♦ Sometimes reality outdoes the imagination. Some theologians at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University recently got together to issue a statement. Its authors “invite others into a larger conversation about life in a deeply divided country.” A fine sentiment—immediately followed by an expression of “grave concern” that Trump represents “homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, as well as hatred for Jews, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, and Hispanics.” Let’s not leave out that “he advanced misogyny, bigotry, distorted piety, racial hate, contempt for science, and mockery of prisoners of war and the disabled.” The statement goes on to say, “The ascendancy of Trump to the Office of the Presidency reflects a politics of fear and loathing sustained by a misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist nationalist ideology that offends moral decency and distorts the deepest values of life and civil discourse in our constitutional democracy.” All of this is “alarming, dangerous, and of grave concern to anyone mindful of the core values that unite us in this constitutional democracy.”
Well, that’s quite a bill of indictment. But have no fear: Those who signed the statement are firm Christians. They “seek a politics of humility, charity, and justice,” though neither the humility nor charity seems to extend to anyone who voted for Trump.
♦ I’m reminded yet again of that wonderful church sign in front of an Episcopal Church: “We include everyone who includes everyone.” Ah, to be among the Christian elect. Many are called, but few are chosen.
♦ There’s lots of talk about the “alt-right.” It’s a term used to describe a range of hyperbolic figures who push the limits of political rhetoric by putting forward forbidden ideas about race and nationality that border on crypto-fascism. There’s an alt-left as well, though our liberal establishment doesn’t think of Che Guevara T-shirts as indulging a brutal political aesthetic. A recent New Yorker gave space to some alt-left expressions in a series of post-election commentaries. Hilary Mantel on the surprise victory of Trump: “For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, chitchat in every forum going, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust.” After meditating on William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Toni Morrison gives a particularly dire description of what she regards as the obvious resurgence of “white privilege” signaled by Trump’s election: “Rather than lose its ‘whiteness’ (once again), the family chooses murder.” The always reliable Junot Díaz denounces Trump as “a toxic misogynist, a racial demagogue who wants to make America great by destroying the civil-rights gains of the past fifty years.” He then issues a call to action: “Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit.”
♦ Mantel, Morrison, Díaz—I read them as indulging in moral-political preening rather than commenting on social reality. There’s something similar going on with the alt-right. Milo Yiannopoulos, a particularly flamboyant alt-right figure, is more performance artist and stand-up comic than journalist. That the New Yorker, a once-powerful guardian of liberal taste and decorum, traffics in this very postmodern use of dire political rhetoric as a personal aesthetic reminds us of how much things have changed in recent decades.
♦ Ever vigilant and solicitous of student well-being, the various deans at Columbia University—decidedly stodgy establishment, not flashy alt-left—sent an email to faculty. “After a long and highly charged Presidential campaign, our community has been deeply affected by the election results. Many of our students are experiencing anxiety and concern, such that they may find it particularly challenging to concentrate, study, complete course assignments, and address other responsibilities in this immediate aftermath of the election results.” They continue, “You may receive requests from students for extra time on an assignment or for a later date for a quiz or exam. We ask that you consider the extenuating circumstances when considering such requests and that you offer as much flexibility as possible in accommodating students in distress.”
♦ At Georgetown, post-election therapy included a “coming together” on campus. Tears were shed, and students were encouraged to hug those nearby in order to “take the love to a global level.”
♦ I employed one of my favorite therapies on Election Day itself: rock climbing. On the morning of November 8, after the polls opened at 6 a.m., I drove with Rob, a disappointed Bernie Sanders supporter, to the Shawangunks, a long ridgeline of cliffs overlooking the Hudson River Valley. It was there that I first learned the ropes more than forty years ago. I’ve visited often over the years. Our objective on Election Day is named “Coexistence.” It’s a famous, overhanging route with frightfully small holds. To warm up, Rob led me over a smaller roof on a nearby route. After a rest and some snacks (a chicken salad sandwich for me), we started up Coexistence. He pulled the crux, only to come off above as his finger strength gave out. As he plummeted past the roof, I caught him on belay. I eyed the roof. “I’m not sure I’m up to something that serious, Rob.” Fortunately, a young hotshot was climbing nearby. He took over the lead and brought us up after him. The safety of rope tugged tightly from above. We then turned to some easier, less eventful climbs. By sundown we were heading back to New York City, talking about the day, half-forgetting about the election.
♦ A news article described as “dissidents” the Stanford students protesting the Trump victory. What, one wonders, are they dissenting from?
♦ Last year, Roger Scruton published The Disappeared. The novel is set in the context of the Rotherham sex-trafficking scandal in England. It was a sordid affair in which official multiculturalism created the conditions under which poor white girls could be preyed upon by Muslim criminal organizations. The Disappeared is not a political or moralistic tract, however. Characters come alive as human beings caught in degraded cultures, both Islamic and Western. Scruton writes with sympathy about the way in which we struggle to salvage our humanity in a fallen world. Warmly recommended.
♦ Speaking of Roger Scruton, in early November, I attended the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s Seventeenth Annual Fall Conference. This year’s theme was beauty, and Scruton addressed the topic of oenological aesthetics: “Tasting, Relishing, and the Meaning of Wine.” It was a bravura performance, at once funny and profound. His main philosophical point concerned the way in which seeing and hearing brings with it discrete cognitive content—seeing this and hearing that—while tasting and smelling evoke in unpredictable and associative ways. For this reason, we can speak of a true statement or beautiful painting, but not a true or beautiful glass of wine. At its best, wine conveys terroir, the sediment of a particular place with its own habits and memories that, as we relish the taste of the wine, we enter in a small way. For more, consult Scruton’s 2010 treatise on the subject, I Drink Therefore I Am.
♦ It was my first time attending one of the Center’s Fall Conferences. It’s a Catholic Woodstock, a companionable three days of serious presentations and good conversations.
♦ While working on this month’s “Public Square,” I came across the following notes I jotted down while attending a meeting of European conservatives last August: “The post-war era has been characterized by the hope that this-worldly concerns about economic well-being, health, security, expanded personal freedom, leavened by the moral mission of human rights, will domesticate our political passions, allowing for peace and cooperation. (This project is less visible in America but quite evident in Europe.) This era is ending. Dissidents (and I count myself among them) need to shift away from criticism and toward the more difficult task of articulating a governing vision for the future to replace the failing, post-war vision. How do we restore the sacred to politics without falsely (and dangerously) sacralizing politics?”
♦ Note: Martin Luther King gave an “I have a dream” not “I have a plan” speech. Our governing class wants public life to be run on plans, not dreams. This misjudges the human condition. What, then, are our dreams?
♦ Peter Seewald has interviewed Joseph Ratzinger a number of times over the years. His latest, Last Testament, features the elderly pope emeritus reflecting on his long and eventful life. I was struck by Benedict’s remembrance of Karl Rahner, with whom he worked to produce a revised version of the schema on revelation, Dei Verbum, that put the Second Vatican Council on a very different path. Benedict says of Rahner, “He had completely come out of scholasticism, which was a great advantage for him, because he could engage in the accustomed style of discussion more intensely thereby. While I came from just the Bible and the Fathers.”
This tidbit reinforces my view that Rahner’s influential role in mid-twentieth-century Catholic theology stemmed from his intellectual conservatism. He was and always remained a neoscholastic, even as he substituted a Kantian, subjectivity-oriented philosophy for the metaphysical realism of the tradition in which he was educated. Rahner and Rahnerians could be slotted into the established categories of pre–Vatican II theology. This reassured bishops and cardinals, who wanted change, but not too much change. In comparison, Ratzinger’s patristic and biblical formation made him more revolutionary. This was even more true of Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose genius was literary and imaginative. Balthasar’s massive, multi-volume work of dogmatic theology is more conceptually and stylistically innovative than anything Rahner wrote, so much so that it is hard to fit into any ongoing trajectory or tradition of Catholic theology.
♦ A good history of twentieth-century Catholic theology has yet to be written. We’re still dominated by the absurd notion that Vatican II inaugurated Catholicism’s engagement with modernity. This conceit requires presuming a decisive “break” that Benedict’s passing observation about Rahner’s unchanging identity as a “scholastic” shows to be an illusion. When it comes to theological style, the supposed “conservatives” after Vatican II are the revolutionaries.
♦ Now and again, First Things republishes essays in pamphlet form when we think the arguments and insights expressed need wider circulation. Our most recent is Patricia Snow’s “Look at Me” (May 2016), a sobering reflection on the psychological and spiritual debilitation that comes with our absorption in the mobile, hand-held screen. Her essay sensitized me to our pervasive addiction to smart phones—and the ways in which that addiction cuts us off from communion with others, and with God.
“Look at Me” in pamphlet format works well for classroom use or in group discussions. That needs to happen if we’re to fight the dominion of the screen. You can order copies from our store on firstthings.com (firstthings.com/store). If you’d like a group discount, give us a call, and we’ll see what we can do.
♦ In a discussion recently, friends were anxious about our divided society. They wondered whether we will be able to find “common ground.” To which Michael Hanby made the tart observation, “There is always common ground. It’s called reality!”
♦ Rod Liddle’s review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy echoes First Things themes in ways that warm my heart. I recommend his poignant and achingly funny book of cultural criticism, Selfish, Whining Monkeys. He sees through the false promises of the last fifty years.
♦ In the aftermath of Amoris Laetitia’s ambiguous treatment of the question of divorce, remarriage, and reception of the Eurcharist, Archbishop Charles Chaput issued guidelines for implementation in his usual forthright style. One would think a simple restatement of church teaching on matters of sexual morality and sacramental practice would be uncontroversial. Ah, but we are not living in simple times. Recently, Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell gave an interview and criticized Archbishop Chaput for being, well, too principled. “It is better,” opined Farrell, “to say to the couple ‘Let’s work together and let’s walk together’—as Pope Francis would say—‘through this process and see how far we arrive.’” Roughly translated, “Let’s have a dialogue about divorce, remarriage, adultery, and the sacraments and see what we come up with.” Another good reason to be against dialogue.
♦ From the Proving-What-We-Already-Know Department: Researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, have found that a doctrinal conservatism that gives priority to evangelization is correlated with church growth. Theologically liberal churches that emphasize social justice tend to be in decline.
♦ John Keough has formed a ROFTERs group at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. They meet regularly to discuss articles. If you are interested in becoming a corresponding member or would like to volunteer to visit the group to participate in discussions, contact John: John Edward Keough #W98278, O.C.C.C, One Administration Road, Bridgewater, MA 02324.
Bruce Petersen would like to form a ROFTERs group to meet in Summerfield, North Carolina. You can contact him at email@example.com.
In Pella, Iowa, James Barham has issued a call to readers to join him to form a ROFTERs group. His contact is firstname.lastname@example.org.
while we’re at it sources: Politics of humility: susanne-scholz.com, November 16, 2016. The alt-left: newyorker.com, November 21, 2016. Oenological aesthetics: ethicscenter.nd.edu, November 2016. Patricia Snow: firstthings.com, May 1, 2016. Chaput’s guidelines: archphila.org, July 1, 2016. Farrell fires back: catholicnews.com, November 16, 2016. Church growth study: guardian.co.uk, November 17, 2016.