There is a level of literary achievement which a person of good judgment can recognize and appreciate even if it does not suit him. That's the literary failure of Hitchens's last essay. And I can't help conjecturing that it may also have been a spiritual failure, which, considering the circumstances, seems tragic.

Father Brown

One point on which I did agree with Hitchens was the Father Brown stories.  

Father Brown I give up and return to you. The character is deliberately vacant and the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley.... The debt is overwhelmingly to Conan Doyle, with no indebtedness to any of the great formulas of detective fiction. As a consequence, the little priest’s summings-up are usually arid and often iffy. 

Some thirty years ago, full of enthusiasm for GKC, I bought a collection of the Father Brown stories and found them disappointing. I don't think I read more than the first three or four: they seemed thin mechanical puzzles with a moral attached.

I wanted to see whether my view of thestories might be different now, and so I sat down with my Father Brown Omnibus and picked a story at random, opening the book somewhere near the middle, so as to be sure it was one I hadn’t read. It was “The Oracle of the Dog,” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, the plot is a preposterous contrivance—in this case “clanking trolley” may actually be too kind, because it suggested a Rube Goldberg device to me. And Fr. Brown’s powers of deduction and inference are not credible. And it’s all fairly didactic—I laughed out loud, although I doubt I was supposed to, when Fr. Brown turned away from the murder case to work on a series of lectures on Rerum Novarum. But it was great fun to read, full of sharp and frequently amusing descriptions and asides, and with a much more vivid atmosphere than I recalled.

Hitchens complained that the character of Fr. Brown was vacant, but I think he misses something important. It is true that Fr. Brown is in a sense largely absent from the story; he functions as a sort of calculator to which someone brings clues and which eventually dispenses a solution. But the questions he asks, and the observations he makes, and the reasons he gives for his conclusions, all create a sense of the mostly off-stage person as a deeply sympathetic intelligence, the sort one would expect of a very wise and skillful spiritual advisor. 


I’ve given up coffee for Lent, which is a difficult thing for me. Today being Sunday, I allowed myself my first taste of it since Ash Wednesday, when I had half a cup in hopes of staving off the usual caffeine withdrawal headache (it worked). I made myself a cup with great care, and settled into my favorite chair with the Father Brown Omnibus in my hands, a cat on my lap, and a dog nestled between me and the arm of the chair. I was alone, my wife being in Paris helping out with our newest grandon, and the house was silent except for the ticking of the clock. This is a kind of quiet bliss that one will be happy to remember in heaven; it is a pure pleasure, because it doesn't depend on any intoxicant, physical or emotional. I’m pretty tired of taking care of our animals, and of being prevented by them from leaving home for more than a day or two without a lot of preparation and expense, etc. etc. But it was rather nice to have them at that moment.

In order to reach ourselves, to fulfill ourselves, we must take an infinite distance, which is the distance of God, because, between us and our selves, the only way to reach our selves is through the divine presence. The only way to reach others is through the divine presence. The only way to enter the mystery of the universe is through the divine presence.

--Fr. Maurice Zundel

We may cavort for a time on our high horse of vanity and self-deception, but sooner or later the animal will throw us and make off leaving us stranded in the wilderness. We must abandon the fictions we have labored to polish so as to increase their plausibility.

--Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

Standing Room Only

That was the situation in my parish church for this evening's Ash Wednesday Mass. There had been one at 8:30, presumably less well attended. This was very close to Christmas and Easter levels. I was a few minutes late, and when I was about a block from the church I realized I was in a traffic jam. It was another ten minutes before I could park the car (a block and a half away) and get inside, arriving just in time for the Psalm. The pews were mostly full--the only empty seats being way in the middle of a row, which one doesn't like to push one's way to--and there wasn't even much space to stand against a wall. I went to this Mass for Ash Wednesday last year, and I don't remember it being this full. Surely it's a sign of good things happening.

(Alas, I had to hear "Ashes." I had forgotten about it until after communion, when I realized the choir had not sung it. But they had saved it for last.)

Sunday Night Journal — February 19, 2012

On Not Reading Books

Don't worry, I'm not about to argue against reading books--just asking myself why I've hardly opened one since sometime around Thanksgiving. It began with the fact that I had a project at work that had to be finished by the end of the year, and that was going to require working a lot of extra hours. And it wasn't just the time involved: I really didn't know how to do it, as it involved a lot of Microsoft esoterica with which I'm not familiar, and that cranked up the stress level. I had hoped to have it done by a contractor, but there wasn't enough money or time for that, so I was stuck with it.

So that, combined with the onset of the holidays and the time they would involve, caused me to put aside the two books I was reading until things were back to normal. As it worked out, that wasn't until mid-January. But it's now mid-February (or late February, if you like), and I still haven't touched them.

What's wrong with me? It's not that I don't read at all. I've continued to read three magazines, of which two (The New Criterion and The Atlantic) are monthly, and the third (Touchstone) is bimonthly. And I read, or at least skim, the local daily newspaper. 

In fact I'm a compulsive reader, and have been since I learned to read. I recall sitting at the breakfast table as a child and reading the back of the cereal box, which was generally not at all interesting, but was better than having nothing to read. If I open a book of paintings or photographs my eyes spend only an instant on the picture before seeking out any text on the page.

So why have I been neglecting books? I blame the web--or rather my use of it, and the way the nature of it encourages my bad habits. I am a compulsive reader, yes, but also one who has difficulty concentrating, and is lazy as well. The web is like a drug designed especially for people like me, with the aim of keeping us constantly stimulated mentally, but never focused and certainly never at rest. It's like one of those experiments where mice can give themselves doses of cocaine or some other addictive substance, and soon they don't do anything else, though they're beginning to fall apart physically. No matter what I'm reading online, there is something else already tugging at the edges of my consciousness. One of my children described the syndrome very well: even as you begin reading one thing, part of you has begun to think that there is something more interesting somewhere else. Your mind begins to wander and you skim the page you're on, or abandon it half-unread, and take no time at all to reflect upon it before the next burst of stimulation hits your twitching nerves.

It would be interesting to know how many words I've read on the Web since Thanksgiving, and how far I would have gotten in the books I was reading if, say, two-thirds of that reading had been in them. One of them is long and although not extremely demanding in a technical sort of way does require close and extended attention. But the other is brief and straightforward and could have been finished in a few hours. The problem, as they say about men and romantic involvements, is commitment. If you're going to read a book of any substance, you have to stay with it, and you generally can't make do with five-minute snippets worked in between other distractions. And I seem less and less able to do muster that level of concentration and attention.

Well, it's got to change. Lent begins this week, and I'm determined to break this habit. The best way might be to give up the internet altogether, but I don't want to stop blogging, and anyway my job requires that I make pretty frequent use of internet resources, and it would be pretty hard to stop myself from making the occasional...okay, the frequent stop at Google News or National Review Online or one of the other sites where new material appears often throughout the day. I'm going to have to fall back on something I've never been very good at: consistent self-discipline. Those frequent stops will have to become much less so--only during my lunch hour, perhaps, and for some small period of time in the evenings. I have to prevent the phenomenon which happens to me all too frequently: I sit down at the computer to check whether there are any comments here, check the headlines, check my email...and discover than an hour has passed.

I don't expect to conquer this problem once and for all, but I really must get it under control. You will know the effort by its fruits: if I succeed at all I'll be writing about those books, and others.

Speaking of magazines

The most recent (January-February) issue of Touchstone contains a piece which strikes me as one of the most important I've read on the subject of the government's intrusion into religious matters. Clearly a long piece for a bimonthly magazine was not composed with the controversy over the HHS "contraception" mandate (as it is slightly inaccurately known) in mind, but it is certainly timely. The article, by Douglas Farrow of McGill University, is called "Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage?" and here are a couple of key passages:

Institutionally, then, [same-sex marriage] is nothing more than a legal construct. Its roots run no deeper than positive law. It therefore cannot present itself to the state as the bearer of independent rights and responsibilities, as older or more basic than the state itself. Indeed, it is a creature of the state, generated by the state's assumption of the power of invention or re-definition.

Which means, obviously, that actual marriage--I share the author's resistance to qualifiying it as "traditional marriage"--is in the same situation relative to the state.

Here we have what is perhaps the most pressing reason why same-sex marriage should be fought, and fought vigorously. It is a reason that neither the proponents nor the opponents of same-sex marriage have properly debated or thought through. In attacking "heterosexual monogamy," same-sex marriage does away with the very institution--the only institution we have--that exists precisely in order to support the natural family and to affirm its independence from the state. In doing so, it effectively makes every citizen a ward of the state, by turning his or her most fundamental human connections into legal constructs at the state's gift and disposal. [my emphasis]

That the family, like every human thing, is always defective in some ways and occasionally pathological, is plain enough, a tragic fact of life. The great and prideful delusion of the contemporary liberal or progressive is the belief these problems can be mostly eliminated, and that the proper instrument for eliminating them is the state. Once you recognize that as the essential assumption and quest of liberalism (as the term is currenly used), almost everything about its programs makes sense. People, left to themselves, do stupid and destructive things. Therefore they cannot be left to themselves in matters of any consequence. And those few who understand what is needed must make and enforce very detailed rules for the others. 

Farrow's argument is long and complex and I'm not doing it justice. The whole piece is online at Touchstone's web site, so you can read it for yourself. What makes it most strikingly relevant to the Obama administration's attempt to bring the Church to heel is that it ends by asserting the inevitable movement from contraception, which makes possible the severance of marriage and child-rearing, to the principle that marriage is a mere legal construct. "The fabric of marriage cannot withstand the acid of contraception." That doesn't mean that any specific marriage won't withstand it, of course. But that it's true of the insitution of marriage seems clearer all the time.

Once upon a time a marriage in which the couple intended to remain childless was considered, literally, no marriage at all. The Catholic Church still holds to that view, and is ridiculed for doing so. At the same time, even progressives who aren't hopelessly far gone in some fanaticism recognize that there is something wrong when most births to women under 30 are outside marriage, as this New York Times story tells us. Why is it surprising that if marriage is separated from children, then children are separated from marriage?

For God's Sake

At Mass this evening I was struck by a sentence from the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 43:25:

It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.

Or, as the King James has it:

I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.

The phrase "for my own sake" opened up a sort of vision to me. Perhaps I'm misconstruing the word "sake," and there is some traditional understanding of it of which I'm unaware, but: why does God even want to save us? Because he wants us for himself. And in some real if inconceivable way he can't have us as we are. It's not just that he doesn't want us as we are--he can't have us, because he wants us to be in a profound union with him, and that's impossible as we are, because our sin is part of us, but it can't be part of him. But it's also impossible for him to have that union if he simply reaches out and destroys the sin, which he could do, because that would mean destroying our freedom, which is part of what he loves in us. Poor God, faced with such a dilemma...and the whole history of the human race, collectively and individual, is a scheme for working out that dilemma in such a way that sin is conquered but free will remains. I know this is not a new idea, not even new to me, but the way it presented itself to me in that moment was new: a brief glimpse of something incomprehensibly vast and complex, a literally awesome vision.