My morning’s mantra

“Into an unslumming or unslummed slum customarily come new increments of poor or ignorant immigrants from time to time.” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

The suburb of God

“Ye are the light of the world. A suburb that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” — Matthew 5:14

“For unto you is born this day in the suburb of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” — Luke 2:11

“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a suburb which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” — Hebrews 11:8-11

“And I John saw the holy suburb, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” — Revelation 21:2

Two-ness

The storms that started south of Roanoke continued until soon after the big thunderclap around 2:00 this morning. We had been asleep for about four hours at Betty’s when it woke me up.

Nashville got seven inches of rain. Columbia got less, but enough wind to knock down power lines. Some of them and their poles occupied the right lane of a road we took from the spur to Betty’s. Police were blocking off lots of flooded roads.

What a walk! This morning I played the student of the vernacular landscape, a term John Stilgoe credits to John Brinckerhoff Jackson to mean the landscape “made and used by most people most of the time.”1 Stilgoe says anyone can do it:

“Unorganized, unafraid of mishap and getting lost, often appearing ignorant especially in front of locals, the few do what anyone can do—move along slowly, look, listen, think, and try to learn later about what turned up.”2

Or maybe it’s not so easy. Austen Allen quotes Stilgoe: “With care, inquirers can understand the landscape conjurings of others, but only rarely can they escape, even momentarily, the contemporary mindset.”3

Homogeneity is democracy’s cul-de-sac. It’s the dead end of the French Revolution with its concept of “le peuple,” which, as Hannah Arendt points out, carries “the connotation of a multiheaded monster, a mass that moves as one body and acts as though possessed by one will . . .”4

“It never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them.” — Julius in Teju Cole’s Open City

White space is rarely public space in the United States. But much Black space is public space. “Let me be clear from the outset. We didn’t do this neighborhood to ourselves.” — Jean Luck Godard in John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon.

Sarah Daleiden wonders if “a Black landscape” is “a place that supports neighbors to focus on the civic so we can walk toward freedom from racism and the inequities and trauma it can trigger and produce in any of us.”5

Black landscapes can’t afford homogeneity. “All Americans can learn from people who have had to look at themselves with a two-ness,” Walter Hood says, reflecting on Du Bois’s famous term. “People should see that they themselves, and landscapes, have multiplicities: we should be moving through space that constantly reminds us that women are equal, that we owe responsibility to natives who were here beforehand, that Black hands built our landscape.”6

Landscape, as much as anything, “signifies how we personally come to something, to a place.”7

[Thank you, Bethany, for Black Landscapes Matter, edited by Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, University of Virginia Press, 2020.]

  1. Stilgoe, John R. What Is Landscape? (p. 211). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Id. at 213.
  3. Allen, Austen. “Site of the Unseen: The Racial Gaming of American Landscapes.” Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 102.
  4. Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin Classics, Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, page 84.
  5. Daleiden, Sara. “The Beerline Trail: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 154.
  6. Walter Hood. Afterword. Black Landscapes Matter, Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Eds., Virginia, 2020, page 175.
  7. Allen, supra, page 129.

Shakespeare

If you visit our kitchen, you’d see a small painting that accompanies what purports to be a quotation from Shakespeare. But it’s not Shakespeare; it’s a modern sentiment that the Internet has put in Shakespeare’s mouth.

My dear friend who painted it believes the words are Shakespeare’s, just as I believe the words in Deuteronomy, written during an Israelite monarchy centuries after the fact, are Moses’s.

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A kangaroo court

Dear Sen. Warner,

I know the public documents, videotape, and proffered evidence at the former president’s trial yesterday was damning, but it hardly registered with half of our country. What would still register — miraculously, perhaps, at this late stage of our national unraveling — is courtroom testimony. Take the Constitution seriously concerning the court you have become. Call many, many witnesses; compile oral as well as documentary evidence, and argue from that. Subpoena rioters and police officers. Subpoena the former president’s former insiders. Subpoena “hearts and flowers” witnesses. Let the trial go on for months if necessary. Nothing else will make the nation understand that you are taking the events during and leading up to January 6 seriously, and nothing else will make it understand why.

Courtroom testimony and a through trial would, I think, slowly drive a wedge between the irreconcilable believers of the former president and the sensible but cowed members of his party. On the other hand, mere opening statements, closing arguments, and proffered facts from unnamed sources reported in newspapers that Republicans entirely discount — no matter how compelling you believe those proffers to be — are leaving you open to the justified claim that you have constituted yourselves into a kangaroo court.

Democratic officeholders often ridicule their Republican colleagues for their fearful adherence to the will of the former president’s base. However, calling witnesses may also upset many in your own base, who want much of President Biden’s agenda passed immediately.  But nothing on President Biden’s agenda, as important as the first few weeks in office are to a new president, is worth the potential price of the republic.

Defend the republic the way the Constitution designed that defense for cases like the one at bar — by an actual trial, the more important of which sometimes take weeks and months. Real trials compel sworn testimony. Do your duty by the Constitution. Call many witnesses.

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What I read this year

Here’s what I read this year, alphabetized by last name:

  • Genesis, translated by Robert Alter
  • Exodus, translated by Robert Alter
  • Leviticus, translated by Robert Alter
  • Jonah, translated by Robert Alter
  • On Revolution by Hanna Arendt (third read)
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson (second read)
  • The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
  • The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
  • The Italian Renaissance by Kenneth R. Bartlett (lecture series)
  • Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
  • The God We Never Knew by Marcus J. Borg
  • St. Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
  • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes what We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer l. Eberhardt
  • Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
  • Sovereignty: God, State, and Self by Jean Bethke Elshtain
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  • The Limits of History by Constantin Fasolt
  • The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner
  • Radical Prayer: Love in Action by Matthew Fox (lecture series) (second listen)
  • The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
  • Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies
  • Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
  • Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism by Onur Ulas Ince
  • The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas by Peter Kreeft (lecture series)
  • The Platonic Tradition by Peter Kreeft
  • Change the Story: Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth by David C. Lorten
  • One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: A History of the Church in the Middle Ages by Thomas F. Madden (lecture series)
  • The Principles of Representative Government by Bernard Manin
  • The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
  • The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian (fifth read)
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (two reads)
  • The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
  • Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds
  • God and the World of Signs: Trinity, Evolution, and the Metaphysical Semiotics of C.S. Pierce by Andrew Robinson
  • Traces of the Trinity: Signs, Sacraments, and Sharing God’s Life by Andrew Robinson
  • An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik (lecture series)
  • College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey J. Selingo
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (fourth and fifth reads)
  • A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
  • Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
  • Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson
  • Phenomenology: The Basics by Dan Zahavi
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Transcendent matters

From today’s New York Times:

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Congress could not sue to enforce its subpoenas of executive branch officials, handing a major victory to President Trump and dealing a severe blow to the power of Congress to conduct oversight.

In a ruling that could have far-reaching consequences for executive branch secrecy powers long after Mr. Trump leaves office, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed a lawsuit brought by the House Judiciary Committee against Mr. Trump’s former White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II.

On Mr. Trump’s instructions, Mr. McGahn defied a House subpoena seeking to force him to testify about Mr. Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation. The House sued him, seeking a judicial order that he show up to testify, and won in district court in November.

But two of the three appeals court judges ruled on Friday that the Constitution gave the House no standing to file any such lawsuit in what they characterized as a political dispute with the executive branch. If their decision stands, its reasoning would shut the door to judicial recourse whenever a president directs a subordinate not to cooperate with congressional oversight investigations.

“The committee now seeks to invoke this court’s jurisdiction to enforce its subpoena,” wrote Judge Thomas B. Griffith. The Justice Department, “on behalf of McGahn, responds that Article III of the Constitution forbids federal courts from resolving this kind of interbranch information dispute.”

“We agree and dismiss this case,” he wrote.

From The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship by Ernst Fraenkel (1940):

More than 300 years ago a similar demand was made in England. King James I, in his famous message to the Star Chamber (June 20, 1616), declared that in political questions the decision rested with the Crown and not with the Courts.

“Encroach not upon the prerogative of the Crown. If there fall out a question that concerns my prerogative or mystery of State, deal not with it till you consult with the King or his Council or both; for they are transcendent matters . . . As for the absolute prerogative of the Crown, that is no subject for the tongue of a lawyer, nor is it lawful to be disputed. It is atheism and blasphemy to dispute what God can do . . . so it is presumption and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a King can do, or say that a King cannot do this or that.”

The straightforwardness of this message has scarcely been surpassed by any spokesman of the Third Reich. (36)

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Have you never read?

They were indignant and asked him, ‘Do you hear what they are saying?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do. Have you never read the text, “You have made children and babes at the breast sound your praise aloud”?’ – Matthew 21:15 – 16, REB

What haven’t I read this year? This year I never read Rhinoceros. I’ve thought about it — not about reading it, I mean.

But this year I read Matthew Fox’s account of reading Thomas Merton reading Rhinoceros. Within minutes of reading it, I ordered Merton‘s Raids of the Unspeakable. I have now read Thomas Merton reading Rhinoceros for myself.

They [the Samaritans] told the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves.’ – John 4:42, REB

While we read John’s account of the Samaritans’ account.

Jesus wasn’t suggesting — he wasn’t even understood then and there, I don’t think, as suggesting – that his fellow rabbis had not read this or any the other texts he referred to. He was, though, implicitly challenging their notion of reading. Reading a book is no accomplishment, much less a credential.

Reading, in fact, may reduce me. In Bachelard’s poetics, for instance, “the joy of reading appears to be the reflection of the joy of writing, as though the reader were the writer’s ghost.”1 I’m becoming my authors’ mirrors.

Maybe my writers are like the Old Testament’s heroes of faith, of whom the writer of Hebrews says, “only with us should they reach perfection” (Hebrews 11:40, REB). Is that what they see in me, and is that why they published? Are they watching me now?

And have you never read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — the novelist Silas Flannery watching through a spyglass a woman in a deck chair who is, in turn, reading his book?

Paul’s best stuff, he said, were his readers: “you are our epistles, known and read of all men.” Many writers are busy revising me.

To feel how impossible it is to finish a book, one must be read at least as much as one reads. John Climacus taught me that: “When you find satisfaction or compunction in a certain word of your prayer, stop at that point.”

So while reading a book may not be an accomplishment, reading a book may also be no small accomplishment. As Flannery says, “it is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible.” But this nonwritten stays nonwritten. It surfaces only through “the uncertainties of spellings, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen.”2 Do you hear what they are saying?

If you’ve finished If on a Winter’s Night, of course, you never finished ten books.

I’ve never actually read Climacus. Henri Nouwen quotes him, though, in a short book on meditation that I’ve read a dozen times, the last a dozen years ago.3

I won’t list most of the books I read from this year. But here are the books that were bad enough for me to finish:

  • 1 Samuel translated by Robert Alter
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson
  • Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination by Joyce Appleby
  • The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt
  • On Revolution by Hannah Arendt (3rd & 4th readings)
  • Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (2nd reading)
  • Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
  • The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habernas by Lawrence Cahoone (2nd) (lecture series)
  • Metahuman by Deepak Chopra
  • The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark
  • Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (3rd & 4th readings)
  • Absalom, Abaslom! by William Faulkner (3rd reading)
  • The Wild Palms by William Faulkner (2nd reading)
  • Churches in the Modern State by John Neville Figgis
  • Radical Prayer: Love in Action by Matthew Fox (lecture series)
  • Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2nd & 3rd readings)
  • The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of Western Political Thought by Eric Nelson
  • The Prince by Niccolio Machiavelli (2nd reading)
  • Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • H.M.S. Surprise  by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Maritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Centuryby J. G. A. Pocock
  • Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
  • The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr
  • Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura A. Sandefer
  • The Grammarians by Kathleen Schine
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (2nd reading)
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (37th reading)
  • The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution by Ganesh Sitaraman
  • Prayer and Worship by Douglas Steere (4th reading)
  • Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Writing Across contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey
  • Medical Medium: Liver Rescue by Anthony William

This coming year, I’ll be thinking about Rhinoceros a lot.

  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 11.
  2. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 178.
  3. Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 81.

And heaven and nature

When people ask me for prayer, sometimes it bugs me. This morning, after years of my feeling this way, Meister Eckhart offers me an explanation:

People often say to me: “Pray for me!” Then I think: “Why do you go out of yourselves? Why don’t you stay within yourselves and grasp your own blessings? After all, you bear essentially all truth within yourselves.” (Sermon 14)

Just as Jesus refused to grant his generation’s request for a sign except to give them the sign of Jonah, so we might refuse someone’s request for prayer except to pray the prayer of Paul. Paul often describes his prayers for others in great detail. But those prayers don’t fix the future. And they don’t seem to happen when people ask him to pray. Here’s a sample:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19)

Paul here prays that the Ephesians “may be able to comprehend” what’s already in them in God. This, I think, is true intercession. It is the prayer of Elisha – “open his eyes”:

And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” So he answered, “Do not fear, forthose who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17)

A couple of observations about Elisha’s prayer:

  • Elisha doesn’t pray for something that’s not present. He prays that the servant would see what’s already present.
  • Elisha doesn’t pray because the servant asks for prayer. Indeed, the servant doesn’t ask for prayer but for direction. Elisha, however, gives no direction. Instead, he prays. Situationally triggered prayer seems to have a spontaneous, spirit-led aspect to it.

These two observations are joined. To see what’s already there is always to experience the spontaneous and unpredictable. In other words, to see what’s already there is to wake up, which is disorienting to the dreamer. This seeing or waking is spontaneous and unpredictable. As Deepak Chopra puts it, “let me underscore how extraordinary waking up is, and how unpredictable” (Metahuman, p. 155).

Elisha and Paul here point to true intercession, which is participating in the birth of what God has previously conceived, and not of what we have conceived or what has previously “entered into the heart of man.” When Paul intercedes in prayer, he sees himself as a mother with child: “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you . . .” (Gal. 4:19). God’s prayer, really, is this birthing, this unpredictable “natality” (as Hannah Arendt puts it), this “waking up” (as Chopra puts it), this seeing (as Elisha and Jesus put it), as opposed to the mortality of dualistic, mechanistic thought and prayer. God’s prayer is life itself, a prayer “without ceasing.” Matthew Fox on Eckhart:

Living itself, so long as it is so deep that it is without a why or wherefore, becomes the ultimate prayer, the ultimate act of experiencing and giving birth to God. (Breakthrough)

Anything smaller than this prayer of giving birth to God amounts to looking for answers outside of ourselves. When Eckhart responds to people requesting prayer with “Why do you go outside of yourselves?”, Fox understands Eckhart to reject dualism:

This wayless way [of God] is also without a why, a wherefore, or a reason. From this spiritual foundation you ought to accomplish all your deeds without a reason. This doing away with goals for loving God extends to religious goals such as heaven or eternal happiness, however well intentioned, because to operate from such goals from outside oneself is to act out of dualism. It is to forget that heaven and eternal life are already here. It is to forget that we are already living the divine life. What kind of life is this divine life? How does God live? It is a life without a why. The life of God is “without a why.”

More Eckhart on “without a why”:

If anyone were to ask life over a thousand years, “Why are you alive?” the only reply could be: “I live so that I may live.” This happens because life lives from its own foundation and rises out of itself. Therefore it lives without a reason . . .

Dualism begins with the question, “why?”, which is a question rooted in fear and limitations. It pits heaven against earth. (As Chopra points out, this heaven-versus-nature dualism is shared by both today’s scientists and today’s religions.) Dualism strives to bring heaven to earth (huge, negative political ramifications), but Jesus said, “No one goes up to heaven except the one who comes down from heaven” (John 3:13). Or as Eckhart says, “Height and depth are the same thing.”

There is no “meaning of life.” There is only life. There is only, as Chopra puts it, “the sheer exuberance of creativity” (Metahuman, p. 199). How do our purposes in Christ fit into any grand scheme? I’ll die without knowing. Meanings, I think, are part of the clutter, space junk we strike when we start to fly. As Chopra also says, “Each of us was born into an interpreted world. Previous generations spent their lives giving everything a human meaning” (295). Those composite meanings help create the false world our ego enjoys, the “virtual reality” Chopra points out that we are born into.

But this birth, as well as the creativity inherent in our birth, is our answer to God’s prayer in us. Our birth challenges Chopra’s “virtual reality,” which is analogous to Hannah Arendt’s ruinous “automatic processes to which man is subject.” These processes, Arendt points out, “occupy by far the largest space in recorded history.” We can act against this pervasive falsity, but only if our actions are miracles (that is, only if they are expressions of our true selves). She explains:

Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a “miracle” – that is, something which could not be expected. If it is true that action and beginning are essentially the same, it follows that a capacity for performing miracles must likewise be within the range of human faculties. (Between Past and Future, pp. 167 – 168)

I don’t think Eckhart or Chopra would disagree with Arendt. Prayer is life because “action and beginning are essentially the same.” Miracles, Arendt writes, “always must be, namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected.” That’s why, when Israel needs its biggest miracles, God doesn’t act the way we might expect but interrupts with a beginning – gives birth to a son or daughter (e.g., Moses, Jesus). It’s why Paul intercedes like a woman in labor until we become the Christ we already are.

In this kind of “praying always,” we are the unexpected answer to our own prayers.

Feature image by Thomas Altfather Good. Used by permission.