Thursday, December 24, 2015

Divine Poverty, Divine Helplessness

We have a newborn at home. I've been thinking a lot about Dr. Harvey Karp's idea of the
"fourth trimester": the brain cannot complete its development prior to birth, because if it did, the baby's head wouldn't fit through the birth canal. Or, alternatively, according to some researchers, because human brain development needs to occur in the context of hearing speech and observing the environment. In either case, human infants are uniquely helpless among mammals: a newborn foal, for instance, will start walking within hours, whereas for neurological reasons, a newborn human cannot.

God, on the other hand is omnipotent, impassible, and characterized by aseity: almighty, not prone to harm or suffering of any kind, and utterly, utterly independent. God as He Is in Himself could not suffer, and could not die. To suffer and die for us, St. Athanasius explains in his classic On the Incarnation, God had to take mortal flesh. Only we mortals can suffer and die.

At the nativity, God Almighty was born as a "fourth trimester" human infant: the most helpless of all the mammals. From limitless power, invulnerability to suffering, and complete independence, Our Creator was born a tiny creature powerless, oh so fragile, and completely, helplessly dependent upon His Mother.

The Third Joyful Mystery of the Rosary is the Nativity, in which we pray for the virtue of being Poor in Spirit. And what greater poverty of spirit could there be than this--to surrender power over for the whole whirling cosmos for powerlessness, to surrender invulnerability for fragility, to surrender painlessness for pain, to surrender independence for helplessness, to surrender the form of God to put on the form of a slave?

Christ told the rich young man to give away all he had to the poor. This was no idle bit of sanctimony. Jesus Christ, God in suffering flesh, knows more than any of us can ever fathom what it is to have all the cosmos, and surrender it all. To give away infinite riches, and be poor and helpless as only a human infant can be. He did this. For you. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire: Disqus.

I'm trying out Disqus comments, since the lack of subthreading in typical Blogger comments strikes me as an obstacle to the potential for good conversation.

It would appear that no one's avatar from the old comments I imported survived unscathed--including even my own. Instead, all of us have had our avatars in the pre-Disqus transition comments replaced by the "default" avatar I selected for commenters without Disqus accounts. Sorry about that. I hope for those of you already using Disqus accounts that the system will recognize them going forward.

(In case you're interested: that default image is of a scribe I imagine to be writing marginalia of his own, and in keeping with the "Christ Enthroned from the Book of Kells" background theme of the desktop version of this blog, the image is taken from a manuscript of Giraldus Cambrensis' Topographia Hibernica.)

If you do happen to comment here or on any other post, I'd be grateful to know if the Disqus system is causing any aggravation. If it's a pain, I'll scrap it. Thanks.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Burning zeal--but not for God's House

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”   --John 2:13-17
In a recent thread on a (thankfully unrelated) Catholic clergy sex scandal, Rod Dreher had occasion to comment regarding the pederasty scandals that:
One of the enduring mysteries of the sex abuse scandal is why some men in these parishes — cousins of the abuse victims, somebody — didn’t take these pervert priests out and teach them a hard lesson. I’m not remotely a tough buy, but anybody who harmed one of my kids in that way would count themselves fortunate if they weren’t permanently crippled by what I would do to them.
I am just the same.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Steel Rule of St. Benedict

{Content warning: This post is ridiculously long.}

Today, let's mash up the Benedict Option (BenOpt) Dark Ages and the neoreactionary (NRx) Dark Enlightenment (DE).  Not that I'm a fan of the DE: I'm not at all a "theonomist" in my traditionalism, but this NRx admission rings true to me: When theonomists scrutinize ethno-nationalists and techno-commercialists they see evil heathens. That's about it. But let's compare notes anyway, and see what spoils we can cart away from Egypt, for as St. Augustine advises, "whatever has been rightly said by the heathen," even the evil heathen, "we must appropriate to our uses": 

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God's providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,--that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,--we must take and turn to a Christian use.
De Doctrina Christiana, II, xl.

So, first, where are we Catholic trads coming from as we slog through our culture's descent into a decadent dark age?  Well, here's the BenOp urtext:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

So, our hopes are not in the Empire anymore. And neither are those of NRx blogfather Mencius Moldbug. Instead of political participation of any kind, Moldbug advocates a Steel Rule of Passivism as demanding in its limited way as the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability demanded by the Rule of St. Benedict. NRxer Warg Franklin introduces Moldbug's turning away into Passivism in the context of Moldbug's tripartite Procedure for accepting (not seizing, accepting) power:
In his Gentle Introduction, Part 9a, Mencius Moldbug introduces a neat little political methodology he calls "Passivism", and a Procedure to replace the current political machinery, which rots evilly in the Potomac swamp and stinks up this entire half of the world, with some shining and efficient New Structure fit for the 21st century....
The core of The Procedure is a three step general purpose program for solving problems of inadequate or rogue political machinery:
  1. Become Worthy
  2. Accept Power
  3. Rule
It sounds facetious. It's not. Let's unpack.

Yes. Let's.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Newman Options

One of the reasons Rod Dreher often cites for the necessity of a Benedict Option is the way that secular universities have become in some ways actively anti-Christian. And, indeed, there's much to be said for encouraging one's Catholic children to attend the sort of supportive, faith-nurturing universities highlighted in the Cardinal Newman Society's recommended colleges. But not all the college-bound will attend rigorously orthodox, welcoming and warm Catholic colleges. Many will--and should, for whatever reason--attend secular universities, whether public or private.

In contexts like that the campus Catholic chapel, often called a Newman Center, can be an oasis. Indeed, the Newman Center at UMass Amherst (where I was then taking posbacs for my erstwhile career as a math teacher) played an irreplaceable role in my own journey home to Rome.  So I was delighted to read that some Newman Centers are taking things to a whole new level, essentially creating a BenOp not of separate colleges, but of Christ-saturated life within secular universities, through the creation of "Newman Halls," that is, Catholic-focused dorms centered on Newman Center chapels.

This is a very, very promising development. I learned of it through a great story in the National Catholic Register, and I hope you'll take the time to tolle, lege, especially if you're an academic in a position to help build something like this at your own school. 

Murphys' Law

An early form of Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer runs:
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
The courage to change what can be changed,
and the wisdom to know the one from the other.
We cannot, in the present political moment, pass gun sensible control legislation in this country. However advisable it would (indeed) be, it cannot, in any case, presently be done.

However, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.) are attempting to move mental health legislation through the Congress that looks like it might do a great deal of good, and, what's more, looks like it might actually have a chance of passing. The Murphys' law not only contains much that would help the mentally ill in a variety of contexts, but also contains much that could help prevent the mentally unbalanced from being untreated and likely to engage in a mass shooting.  This is not, sadly, sensible gun control. But it's still a really big deal in its own right.

I enjoy my potshots at Vox, but Michelle Hackman of Vox has a very fine rundown of this very worthwhile American initiative:  take it up, and read.

Abortion is (not first degree) murder

In the same post at Rod Dreher's about abortion rhetoric, I attempted to explain to a friendly pro-choice interlocutor why our intuitions differ about the rhetorical propriety of the phrase “abortion is murder.” A lightly edited version of my comment follows below the fold:

Jesus loves Mengele

Rod Dreher had a post up recently about the rhetoric in America's interminable abortion debates. I had been commenting to defend the typical pro-life statement that "abortion is murder" (which it is), and the propriety of comparing abortionists to Nazi medical experimenter Josef Mengele (since both, despite many admittedly salient differences, are examples of vivisectionists). Meanwhile, a fellow Christian pro-lifer intervened with what I took to be a distressing callousness regarding the deaths during the recent Planned Parenthood clinic shooting in Colorado Springs. 

I humbly propose that what follows is worth reading not only as an intervention in the abortion discussion, but more so as a reflection on how we ought to think about the infinite compassion of Our Incarnate Lord.

What follows below the fold is a lightly edited transcript of my comments in response to this fellow Christian, beginning with a quotation from his remarks: