Holy hot dogs

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a “Periodicals Note,” the items that were the staple of this blog when I was posting on a daily basis about ten years ago. Most of those posts were short essays about the magazines, journals, and newsletters I was reading at the time; this one really will be just a file of notes.

It’s about a piece called “Between sacred and secular,” by Peter E. Gordon. It appears in The New Statesman for 22 December 2020.

Opening with a quick sketch of the complexity of Karl Marx’ attitude towards religion and with references to Marxist thinkers who were not content with coldly dismissive forms of atheism, Professor Gordon tells us how the major figures of the Frankfurt School saw the role of religion in social organization.

Professor Gordon cites the comparison Walter Benjamin made at the beginning of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin reminds us of the “Mechanical Turk.” The Mechanical Turk was supposed to be a robot, and it created an international sensation when it defeated Benjamin Franklin at chess in 1783. The following year, the world learned that there was a man hiding in the contraption, and that it was he who had beaten Franklin. Walter Benjamin suggests that, lurking within the apparently mechanical historical theory of Marxism, is hidden an unacknowledged set of ideas smuggled in from theology.

Professor Gordon elaborates:

The image is compelling, but, like so much of Benjamin’s work, it presented an enigma rather than an explanation. Benjamin was convinced that the official Marxism of his day had lost its revolutionary potential: it had hardened into a lifeless and unreflective doctrine that conceived of progress as something inevitable, as if utopia were to be born from the steady advance of technology alone. The future would unfold out of the present smoothly and without interruption, making revolution into little more than the final, harmonious chord of human history. This, Benjamin felt, was gravely mistaken. Historical materialism could retain its critical power only if it resisted the consoling dogma of historical progress. History had to be conceived not as a continuum but as broken into pieces, every instant holding the potential for a radical beginning. 

But this idea of history-in-fragments was foreign to official Marxism. A genuinely revolutionary idea of history was possible only if the historical materialist broke the rules of Marxism and surreptitiously borrowed its notion of time from an unlikely source – theology. Like the messiah breaking in upon the world, each moment in history became a threshold to revolution. Here, then, was the meaning of the chess-playing automaton. For Benjamin, theology was no longer an illusion to be dispelled but the animating force in Marxist theory, the necessary resource if history was to be understood as a theatre of revolutionary possibility.

Benjamin’s attempt to graft together Marxism and theology proved highly controversial, and it drew criticism from partisans in both camps. The militant playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Benjamin’s penchant for mysticism as “ghastly”, while the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (a sceptic about Marxism) accused his friend of “self-deception”. Despite such criticism, Benjamin’s reflections on religion and politics have attracted a wide following in academic circles, not least because they unsettle conventional assumptions in liberal theory about the need to keep religion and politics in distinct spheres. And not only in liberal theory: Benjamin’s interpretation also violates the conventional understanding of Marxism as a doctrine of unapologetic secularisation. The famous lines in The Communist Manifesto saw in the advent of modernity a process that would dissolve all religious values: “All is that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In Benjamin’s work, this secularising requirement loses its authority, since at least one religious value remains stubbornly in place. Religion does not and cannot vanish; it becomes the animating force in historical materialism itself.

Ibidem

Professor Gordon cites a danger inherent in such thought:

Much depends, however, on just how secularisation is understood. Right-wing political theorists such as Carl Schmitt (a Nazi apologist) believed that no system of law can be complete if it does not appeal to the decision of a sovereign who bursts in upon the otherwise lifeless mechanism of the state like a miraculous force. This doctrine of political theology was an important inspiration to Benjamin, and it bears an obvious similarity to Benjamin’s notion of theology as the hidden animus in historical materialism. Both cases bring a risk of authoritarianism, since in a democratic polity no decision can be valid if it does not remain open to rational scrutiny and amendment. A theological principle that grounds political life but remains immune to political criticism can easily become a warrant for theocracy.

Ibidem

It always strikes me odd when people refer to Carl Schmitt with a phrase like “Nazi apologist.” This simultaneously goes too easy on Schmitt, who was after all a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1940 and who for the first three of those years made himself conspicuously useful to the regime, and also obscures the nature of his scholarly work, since he was expelled from the party for his refusal to incorporate Nazi ideology into his writing.

At any rate, the idea of “political theology”- that political ideologies are in fact religious dogmas in disguise- was hardly original with Schmitt. It goes back millennia and is found in many cultures. Cicero, for example, develops it in depth in the second book of the de Officiis, and it is a major theme is early Confucian writings. If Irving Babbitt ever receives the recognition due him, Schmitt will no longer be even the most famous thinker of the first half of the twentieth century to have concerned himself with it. Nonetheless, Schmitt did make major contributions, and no sane person could want to become the sort of person he ended up being. So it’s worthwhile to pause and examine him as a cautionary tale.

Professor Gordon:

To avoid this risk, all values, including religious values, must be susceptible to public criticism. But this means that theological concepts have no special privilege in modern politics. They are drawn into the turbulence of public debate and they can survive only if they meet with generalised consent, including among unbelievers or members of other faiths. This proviso does not necessarily rule out the possibility of mutual instruction between religion and politics, and that line of communication has to remain open if secular society is to avoid the temptation of making secularism into something as exclusionary and dogmatic as the theocracy it fears. But under modern conditions of religious pluralism only the neutral medium of public reason can serve as the common language for such a dialogue, lest we slip back into the authoritarian framework where one religion holds sway. 

Ibidem

“Modern conditions of religious pluralism,” as contrasted with pre-modern European and southwest Asian conditions in which political legitimacy is dependent on status within a single religious community, of church or ummah. My references above to Cicero, Confucius, and Irving Babbitt should suffice to show that I would hope for a broader frame of historical reference, within which we can see theocratic authoritarianism, not indeed as an isolated or trivial phenomenon, but neither as the condition into which every institution classifiable as “religion” tends to resolve itself by default. Not only do we see religious pluralism in the practices of ancient Rome, of imperial China, and in the great tradition Babbitt imagined in his perennialist theory of religion, but even within religious communities great value is attached to various forms of rational inquiry and of debate.

Professor Gordon turns from Benjamin to other eminences of the Frankfurt School, first among them Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno:

Unlike Benjamin, Adorno believed that theological concepts retain their value only if they submit to the trial of secularisation. Religion is not preserved in amber; like all aspects of human experience it is vulnerable to time, and it cannot help but change as it passes into new and unforeseen circumstances. Adorno was therefore sceptical as to whether theological values that had held together the intimate communities of the ancient world could retain their validity in the fractured societies of today. “The concept of daily bread,” he wrote, “born from the experience of deprivation under the conditions of uncertain and insufficient material production, cannot simply be translated into the world of bread factories and surplus production.” Nor could he accept the Schmittian notion that, in a world that had in all other respects transformed beyond recognition, the concept of a sovereign God could somehow retain its original power. The longing for a “resolute decision”, he argued, could not suffice to “breathe back meaning” into the disenchanted world.

Ibidem

I’ve been meaning to read Adorno ever since I was in graduate school, umpteen years ago. This line about “the concept of daily bread” may finally get me actually to do it. When I get to that line in the prayer, the image of the bread we use for the Eucharist often pops into my head. That’s a good devotional practice, but it might be desirable to have some substantive theoretical matter to go along with it.

Professor Gordon then gives a couple of paragraphs to Max Horkheimer, who late in his career rejected Adorno’s idea that religious values could survive only if they made a “migration into the profane” and re-emerged in a secular idiom. Horkheimer decided that only a theistic worldview could offer hope to those subjected to the social conditions of the late twentieth century:

In his admiring foreword to The Dialectical Imagination (1973), Martin Jay’s now-classic study of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer went so far as to imply an intimate bond between religion and critical theory. The essence of religion, he claimed, is the yearning for the “wholly other”, the hope that “earthly horror does not possess the last word”.

Ibidem

Professor Gordon concludes with two paragraphs about Jürgen Habermas. Habermas “upholds Adorno’s requirement of a migration into the profane” in his conception of a “learning process” in which religious values are reconfigured into secular ones. This is supposed to allow for a “dialogue between religion and reason” that will clear the way for a pluralistic society, “though such a dialogue can only proceed within the framework of a secular state.”

Our old “Religion” links page

I stopped updating our links pages in 2016 and they stopped attracting comments and views long before that, so there’s no longer any point in having them up in an extra-accessible format. Here is the final state of our “Religion” links page.

Religion

(This page was most recently updated on 10 April 2016)

Academic and journalistic observers of religion:

  • Religion & Politics, “Fit for Polite Company.”  Leans heavily towards progressive Christianity
  • Religion Dispatches, which declares itself to represent “expert opinion, in-depth reporting, and provocative updates from the intersection of religion, politics and culture”;
  • The Revealer, “a daily review of religion & media” from New York University’s journalism department

Christian ethics:

  • Inward/Outward, each day a brief, provocative statement of Christian ethics, drawn from writers past and present;
  • Godthings, similar in concept to Inward/ Outward, but tends to provide longer quotes and more substantive theology;
  • David Hayward, the Naked Pastor, was ordained as a Presbyterian minister but now spends more time drawing cartoons than filling pulpits
  • Sojourners, progressive Christianity explained by progressive Christians who very much want you to know that they are progressive

Anglicans:

Judaism:

Lutherans:

Mormons:

Muslims:

  • The Long Black Veil and Life Within It,”  by Kashmir’s greatest fan of P. G. Wodehouse, Sabbah Haji.  Not exactly about religion, but she will shatter every stereotype you’ve ever had of a hijab-clad Muslim woman;
  • Love, InshAllah, “the Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women”

Orthodox Christianity:

Quakers:

Reformed Church adherents:

Roman Catholics:

Secularists:

*I am fully aware of the irony of both halves of the word “bigshot” as applied to Quakerism

Secret Agent Pope: An idea for a novel

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the scandals and controversies in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve never been a Roman Catholic myself; I was an agnostic from childhood until a few years ago, and am now a moderately progressive Anglican.

Not being Roman Catholic, it doesn’t matter to me who the pope is, who his friends are, or what policies they favor, not any more that it would matter to a Roman Catholic who is elected to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or what measures that Convention adopts. I’m against popes as such, even as Roman Catholics are unimpressed by the General Convention as such, and so no particular pope is going to change my position on the basic issue that divides us. Now, there are other concerns that justify paying attention to these matters. The Roman Catholic Church does command the allegiance of half the world’s Christians, and so all of the rest of us do have to take note of what happens to that institution. And I am a Latin teacher by occupation, so I hope that whoever comes out on top will revive the Vatican’s efforts to keep up interest in that language.  Also, in the 1980s I used to watch Insight, a TV show produced by the Paulist Fathers; I wish they’d make that show more widely available, maybe posting all of the episodes in some streaming format. It’s uneven in quality and very much a product of its time, but the best episodes hold up really well. I would also point out that a lot of popes give themselves funny names, and whenever they elect a new pope I hope he’ll hang a moniker on himself that will give the world a much needed belly laugh.

The most serious reason for a non-Roman Catholic to care what happens in the Vatican is that the four distinct but closely interrelated scandals now coming to light involve great evils that everyone should oppose. We are learning more about the the already long familiar epidemic of sexual abuse of children by priests. We have been introduced to the topic of sexual harassment of young clergymen by their superiors, initially in connection with ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who apparently treated the seminarians and young priests under his authority the way Harvey Weinstein treated actresses whose careers he could make or break. We’ve also started to hear solid information about blackmail as a means of advancement within the hierarchy.  Perhaps most serious of all these scandals is to be found in the concerted efforts by church authorities to conceal those misdeeds and to shield their perpetrators from punishment. So I want those four things to be stopped.

Not that scandal is unique to the Roman Catholics. We have our share of scandals in Anglicanism too; the Anglican Church of Canada had to declare bankruptcy in 2000 because so many survivors of sex abuse by priests had already proven their cases against it in court. I’ve mentioned that bankruptcy several times in discussions of what’s happening with the Roman Catholics. In 2000, the Anglican Church of Canada had never had a celibate clergy, it had been ordaining women for decades, and was notably friendly to sexual minority groups. So when my liberal Roman Catholic friends say that letting priests marry, ordaining women, and dropping the official anti-gay line will be sure to solve the problem, I have to caution that, while those actions may have good effects and they may be desirable in themselves, they may not accomplish what you think they will accomplish. Still, the sheer size of the Roman Catholic Church, its power and wealth, may have something to do with the scale to which these abuses have grown. It is natural to want to sweep problems under the rug, and when you have the world’s biggest rug whatever you sweep under there can grow to massive proportions.

One of the main things I’ve been looking at for news about the scandals has been Rod Dreher’s blog. He has something about it almost every day. His biases are very clear, but he is a professional journalist and does retract stories that have been proven false, which puts him in the top .0001% of people* who write about this topic on a regular basis. Yesterday I wrote a comment there which, as I think about it, includes the kernel for a novel someone might write. The novelist should be Roman Catholic, well-connected in the Vatican, an experienced journalist, and with some expertise regarding international espionage.  I am none of those things, so I shouldn’t write it myself. But here is the comment, for what it’s worth:

@Siarlys Jenkins: “I don’t include Argentina, because no American intervention was needed, and I’m not sure the CIA knew who they really wanted to support there.”

I often think of something by a CIA veteran (Philip Giraldi?) I read some years ago in the pages of the magazine that maintains this website. Reviewing the CIA’s policy of paying bonuses to officers who recruit local informants, the author argued that the policy produced a large number of agents whose main qualification was that they were easy to recruit. He summed his point up by saying, not only that there ought not be the same bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief as for recruiting an agent who is placed in a genuinely sensitive post, but that there ought to be no bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief.

What brings this to mind is that what is true of African police chiefs might very well be true of Latin American bishops. They are generally pretty cozy with the same elements of the local elites who are most comfortable with overt US intervention, most of them are hated by the same people who most worry the CIA, and, as we’ve seen from all these scandals, bishops are not, as a group, entirely averse to associating with people who are in a position to provide them with a pleasant life.

So, it may not be unreasonable to wonder whether the situation at the top of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America is altogether alien to the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church. If there is an analogy to be drawn there, even if Bergoglio was never a CIA agent himself, he would likely have been exposed to a great deal of information about his fellow bishops that he would find it more convenient to forget as completely as possible than to spend any time analyzing for its obvious implications.

Considering the ever-growing mountain of evidence that he and his henchmen have cultivated a habit of ignoring and forgetting information about the sexual proclivities of their fellow prelates, it would not be difficult to suppose that her and they have applied the same habit to other forms of compromising behavior they have reason to believe exists. Should it ever be proven that the CIA has deeply penetrated the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, it would raise a whole new dimension of doubt about Bergoglio’s motives.

This is an idea for a novel, not a proposal for an investigation, because I have no reason at all to suppose that it is true. As I put it in a follow-up comment, “there are these two secretive organizations that have, for their own reasons, created a vacuum of information that is big enough that a story like that could fit inside it without contradicting anything we do know.”

One sub-plot I would like to see in this novel would be a workplace sitcom set in the Oval Office of the President of the United States. The CIA is a headache for the president to deal with even when they are on a losing streak. One day in the early 2010’s he is informed that an asset of theirs has been elected pope. Ugh, thinks he. Now I’m in for it. And indeed the Director of Central Intelligence makes himself well-nigh intolerable around the uppermost echelons of the US national security state from that point on.

Perhaps the main character should be a liberal journalist who has been covering, let’s call him Cardinal Bocchini, for the several years he has been Archbishop of, let’s say Santiago de Chile. When Cardinal Bocchini is elected the first pope from the Western hemisphere (though his parents were born in Italy, and he has been an Italian citizen all his life, and he spoke Italian before he spoke Spanish, and his family has maintained such close connections to Italy that his sister settled there, his residence in Chile allows him to be presented to the press as a non-European pope,) she is apprehensive. He has made very harsh remarks about sexual minorities, leading a campaign identifying gender-neutral marriage with Satan. And he has made strongly nationalistic remarks supporting Chile’s territorial claims against its neighbors, remarks timed to heighten tensions between Chile and Peru and reflective of Bocchini’s connections with some rather dark elements of the Chilean military and security services. Bocchini also has a notably bad record on sex abuse; virtually alone among the world’s major archdioceses, Santiago has not publicized a single case of clerical sex abuse in the previous fifteen years. While some of Bocchini’s most fervent supporters say that this is because the Holy Spirit has protected Santiago to leave no doubt that Bocchini is the man to lead the Roman Catholic Church out of the era of scandal, the heroine’s investigations as a journalist reporting on the church have led her to believe that Bocchini is simply the most skilled of the hierarchy’s cover-up artists.

Bocchini is not only the first pope to have lived most of his life in the Western Hemisphere; he is also the first Jesuit pope. He takes the name Ignatius to honor both the founder of his order and Saint Ignatius of Antioch.  The heroine is assigned to Rome to cover Pope Ignatius.

At first, she is pleasantly surprised by his apparently relaxed attitude toward sexual minorities and relieved that, having become a world figure, he has backed off his Chilean irredentism. She is swept up in the new pope’s popularity, and emerges as a favorite of his, frequently among the first reporters recognized in the impromptu press conferences he gives aboard airplanes. She allows herself to be drawn in sufficiently that she cleans up some of the remarks he makes in these notoriously freewheeling sessions. With every favorable story she sends out, she gains more and more access to the pope and his inner circle.

As time goes on, she notices more and more things that don’t fit with the benevolent image she has been helping to project. Five years into his papacy, scandals begin breaking all around Pope Ignatius.  The pope’s inner circle turns to the heroine in the first rush of these scandals, hoping that she will spin them as effectively as she has spun so many of the pope’s indiscreet airborne comments. They are quickly disappointed in her, however. From her vantage point, she had seen all those scandals brewing, and had reached the conclusion that the pope was not committed to correcting the abuses at the heart of them. What’s more, her proximity to the pope and his top advisers has led her to suspect that he has a relationship with the CIA.

She presses her investigations as far as she can within the Vatican. She loses favor with the pope and his men, and finds herself called back to Santiago. Her paper assigns her to cover farm news. In between trips to chicken farms and agricultural board hearings, she continues to look into the pope’s past, and turns up information that is far more explosive than she had thought possible.

So, that might make a fat little paperback that will induce a lot of frequent flyers to part with their money in the bookstores at the airports.

*A rough estimate.

A conversation with John Zmirak

Today on Twitter, I had a little chat with John Zmirak. Dr Zmirak is a Roman Catholic layman who holds strong opinions about more or less everything. I’m always curious how people justify their opinions. In Dr Zmirak’s case, I’m curious by what exactly he has in mind when he appeals to the tradition of the church. In our conversation, I inadvertently put him on the spot so that he wound up presenting himself in a less flattering light than he deserves, but I still think I might want to look the conversation up again. So  here is a link to it.

 

 

Popin’ ain’t easy

youngpope-2-6-17

(Not the actual pope)

I’ve always been interested in what happens when there’s a disconnect between an elite and the group it is supposed to lead. So the one thing I understood correctly about the 2016 US presidential campaign while it was going on was that the vast majority of Republican primary voters (93% in one survey) wanted to see immigration policy made more restrictive, while most of that party’s senior leaders were committed to initiatives that would make immigration policy less restrictive.  That kind of disconnect is simply not sustainable, not on such an important issue.  So while I did not expect that Donald J. Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, would win the Republican nomination, I expected him to lose to someone like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or Texas senator Ted Cruz, who would adopt a hard-line restrictionist immigration policy and pass Don John on the right on that issue.

 

Recently I’ve read some articles about Pope Francis that make me wonder if he is not

pope-poster

(Not actually Jude Law) 

finding himself in a position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy analogous to that which Republican politicians like John Ellis Bush occupied in their party in 2015-2016. Here’s one explaining that many people in the Vatican, and probably most of the younger priests everywhere, are so frustrated with Francis’ way of raising the hopes of progressives that the next conclave might choose a pontiff as ferociously reactionary as the fictional hero of HBO’s absurdist miniseries The Young Pope.  Some say that the pope is excessively loyal to his friends and their friends, including those who are child molesters; some say that he has surrounded himself with a tiny group of intimates, and listens to no one else.

Now let me hasten to say that this question is none of my business, in that I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic.  What brought it to mind was an exchange I had last night and this morning on Twitter with scholar and beagle lover John Zmirak.  Mr Zmirak, a very conservative Roman Catholic, is quite pessimistic about the likely consequences of Francis’ pontificate.  In response to a tweet of his about how some pro-choice advocates had expressed pleasure with the “direction Francis is taking the Catholic Church,” I responded:

He answered:

(I should mention that I habitually refer to the two most recent Roman popes by their original surnames, in part because I’d been aware of Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio for years before they ascended to the papacy, and in part because I am a dyed-in-the-wool republican who dislikes all monarchical pretension. As an Anglican, I rather wish the Roman Catholics would adopt our traditional styles so that I could introduce Francis as “the Most Rev’d Mr Bergoglio” and call him simply “Mr Bergoglio” thereafter, but I doubt they will.)

Mr Zmirak’s reply, and mine:

And his final word:

Mr Zmirak seems to be quite firmly convinced that anything could happen in the immediate aftermath of the next conclave. He knows more about it than I do, and has a personal investment in the topic. All I can offer is uninformed speculation.

Which is precisely what I will now offer.  If Francis is indeed as bad as the articles I’ve linked above suggest, and if the tendencies he represents are as much on the decline on the Roman Catholic Church as the authors of those pieces seem to believe, then I can imagine a scenario in which the conclave that picks his successor will end in a split. If those conditions obtain now, and if they continue to intensify for another 10 or 12 years, then a situation might arise in which a Bergoglian faction might be very strong in the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and very weak everywhere else.

Isolated elites sometimes grow reckless, realizing that they have everything to lose if new leaders should rise within the institutions atop which they so uneasily sit.  Rather than than trying to find common ground with its critics, such an insecure elite might be quick to silence them, making examples of prominent individuals and well-established groups that have not associated themselves with the current leadership.  Rather than allow the circulation of talent that might create rivals whom they could not contain, an insecure elite might try to stifle the normal processes of institutional life.

If that were to happen in the Vatican, then this hypothetical Bergoglian faction might resort to some kind of desperate measures to elect one of their own at the next conclave. If such an effort were successful, and if the desperate measures were irregular enough, anti-Bergoglian conservatives might regard the result as illegitimate, perhaps openly declaring its winner an antipope. If it were to be unsuccessful, the defeated Bergoglians might conclude that they had nowhere to go within the existing structure of the Roman Church, and so they might walk out and declare one of their own to be the true pope.

As I said to Mr Zmirak, it is difficult for me to believe that the situation in Rome has in fact come to so desperate a pass. Surely the bulk of the leadership is going to be committed to trying to make the thing work, whoever the pope is. I don’t even know whether the descriptions of Francis’ troubles that I’ve read are a fair representation of the situation, since they’ve all been brought to my attention by Roman Catholics like Mr Zmirak who are convinced that Francis has gone round the bend and is doing a terrible job. Most of the moderate and liberal Roman Catholics of my acquaintance don’t seem to be spending a lot of time thinking about the papacy right now, except for those who are fans of The Young Pope, and their only opinion about Francis seems to be that he isn’t as handsome as Jude Law.

Miscellaneous Christmas Gleanings

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain routinely gives little gifts to their fans at Christmastime in the form of particularly generous postings on their (already very generous) website; this year they’ve posted a series of videos under the title “Christmas Playalong.”  Here’s one of them:

Also, our old friend Al Wood has posted his usual excellent Christmas things at Ukulele Hunt, including the Christmas UkeToob.

I remember Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fondly, or perhaps I should say I am of the age of people who remember that show fondly. I didn’t have a TV when it was on. Anyway, I don’t think I’d ever heard this one before.

Here‘s a holiday favorite:

And a great classic from the 1980s:

Thanks to theologian Alastair Roberts, I found a new favorite Christmas song just this morning, as I said on Twitter:

This has been making the rounds today:

Psychologist James Thompson engages in one of the most venerable of all Anglican religious traditions, publicly declaring that Anglicanism is doomed and wondering whether it deserves to die. I can’t explain why we do that, I can only say that it’s our way.

Jacobin magazine has a brief summary of how the Christian Left in the USA tends to think of Christmas, which picks up where James Brown left off a few decades ago:

I allowed myself a little scholarly musing on Twitter this morning, in response to a remark by Tom Holland:

As to who should do what with which holiday at this many-festivalled time of the year, here‘s a view from Mya Gosling:

Asked on tumblr whether it’s okay for Gentiles to celebrate Hanukkah, Scott Alexander writes:

To stick with stuff on tumblr for a minute, here’s a cartoon in which Gahan Wilson expresses irritation that various holidays, including Christmas and Halloween, run together in the USA:

This is kind of neat:

The Comics Curmudgeon has taken a vacation over the holiday, and it looks like Rebecca Watson is missing him as much as I am:

Ross Pearsall has put together a nice concept cover for a Christmas comic book that ought to exist:

calvin-and-snoopy

So, Merry Christmas, everybody.   And:

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

Humanist Comic Elements in Aristophanes and the Old Testament, by Benjamin Lazarus

978-1-4632-0243-9I’m a member of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. As such, I regularly receive book reviews in my email on recent scholarly publications dealing with the ancient Mediterranean world.

One of these recent reviews was by Ioannis Konstantakos of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Professor Konstantakos discussed Humanist Comic Elements in Aristophanes and the Old Testament by Benjamin Lazarus.  The book sounds extremely interesting. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Professor Konstantakis’ review:

Jonah and the Dionysus of the Frogs exemplify another comic prototype, the “Comic Failure” (Lazarus’ term) or “comic anti-hero”, as he might be called in contrast to the heroic Aristophanic protagonists discussed by Cedric Whitman (Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964). This kind of character becomes laughable by constantly failing to live up to the expectations of his role. The buffoonish Dionysus proves unable to judge poetry correctly and even to impersonate Heracles competently, despite his celebrated associations with the theater. Jonah cannot meet the requirements of his prophetic mission and repeatedly fails to recognize the will of Yahweh. There are additional analogies in the two story patterns, as both anti-heroes experience a katabasis into the world of death (the belly of the fish in Jonah is expressly likened to Sheol), but return without real improvement. Both Dionysus and Jonah are parodies of serious models, respectively Heracles’ dark journey to Hades and Elijah’s prophetic career. Their incompetence is underlined by figures of lower status, such as Dionysus’ slave Xanthias or the Gentile Ninevites, who successfully perform the very tasks which these comic anti-heroes ridiculously mismanage. In this case, Lazarus has traced an important satirical structure, probably as old as the Margites and applicable to many other comic figures, from Master Ford to Iznogoud.
The final chapter brings together Wealth and Tobit, two works revolving around an ordinary protagonist, a “Comic Everyman”. Both works are set in a world of mundane suffering and injustice and use a domestic, down-to-earth kind of humor as a means of relief from the difficulties of life. In this connection, another line of enquiry would be worth pursuing. Tobit, a character at once ridiculous for his rigidity and sympathetic for his sufferings, and thus evoking a complex response from the audience, is closer to the personages of Menander than to Aristophanes’ Chremylus. Like Menandrian heroes, the characters of Tobit have a limited understanding of the universe, and their apparent tragedy is eventually turned into comedy by a supernatural force which approximates the workings of Menander’s Tyche. The shift towards domestic, low-key humor is common to New Comedy and Tobit, which is also, significantly, a Hellenistic product.

I’ve always thought Jonah was funny, and I’m glad to see a scholarly argument to the effect that this perception of mine does not mark me as an incorrigible heathen.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine that the original audience of Tobit felt it was supposed to laugh at anything in it. Not that I don’t smile a bit at the idea of all those guys, one after another, dutifully marching off to their deaths in Sarah’s bridal chamber, and it’s true that that dog has a disconcertingly well-developed personality. Maybe the ancients smiled at those things, too. But the whole thing is paced so much like a thriller that any breaks for laughter or classification of major characters as “ridiculous” would throw it off badly.

I say something about politics and something about religion. No sex or money, though.

I’ve recently been participating in two discussion threads at The American Conservative. In a thread on Noah Millman’s blog, I’ve been laying out a theory that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will either win virtually every state in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest, or he won’t win any states at all. It all hinges on whether he can pull an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. My comments are here, here, and here.

In a thread on Rod Dreher’s blog, I’ve been talking about how the request by the “Primates” of the Anglican Communion that the leaders of the Episcopal Church scale back their participation in the Anglican Communion’s policy-making structures raises questions about how we can tell whether formal organizational bonds are helping or harming efforts to unify Christians, and if we decide that a particular structure is doing more harm than good, how we can dissolve it without making matters even worse.  My comments are here and here.

I’m not going to vote for a Republican for president in any case, and I think Mr Rubio would do an especially bad job in the White House.  The fact that I have worked up a theory about his prospects, therefore, just goes to show what a political junkie I am.  The other topic is of more direct personal interest to me, since I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and I find some value in the “Anglican” label.  Still, I discuss that topic also in terms of political strategy.

Scope and Limits

When we started this blog, my attitude towards religion was very much that expressed by Philip Larkin in his poem “Church-Going.” Visiting a church on an empty weekday, the poet wonders “who/ will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was”; will it be someone looking for scholarly information, or for a nostalgic thrill, or for something to steal; or:

will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

In those days, as indeed in all my days up to that point, I was like my parents, a mellow sort of agnostic who had a sense that the grown-up thing to do was to treat all the world’s major religions with as much respect, and as little outright incredulity, as possible.  I was indeed Larkin’s representative, visiting churches and other houses of worship on occasion, not to humble myself before the God in whom I could not quite imagine believing, but as a step towards assuming an adult mien.

Nowadays I’ve become a mellow sort of Christian. But the last day or two, I’ve found myself reminiscing about my Larkin-like past self. What brought me back to this was the front page of yesterday’s New York Daily News:

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I saw a blog post about this by Rod Dreher that got me thinking. I read Mr Dreher’s blog every day, largely because his views are very different from mine. He is a self-identified member of the Christian Right, while I would be considered an ultra-progressive Christian if I had joined almost any group other than the Episcopal Church. So, Mr Dreher regularly hyperventilates with rage and terror over developments that I find either unimportant or entirely desirable, and occasionally ignores or even praises developments that would move me to purple-faced fury. It does me a lot of good to look at him when he’s worked up and to realize that I would look as ridiculous to him or people like him if I were to choose to get on my high horse and get all worked up about my opinions as his profession of opinion writing requires him to do about his opinions.

Mr Dreher’s post yesterday wasn’t entirely free of hyperventilation, but it did include some very good bits. There were long quotes from an Atlantic Monthly piece in which Emma Green patiently dissects the understanding of prayer that seems to inform this “prayer-shaming,” contrasting it most pungently with a request for prayer that one of the victims texted while hiding from the gunmen. Mr Dreher also quotes to good effect an essay by mellow secularist Roland Dodds on why the Left needs a vibrant Christianity.

And Mr Dreher contributes several highly trenchant remarks of his own. For example:

This is not a post about gun control, about which I believe honorable people can disagree (though let it be said that not everyone who disagrees, on both sides of the issue, does so honorably). This is a post about liberals — ordinary liberals, not fringe folk like boob-choppers — who hate conservative Christians so much that they react to a mass shooting by denouncing those Christians for praying for the dead, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes” (unlike #SendOurGirlsHome, I guess).

This is where I remembered my Larkin-like former self. Hashtag activism, like the #SendOurGirlsHome campaign, differs from prayer, as prayer is practiced in the world’s major religions, in that it is simply an attempt to make oneself feel powerful in the face of a situation where one is in fact powerless. Prayer can be used to do that, of course, as can any practice around which superstitions accrete.

But look at the most prominent prayers of the world’s major religions. When Muslims make their confession of faith, they say that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. To say that there is no God but God is to acknowledge that there are limits to the power of human beings. The state can’t raise the dead and deliver final justice, which is what “Fixing This” would mean in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  The market can’t, and the individual can’t. Those are all phantasms created by human beings in the course of their interactions with one another, by themselves as inert and as much a dead-end as were any of the idols of wood and stone that Muhammad busied himself destroying.  To say “Muhammad is his prophet” is to say that, limited as we are, we do have access to knowledge of our duties and we have been granted the power to at least try to fulfill those duties. So a prayer like that acknowledges both the scope and the limits of human power and of human moral responsibility.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying the works of the theorist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.) As I was when I was reading his works, Babbitt was an agnostic who believed that there were great truths to be found in the world’s religions. He embarked on a Perennialist project, finding that all of the great wise men of history, including the founders of every major religion, agreed with him on all the most important issues of morality, politics, art, etc. It’s easy to look at that sort of conclusion and chuckle, but it is worth pointing out that Babbitt’s students from China, such as the famous Lin Yutang, remarked that his understanding of Confucius was deep and that his learning in Confucian and Buddhist thought was comparable to that of experts in their homeland.

One of Babbitt’s great contributions to the study of Buddhism was his translation of the Dhammapada. In that translation and in the accompanying essay, “The Buddha and the Occident,” Babbitt stresses the contrast the Buddha draws between pamada, which Babbitt translates as “laziness,” and its negation, appamada, which he translates in a variety of ways. Since pamada is often characterized by frantic activity, it may seem odd to call it laziness- perhaps “procrastination” would create a clearer mental image. What one does in a state of pamada, one does as an evasion of the true work of adjusting one’s will to the higher law, the moral constants of the cosmos.

In this distinction, I think I see the same sense of the scope and limits of human responsibility that informs the Muslim confession of faith.  Our attempts to control the material world, to control other people, to remake the past, are futile, are pamada, because these things are not in fact within our power. We show true appamada only when we surrender our useless attempts to control the outside world and concentrate our energies on controlling ourselves so that we may conform to the supernatural order.  As we approach this conformity, we may become more active or less active in the world, but that activity is incidental to the great struggle within.

As for Christians, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we too acknowledge the scope and limits of our powers. “Our Father,” we call God- we are his children, not his servants, for the servant does not know the master’s business; but we know God’s business. If we are children, we are heirs, and heirs have the power and the duty to do the father’s business. But our knowledge is limited, and our power is limited. The prayer brings us up against those limits sharply. We are so weak and needy as to be dependent on God even for our daily bread; so broken that we are dependent on him even for the forgiveness we continually need to receive and to give, and for freedom from an infinite array of temptations, none of which we could resist on our own. It is his will that is to be done, not ours.

“Thy will be done.” I often think of a colleague of mine who, many years after earning his doctorate, after decades of toiling in low-paying jobs in and out of his his field, was finally about to receive tenure at a university. Then his wife, a nurse who worked with the severely disabled, was hit by a reckless driver and herself rendered massively disabled, physically and cognitively. He took early retirement to care for her full-time. He remarked “Sometimes it dawns on you just what those words we say every day really mean.” Thy will be done.

Whatever else it may or may not do, prayer does cure the state of mind which reflexively demands “Fix this!” in the face of death. It may be, as Alexander Schmemann so memorably argued, that the Christian does look at death with defiance, confident that God will fix this. But God will fix it in God’s own time, in God’s own way, which is beyond our power and beyond our imagining.

As for gun control, if it is a good idea, then surely prayers like those which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others say will incline them to support it, inasmuch as these prayers involve accepting that there is a sphere within which do have the power and therefore the duty to do good things. Most of the world’s population does, after all, follow one or another of the great religions, and in very few countries are legislators and rulers unable to find ways to pass the time.

What does induce culpable inactivity, I would say, is exhausted panic. Earlier today I saw a brief article in which Hamilton Nolan points out that, in all likelihood, “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” Of course the first comment identified “this pronouncement” as “basically the working talking point of every conservative politician ever” and extrapolated from it the idea that “People don’t ever really die in ‘mass shootings.'” As if people who do not actively believe that they personally are about to die in a mass shooting will not accept the reality of mass shootings or support policies that they were convinced would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, as if there was no space between panicked lunacy and sullen lunacy. Realism, as in the acceptance of the fact that human power is considerable but not infinite that prayer induces, creates such a space, while sentimentalism collapses it. So, I call for your prayers today.