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What Is Actually Happening: 2023

The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.

Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.

Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.

Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:

In order to  understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.

Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be. 

The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.

This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.

In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)

I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:

1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.

2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.

Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict

We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.

In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.

*

These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.

The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:

Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.

Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.


An Advent Note

This year I have to a great extent managed to stay clear of the un-Christmas, the festivity now generally referred to in public as Holiday, or "the Holidays." That was partly because of various circumstances that kept me even more at home than usual. And it was partly the silver lining in Alabama having lost two games this season. I loathe TV commercials in general, and rarely watch TV that includes them. But when I do see them it's during football season, and from some time in October until the end of the year many of them involve Holiday, and thus are doubly, no triply, annoying. But Alabama football was over at the end of the regular season--no SEC championship game, no watching other games that might affect Alabama's place in the playoff picture--but also no more Holiday commercials. (I only care about the NFL when former Alabama players are prominent--congratulations, Jalen Hurts.)

And it was partly just the latest phase in a general re-orientation of my feelings at this time of  year. I've realized that one element of my hostility to Holiday was the way it had come to seem like something of a parody of Christmas. So it seemed like a cheat, making me struggle not to dislike it, even to hate it.

But as the divergence has continued I find that the two are now more separate in my mind. I wrote about this last year in my very brief career writing for The Lamp. And I find that this year I've been more able to take my own advice, and that Holiday does not much intrude on my observance of Advent. I'm even mildly cheered by the lights and other spectacles at people's houses, though walking into a store pretty much sours my mood, as does the Holiday music (which naturally gets stuck in my head).

Which does not mean that I've been very good about observing Advent by treating it more like Lent. But I have done something, and in this department something is always better than nothing. And one thing I've done is to begin reading a book that I've had for several years and that is very well suited to Advent: the prison writings of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

Alfred_Delp_MSM_2018_540x

Delp was an opponent of the Nazi regime, and in the last days of the Reich he was arrested on a charge of involvement in a plot against Hitler. He was not involved, but the prosecutor was determined to convict him of something, and as is almost inevitably the case when the law becomes a tool in the hands of power, he succeeded. It was late 1944 and early 1945, when the Reich was clearly doomed, and its enemies were pouring destruction upon Germany; the consequences of the nation's madness were being made brutally clear. The prison writings are the voice of a man unjustly imprisoned by and facing death at the hands of unreasoning and implacable enemies, a man stripped of any impulse toward sentimentality and false hope. It's a voice I need to hear. 

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. 

Secondly it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence. 


A Monster

Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.

Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters." 

There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all. 

And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator. 

This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.

I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf. 

Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.

I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him. 

He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm. 

I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand. 

I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope. 

Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility. 

I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.

But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me. 

It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.

I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.

This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors. 

The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.

"Monstrance" comes from the same root. 

TernAs best I can determine, he is of the species known as the Royal Tern. 


Vatican II; Sherwood; Trump the Jerk

Continuing the discussion of the success or failure of Vatican II, from this post: Ross Douthat (as quoted by Rod Dreher, because I can't view Douthat's entire New York Times column) asserts that the council was and is a failure on its own terms. The measures intended to invite and draw "modern man" to the Church have been accompanied not by growth but by decline, as measured by membership and activity, at least in Euro-American civilization. That's a plain fact. Whether the decline would have been greater or lesser without the council can only be speculative. I'm sure that question has been studied and answers attempted, but it's the sort of thing where sociologists can probably make either case, depending on what questions they ask and how, and on their own predilections. (Is sociology a science? Not really. Statistical methods are no doubt mathematically sound, but they don't choose or interpret their own data.)

In that post I linked to this one by Larry Chapp which goes ferociously after the follies that came and have continued, following and often in the name of the council. Let's call that Chapp 1, because there is also Chapp 2, which says that the council was "a success, in spite of the many deviations from orthodoxy and sanity that followed in its wake."

Success or failure, then? It's largely a matter of the time frame in which one makes the judgment. Douthat is looking at the time from the end of the council till now, and in that frame it is certainly true that the council has not succeeded in making the Church any more of a factor in modern life than it had previously been. One could argue about whether it is less so--I think it is--but it is clearly not more so. "Modern man" in the mass has only drifted, or in many cases run, away from Christianity at large and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact it is not at all fantastic to foresee, a century or two from now, the reduction of the Church to a few tiny bands of holdouts, as in Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, at least within that part of the world which was once known as Christendom.

The argument of Chapp 2 is really twofold. The first part, that the council has been a great success, is really not based on a measurement of success in the terms Douthat examines (in fact Chapp agrees with Douthat's assessment in that respect) but on the assertion that many or most of the council's changes (the actual changes, not those speciously done in its name) were for the better--the vernacular liturgy, for instance--and are now taken for granted. Some of those, the liturgy in particular, are, as we all know, still very much debated, but I agree with Chapp that they were good. It's only an accident of history that I appear to be a "conservative" Catholic; I've always said that if I had been an adult Catholic at the time of the council I would almost certainly have sympathized, at least, with its aims and the documents produced by it.

The second part of Chapp 2's argument is that the council will in time be truly successful, contributing powerfully to the long-term health of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission. Chapp 2 accepts that these things can take quite a long time--centuries--to work themselves out. I certainly hope so and am willing to believe it, but none of us will be here to see it. (I personally, as I lamented in that other post, cannot look forward to anything but continued intramural strife.) Chapp presents a picture of a renewal which he believes the council intended, and which he believes may yet come, and I very much share that view and that hope.

As for the present, though, Chapp 1 presents a grim and discouraging picture, not nearly as positive as Chapp 2. For me the grimmest single item in that piece is the mention of the progressive party, encouraged by Pope Francis, as viewing the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as an "interruption" of the council's work. This view represents nothing less than the abandonment of authentic renewal and the re-energizing of the destructive forces which would turn the Church into something like liberal Protestantism, a voice of solicitous approval for whatever is demanded by and for the therapeutic mentality.

Philip Rieff saw this very clearly at the time the council was actually in progress:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.

Some of the psychobabble I've seen attributed to the "synod on synodality" supports--no, expresses--that view.

*

The emergence of the very well produced cinematic work for which the term "television series" is inadequate is, like craft beer, one of the compensations for living in a culture which seems to be falling apart, both in an organizational sense and in the sense of mental breakdown. I've just finished watching a new one from the Brits, Sherwood. It falls into the pretty conventional category of "crime drama," but a very very good one. It's set in a place referred to bitterly as a "former mining town" in Nottinghamshire; both Sherwood Forest and an archer are involved. 

The story takes place in the present day but has deep roots in the mining strikes of the 1980s. I don't know very much at all about those, but I know the British left hated and still hates Margaret Thatcher as much as the American left hated Ronald Reagan, so I don't necessarily take the show's view of those conflicts as the last word. But I don't doubt that they were as bitter as portrayed. 

It's a very complex story, very well done, on a level with Broadchurch, among the best in this genre. Maybe no single character is quite as memorable or as memorably performed as those portrayed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, but anyone who watches a lot of British TV will recognize many faces, if not the names that go with them. It's available on Britbox via Amazon. 

*

Donald Trump is a jerk. That's been pretty obvious all along. His presidency had some very good results (and some very bad ones), but his basic and base nature didn't improve. He did not, as some hoped, rise to the office. What his supporters liked to dismiss as "mean tweets" were often expressions of a really deep ugliness. He's now vilifying Ron DeSantis, a popular conservative  who actually cares about and is skilled at governing, because, as Rich Lowry says, DeSantis is in his way:

Trump will have no compunction about crushing the future of the party to maintain his grip for another two years and possibly beyond.  

It's grimly appropriate, I guess, that a nation in such decline as ours, committed to narcissism as a way of life, would have two presidents in succession who are men of such plainly bad character, each in his own very special way.


Nietzsche, The Atheist Who Didn't Flinch

...the Enlightenment effectively tore out the foundations from under the polite bourgeois morality that it wished to maintain. You cannot do this, says Nietzsche. You have unchained the earth from the sun, a move of incalculable significance. By doing so, you have taken away any basis for a metaphysics that might ground either knowledge or ethics.... The cheerful and chipper atheism of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett is not for Nietzsche because it fails to see the radical consequences of its rejection of God. To hope that, say evolution will make us moral would be to assume a meaning and order to nature that can only really be justified on a prior metaphysical basis that itself transcends nature, or simply to declare by fiat and with no objective justification that certain things we like or of which we approve are intrinsically good. 

--Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I haven't finished this book yet, and will probably have more to say about it. But it's actually better than I expected--not that I didn't expect it to be good, but it's both wider and deeper than I thought it would be. 


More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


The Most Beautiful Phrase In the English Language?

One of the most, anyway:

    Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration

I remember the first time I encountered it, many years ago, and being struck by its beauty. Like anything that gets pulled into everyday use, it ends up being taken for granted; losing its luster, and even, maybe, depending on where and how you encounter it, having unpleasant associations. But if you can clear all that away, it shines. 

The phrase Perpetual Adoration alone is rather wonderful. I am happy that once a week, at least, sometimes more, I am able to participate in something that is called by that rich name.

Today is St. Clare's memorial, and here is a good post by Amy Welborn about her. I was struck by the advice she (Clare) gave to St. Agnes: appealing to her vanity, in a backwards, poverty is wealth, sort of way. 


Abigail Rine Favale: Into the Deep

I do not know how to pronounce the author's last name,  and for that matter am not entirely certain about her middle name. This bothered me a bit every time I picked up the book, and is, obviously, bothering me a little right now. But it didn't prevent me from reading, enjoying, and admiring the book.

Subtitled "An Unlikely Catholic Conversion," this is the memoir of a young woman (now middle-aged, I guess) who grew up in a conservative evangelical family and subculture, partly rejected and partly drifted away from it in favor of academic feminism, and in time found her way to the Catholic Church.

That is an unusual but in its broad outline not exactly unheard-of story. Conversion stories in general are hardly rare, even conversion of many initially quite hostile to the faith; the propagation of the gospel begins with them. But they are all by nature somewhat similar, and are not necessarily of great interest to anyone except the convert and those who know him, including especially God. 

I had a personal reason for reading this one. I have my own unpublished, probably never-to-be-published, memoir, and a few years ago I queried a certain Catholic publisher about it. The editor replied courteously that although they have published conversion memoirs, they did not sell very well and he doesn't expect to publish any more such. Since then I've read a few that have managed to get into print in recent years and to get at least some attention from at least the Catholic press. I wanted to see what made them worthy of note.

Into the Deep is the most recent of these (most recently read, I mean, not published), and the best. That's not because it's necessarily the most intrinsically interesting story, but because it's told so well. It's quite well-written in the micro sense that the prose is well-crafted, and in the macro sense that the narrative is vivid and brings home a real sense of the author's experience. And also because her specific struggle involves matters that are very much part of our current cultural malaise: the nature and meaning of the sexes, the role of women in the world and in the Church, especially the confrontation of feminism and the Church. 

Back in the 1970s, when feminism--what I have since learned is known as second-wave feminism--was at its height, I was mildly intrigued by it and sympathetic to it. I thought then, and still think, that women in general are pretty wonderful, and that in many ways they get a bad deal. But I don't think I have many illusions about them, and I couldn't help being skeptical of what seemed to be one of feminism's assumptions: that apart from the obvious physical things there is no significant difference between the sexes. That this was false, I thought, should be obvious to anyone who looked at actual men and women. And I thought it would be a good thing if a feminist thinker would explore those differences deeply rather than try to dismiss or erase them. 

I didn't continue paying much attention for very long. The basic feminist doctrine seemed to be twofold: (1) men and women are exactly the same, except for those ways in which women are superior; (2) men and women should be treated in exactly the same way, expect for situations where it is to the advantage of women to be treated differently. This only caused me to be amused by the way feminism confirmed the stereotype of women as illogical. It certainly didn't help my perception that feminism was (and still is) zealous in political causes, most notably advocacy of abortion, that were at the time beginning to strike me as destructive. (I long ago moved past any ambivalence about their destructiveness.)

Well, here is a feminist, or at least former feminist, who has done the exploration which I had hoped to see. And it has led her precisely into the deep, into the profundity of sexual significance. Here was an important turning point:

Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered.

This is what happened to me. When I first became pregnant, I was comfortable settled into my own unique brand of postmodern, feminist Christianity. I remember lounging on the couch amidst waves of nausea, watching news coverage of the controversial contraception mandate, rolling my eyes in anger and disgust at those regressive Catholic priests in their prim white collars, telling women what to do with their bodies.

Yet almost exactly two years later, I would be standing before such a priest at the Easter Vigil Mass, publicly confessing my desire to be received into the largest, oldest male-helmed institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Motherhood broke me open.

That breaking-open is of course among other things quite literally physical: a sensation and an experience that men can never know. The moment occurs less than one-third of the way through the book, so there is a great deal of road left to travel from here, and a great deal of reflection. There's a nice balance of the narrative and the abstract--of, to adapt the famous feminist catch-phrase, the personal and the theological. I recommend it both as a conversion memoir, and for that matter a memoir, period--I enjoyed the recounting of her early life--and as a venture into the rich topic of Catholicism and gender. 

IntoTheDeep3

I'm not keen on this cover. Apart from the fact that it's not especially appealing as a graphic, it suggests to me not conversion but a woman falling in love with a priest.

The venture continues with her new book, The Genesis of Gender, "a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made." Here is an interview at Catholic World Report in which she discusses it.  Also at Catholic World Report, she demonstrates that she has by no means compromised her objections to some notions of feminine submission to male authoritarianism: she excoriates a book called Ask Your Husband, which seems to be an unwitting confirmation of secular feminism's view of Catholic thinking on this subject.

It seems to me that the current crisis in which enlightened opinion is no longer willing to say that a woman is an adult female human being is a fairly natural development from certain aspects of feminist thought. To their credit some feminists are willing to oppose it, which is hardly the first time that ideological revolutionaries have been horrified by some of the conclusions, theoretical and practical, drawn from their premises. It's going to be a long time before we settle down, culturally, but in the meantime Abigail Favale and others are doing very valuable work toward clearing up the very clouded waters.


Sigrid Undset: In the Wilderness

(mild spoilers)

This is the third book in the Olav AudunssonMaster of Hestviken tetralogy. (See this for comments on the second book.) It's in two parts, "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Wilderness." The first part is shorter and I take its title to refer primarily to Olav's parting from Ingunn. They were of course parted by death in the previous volume, The Snake Pit, but the separation is made definitive here, with Olav adjusting to life without Ingunn and the state of anxiety and anguish in which he had lived for most of their many years together. As is necessarily the case with the death of someone close, however much the loss may continue to be felt, the shape of day-to-day life re-forms itself, filling in the empty space and becoming normal. 

Olav makes a journey to London and spends (I think) most of a summer there. It's ostensibly a trading voyage but it's at least as much an excuse for Olav to get away from the burdens and sad memories of Hestviken. In London occurs an event which I mentioned in the last post, on The Snake Pit, as one of the few which I remembered vividly from my first reading of the tetralogy. 

At Mass in a London church, he sees a woman who looks uncannily like Ingunn--the young, healthy Ingunn who has not existed for many years. He can't take his eyes off her, can't get her out of his mind; it seems that Ingunn is being offered to him all over again--a new and improved Ingunn, perhaps. A silent flirtation and seduction takes place between them, as they see each other repeatedly at the church. She is married, to a blind man. She arranges, through a servant, a tryst, to take place in the garden of her home, and Olav goes to her. As he takes her in his arms a warning comes to him:

No, this was not [Ingunn]--and it was as though he heard a cry coming from somewhere without; a voice that he heard not with his bodily ears called to him, aloud and wild with fear, trying to warn him. From somewhere, from the ground under his feet, he thought, the cry came--Ingunn, he knew, the real Ingunn, was striving to come to his aid. He could tell that she was in the utmost distress; in bonds of powerlessness or sin she was fighting to be heard by him through the darkness that parted them....

Ingunn called to him, she was afraid he would not understand that this stranger was one who had borrowed her shape, seeking to drag him under.

Well, for the sake of those who haven't read the book but may do so, perhaps I shouldn't quote that. But then you still have to read the book to find out what happens next.

The whole London sequence is especially memorable to me, and I think part of the reason is the essentially minor fact that it is London. It occurs to me now that almost none of the action in Undset's two major works takes place in a city of much size. From time to time someone goes to Oslo, but it isn't portrayed as being very large. London seems clearly to be larger, though much smaller than any contemporary city, with the heart of the city and its waterfront not very far at all from farms and open country, and in fact a certain amount of what we would consider rural life occurring within the city proper. At any rate the somewhat awed perspective on London of Olav and his companions, and perhaps the fact that it's summer and quite a distance south from Norway gives this episode a fresh and almost holiday-ish quality, notwithstanding the fact that not everything that happens there is pleasant. 

One of the decisive spiritual events--and in Undset's vision these are as real as any physical events--is Olav's realization that even many of his sins are less grand than he liked to think. In doing such-and-such, did he sin out of essentially noble motives? Or was he at bottom only driven by the same common, base, and petty appetites that drive men whom he held in contempt? As in Kristin, the process of self-knowledge is at the heart of a lifetime's journey, and one of its essential goals.

Much of the second part, "The Wilderness," involves the gradual shrinking of Olav's life to a joyless routine of managing his estate, Hestiviken. His foster son, Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate child whom Olav has passed off as his own, now a young man, departs, at least in part because Olav drives him away. Then comes a war which gives him, at least fleetingly, a sense of purpose, a glimpse of a way out of the wilderness. The martial joy with which he plunges into this conflict is something which our time does not readily grasp, except by way of fantasy, as in the Marvel movies and video games. Undset's rendering of the battle in which Olav takes part is remarkable simply as a piece of historical re-creation--I am assuming that she is accurate, and by all accounts that's a safe assumption--and also as a vivid narrative. It's also, I'm sure, accurate with regard to the bigger context of the wars that were taking place in Norway at the time. (In fact the first book of the tetralogy opens with a description of that context.)

But the war ends with Olav gravely wounded, recovering but permanently disfigured. He returns to Hestviken for the last act of his life's drama, in his forties, growing old by the standards of the time, still hiding the sin which he believes will cost him his soul, but which he cannot bring himself to confess.

I've seen a few comments here and there from readers to the effect that this is the least interesting of the four books, and overall they have a fair point. Nevertheless the eighty or so pages of "The Parting of the Ways" remain for me among the most profound and moving of the almost one thousand which make up the whole.