Sunday Night Journal 2006 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — April 16, 2006

St. Edith Stein 7: What Only Remains

I’ve ended my Lenten reading of St. Edith Stein with a novena to her which I found at the web site for the Association of Hebrew Catholics. The novena follows the saint’s last days, from the day she was taken from her convent until the day on which she was killed. There is so much that one thinks, and might say, about the significance of these events that I’m not going to say anything at all in this brief note, but will mention only one thing preserved from her conversation during her last days:

The world is made up of opposites, but in the end nothing remains of these contrasts. What only remains is great love.

That last phrase reminds me of a song by the very gifted singer and songwriter Patty Griffin, “One Big Love.” The song begins with an invitation to an impulsive trip to the beach, and seems to be about letting go of inessentials:

Trading in my things
for a couple of wings
on a little white dove
and one big love

That’s very obviously open to a Christian interpretation, although I would guess a generically and conventionally “spiritual but not religious” intention is more likely. But the song as a whole seems to have more to do with giving in to emotions than to anything outside the self.

“One big love” makes me think in turn of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” a more specifically religious song but one still seemingly wrapped up with the idea of surrendering to good feelings:

Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let’s get together and feel all right

It’s one thing to be conscious of one great love in the midst of the pleasure of a day at the beach, or in the haze of a reggae-and-marijuana high. It’s quite another to maintain that consciousness on the way to one’s execution (and it’s clear that Edith Stein knew that she and her companions would not be returning from that trip to the East). If you can do that, you may well lay claim to an understanding of the Cross, and consider yourself somewhat qualified to write a book called The Science of the Cross, which Edith Stein was working on at her death.

I began my Lenten reading of the saint with the sense that her life and work have something important to say to me, and I have certainly found that to be true. I also think they are of particular importance to our time. This, as noted, is a very large subject, perhaps too large for me. For now I note only the way in which the death of this saint exhibits the full fury of Satanic hatred brought to bear against one who consciously embraced and united within herself the two phases of the revelation of God to Israel and to all mankind.

This also is the time to welcome into the Church my friend Dawn Eden who, like Edith Stein, is a Jew who believes that to be a Catholic is the fulfillment, not the negation, of her Judaism. Those who have followed Dawn’s story need no further comment; those who have not can read more at her blog, here and here.

St. Teresa Benedicta, Edith Stein, pray for me, for the Jewish people both inside and outside the Church, for the Church, and for the whole world.


Sunday Night Journal — April 9, 2006

St. Edith Stein 6

I treasure the Palm Sunday liturgy for the opportunity it gives me to demand that Jesus be crucified. (For any non-Catholics reading this, the traditional Palm Sunday liturgy involves a lengthy reading of the Passion narrative in which the congregation speaks the words of the mob.) Presumably we all like to think we would have stood by Our Lord when his own people as well as the Roman authorities were demanding his blood, but surely we flatter ourselves. No, much more fitting that we should put ourselves in the role of those who shouted “Crucify Him!” To speak these words as part of a reading of the entire story of the arrest and crucifixion is to discern in the hatred of the Jerusalem crowd the same detestation of the good which is spoken of in the book of Wisdom: “He was made to reprove our thoughts. He is grievous unto us even to behold.”

And it is to feel something familiar to us all, or at least to anyone who has ever reflected on the psychology of his own sin: the violent thrusting aside of that which is in the way of the wrong we have determined to do. One need not have committed murder or adultery to know it; it’s enough to recall the ecstatic moment in which we surrender to an outburst of rage, or crush the protest of conscience against malicious gossip.

There have been a few attempts in recent years to take this role in the Palm Sunday reading away from the congregation, I suppose because it’s too negative or something. That is at best misguided. We need reminders like this. To attempt to remove them from our lives is like attempting to keep a child from burning his fingers by anesthetizing them. To attempt to remove them from the practice of the Catholic faith is to make the faith itself superfluous and meaningless.

If I do not see in myself the same conscience-murdering impulse that drove the mob against Jesus, I become blind in the only way that really matters. The knowledge of my own wish for death is the only thing that gives me hope of life.

Against the grain of contemporary thought which wishes, either sentimentally or in reaction to excessive harshness in the past, to absolve of responsibility those who are unwilling to hear the word of God, St. Edith Stein has a perhaps alarming corrective:

Although we ought not to think it impossible that an unbeliever (meaning someone completely ignorant of God) could lack personal guilt and thereby be impervious to the image-language of Holy Scripture, we should not reject all human guilt….In most cases…the ‘unbeliever’ will share the responsibility for his blindness.

And, a little further:

In the case of someone who from mental lethargy and apathy or carelessness fails to gain any knowledge of God, his inability should rather be taken as punishment.

I hear the gates of Hell swing open here. The more the unbeliever refuses to hear, the more he becomes incapable of hearing. This is the mystery which I brought up several weeks ago in relation to Matthew 25:29 (“For unto everyone that hath shall be given…but from him that hath not shall be taken away…”): the culpability of one who fails to receive the truth which can be known but not proven. Although it is the practicing atheist who is referred to in this passage, the same process and the same judgment may be operative in the life of an ostensible believer. How can it be just that one should be damned for not knowing? But how can it be just that he be saved if he refuses to know?

When does ignorance become willful and culpable? The psychological movements which constitute such a decision on the part of a soul must be so subtle that we may well be thankful that we are forbidden to judge them in others, and have responsibility only for our own.


Sunday Night Journal — April 2, 2012

St. Edith Stein 5

“When a person lacking faith reads Holy Scripture—for example for the purposes of philology or religious studies—he does not come to know God. he only learns how God is conceived in the Bible and by those who accept the Bible in faith…”

Here is the story of what has gone wrong in the study—and, far worse, in the teaching—of scripture in our time. How many scholars does this describe, and how many of them are teaching in the name of the Church?

There is a place for philology and for objective methods in history, but they have become like so many other modern enterprises, very effective as to means but futile or harmful as to ends. One sees, over and over again, the turning of scripture against faith, with scholarship used not to explain but to explain away. Often a perverse sort of selective fundamentalism appears, in which one scripture passage is taken as an absolute and used to negate some teaching of the Church. How often is Micah 6:8 used to assert that God intends that we should have no specific and fixed doctrines? (“…what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”)

And how often is the later date assigned to John’s Gospel put forward as proof that its teaching is not that of Jesus but something invented after the fact by his followers, as if an idea could not have existed unless it was written down? Or, if necessary, the proof is turned around, so that the complexity of thought is held to prove the lateness of composition. This narrow-minded skepticism, which reaches the average Christian as a scientifically-sanctioned radical disjuncture between faith and fact, has had an incalculably corrosive effect on faith. More than a few times I’ve heard a parish priest say, in response to a question about the factuality of some incident in Scripture, that “it doesn’t matter whether it actually happened or not,” leaving open—in fact inviting—the questioner to apply the same logic to everything else in Scripture.

Worse, when the “person lacking faith” is not a simple unbeliever exercising scientific detachment, but a former or perhaps just unhappy believer, the power denied to God and to the Church is assumed by the skeptic. Since he and his scholarly peers alone can determine which texts are authentic, they are the only authentic interpreters. Now what is learned is not even “how God is conceived in the Bible” and in faith, but what the scholar himself thinks; hence such aberrations as The Jesus Seminar and the arrogance of the title of Garry Wills’ new book, What Jesus Meant. And we are supposed to receive this state of affairs as a liberation.

I grew up taking the Bible for granted as the only source of religious authority, and as is often the case with things we take for granted I didn’t really see it, certainly not as a whole. I had to leave it aside for some years in order “to return to the place and know it as if for the first time,” to have the experience which Edith Stein describes here:

“…a word of Scripture may so touch me in my innermost being that in this word I feel God himself speaking to me and sense his presence. The book and the sacred writer…have vanished—God himself is speaking, and he is speaking to me.”

If we follow the skeptical scholars, this experience is closed to us, or at least is avoidable. Why would we want to avoid it? To spare ourselves pain. As often as not when God speaks to us through Scripture it is to offer us some challenge or correction. And it stings; it touches us at a sensitive place. A dentist can dig and probe my teeth with a wire hook and I will feel no great discomfort until he hits a weakened or decayed spot, and then I may try to jump out of the chair. When God probes those spots of decay in our souls he seems our enemy. This is at least part of the answer to the question posed by Walker Percy: “If the Good News is true, why is one not pleased to hear it?”


Sunday Night Journal — March 26, 2006

St. Edith Stein 4

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Lent (“Laetare Sunday,” which has a bad way of turning in my mind into “Laertes Sunday”). I haven’t read nearly as much of my saint as I had planned, which is not surprising. But in my defense I can say that the amount of reflection provoked by what I have read has been disproportionately large. I finished “Ways to Know God” but I’m not sure that I will read anything else. There is so much to think about here that I want to re-read a good deal of it rather than move on to something else.

I’ve been reflecting on this passage:

Insofar as faith confers the possession of truth, it merits the name “knowledge,” but it is dark knowledge insofar as the conviction that it brings is not founded upon insight into the truth accepted on faith.

I’m not entirely sure what “insight into the truth,” as distinct from “knowledge,” means here, but I take it to be an understanding of, so to speak, the inner workings of the truth involved. Hence the statement would apply to the most central truths of the Faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation: when we accept these doctrines on faith, we acquire knowledge, but we do not understand its details. We did not follow, and are not shown, a process of reasoning toward the doctrines in which each step is visible. Therefore, and more importantly for what I’m interested in at the moment, we can’t demonstrate the truth of the doctrines to anyone else.

Is this “dark knowledge” then the same sort of thing as the critical judgment I was talking about last week, knowledge of which we can be certain though we cannot prove it, as when I assert as an objective fact that Shakespeare is better than Harold Robbins? And what do we make of the equally certain fact that there are people who will not admit that Shakespeare is superior?

There are two sorts of people who might make that last claim: those who simply like Robbins better, and those who maintain as the outcome of a philosophical decision that no writer may be adjudged superior to any other. The latter we can say are reasoning badly (and perhaps not in good faith, but that’s another matter): they have let the idea of equality run amuck in their thinking, or they have chosen a nihilistic rejection of standards. It might be possible to change their minds by returning to some logically prior principle and convincing them that they were mistaken there. But what to say to the latter?

Let me take a less frivolous comparison than Shakespeare and Robbins—say, Twelfth Night vs. an episode of The Simpsons. Both are comedies, and most people of our time would laugh harder at The Simpsons—which could reasonably be taken as evidence that The Simpsons is superior. But it isn’t. Most of us don’t find a Shakespeare comedy as elementally funny as the humor of our own time, in part because too much of Shakespeare’s humor has to be explained. And I admit The Simpsons can be very funny indeed.

Yet we should be able to see that the Shakespeare play is a creation of a higher order: it represents a higher level of craftsmanship at the most fundamental level, and it presents a richer and fuller vision of human life. I don’t wish, and I don’t feel obliged, to make this case at length, but I will say that at both these levels (craft and vision) there is a meanness, in both senses of the word “mean,” about The Simpsons: its characters are distorted both physically and mentally in a way that conveys a deep and perhaps nihilistic contempt for the human race. A certain amount of contempt is well-deserved, of course, and you can see it on display in Swift, but with Swift at his most savage there is always a sense that there is a standard that we ought to look to, while The Simpsons seems to be all Yahoos and no Houyhnhnms (with the possible exception of Lisa—but that’s enough about The Simpsons, of which I’ve seen only a fairly small sample).

What is operative in the person who sincerely cannot see that Shakespeare is, on some scale of absolute and objective value, superior? Is it a defect of reason or fundamental good sense? Does it have any moral component?

This has implications for the culpability of the person who refuses faith, and leaves me thinking of one of the most disturbing sayings of Our Lord:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. (Matthew 25:29)

If faith is a gift, why is it not given to everyone? Or if it is, why do so many fail to receive it? I would be surprised if there is not an answer of some sort to this question in Catholic theology, perhaps in the Summa, and equally surprised if it were very satisfying. Dark knowledge, indeed.


Sunday Night Journal — March 19, 2006

St. Edith Stein 3

…we form words for the purpose of setting an image graphically before our eyes and doing it in such a way that it points beyond itself to what the words are meant to express mediately and what the images are meant to represent.
(This and other quotations are from “Ways to Know God”)

Every sentence is a poem.

Every word is a poem.

The collapse of belief in objective aesthetic standards is one of the pure disasters of our time; by “pure” I mean that there is nothing good about it; it has no direct positive aspect; any good effect it might produce would have to be indirect, by reaction, as when a disaster brings people together. Its practical effects on life and especially on culture are obvious and undeniable. It is connected causally as well as conceptually to decline in ethical behavior, particularly regarding sex. And both are connected with the decline of faith, and all three are characterized by a refusal to acknowledge truth that cannot be proved.

I detected the stink of this decay when I was studying literature some thirty years ago. It was soon everywhere. I have often puzzled over the difficulty of proving what I am quite certain is true, that there is an objective difference in quality between, for instance, a Shakespeare play and a Harold Robbins novel, that to say Shakespeare is superior is to assert a fact, not an opinion, a fact which we can know with certainty and yet be unable to prove.

I think this is applicable to faith. Faith operates in a similar way but toward a different object, an object which commends itself to our intuitive sense of what is best and most true just as the preference for Shakespeare over Robbins does.

Edith Stein’s conception of natural theology begins similarly with intuition and has applicability to art, indeed is very capable of admitting art as a helper. And if we see art in that light we begin to understand the reason for our intuition about good and bad (or better and worse) art: it is—not only, but among other things—that the relationship of the work to truth is part of aesthetic judgment.

She uses the term “natural theology” a little differently from its usual meaning, which she formulates as “doctrine about God gained from natural experience through our natural reason.” She is referring to something prior to that sort of abstract conceptual thinking, the immediate intuition of things that precedes careful reasoning about them:

…the fullness of the world we perceive with our senses holds more than what we can understand through the methods of natural science…..This world with all it discloses and all it conceals, it is just this world that also points beyond itself as a whole to him who “mysteriously reveals himself” through it. It is this world, with its referrings that lead us out beyond itself, that forms the intuitive basis for the arguments of natural theology.

It is by means of images which become symbols that this theology is constructed and communicated:

…God is the Primal Theologian. His “symbolic theology” is all of creation.

The world is a poem.

Theologians in the Areopagite’s sense, the sacred writers, are those who have an original appreciation of this “natural revelation.” To them it is given to understand God’s image-language and translate it into our human language in order to lead others to God along this path….The whole point of their mission…assumes that others, too, can find God along this path….Their only task is to bring people who hear their words to the point where they are learning to see through nature.

This is the vocation of the artist as well. I’ve always felt that my vocation lay somewhere along these lines, but have never been sufficiently convinced, confident, and resolute enough to lay my hand to the plow and not look back.

Let us for now merely try to grasp where “symbolic theology” would lead us through the familiar images from the world of our experience. It is a great diversity that we might most aptly call the Kingdom of God.

As with the actions of characters in a novel, everything we do is saturated with symbolic meaning.


Sunday Night Journal — March 12, 2006

St. Edith Stein 2

Because Lent is a time for reflection, events naturally seem to line up so as to prevent one from doing much reflecting. This past week I made no more than a start at reading Edith Stein’s “Ways to Know God,” a somewhat lengthy essay in explication of the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagite (or Pseudo-Dionysius, if you prefer—not being a scholar I don’t feel obliged or even entitled to have any opinions about the identity of the writer). And not having read him I’m mainly interested in what he may provoke Edith Stein to say, mindful that it may not be clear what is her thought and what is his.

I haven’t gotten very far, and have made only a few notes, but the effort has already been fruitful. Dionysius views the world as a hierarchy having the task of “lead[ing] all creation back to the Creator.”

For although not everything can receive divine enlightenment…nevertheless even the lowest creatures, those lacking reason and even life, are fit to serve as tools and being-images [Seinsbild] of spiritual and divine being and acting.

I had a few years of German long ago, and retain just enough to have a feel for the sense of Seinsbild. “Being-images” is adequate but has, as is naturally the case when there is no equivalent term, an unfortunately vague quality. I’m struck here by the applicability of the idea to human art: I’ve always liked Tolkien’s idea of art as a sub-creation, or perhaps I should say sub-Creation. And the sub-Creation is itself composed of Seinsbilder: being-images which are so designed and ordered as to comprise a single Seinsbild by means of which we can speak (if we’re the artist) or hear (if we’re not) some truth about the sub-creator, the greater Creation, and the Creator. Tools, in short.

And, looking at it from the other side, we could say that the entire Creation is a work of art of which the purpose is (as the now scoffed-at but in fact very accurate old formula put it) to delight and instruct.

Knowing and witnessing go together.

This is now an aphorism that will stay with me. Maybe what I have seen in stray bits of Edith Stein’s work is not so much mystical theology as mystical poetry. At any rate I always seem to head straight for the possibility of bringing her insights to bear on the question of art, and in particular the question of the relationship between art and religion. That last sentence could serve—could serve me as a theology of art, or at least the foundation of one. I spoke last week about my incomprehension of the idea of art as “self-expression.” When one sees—knows—the splendor of being, and at the same time has the impulse to make, the result is a need to make something which communicates the splendor—to witness.

Since the Catholic faith is the most truthful account of being in its foundations, art which is informed by the Catholic faith (and this may be at several removes, as in, for instance, the English novel of the Protestant centuries) is at an advantage in bearing witness to the truth, which is to say, the splendor. Art is not religion, and breaks down when it is treated as one, as it often has been over the past hundred years or so. But it is another form, a way, of witnessing.


Sunday Night Journal — March 5, 2006

Edith Stein 1

For some time now I’ve been wanting to study the writings of St. Edith Stein, or, as she is formally known, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I prefer to think of her as Edith Stein; it makes her seem no less holy, and closer to our earthly life, and, specifically, closer to the culture and events of the 20th century which eventually took her life (of which you can read a brief outline here).

I keep running into snippets of her work (for instance in the daily meditations of the invaluable devotional magazine Magnificat). And I’m drawn to them in an odd way—it’s not just that I find them insightful or well expressed, it’s that they seem like promising indicators or clues of some kind, as if they’re saying to me “There is something for you here—follow the trail.” So I’ve made it part of my Lenten discipline this year to make some kind of serious start. I decided it wasn’t practical to make her work my only reading for six weeks, but she’ll be my emphasis, and I won’t start any other large or demanding reading projects. That’s why this is titled “Edith Stein 1”—it’s the first of as many comments on Edith Stein as there are Sundays from now through Easter.

I know at the outset that a large part of her work is technical philosophy that is well over my head. I have no more than a nodding acquaintance with philosophy of any sort, and none at all with that of her philosophical mentor, Edmund Husserl. So I’ll be dabbling. I have several of her books, and am starting my dabbling with a fairly brief essay in Knowledge and Faith, “Knowledge, Truth, and Being.” I have glanced at this essay before, and it seems to move in the direction of some vague ideas about faith which I’ve toyed with for some time but never really articulated; I’m hoping she can help me.

It’s really the mystical in her and not the philosophical that interests me, and now that I’ve written that I think maybe part of what has attracted me to her is a sense of the philosophical reaching its limits and continuing beyond them into mysticism. Mysticism is probably the wrong word: contemplative worship is a better term. I plan at least to sample her final work, The Science of the Cross, which she had barely completed when the Nazis took her away.

So far I’ve encountered this striking formulation: “being = being-known-by-God,” which reminds me of Julian of Norwich’s well-known “It is, because God loveth it.” I have no doubt that both are true. And both serve as a sort of justification or explanation for my own most fundamental intuition: a pleasure in sheer existence which is, at least where sight is concerned, almost independent of the specific thing being seen, although it (somewhat paradoxically) cannot be had without a simultaneous awareness of the individuality of the thing itself.

This is also, to me, the foundational function and power of art: to bring home to the beholder somehow (and new means are always possible and necessary) this intuition of the splendor of being. Most art of course does more than this. Literature, for instance, inevitably deals with moral questions, but without this power it’s only a textbook. The desire and attempt to effect this have always been at the bottom of my own desultory literary work. I’ve never quite understood, or felt any connection with, the idea that art is “self-expression.” I experience something incoherent within me which I need to bring into definite existence, but it’s not me. It feels like something separate, something given. Joseph Conrad’s words have always seemed my own: “above all, to make you see.” And what I want to make you see is not me, but the splendor of being as I have seen it living in some specific thing. It only involves me because I don’t have the power of imagination required to get much beyond the basic material of my own life.


Sunday Night Journal — February 26, 2006

Staying Put

The extremely interesting discussion of so-called “crunchy conservatism” continues at National Review Online. These folks obviously have a lot more time for such talk than I do, and I can’t keep up with it, but I was struck by an exchange lamenting the unfortunate tendency of people to move away, often very far away, from the place in which they grew up, which of course in practice means moving away from their own parents and other family. You can read the two initial posts here and here. I should use words like “pressure” or “incentive” rather than “tendency,” because much or most of the time there are strong economic reasons for this mobility.

Some twenty-plus years ago my wife and I were faced with this decision. We were newly-converted Catholics with young children, living in small-town north Alabama where Catholics number five or six percent of the population, and with a growing group of like-minded Catholic acquaintances in other parts of the country. Both of us are Alabama natives. I come from the extreme northern end of the state, where we were living at the time, near my family. She comes from the extreme southern end, three hundred miles away.

We still had a certain amount of the back-to-the-land, commune-founding spirit that was abroad in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We talked to some of our scattered Catholic friends and acquaintances about forming some kind of Catholic community which would involve, at a minimum, living near each other.

Nobody wanted to move to Alabama, of course. And, parenthetically: it has always slightly amused and slightly annoyed me that so many people, conservatives particularly, who admire rural life and social conservatism want absolutely nothing to do with the Deep South, where those characteristics are more dominant than in most of the rest of the country. No doubt part of the blame for that goes to George Wallace, Bull Connor, et. al., but part of it, too, is that hardly anyone with any interest in intellectual life, which included most of our long-distance friends, really wants to live in Hicksville, however much they may praise its virtues from a distance. I don’t entirely blame them, but the syndrome does cause me to maintain a certain skepticism when city-dwelling intellectuals get sentimental about rural life and the common man.

These talks never got all that far, but they did get far enough for us to consider very seriously whether we wanted to move away from our extended families. It was something that we talked about a great deal, the kind of soul-searching conversation that goes on between a husband and wife after the children have gone to bed. Since our families were not Catholic and there were so few Catholics around, we had to assume we would be somewhat isolated religiously if we stayed where we were. On the other side there was the possibility of living in a seriously Catholic environment, but that was certainly not guaranteed: who was to say that whatever community we joined would last more than a few years? Or for that matter that it would be a healthy place, not a pressure-cooker of eccentricity and fanaticism? And if it failed we might end up with the sort of rootless Flying Dutchman life that I’d long since decided I didn’t want, for myself or my children.

In the end it came down (for me, at least—my wife might remember differently) to the question of whether or not our children would grow up knowing their grandparents. I wasn’t willing to answer “no” to that question, family won, and we decided to stay put.

I don’t intend to discuss the following twenty years or so in detail, but suffice to say things didn’t work out all that well, certainly far less well than we had hoped. As far as raising our children in the Faith was concerned, we were constantly in the position of having to choose between isolation and influences we didn’t want them to have—just to take one dominating example, there was the problem of omnipresent television in the homes of almost everyone except us. And of course the dreariness of the typical Catholic parish didn’t help. I might also mention the sad irony that in 1990 we moved down to my wife’s country, where Catholics are somewhere in the range of a quarter of the population, where we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group which was something of a running disaster.

Still: if I had it do over again, knowing what I know now, but absent some direct guidance from God, I think I’d make the same choice. It just seems fundamentally more sound, more healthy, even more human. And the long run in which all human decisions are measured has a good deal longer yet to run.


Sunday Night Journal — February 19, 2006

Something Broken

I’ve been intrigued by the question of the psychological differences between men and women since the attempt to deny their existence which was mounted by the feminist eruption of the early ‘60s and ‘70s. I took that attempt seriously for a while, but it soon became clear that the movement had two impossible dogmas: one, that men and women are the same except where women are superior, and two, that men and women are to be treated identically except where it is to the advantage of women that they be treated differently. At that point the feminist movement began to be of more interest to me for what it got wrong and what it inadvertently revealed than for what it consciously asserted; it became a spur to my fascinated consideration of woman as a species, so much like my kind and yet so different.

In pursuing this research I often make my wife the sole spokesman for her entire sex. When I’m wondering aloud and at length about what some female characteristic really means, or why men think or do X but women think or do Y, she doesn’t usually say a great deal. This is constitutional: against stereotype, I’m the more verbal of us, and she isn’t much given to the kind of abstract rationalizing that I do all the time—or if she is, she keeps her conclusions mostly to herself. But she has deep insight and a way of somehow coming up with something brief and pithy when I push her for an answer.

So it was a year or so ago, when, as is now usual around Valentine’s Day, the topic of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was in the news. I had run across a statement that completely baffled me: an actress—I think it was Glenn Close—had said something like “Eve [Ensler] gave us back our souls.” What, I wondered, could she possibly mean? How or why could an extended discussion of one’s genitals seem soul-saving? The same news story in which Close was quoted included similar sentiments from other famous women, mostly or perhaps all actresses. After rattling on about it for a few minutes, I put the question directly to my wife: what makes them say things like this?

There was a little pause, and she answered, “There’s something broken in their woman-ness.”

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and another round of dealing with the Monologues. There have been the usual controversies about whether the play should be performed at Catholic colleges. I haven’t read it, but if descriptions of it both pro and con are accurate, the answer is obviously “no.” More interesting to me remains the question of why it was written in the first place, and why some women seem to respond to it with such fervor. In a discussion on Amy Welborn’s Open Book a few days ago, I made this statement:

The way it looks to me as a male observer is that a woman is her body in a way that a man is not. A man's body is more like something he operates. I conjecture that the increased exposure and objectification of the female body in our sexualized culture is helping to produce aberrations like these plays.

That was an off-the-cuff comment. To elaborate the thought a bit further, maybe the psychology of the thing is something like this: erotically charged images of beautiful women are impossible to avoid in our culture. It’s not just female beauty that’s forced into our awareness all the time, but female beauty with a definite and direct sexual charge—the woman is first of all, and to the exclusion of almost everything else, a sexual object (as the feminist movement used to say, and perhaps still does) in the narrowest sense. Nobody, male or female, really wants to be an object of use by other people. But if it’s true that a woman is more closely identified with her body than a man is, then the anxiety generated by this objectification would be greater for women. The same sort of anxiety is generated by a woman’s participation in sexual activity in which she is treated as an object—which is to say, the kind of activity which has become the sanctioned norm for both sexes since the 1960s.

Women are thus simultaneously more vulnerable than men to the effects of this objectification and the main targets of it. Moreover, the technologically exaggerated sex appeal of the women in advertising and entertainment is both more pure, in the literal sense of having less of anything else in it, and less human than that which any actual woman (including these very models and actresses, if one were to meet them in person) can wield. Even the models and actresses themselves must know that they can’t live up to the images of which they are the raw material. So the real woman is made to feel not only like an object but an inferior object.

Adding to the disorientation is that the whole point of woman’s allure, from the simple biological point of view, is to induce the act which produces a baby. And yet it’s precisely in the context of sexual pleasure that her fertility is despised. It’s no wonder that there might be something broken in a lot of women, and some pretty strange phenomena ensuing.

Perhaps Eve Ensler’s play says some of these things. Perhaps I ought to read it, although I really don’t want to. But here’s something else which I strongly suspect may be true and which I’m pretty sure Ensler does not say: a woman who signed herself simply as “Caroline” agreed with my comment at Open Book, adding that

For women there is no earthly solution to this identification of self and body which makes, in effect, the imperfect body into the imperfect self. What I am getting at is that women are best positioned to enjoy their glorified bodies and their total selves in the hereafter.

If it turns out to be true, this would be another instance of the last—that is, those who suffer most—being first.


Sunday Night Journal — February 12, 2006

The Chilly Cocoon of Materialism

I’m still thinking about that Paul Bloom piece in The Atlantic that I wrote about last week. What’s most striking about it is Bloom’s determination to hang on to the doctrine that materialistic natural selection is responsible for everything in human nature even as he admits that his own research undermines it. Unable to credit simplistic explanations for the evolutionary utility of religious belief, he falls back on the assertion that the mental processes that lead to religious belief must be accidental by-products of other more easily explained features.

The first of many responses that came to me is to ask how an accidental and non-adaptive byproduct of an evolutionary development could ever come to dominate the organism as religion does the human. But, setting aside specific objections for the moment, I wondered why Bloom is so committed to the natural selection hypothesis. Serendipitously, I found an answer in this Godspy article by Michael Behe. The crucial insight here comes, not surprisingly, from Chesterton:

The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.

Of course. Behe (who as you probably know is one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement) adduces this passage in his exploration of the reasons for the intense hostility with which the design hypothesis is often met. The objection to ID is usually that it isn’t science, in the sense of being a hypothesis that is empirically verifiable in the laboratory, and I think that’s a valid objection. But the people who are outraged by ID are unperturbed by the entanglement of materialist philosophy with science. It’s pretty clear that the two philosophies are not accorded equal treatment. Materialists are passionately defensive of the ground which they erroneously believe has been conquered by their philosophy. No one likes his deepest convictions challenged, and materialists certainly show the same signs of distress as any Christian when it happens to them.

The curious turning of the psychological tables continues. I noted last week the way the roles of challenger and defender of conventional thinking, habitually assigned to science and religion respectively, are being reversed. The same is true for conventional emotional categories, in which religion is seen as a security blanket for those who can’t face the world as it really is, and science as the domain of those bold enough to follow the trail of facts, however distressing. Dogmatic materialism presents us with a pretty chilly world, but also with a safe one—it is at least in theory knowable and controllable by the human mind. But a world which is the product of an active and purposeful intelligence greater than our own is not

The irony of the situation is that it is now the Christian who is urging the materialist to shake off the chains of his dogma, summon his courage, and step into a larger world. My conception of the world can include all the physical processes found in the materialist’s, but it also includes much more, conceptions of spiritual life and purpose that trouble the soul of the materialist even as he denies that he has one.