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.

God as Pilate: law or tyranny?

In June of 1924, Mussolini was in trouble. Fascist thugs with ties to him had murdered Italy’s top Socialist parliamentarian, Giacomo Matteotti. The public assumed that Mussolini had ordered it, and Italy was in an uproar. Even conservatives were beginning to distinguish between nationalism, which they embraced, and the overthrow of democracy, which they weren’t prepared for. Mussolini’s opponents had caught him acting above the law. As David I. Kertzer puts it in his 2014 book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, “The end of the regime seemed near” (1431).1

The regime had begun only two years earlier with the support of a vital constituency. Within days of becoming prime minister, Mussolini had taken immediate steps to make good on his promises to the church to restore its influence in Italian society. He had his new cabinet attend a Mass and ordered them to kneel (832).

Mussolini had followed up this symbolism with action:

He ordered crucifixes to be placed on the wall of every classroom in the country, then in all courtrooms and hospital rooms. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He restored Catholic chaplains to military units; he offered priests and bishops more generous state allowances; and to the special delight of the Vatican, he required that the Catholic religion be taught in the elementary schools. (1058)

The Vatican was delighted. Having lost most battles in Italy’s decades-long cultural war, the church in 1924 “had no particular fondness for democratic government” (1091). It had political reasons for overlooking Mussolini’s unsavory past, his previous association with the left, and his obvious ignorance of religion. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, admitted with a chuckle that “Mussolini thought all Catholic holidays fell on Sundays” (1035).

Gasparri called Mussolini a “great character.” Mussolini was a colorful character, anyway: unlike his predecessors in office, Mussolini held frequent, entertaining rallies with his political base as if he were perpetually running for office. He often denied what most people before his day called reality, understanding that “people were ruled most of all by emotion, and that their reality had less to do with the external world than with the symbolic one he could fashion for them” (1250). Having watched Mussolini’s rise and his early days in office, Gasparri concluded that “Providence makes use of strange instruments to bring good fortune to Italy” (1035).

Church leaders visit the White House this week.

A month after Mussolini’s crisis began, the Italian church gave him its full support. The Pope published an article in the Vatican newspaper denying Mussolini’s involvement and directing Christians to avoid even legal means of dismissing Mussolini. If Mussolini were removed, the Pope warned, the political left would rise, and the church was incapable of making an alliance with the left (1454).

The Pope’s article, along with a subsequent speech the Pope gave that complemented his article (1466), was a political tonic for Mussolini. He survived his crisis, and by January of the following year, he was publicly taking full, triumphant responsibility for Matteotti‘s murder as well as other recent violence:

If all the violence was the result of a particular historical, political, and moral climate, then I take responsibility for it, because I created this historical, political, and moral climate. . . . Italy, sirs, wants peace, wants tranquility, wants calm. We will give it this tranquility, this calm through love if possible, and with force, if it becomes necessary.

The inference in Mussolini’s admission, of course, was that his political survival was more important to Italy than the rule of law. Kertzer calls this speech before parliament that month “the most dramatic speech of his career.” After the speech, Kertzer writes, “the Fascist assault on the last vestiges of democracy in Italy began” (1501).

When a nation’s church looks for a political solution to its spiritual crisis, God may come to that church in the guise of Pontius Pilate. Who will it be, Pilate asks his politically minded visitors, Jesus or Barabbas? God seems to have asked the Italian church a similar question: a republic or a tyranny? The church’s choice became its nation’s fate.

  1. Numbers in parentheses are location numbers within The Pope and Mussolini‘s Kindle version.

Stolen voices

Victoria and I talked this morning about our fears of not being heard. For my part, I’ve been working on a book that I may or may not ever finish. I’ll let Victoria speak for herself.

Hannah Arendt’s vision of the political is essentially positive: the political is a realm where people are seen and heard. All creation, it seems, wants to be seen and heard, to express the god-ness that God has placed in each.

° ° °

Today’s Post.

When I teach, I teach too much. That is, I talk too much. This summer I’ve worked hard on a plan to talk a lot less this fall.

I talk so much I didn’t know that one of my students, forced like the rest into relative silence, was working hard this spring choreographing an award-winning musical that meant so much to me and many others. What kind of talk is that, that doesn’t care to know its listeners?

° ° °

The most important prayer is what’s prayed through us: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Or the most important prayer is whatever’s on your mind: “You have not because you ask not.” Are these concepts so different? Because prayer is fundamentally communion, its content — the petition side of the operation — won’t come together outside of communion. The petition side is about hearing and being heard, the real presence that always expresses itself in communion.

° ° °

We all know by now that, despite his almost 11,000 false or misleading claims since becoming president, the president can count on the unwavering support of a very large base. That’s because, for the first time in their lives, many people in that base feel heard by their government. (The “familiar themes” in today’s headline refer to themes the president made to his base in 2016.)

° ° °

Consider two verses in which three steps seem to do the job of two:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.. – Romans 10:17 (NASS)1

And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. – 1 John 5:14 – 15 (NASS)

Our dyadic Western minds want to truncate these verses into simple, two-figure propositions: “Faith comes by the word of Christ,” and “If we ask anything according to his will, our prayer will be granted.” It’s not so simple, or at least it’s not so mechanical. In the former proposition, we’ve left out our hearing God. In the latter, we’ve left out God hearing us.

Hearing and being heard are among the most triadic and capacious of actions and are close to the ultimate “mediators,” to employ Charles Pierce’s concept.2

° ° °

Walter Lippmann in his essay “The Indispensable Opposition” defends freedom of speech with a unique argument: we need what our opponents have to say:

Unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.

° ° °

Five things (among many) that steal voices:

  1. Abortion. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you see abortion as murder or as the lesser of two evils, you are probably not pro-abortion. Abortion silences voices. The birth of a hero saga turns the births of Moses and Jesus into tales of survival; each hero in his birth survives an edict to kill babies. In a sense, considering the number of sperm that never fertilize eggs, we are all survivors. We are also all heroes. (I’ve listened enough to my students to finally understand this.)
  2. Poverty and economic inequality. The French Revolution focused on the poor’s need for food, and it discovered that the poor speak this need with one voice, fulfilling Rousseau’s concept of the General Will. On the other hand, the American Revolution, when it addressed the poor at all, focused on the poor’s need to be heard. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, John Adams believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings. Adams’s thinking about the poor was in this respect different from Robespierre’s: “The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.”3  The American  Revolution focused not on discerning and addressing the General Will but on forms of government, including (imperfect and incomplete) forums for the expression of specific viewpoints. The effective price of admission to these forums keeps many people out.
  3. The destruction of the local community and of Tocqueville’s mediating institutions.
  4. Facebook. Ironically, I suppose.
  5. That image I just saw for a split second: a rock star’s windmilling his last chord, raising his arms in triumph. The next split second: his adoring crowd.

° ° °

Arendt on the “too apathetic or too stupid”:

It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 193017 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been “spoiled” by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.4

° ° °

and this from U2 (moments before the Edge windmills the last chord):

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will someday be returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard

[Outro:]
Your voices will be heard
Your voices will be heard

° ° °

There. I’ve said enough.

  1. All Scripture quotations in this post are taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. www.Lockman.org.
  2. “When processes of comparison grow complicated, new ‘third terms’ or ‘mediators’ may be needed at each stage of one’s undertaking. . . .  it is by means of the use of a ‘third’ that each act of comparison is made possible, — whether the case in question be simple or complex. And the mediator plays each time the part which Pierce first formally defined.” — Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, at 301.
  3. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  4.  Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, pages 311-312.

School, government . . . the whole bit

The seventy-two came back jubilant. “In your name, Lord,” they said, “even the demons submit to us.”

“Wup woo,” Jesus replied. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning, from heaven. And I have given you the power to tread underfoot snakes and scorpions and all the forces of the enemy. Nothing will ever harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but that your names are enrolled in heaven.”

-Luke 10:17-20 (REB, with a small addition)

Schooled in heaven! “Enroll,” I’ll admit, seems here closer to “write the name of (someone) on a list or register,” but today, when I laughed reading it, “enrolled” means registered in a course of study. These guys report back from a practicum.

But my joy is more about where our community is situated, about what it consists of — heaven. And on earth as it is, in fact, in heaven. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says. We’ll find our education as well as our politics if we find our community.

It’s Jefferson’s small wards, the local participation in government that he said would save our republic. It’s our participation in the Trinity suggested by how most liturgical prayer ends, e.g., “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”

It’s the bit that’s part of the whole, or Blake’s world in a grain of sand.

The unvanquished

Last night we bought a bed. Before we did, we had a date. The salmon was as good as I’ve ever had. It lay on a wonderful reduction. She had trout crusted with parmesan and ate it all.

Our waiter was an older man, and he was busy. But he had us say our names. He repeated them deliberately, first looking at her and saying her name, then doing the same with me. Then he never called us by our names. Maybe he’s using them now in prayer. The service, anyway, was good.

Before our meals came, I looked at her, and I found myself looking at her. Our eyes met every so often, and she averted hers, unless she was speaking. I’ve always liked this.

On one level, she’s aware I’m looking at her, and she likes it, too. Closer to the surface, she’s thinking. She averts her eyes to continue thinking. I’m watching her think.

My eyes can rest with very few people. My mother’s another. She’s 92, convalescing slowly from a fall, and when I visited her in Richmond last weekend, I told her that she meant a lot to me because she was one of the few people with whom I can sit in silence and simply see.

Brynmawr in the 1920s.

Eye contact has a lot to do with silence, I think. There’s a story somewhere in Conversations with William Faulkner about Faulkner reducing an angry stranger to silence over several minutes by only looking at her. There’s a story, too, in Douglas Steere’s Prayer and Worship, published the same year as The Unvanquished, about Peter Scott, who tried to give a homily to a bunch of unemployed Welsh miners:

They said nothing back to him as he talked and talked. But their silence searched him, choked him, and at last reduced him to silence. He went away inwardly humiliated, but he returned soon to throw in his lot with theirs, to help them pool their capacity, to work and to rebuild their community on a basis of co-operative and self-help enterprises.

The “Brynmawr Experiment” began.

This week I read that fear and hatred stick immediately to the nerves, while gratitude and appreciation don’t stick unless we wait on them for at least fifteen seconds — much longer than it takes for me to read a Tweet. (This fifteen-second rule is from Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness as summarized in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance.)

A “national conversation” is an oxymoron. We can’t change a thing if our eyes haven’t met.

Is Elizabeth Warren too conservative for America?

In the eighteenth century the French centralized despotism was viewed as the vehicle of reform and progress; only conservatives such as Montesquieu could see advantages in what was generally held to be the corrupt, disorganized, fractionated and backward English political system.

– Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968)

I’m reading a seminal work of conservative sociology — Robert Nisbet’s 1952 book The Quest for Community — and that context makes me view Elizabeth Warren as what would be either party’s most conservative presidential candidate. Nisbet argues against the forces that substitute power for community. View Facebook and its times through Nisbet’s eyepiece:

All too often, power comes to resemble community, especially in times of convulsive social change and of widespread preoccupation with personal identity, moral certainty, and social meaning.

Fearing a loss of the local community and, with it, freedom, conservatives used to challenge liberalism’s embrace of laissez faire economics. They argued that the unregulated marketplace flattened local life and eliminated public life. The result, they sometimes warned, would be a form of equality one often finds in despotism — the one against all.

Warren’s proposal to break up the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is an unexpected flowering of this old-time civil religion. As conservatives used to argue, the effects of unchecked market forces go beyond economics. Warren points out that these giant tech companies adversely affect democracy. Warren’s insight and her other economic policies seem to make her Tocqueville’s candidate. Indeed, after reading Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, which is largely a nostalgic view of America’s postwar economic consensus around Bretton Woods, I’m about ready to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat in her honor.

° ° °

Attempts at reconstructing local communities involve difficult choices, ones beyond closing Facebook accounts and patronizing local shops and farmers’ markets. A friend of mine passed along to me a criticism of John Brown: instead of sticking with the intentional community he helped to begin, he got involved in national politics. Brown’s struggle, thus expressed, led me to buy an old biography of him.

The tension between the draw to intentional communities and the draw to national politics also got me re-interested in Bonhoeffer, and I just finished Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. As the first director of the first Confessing Church seminary, Bonhoeffer sets out to make disciples instead of preachers. He preaches instead of instructing in homiletics, he prays long prayers in contravention of Lutheran sensibilities, he promotes music, and he insists on recreation. The seminary’s routines and activities suggest both a monastery and my more idyllic memories of the neighborhood I grew up in.

Oddly, in the context of the biography, Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot against Hitler’s life seems a natural outgrowth of his focus, wherever he travels and works, on the local community. I wonder how that tension will play out in Brown’s biography.

Meanwhile, in our own longstanding community of disciples, we wait. Or to use that Old High German cognate, we abide.

Outcomes

This morning Victoria and I walked by a sign bearing a locally famous name. “I dated his daughter a couple of times,” I told her. At the time, I thought I could have married rich. We’ve been married twenty-seven years, and it was the first time I had told Victoria about her.

“Destitution was her muse,” Waldo Emerson said of his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.1 The hard persistence of destitution and racism cause characters in Ralph Ellison’s and James Baldwin’s fiction to eventually wake up. Maybe Maslov’s triangle should be inverted: we aren’t in danger of falling from our eminence of self-actualization into the trough of mere physiological needs. I am in danger, even with my relatively low income in this nascent Gilded Age, of preventing such a fall that would lead, eventually, to a self-actualization that I can’t envision, much less design.

A lot of Christians — I included — have used their born-again experience as a kind of contraceptive.

Jacob Needleman emailed me: was I the author of slow reads’s kind review of his Lost Christianity? It was a personal review in response to a personal book: I connected a decade ago to the seeking spirit with which he examined Christianity. And his email led me to pick up a more recent book of his — I Am Not I, which I began reading this morning before our walk. In I Am Not I, Needleman converses with his younger self to flesh out how the two of them imagine each other across time, across possibility and outcome. I’m grateful, thinking of how Needleman reached out to me as I was ten years ago. And thinking about how things work out.

“Money is a defense,” the Good Book says, but a defense from what? It doesn’t say, but the implication from the verse’s comparison of money and wisdom is that the former doesn’t give “life to them that have it.”

“I was then and am now your possibility,” the eighty-year-old Needleman says to his younger self. “But for my sake, and for your sake, I need to grow now. . . . You will not be born unless Purusha is born in me and I am born in Purusha.”2

Eckhart is right: I carry around the Christ like Mary before Bethlehem. Death, birth, and taxes.

  1. Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire, at 24.
  2. Needleman, Jacob. I Am Not I, at 17. Emphasis original.

Prove your humanity

Every time we log onto our blogs, we WordPress bloggers (the .org ones, anyway) are required to prove our humanity. The solution of a simple addition problem constitutes acceptable proof. It seems a low standard of proof. I admit that humans are the only animals that can add using numerals, but I always wonder, logging on, why I’m asked to do something the bots wishing to take over my blog can surely do.

I must be missing something about bots, but bigger questions remain: doesn’t being human mean more than mastering simple addition? Shouldn’t I have to do more, or shouldn’t I have to be more, to prove my humanity?

These are two different questions, and I won’t address the first one. The second question, I discovered this morning, is at the heart of the Baldwin gospel. I was rereading the first essay in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which distinguishes works that Baldwin has grouped into “the American protest novel” genre from more well-rounded novels. The former genre includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Despite their different epochs and tones, the two works, Baldwin believes, are two sides of the same flat coin because “they are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Protagonists in these two novels use entirely different strategies, but they fight for the same end — their humanity.

Wright supports his protagonist Bigger Thomas’s tragic quest to prove his humanity, but to Baldwin this exercise is what makes Wright’s and Stowe’s characters two-dimensional and their novels theologically (and therefore politically) flawed:

For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, than he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.

In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” employing the guise of literary criticism to explore human identity and its conflicts with society (see Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for an entire book pulling off the same trick with film criticism), Baldwin previews his gospel. He would later retreat from its purest form after the social and political disappointments of the 1960s and 70s. But he never ceased to recoil quickly from society’s trap of proving one’s humanity to oneself.

Grieving

With eyes closed, I am talking to a quite lively ghost.1

My father died the morning of December 1. He would have been 95 this Valentine’s Day. His poor health, unusual for him, to some extent prepared us for his death over the past six months. It’s all grief, whether it came before he died or whether it comes now.

The first time I missed him was that afternoon. I was talking on the phone to an old friend of his, and I wanted to repeat to him something she said, to say, “Hey, Pop!” The family was together; it was strange that he wasn’t there.

My father, 1924 – 2018

“Just tell him!” his friend suggested. She is the Episcopal deacon who would officiate at his memorial service the following week.

So I did, cupping the phone a bit. We laughed.

It’s funny what processes the emotions. I was touched by the viral cartoon of George H.W. Bush’s fighter plane landing in heaven and his reunion there with Barbara and Robin, who had predeceased him. I’ve tried to describe the cartoon to different people, and I can’t get through it.

Bush and my father were born the same year (the former on my birthday), and they died within hours of each other. While the country was mourning Bush, we were mourning my father. I texted to my family what I imagined to be Bush’s last words: “Warren Stephens survives.”

They were a lot alike — public men with reputations for integrity. My father’s public, of course, was local, his beloved Newport News, where he spent his entire life outside of college, the military, and his last year with my mother near my siblings in a Richmond retirement community. (Here’s the story of his death in the local paper.)

This morning I wept, too, through Mary McCarthy‘s postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. Arendt had finished the second section (“Willing”) of this trilogy a week before she suddenly died. Arendt had finished “Thinking” the year before, and her friends discovered a sheet of paper in her typewriter containing only the word “Judging” followed by two epigraphs after she died. I wonder what the epigraphs were, but McCarthy keeps them between Arendt and herself.

There’s a lot McCarthy doesn’t say, which makes her postface, like the process of grief, so interesting. She says that she had worked with Arendt to edit several of her most well-known works. When she collaborated with Arendt as her editor, they got to know each other’s minds. Arendt thought that McCarthy’s Catholicism, which McCarthy had disowned, had adequately prepared her for philosophy. She saw McCarthy as a perfectionist — I assume most authors understand their editors as such — and McCarthy knew she could outlast Arendt if they disagreed. “‘You fix it,’ she would say, finally, starting to cover a yawn.”

She describes how her editing felt like collaboration while Arendt was alive. Arendt was going through her “Englishing,” and McCarthy for her part learned enough German to better understand Arendt’s thought expressed in her syntax. German allowed McCarthy “to make out the original structure like a distant mountainous outline behind her English phrasing.” From then on, McCarthy would put Arendt’s prose “into German, where they became clear, and then do them back into English.”

After Arendt’s death, the editing got harder, of course. Death proved more formidable than a foreign tongue. McCarthy still engaged in dialogues with Arendt, “verging sometimes, as in life, on debate. Though in life it never came to that, now I reproach her, and vice versa.” McCarthy even describes her nightmares — lost or (worse) newly found manuscripts — missing Arendt or uncovered Arendt — that throw over everything. There is something here of the danger and frankness and the feeling of internal process that I found, as a teenager, in the talk among the dead in Our Town.

Why isn’t grief, when it comes, as frank as the grave? Maybe Arendt can help. She liked to distinguish between the inside and the outside of the human body, and she lumped our “passions and emotions” with the likes of or livers and kidneys. Compare our emotions’ “monotonous sameness” with what they lead to, i.e., the “enormous variety and richness of overt human conduct,” she suggested in “Thinking.” Grief, I’ve read, has predictable stages, rather like digestion. But grief, like a Program Era writer who shows without telling, also expresses itself with the outer life’s variety and richness.

Maybe grief’s dekes and indirection are invitations from the dead. Hey, Pop.

  1.  Mary McCarthy in the postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind